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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Middle East seesaw

George Friedman


A painful realignment of forces coincides with the European debt crisis.


U.S. troops are in the process of completing their withdrawal from Iraq by the end-of-2011 deadline. We are now moving toward a reckoning with the consequences. The reckoning concerns the potential for a massive shift in the balance of power in the region, with Iran moving from a fairly marginal power to potentially a dominant power. As the process unfolds, the United States and Israel are making countermoves. We have discussed all of this extensively. Questions remain whether these countermoves will stabilize the region and whether or how far Iran will go in its response.

Iran has been preparing for the U.S. withdrawal. While it is unreasonable simply to say that Iran will dominate Iraq, it is fair to say Tehran will have tremendous influence in Baghdad to the point of being able to block Iraqi initiatives Iran opposes. This influence will increase as the U.S. withdrawal concludes and it becomes clear there will be no sudden reversal in the withdrawal policy. Iraqi politicians’ calculus must account for the nearness of Iranian power and the increasing distance and irrelevance of American power.

Resisting Iran under these conditions likely would prove ineffective and dangerous. Some, like the Kurds, believe they have guarantees from the Americans and that substantial investment in Kurdish oil by American companies means those commitments will be honored. A look at the map, however, shows how difficult it would be for the United States to do so. The Baghdad regime has arrested Sunni leaders while the Shia, not all of whom are pro-Iranian by any means, know the price of overenthusiastic resistance.

Syria and Iran
The situation in Syria complicates all of this. The minority Alawite sect has dominated the Syrian government since 1970, when the current president’s father — who headed the Syrian air force — staged a coup. The Alawites are a heterodox Muslim sect related to a Shiite offshoot and make up about 7 percent of the country’s population, which is mostly Sunni. The new Alawite government was Nasserite in nature, meaning it was secular, socialist and built around the military. When Islam rose as a political force in the Arab world, the Syrians — alienated from the Sadat regime in Egypt — saw Iran as a bulwark. The Iranian Islamist regime gave the Syrian secular regime immunity against Shiite fundamentalists in Lebanon. The Iranians also gave Syria support in its external adventures in Lebanon, and more important, in its suppression of Syria’s Sunni majority.


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