The Middle East Poker*

By Norman A. Bailey*
Wednesday, December 16th, 2015 @ 9:54AM

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Left:U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and foreign ministers from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Europe in Vienna, November 14, 2015  in a bid to step up diplomatic efforts to end the four-year-old conflict in Syria.Credit: Tusgaar.mn

The chaotic, not to say anarchic situation in much of the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region is often compared in complexity to the game of chess. It is nothing like chess, which has set rules and is governed strictly by rational calculation. No, the situation is much more like the game of poker. In poker, the hands dealt out are of uneven value, but can be and are enhanced by effective bluffing; that is, poker, unlike chess, is a game dominated by emotion rather than reason, and the stronger hand often does not win.

Currently, most of the parties in the game, both internal and external, are busily raising the bids of the other players. Russia is threatening Turkey with economic sanctions and military display. Iran is playing a weak hand with great skill, as it has been doing for the last two years, and sending its troops into the fray in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is shooting down Russian planes and in effect invading Iraq. Islamic state (IS) is exporting terrorism through its various branches (“vilayets”) in France, the US, Libya, Yemen and sub-Saharan Africa, far from its bases in Syria and Iraq. France is shaming the US into joining it in attacking Islamic State’s oil infrastructure and transportation. The UK has decided to enter the already over-crowded skies over Syria and the Kurds are consolidating their hold over northeastern Syria but recovering lost territory in Iraq from Islamic State.

Anyone who knows how to play poker knows the likely final results of a situation like this. Eventually, with a huge pot of chips piled up as a result of competitive raises, one of the players will see another and show his hand. Then all the others must do the same. The bluffs will be called and the player with the best hand will win. OR, everyone else will fold and the most skillful bluffer will take the pot without even having to show his hand.My guess, based on skill assessment over the past many months, is that the latter conclusion is the more likely. The player with the strongest hand is playing it weakly and some of the players with weaker hands are playing them more skillfully. Iran will take the pot and use it to reward the other players who are allied with it.

If I am correct, what will be the result?

Turkey, the US and the West in general will be the biggest losers, but so will be Islamic State. Once Assad is firmly in control of a truncated Alawite Syria, IS will be surrounded by enemies on all sides and subject to a regional squeeze play. The biggest question-marks are the Kurds and Israel. Iran has no reason to favor the Kurds except as a weapon against the Turks, and they may use it. In the meantime, Israel, which has firmly refused to either raise or call, since it has stayed out of the (above the table) game entirely, should come out of the final climax intact, but with serious potential problems with Iran’s proxies, especially Hezbollah.

However, it has been, and should continue to, consolidate its position vis-à-vis the Sunni southern arc, from Egypt through Jordan to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (with the exception of Qatar). Israeli military strength continues to increase, with the successful testing of the Arrow anti-missile missile. It is beginning to resemble a porcupine which can not only deter its enemies but launch its quills to attack them if necessary. None of the other denizens of the animal kingdom, no matter how fierce, mess with the porcupine. Better to be its friend.

* Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, and teaches at the Center for National Security Studies and Geostrategy, University of Haifa.

* Published by Globes [online], December 16, 2015

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