Yesterday's rebels, today's establishment

The Middle East suffers today not from conspiracy but from the law of unintended consequences.

    Political manoeuvres combined with the world's most dangerous weapons will make for catastrophic consequences, writes Bell [Getty]
    Political manoeuvres combined with the world's most dangerous weapons will make for catastrophic consequences, writes Bell [Getty]

    The potential nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 portends many geopolitical changes. No matter the result, it is a shift point in the Middle East. Yet, many other key developments have occurred while the talks have churned, and so a look at the motivations and preoccupations of key states in the region will be worthwhile.

    Except for its open door policy on its border with Syria, Turkey has been big on words and light on action. The departure of President Bashar al-Assad remains an absolute, but new troubles have arrived: the electoral success of the pro-Kurdish party combined with rise of Kurdish autonomy in Syria and Iraq represent a real threat.

    Turkey stood firm with its centralised nation-state model throughout the 20th century. This helped withstand geopolitical pressures and achieve some success as a major point of continental intersection.

    Inside Story: US vows to defend Gulf Arab nations

    But, now, Turkey's underbelly is vulnerable as its southern neighbours convulse - partly due to Turkey's own policies. The rise of the Kurds, alongside Syrian and Iraqi disintegration, mean that the region's concerns are dangerously seeping dangerously around and into Turkey. 

    Today's establishment

    Ironically, Iran, the region's revolutionary power, is today as interested in maintaining the regional state system as Turkey is. The threat that radical Sunnis represent is such that Iran is also interested in maintaining the status quo. The cycle of history has gone round, and the rebel has become today's "establishment".

    Iran's focus is naturally on the nuclear deal and gaining the international legitimacy that comes with it. However, Iran entered the talks with a presumption of regional hegemony - four Arab capitals under its sway. Today, that is under question.

    The Saudi adventure in Yemen and the Saudi-Turkish-Qatari push back in Syria have highlighted that Iran's rivals are not the "has-beens" and pushovers it had thought. Iran's regional gains are today under threat and require significant resources to maintain. Iran can escalate but that may be costly. The more pertinent question may be when and where Iran will bargain, or will the end of sanctions come in time to help Iran save its gains?

    The more pertinent question may be when and where Iran will bargain, or will the end of sanctions come in time to help Iran save its gains?


    Saudi Arabia is marked by a new activist king who is not afraid to go to war, or open new channels with erstwhile adversaries, Russia and Turkey. However, this courage may not be matched by either military or diplomatic capacity.

    The Saudis may surprise, but tenacity is critical for the current strategy, and it may prove both difficult and unaffordable. The more likely scenario is that Saudi Arabia will also look for the moment to settle. Yemen is non-negotiable for Saudi Arabia, Iraq unrecoverable - and that leaves Syria. When will that moment come when both Iran and Saudi Arabia see no further gains by fighting in Syria?

    It may strangely arise from the weakening of Assad or the strengthening of ISIL. If Assad weakens further, Iran and Russia may begin a reassessment. They may one day become compelled to cut their losses, redefine victory, and re-imagine their future in Syria.

    Similarly, the US will also reassess if ISIL strengthens further. The possibility of a group worse than al-Qaeda taking over Damascus represents an unimaginable scenario that could require serious military action.

    Grand strategy

    Despite the rich imagination of some, Israel is not key to these tectonic shifts. It bides its time, and simultaneously enjoys and agonises over its comfortable space, while its enemies fight it out. It longs for an alliance with the Gulf countries against Iran, but ironically, Israel's immediate and direct concern is preventing the very Palestinian state that would open the doors to the Gulf.

    Preventing rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon, and keeping Hezbollah and ISIL at a safe distance round out its interests. This does not equal a grand strategy and reflects Israel's traditional opportunism, which, well executed, has permitted it to vault it over its enemies. Israel is not defining this game, only reacting to whatever suits its purposes.

    While these states manoeuvre, Egypt is missing in action. The centre of gravity of the Arab world, whether as a centripetal force under Nasser, or as a stolid plug under Mubarak, is a crucial missing piece.

    Egypt is now a battle between Egyptians, its national compass swinging wildly while the region stands as a second priority. Tradition dictates that Egypt, not Saudi Arabia, represents the natural balance to Shia Iran. It is also the provider of civilisational confidence to an Arab world marked more by contention than common vision. If Egypt's soldier-leaders permit its intelligent diplomats to play a role, Egypt could become a badly needed regional mediator in this period of severe conflict.

    The sum of the above is confusion. The region suggests no clear outcomes, and mixed, even contradictory, purposes by all. It is like having Hamlet, Othello, Lear and Macbeth on stage at once, while the name of the play is unknown.

    Law of unintended consequences

    Indeed, the Middle East suffers today not from conspiracy but from the law of unintended consequences. US invades Iraq, the country disintegrates; Turkey works to oust Assad, the Kurds rise; Iran overreaches, Saudi goes military. Who knows what the unintended consequences of this Saudi activism or Israeli procrastination will be?

    What we do know is that, in good souk tradition, the answer is to pursue only what the geopolitical market can bear in the short term. All may be waiting for that moment to deal, while in reaction mode to an inimical environment that they themselves created.

    Despite this current reality, the Iran nuclear deal may point more poignantly to the region's future. The shadow of WMD haunts the Middle East. If and when the day comes that WMDs are introduced by non-state actors, or become the key ingredients of a balance of power between states, then the current era, troubled as it already is, will seem like child's play. Today's petty manoeuvres combined with the world's most dangerous weapons will make for a terrible mix, and unintended consequences, catastrophic.

    Hopefully, all will up their game before that dreaded time arrives. In the meantime, while the key states compete and manoeuvre, the only actor that really seems to know what it's doing seems to be, tragically, ISIL.

    John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



    Survivor stories from Super Typhoon Haiyan

    Survivor stories from Super Typhoon Haiyan

    The Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest storm ever to make landfall. Five years on, we revisit this story.

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    Russian-Saudi relations could be very different today, if Stalin hadn't killed the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

    Thou Shalt Not Kill: Israel's Hilltop Youth

    Thou Shalt Not Kill: Israel's Hilltop Youth

    Meet the hardline group willing to do anything, including going against their government, to claim land for Israel.