At the end of 2018, West Asia remains as contentious and violent as it was last year, and its outlook remains as uncertain as before. But several developments this year have provided new opportunities for the regional players to assert their interests, with new alignments wherever possible.
The ongoing conflicts in West Asia emerged from a deep sense of strategic vulnerability in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the current decade in the wake of the Arab Spring. The kingdom then perceived Iranian influence across West Asia as a “Shia Crescent” that embraced Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran itself, and then swung southwards to Yemen. In the face of this challenge, Saudi Arabia abandoned its moderate foreign policy and robustly confronted Iran in the theatres of its influence — first in Syria and later, from 2015, in Yemen.
Over the past two years, the kingdom was encouraged in its confrontations by the full backing extended to it by US President Donald Trump, who shares Saudi Arabia’s visceral hostility for Iran and is committed to reducing Iran’s influence in West Asia. Mr Trump shaped a formidable alliance of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia to confront Iran and its allies in Syria and then take the battle to the home front to effect regime change.
But, this gameplan was thwarted by the entry of Russia in the West Asian scenario in 2015 — initially as a military ally of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and then as the principal diplomatic arbiter in regional politics. Russia ensured President Assad’s military successes against the rebels and now over the last two years leads the Astana peace process, with Turkey and Iran as its partners.
Turkey initially supported the Saudi effort at regime change in Damascus but made a U-turn two years ago when it saw its sworn enemies, the Syrian Kurds, consolidate themselves across the Syria-Turkish border, with full American support. Faced with this “existential” threat, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan affirmed his alliance with Russia and made it clear to the United States that his troops, already positioned in a wide enclave in north Syria, would cross the Euphrates to disperse the Kurds and disrupt their territorial gains.
President Erdogan then took full advantage of the ruthless murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi that took place in Istanbul on October 2 and accused the kingdom’s effective leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, of masterminding the gruesome killing. Though the crown prince continues to enjoy support from Mr Trump and his influential son-in-law Jared Kushner, large sections of the US political establishment and the media are now hostile to the kingdom and are even questioning the value of the seven-decade-long US-Saudi ties.
Mr Erdogan appears to be promoting Turkey as a major role player in regional affairs. But besides asserting a revival of neo-Ottoman influence in the region that was once part of the old empire, Mr Erdogan is also challenging Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Islamic world. Mr Erdogan is likely to promote the Turkish brand of Islam that would be broadly based on the activist and accommodative doctrinal platform of the Muslim Brotherhood, which will herald the long overdue reform in West Asian politics, while stigmatising Saudi Wahhabism as the harbinger of intolerance and extremism.
On December 20, President Trump complicated the regional scenario by announcing the withdrawal of the 2,000-odd US troops in Syria. Mr Trump’s security officials had made it clear over the last few months that these troops, ostensibly retained to fight the remnants of the Islamic State, would remain to oppose Iranian influence in Syria while ensuring that Russia was not the sole major power in the region.
The immediate impact of President Trump’s announcement has been to unravel the US alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran — now the latter will have a free hand to consolidate its presence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and even realise its “land-bridge” from Tehran to Beirut and Damascus.
The announcement will also test the resilience of the Saudi-Israel alliance on Palestine, with the crown prince likely to be wary of backing Mr Trump’s plan that seems to provide maximum advantages to Israeli interests, while permanently extinguishing Palestinian aspirations. Having been let down by their US ally, both countries will have an incentive to work with Russia in Syria, while hoping that President Vladimir Putin will restrain Iran’s bellicosity. Saudi Arabia will also increasingly turn to Russia to coordinate energy policies.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are looking at difficult times. Though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing corruption charges and national elections next year, could plea-bargain himself out of prison, the Saudi crown prince, largely discredited abroad, will find himself under considerable pressure at home: he could face serious challenges to his leadership from the divided royal family and will be critically dependent on his father to remain crown prince.
The Kurds, dreaming of their Rojava, western homeland, have received a body blow; they can now expect to face the wrath of the Turks, experiencing one more betrayal in their century-old history.
Russia will remain the sole major power in West Asia to shape the contours of regional politics. In partnership with Iran and Turkey, it will accelerate the peace process in Syria, though it will face daunting challenges from the divided opposition and the armed militia. Again, taking advantage of the largely discredited Saudi Arabia, Western leaders can be expected to push for a peace process in Yemen, though Saudi opposition could still make the endgame very murky.
The US-sponsored sanctions regime will make life for ordinary Iranians very difficult but will do little to weaken the regime. Iran hopes that European support will moderate some of the harsher aspects of the sanctions, particularly relating to energy exports and banking transactions.
Thus, the winners next year will be Russia and Turkey, while Iran, facing hard times at home, will use adroit diplomacy and creative initiatives to dilute the impact of sanctions, as it waits for the Trump administration to become more dysfunctional and increasingly lose credibility and influence.