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Shifting Sands of Instability in the Middle East

Both Iraq and Syria are currently geographically divided into various ethnic enclaves leaving large ungoverned tracts of land. Dr. Steven Kuhlke writes that following the decline of ISIS, regional state and non-state actors will continue to vie for power in the Middle East.


With the decline of ISIS in the Middle East, one could be led to believe that the region is now more stable and offers a window for peace.  But upon taking a closer look, it seems that the geopolitical tensions are now greater than ever. While ISIS still had a stronghold, the regional powers seemingly had a common enemy that drew the focus away from the other conflicts in the region.

We now must face a cold, hard reality about the Middle East. For all the fighting that has taken place recently, both Iraq and Syria are currently geographically divided into various ethnic enclaves which, in turn, have left large ungoverned tracts of land. These ungoverned tracts of territory are vulnerable to being claimed by other actors in the region. Neither Iraq nor Syria can be “put back together.” Iran knows this, Russia knows this, and Erdogan knows this. Thus, each is jockeying their military forces to try and gain the advantage in the region. With ISIS, everyone had a singular and “common” enemy. But now with ISIS virtually out of the picture, an even greater battle seems to be looming, between much more equipped and more organized powers.

Iran has essentially gained control of Southern Iraq and has intermingled its own army with that of Iraq. These troops are Shiite and have very strong feelings about how their people were treated during the Sunni Regime of Saddam Hussein. For a season in his childhood, Hussein was raised by an Uncle, who was a devout Sunni Muslim. Now we have the Shiites rising from the south, backed by Iran. It’s not just Iran- as we know that Russia has provided Iran with advanced weaponry such as the S300 anti-aircraft (and also anti-ICBM) missile system. This system is the second most advanced missile system in the Russian inventory, which is arguably the U.S. Patriot Missile on steroids.

In a sense, the Iraq war is getting ready to start all over again. If the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, such action would be to essentially give Iraq to Iran (the part that Iran isn’t in control of already). If the Iranian-backed Shiites gain control of Northern Iraq, the region would witness the regional territorial geographic arc of control that ISIS was trying to achieve, only this time around it would be Iranian-backed Shiites in control along with Russian forces book-ending this coalition from Syria to Iran. Such an alignment of forces would become much more powerful than ISIS ever was. The Russians are creating a geopolitical monster that even they won’t be able to control.

In Turkey, Erdogan is playing the string awfully tight. He attempted to shed his relationship with Russia earlier, when he gave the green light to shoot down the Russian fighter jet. But then, after a strong reaction from Putin, he backed away from his position. The geographical juxtaposition of Turkey is one of the most culminating of geopolitical interests in the entire world, which is the reason Erdogan has been able to “play it both ways” thus far. Arguably, the only way Erdogan can get the operational freedom he seeks in the political realm is for Turkey to attain nuclear weapon capabilities. Even though Turkey is strong militarily, the Turks would be no match for Russia and certainly not against the United States. But Erdogan still seems to be exhibiting a way of thinking that seems oblivious to these realities. With Turkey’s recent advances in Afrin, fighting the Kurdish militias backed by the United States, Erdogan seems to be putting his thoughts into action.

When one speaks of peace in the Middle East, it would seem that such a person is alluding to something that is as elusive as the shifting sand of the desert.  The quest by Muslim leaders and Statesmen to become the initiator and a catalyst of a “New Caliphate” holds any effort at achieving regional peace hostage to the idyllic dream of a “Renaissance” of something like the Ottoman Empire. When speaking of empires, there is also the quest of President Putin of Russia who seeks to re-establish Russia as a world power similar to the Old Soviet Union. Under Russia’s protection, Assad’s forces continue to wreak havoc on the Syrian population with recent bombings in Ghouta. It is no secret that attempts to oppose the regime have been in vain while Russia has positioned itself as the security guarantor of sorts for the Assad regime.

For Saudi Arabia, it is no secret behind the motivation of the Saudis to realign and strengthen ties with the United States.  Being primarily a Sunni nation, the Saudis are fully aware of the rising Shiite power they are facing just across the Persian Gulf.  The Saudis are so acutely aware of this that they have even warmed up in their relationship with Israel, which is something that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.  No one can blame the Saudis as they have their own national interests just like every other state.

So, what are we to make of such a conundrum?  Can there ever be peace in the Middle East?  Has there ever been true peace in the Middle East?  Some in the West naively believe that the Middle East can simply be ignored.  This cannot be the approach of Western Governments because to ignore the Middle East is to open the door to the ignition of a very short fuse.

Steven V. Kuhlke, Ph.D, is a consultant, Teacher, Cross-Cultural Leader, Analyst, Administrator and an Air Force Veteran. He has a Doctorate of Ministry with concentration in Cross-Cultural Leadership, Master of Public Administration with concentration in Policy Analysis, Bachelor in Community Development and Regional Planning with a minor in Political Science.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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