Left: Definition of Middle Eastern countries: Central Intelligence Agency
Recent developments in the Middle East show a disturbing trend to add to all the other disturbing trends that have emerged in the region since the “Arab Spring” began in 2011. Both regional and international actors have begun to take advantage of the power vacuum created by the US and Europe to expand their military presence with potentially dangerous implications especially since most of those actors are revisionist rather than status quo powers.
At the regional level, there is Iran newly-empowered by the nuclear “deal,” which was just implemented despite various provocative actions such as firing missiles near an American aircraft carrier and seizing two US Navy patrol vessels in the Gulf. With the billions that are now to be released from the funds frozen by the US government, Iran will implement its imperialistic ambitions throughout the region threatening the Sunni powers, especially Saudi Arabia. Iranian forces are now heavily engaged directly in Iraq and Syria.
Another of the major non-Arab countries in the region, Turkey, has just signed a deal with its ally Qatar, to station air, naval and ground forces in the Emirate, including 3000 troops. This comes in the face of the fact that the US has a major airbase in Qatar. The purpose of this action is three-fold: to project and protect Turkey’s reputation as a military power in the face of multiple setbacks in recent times; to serve as a warning to Iran not to meddle in the Arab side of the Gulf, and most likely, to serve as a warning to Saudi Arabia not to meddle with Qatar, a rogue member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). (The Saudis forced the abdication of the former emir and his replacement by his son. But the current emir is not much of an improvement from the standpoint of the Saudis.) This new Turkish presence in the Gulf, for the first time since World War I, is coupled with incursions across the Iraqi border and appears to be part of an effort by the Erdogan regime to break its increasing isolation.
Along the same lines, there are continuing reports of a pending deal with Israel to restore relations between the two countries.
The establishment of Russian naval and air bases on the Syrian coast and its direct involvement in the Syrian civil war serves to release that country from its dependency on Turkey and to keep the Bosphorus open for Russian naval maneuvers. Equally interesting is the deal just made by China to establish a naval base in Djibouti, at the mouth of the Red Sea. China already has a naval base in Gwadar, on the coast of Pakistan, which establishes its presence in the Indian Ocean. The projection of military power by China is thus greatly improved in an extremely neuralgic position, with the ability to threaten to close the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal in case its expansion into the East and South China seas should be challenged. A truly brilliant geostrategic move; one made possible by the great expansion of the Chinese navy in recent years.
Israel has good relations with Russia and excellent relations with China, and its greatly deteriorated relations with Turkey may be on the verge of improving significantly (contrary to the interests of Russia and the Kurds). Only with Iran are relations not only bad but likely to get worse.
On balance, the military realignments in the region are likely to be of benefit to Israel. Even the expansion of Iranian presence may well result in imperial overreach. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has not been performing brilliantly in Syria, and the expansion of Iranian oil exports as a result on the implementation of the nuclear “deal” will not be the bonanza the country hoped for, since increased exports will simply put further downward pressure on an oil price already greatly depressed by continuing oversupply.
* 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.
* A version of this commentary was published by Globes [online], on January 21, 2016