By Robert A. Vella
The U.S. strategy in the Middle East is inherently dangerous because it is playing an obsolete Cold War game of “chicken” while the resident antagonists in that region are waging a very deadly hot war which is increasingly embroiling the entire world. If the American-led West continues to ignore the fanatical sectarian nature of the escalating conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, the crisis will eventually exceed their capacity to contain it.
This worsening strategic failure is not simply the fault of President Obama. He is just the latest in a succession of U.S. presidents who have carried out the same basic geopolitical plan since the end of World War II. The only difference between them is how aggressive each president’s administration has been. George W. Bush was obviously more assertive in applying military power than the cautious, deliberative Obama. However, their respective strategies are virtually identical: forge alliances with nation-states and local political factions based on short-term mutual interests which presumably support the maintenance of western capitalistic hegemony.
More directly, America’s basic geopolitical plan prioritizes socioeconomic opportunism over ideological allegiances. It is a purely pragmatic approach where loyalties and alliances shift depending on current circumstances. Bush expressed it concisely with his “you’re either with us, or against us” proclamation following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Oil was both the primary goal and instrument of U.S. activities in the Middle East for a very long time; although, it is now being eclipsed by several factors including stagnating global economics, falling commodity prices, and the mounting political pressures surrounding climate change.
But, after the near-total collapse of the Arab Spring in 2012, the effectiveness of this geopolitical strategy – which subordinated Middle Eastern nations under a bipolar U.S./Europe versus Russia/China hierarchy – suddenly diminished as a new ideological dynamic rose to prominence. The Middle East today is fundamentally divided along sectarian lines pitting Sunni Muslims against their Shiite (Shi’a) brothers and sisters. The U.S. wants no part of this epic religious confrontation; and, for that reason, is losing the ability to influence the unfolding course of events.
Turkey, a U.S. ally in name only who shot down a Russian fighter jet this week, is threatening to widen the crisis far beyond the borders of Syria with its egregious duplicity concerning the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL). First of all, its fundamentalist Sunni regime under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ideologically aligned with the Sunni Islamist Jihadists of ISIS. Secondly, Turkey is purchasing oil from ISIS on the black market giving that terrorist organization the revenues it needs to operate. Thirdly, Turkey and ISIS are politically aligned for the purpose of overthrowing the Alawite (Shiite) regime of Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. Given these realities, it should not be surprising to anyone that Turkish-Russian relations are deteriorating in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s military involvement to prop-up Assad.
So, when President Obama said after the downing of the Russian jet that Turkey has the right to defend its territory and airspace, and that the incident pointed to ongoing problems with Russia’s military operations in Syria, it showcased the precarious situation the U.S. finds itself in as well as the dismal ineffectiveness of U.S. policy.
Who, exactly, is the U.S. fighting against in the Middle East? If it’s ISIS, then America should be aligned with Russia not Turkey. If their enemy is Assad, then the U.S.-NATO alliance with Turkey makes sense, but that would contradict their official statements to the contrary particularly in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. If the U.S. target is actually Russia, then why are they also fighting against ISIS whom Russia is vigorously attacking?
See what I mean? The cognitive dissonance of the U.S. strategy here is rather astounding.
What’s more likely, in my opinion, is that the U.S. is waging an undeclared campaign against the Shiite Muslim regimes and organizations in the Middle East (i.e. Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah in Lebanon) simply because they are: 1) less amenable to western capitalism, 2) supported by geopolitical rivals Russia and to a lesser extent China, and 3) are the arch-enemies of the West’s three most important Sunni Muslim allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt).
There is a fourth consideration which must be mentioned, but is harder to analyze. Israel is the Middle East’s wildcard. It opposes both the Sunni Muslim groups supporting Palestinian interests (e.g. Hamas) and the Shiite Muslim nations supporting Hezbollah on its norther border (i.e. Iran and Assad). Israel also has a longstanding relationship with America in the Cold War against eastern powers Russia and China.