West Asia’s Free for All

The decision of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to carry out airstrikes against Sunni militant groups in Libya on their own, without informing the United States or anyone else, is final confirmation that West Asia is now being driven by a whole host of independent players.

The US is notable largely for its absence in the region rather than as an active player. Yes, it acts, but without a plan and fitfully. While there are no shortage of claims that the Syrian civil war, the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the Islamic State are the consequence of a Washingtonian grand strategy, the truth is that this is exactly what does not exist.

West Asia is a mess because everyone and their cousin has a strategy and is put it in practice. Far from being the US, this is about Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and the UAE all carrying out their individual foreign policies — only fitfully in coordination with each other and even less in consultation with Barack Obama.

The US has intervened just enough to fan the flames of conspiracy but not enough to actually influence events. When the Arab Spring broke, the US concluded it would no longer continue its traditional policy of backing dictators — 9/11 and the end of the Cold War had made this policy unviable. It all went awry in Syria where the regime nearly fell after all but two divisions of its army mutinied. After the Turks protested its passivity, the US first backed Syrian rebels, then tried to support only the secular ones, then supported no one and is now back to supporting a few groups. But its support was the worst type: not enough to make a difference but enough to get the conspiracy tongues wagging. The Turks were furious with the US and eventually tried to play king-maker in Syria on their own.

Every three months there seems to be new alliances and coalitions. Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt lined up against Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Than Qatar joined the ring and set up its own alliances. Turkey did its own thing for a while as well. The Islamic State’s arrival has at last seen these countries start to get together with, no surprise, the US and Iran quietly coming together to fight off the IS in Iraq.

Obama still remains a reluctant global player and is most worried about bad media headlines rather than geopolitics or humanitarian principles.

About the only good thing that can be said is that the IS has begun to accelerate twinning trends that are most likely to restore some sort of geopolitical balance. One is the slow drift of the US and Iran into each other’s arms. Two is the end of the unilateral foreign policies of foment and fight by countries like Turkey and Qatar. Three is the decline and decline of Saudi influence which has generally been baleful. Four is an acceptance that artificial countries like Syria and Iraq can afford to lose bits and pieces of themselves and the world should not get too excited. The real issue is what takes over those bits and pieces.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times

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