Alternative Paths to a New Mideast

The restructuring of the Mideast has begun, with the sectarian division of Syria and a trade-off letting Saudi Arabia win in Yemen and Iran win in Syria constituting two possible alternatives. Can the Big Powers actually agree on a deal and implement it?

The U.S.-Iranian nuclear accord appears to be restructuring the Mideast, despite the desperate efforts by those profiting from the current mess to prevent that from happening. It is beginning to dawn on politicians in a number of capitals that playing with jihadi matches is in the process of setting an uncontrollable firestorm. What that structure will look like remains unclear, but at least two outcomes seem quite possible: 1) the complex Lebanonization of Syria and 2) a simple trade-off by which Riyadh gets Yemen and Tehran gets Syria. Riyadh and Tehran may well decide that dividing the region makes a lot more sense than endless warfare, but many on the sidelines are going to find such a cozy deal very unpalatable.

Durant 35 ans, nous avons vu lentement se creuser un gouffre entre les sunnites, dirigés par leur champion saoudien, et les chiites, commandés par leur leader iranien. Les premiers étaient censés défendre les États-Unis et leur modèle économique capitaliste, tandis que les seconds aspiraient à mourir en délivrant le monde de l’impérialisme anglo-saxon.

Ce conflit n’avait jamais existé à ce degré d’intensité dans l’Histoire, ni structuré de clivage économique. Il culmina avec les Frères musulmans, al-Qaïda et Daesh, trois mouvements financés par les monarchies du Golfe, à un moment ou à un autre, alliés à Israël contre les chiites. [Voltaire Net.]

To the degree that the Sunni-Shi’i conflict flowed from Cold War strategy–albeit now certainly serving very real Iranian, jihadi, and Israeli purposes–can it be viewed as something essentially artificial and thus something that can just be “turned off?” Things take on a life of their own, for sure, but local wars have their foreign sponsors. The Islamic State, without the aid of certain governments that claim to be its enemies, will not have it so easy. Iran has now been given, by Obama, an opportunity to redesign its foreign policy tactics to be more in tune with Western sensitivities without necessarily sacrificing its core strategic interests. As for the militarist right wing in Israel, without the “Iran threat” to mobilize Congress on its behalf, exactly where will it be in the emerging new Mideast?

That emerging new Mideast, according to Thierry Meysson, will be structured around a Saudi-Iranian compromise that seems likely to take the air out of the advocates of a greater Zion resting on Israeli regional military hegemony: i.e., a deal that “gives” poor Yemen to the increasingly bellicose Saudis while allowing Iran to retain its sphere of influence in Syria. The first half of this deal makes a lot of sense at a certain cold-hearted strategic level for Saudis: they get expansion and border security simultaneously (assuming, of course, that they can actually win a war in Yemen without burning down their own house). The second half of the deal makes a lot of sense for Iranians: they get to keep what they have by sacrificing what they never claimed to have and have little reason to think they could ever keep if they got it. That said, Tehran will have to swallow hard to sacrifice Yemen, and it is far from clear that Tehran has yet made that decision.

One obvious alternative to this restructuring of the region is the Lebanonization of Syria. That has its own problems: the opposition of Syrian patriots, the unwillingness of Ankara to live with a Syrian Kurdish entity on the Turkish border, the demographic complexity of ethnicities within Syria, the ease with which jihadis (for whom continuation of a Sunni-Shi’i sectarian war is an existential issue that, at this point, they presumably believe in) could upset the apple cart, the danger of pro-Saudis and pro-Iranians stepping on each other’s toes, and the apparent opposition of Moscow.

The first obstacle in all these strategic considerations is for Washington, Moscow, Tehran, and Riyadh to get on the same page. Then comes actually persevering long enough and with sufficient skill to overcome the fierce opposition of lesser players who have the advantage that undermining a strategy is easier than implementing one.

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