Posted by Alex on Friday, February 23rd, 2007
Published by Alex
The unprecedented complexity of the situation in the Middle East is perhaps best explained through this title from the Marsh 2007 edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit: “Three’s a crowd”
“The development of the three-cornered relationship between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria will have an important bearing on how the region’s various crises evolve.”
Comparing the situation in the Middle East today to that during the nineties, we now see many more conflicts and challenges. More regional players involved in many additional conflicts, confrontations, and crises.
Back in the nineties (until 2001), one had to deal with either the classic Arab Israeli conflict (Syrian and Palestinian tracks) or the situation in Iraq after Saddam Hussein lost the first Gulf war and had to be held to his own country.
The regional players were Egypt (in charge of Palestinian affairs), Syria (in charge of Lebanon) Saudi Arabia (supporting roles in both Lebanon and Palestine) and the United States and Israel.
With regional trouble maker Saddam Hussein weakened after his loss in the first Gulf war, an agreement between Hafez Assad, Hosni Mubarak and Prince Abdullah was sufficient to keep things under control. The three Arab leaders simply made sure they did not undermine each other.
In addition, Presidents Bush Sr. and then Bill Clinton were not interested in “changing Syria’s behavior” or in regime change in Damascus. Syria in turn was an enthusiastic participant in peace talks with Israel and did not interfere in the Palestinian track.
These days (2007), the United States and Iran are heavily involved in several of the region's crises. While Egypt remained satisfied with its role as the largest Arab country, Saudi Arabia became interested in filling the perceived leadership gap left by Hafez Assad’s passing away. That meant taking sole responsibility for Lebanon, away from Syrian control. A bit further to the East, Iran decided to assume the old leadership role left vacant by the dismantled Iraq. In a way, Iran started representing the interests of the region’s Shiite population. Many new conflicts and confrontations were started. A dangerous Sunni-Shiite crisis, panic in Israel as Iran gets closer to owning nuclear technology, Recurring news of a summer war between Syria and Israel, and finally, what started as American efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria Egypt, and Iran) was reduced to a more practical goal: regime change in Syria. U.S. allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia got away with minor reforms for now.
So here is a graphical look at the very busy Middle East. It shows who has been more active lately and it shows which conflicts are the most popular for the regional players to try to participate in. And it shows that no single country seems to have control on any of the conflicts. Without an agreement between the regional players and without balanced and practical American expectations probably nothing will be solved.