international analysis and commentary

Middle East security: a “pivot to the East” and its implications


As the “pivot” of Middle East security has moved East, our analytical patterns need to adjust to a changing reality. Established inter-state alliances are no longer able to cope with emerging challenges, paving the way for unexpected realignments. Given the inherent instability of current balances (or rather imbalances), it is especially important to track some major trends.

First of all, power relations in the region increasingly depend on non-Arab states: Iran, Turkey and Israel. The only Arab regional power worthy of the name, Saudi Arabia, seems to be reactive, rather than proactive, vis-à-vis Middle Eastern crises, in Syria as in Yemen. After the signing of the nuclear deal in July 2015, Iran has returned to the diplomatic stage, as overtly testified by the Vienna talks on Syria. Tehran is a fundamental actor in solving the Syrian and the Yemeni crises, and it exerts remarkable influence in Iraq and Lebanon, given the transnational nature of Iraqi Shia militias and Hezbollah. With regard to Syria, Turkey has a prominent role too and not only for conflict resolution, since it is the hub for migration flows coming from, or through, the eastern Mediterranean. However, thus far the Turkish government has prioritized the fight against Kurdish militias on the permeable Turkish-Syrian-Iraqi border areas, not the struggle against the “Islamic State”: on this issue, Turkey has shown an extreme level of ambiguity. To complicate matters, the same can be said of the Gulf monarchies. After the so-called Arab Springs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a central Middle Eastern crisis at the top of diplomatic agendas, rather is has been –replaced by tough transitions and multilayered intra-state wars. Nevertheless, Israel remains an essential actor in Middle East security, also given its regional military edge.

Russia now appears to be willing and able to shape Middle Eastern power relations more than Western actors do, and in close coordination with Iran. Apart from the outcomes that Moscow will eventually achieve on the ground, the Russian intervention in Syria enabled Vladimir Putin to shift international attention from the Ukrainian crisis to the Syrian one, allowing Russia to escape the diplomatic trap in which it had placed itself. The narrative of the war against the so-called caliphate now places Moscow at the very core of a wide international effort where its contribution is highly valued, and may be well rewarded

The problem is that Moscow’s engagement primarily aims to fortify the Assad regime and it has further divided the weak Sunni front (GCC, Egypt, Turkey), which was already unwilling to unify against Iran: notwithstanding the Egyptian economic dependence on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s region (GCC), President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi endorsed Russian military involvement in Syria, partly due to his rising domestic concerns (Sinai). More predictably, Iran and the Shia-led government in Baghdad openly embraced Moscow’s initiative. Therefore, one early effect of the new alignments is that  the United States’ Iraq policy has become even more complicated than before, since another competitor (Russia) will likely interfere in the reconstruction of regular security forces and an inclusive government, indirectly supporting pro-Iranian Shia militias and further alienating Sunni Arabs from the army.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also feels increasingly under pressure to maintain its regional status and influence, even along at its own borders: this provided an additional rationale for the risky military intervention against Yemeni Shia militias after failing to empower disorganized army and local tribes.

The European Union and NATO clearly cannot afford to ignore this Middle Eastern security landscape. Because of the Syrian conflict, the terrorist threat and the migration crisis, Iran and Turkey now play a central role also in Western perceptions and threat assessments. Both countries are openly recognized as crucial partners negotiating a way out of the Syrian war, and the EU is working hard to reactivate its links with the Erdoğan government to manage massive migrant flows. The European and NATO southeastern flank needs to be politically strengthened now. But the situation is very complex, as Syria has become the battlefield where the traditional eastern flank is merging with the southern security dimension, due to the Russian military intervention.

For Western geopolitical interests, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus have again become key countries in tackling uncontrolled migration flows and prevent the spreading of Jihadi networks. A more conciliatory tone by the Erdoğan government will be much appreciated in European capitals, despite the deep divisions of Turkish society that the ruling AKP has contributed to consolidate and even in the face of growing Western concerns related to human rights and political freedoms in the country. Surely, the new Turkish-Russian rift doesn’t help Western institutions to compose this geopolitical puzzle.

The stability of Greece is much more relevant than the size of the country for many reasons: energy security, defense facilities, projection towards the Balkans, Russian influence. Placed at the crossroads between West and East, Athens has been facing an unprecedented stream of migrants in the middle of a financial crisis that is only partially resolved: Western institutions have a strategic interest in supporting Alexis Tsipras’ recently reelected government, as testified by John Kerry’s visit to Athens. Moreover, the SYRIZA-led government has pragmatically maintained military cooperation with Israel, helping also to assess how the Russian air-defense system in Crete works. For geostrategic reasons, Cyprus becomes critical too: Greek Cyprus has recently formalized an agreement with Moscow allowing Russian naval access to its ports (Limassol distances about 250km from Tartus, Moscow’s military base in Syria). The United Kingdom has just made Akrotiri’s RAF base available to France for anti-Islamic State strikes.

In the background, the Gulf’s power transition from Saudi Arabia to Iran, accelerated by the Iranian nuclear deal and reinforced by the détente between Tehran and Washington, has contributed to the ongoing eastward shift of Middle Eastern security.

Iran, Russia and even China are now game-changers in this troubled region – and the recalibration of power could also involve “Af-Pak”. Notwithstanding its official non-interference politicy, China’s strategic engagement in the Middle East has been increasing, with the main focus on energy security and commercial routes. The probable construction of a Chinese permanent military base in Gibuti would confirm the trend. Although the United States remains the only, real external security provider for the Gulf, Middle Eastern security has already become much more multipolar than in the recent past.