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February 06, 2003

The New Middle East

Bring it on

Here is your complimentary Stratfor Weekly, written by our Chairman and Founder, Dr. George Friedman.


Desert Storm was about restoring the status quo ante. The 2003 war with Iraq will be about redefining the status quo in the region. Geopolitically, it will leave countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia completely surrounded by U.S. military forces and Iran partially surrounded. It is therefore no surprise that the regional powers, regardless of their hostility to Saddam Hussein, oppose the war: They do not want to live in a post-war world in which their own power is diluted. Nor is it a surprise, after last week's events in Europe indicating that war is coming, that the regional powers -- and particularly Saudi Arabia -- are now redefining their private and public positions to the war. If the United States cannot be stopped from redefining the region, an accommodation will have to be reached.


Last week, the focus was on Europe -- where heavy U.S. pressure, coupled with the internal dynamics, generated a deep division. From the U.S. point of view, regardless of what France and Germany ultimately say about the war, these two countries no longer can claim to speak for Europe. Ultimately, for the Americans, that is sufficient.

This week, U.S. attention must shift to a much more difficult target -- the Islamic world. More precisely, it must shift to the countries bordering Iraq and others in the region as well. In many ways, this is a far more important issue than Europe. The Europeans, via multinational organizations, can provide diplomatic sanction for the invasion of Iraq. The countries around Iraq constitute an essential part of the theater of operations, potentially influencing the course of the war and even more certainly, the course of history after the war. What they have to say and, more important, what they will do, is of direct significance to the war.

As it stands at this moment, the U.S. position in the region, at the most obvious level, is tenuous at best. Six nations border Iraq: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Of the six, only one -- Kuwait -- is unambiguously allied with the United States. The rest continue to behave ambiguously. All have flirted with the United States and provided varying degrees of overt and covert cooperation, but they have not made peace with the idea of invasion and U.S. occupation.

Of the remaining five, Turkey is by far the most cooperative. It will permit U.S. forces to continue to fly combat missions against Iraq from bases in Turkey as well as allow them to pass through Turkey and maintain some bases there. However, there is a split between the relatively new Islamist government of Turkey, which continues to be uneasy about the war, and the secular Turkish military, which is committed to extensive cooperation. And apart from Kuwait, Turkey is the best case. Each of the other countries is even more conflicted and negative toward an invasion.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Iran are very different countries and have different reasons for arriving at their positions. They each have had very different experiences with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Iran fought a brutal war with Iraq during the 1980s -- a war initiated by the Iraqis and ruinous to Iran. Hussein is despised by Iranians, who continue to support anti-Hussein exiles. Tehran certainly is tempted by the idea of a defeated Iraq. It also is tempted by the idea of a dismembered Iraq that never again could threaten Iran, and where Iran could gain dominance over its Shiite regions. Tehran certainly has flirted with Washington and particularly with London on various levels of cooperation, and clearly has provided some covert intelligence cooperation to the United States and Britain. In the end, though -- however attractive the collapse of Iraq might be -- internal politics and strategic calculations have caused Iranian leaders to refuse to sanction the war or to fully participate. Iran might be prepared to pick up some of the spoils, but only after the war is fought.

Syria stands in a similar relation to Iraq. The Assad family despises the Husseins, ideologically, politically and personally. Syria sided openly with the United States in 1991. Hussein's demise would cause no grief in Damascus. Yet, in spite of a flirtation with Britain in particular -- including a visit with both Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles for Syrian President Assad -- Syria has not opted in for the war.

Nor have the Jordanians -- at least not publicly. There are constant reports of U.S. (and Israeli) special operations troops operating out of Jordan. U.S. Marines have trained during the past month in Jordan, but the government remains officially opposed to the war -- and what support it will give, it will give only covertly.

Finally, there is Saudi Arabia, which has been one of the pillars of U.S. power in the region since the 1950s and which has, in turn, depended on Washington for survival against both Arab radicals and Iraq itself. The Saudis have been playing the most complex game of all, cooperating on some levels openly, cooperating on other levels covertly, while opposing the war publicly.

For all of the diversity in the region, there is a common geopolitical theme. If the U.S. invasion is successful, Washington intends to occupy Iraq militarily, and it officially expects to remain there for at least 18 months -- or to be more honest, indefinitely. The United States will build air bases and deploy substantial ground forces -- and, rather than permit the disintegration of Iraq, will create a puppet government underwritten by U.S. power.

On the day the war ends, and if the United States is victorious, then the entire geopolitics of the region will be redefined. Every country bordering Iraq will find not the weakest formations of the Iraqi army along their frontiers, but U.S. and British troops. The United States will be able to reach into any country in the region with covert forces based in Iraq, and Washington could threaten overt interventions as well. It would need no permission from regional hosts for the use of facilities, so long as either Turkey or Kuwait will permit trans-shipment into Iraq.

In short, a U.S. victory will change the entire balance of power in the region, from a situation in which the United States must negotiate its way to war, to a situation where the United States is free to act as it will.

Consider the condition of Syria. It might not have good relations with Hussein's Iraq, but a U.S.-occupied Iraq would be Syria's worst nightmare. It would be surrounded on all sides by real or potential enemies -- Israel, Turkey, Jordan and the United States and, in the Mediterranean, by the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Syria -- which traditionally has played a subtle, complex balancing game between various powers -- would find itself in a vise, no longer able to guarantee its national security except through accommodating the United States.

A similar situation is shaping up for Saudi Arabia. The United States is operating extensively in Yemen; it also has air force facilities in Qatar and naval facilities in Bahrain. U.S. B-1 bombers and some personnel are going to be based in Oman. The United States has established itself along the littoral of the Arabian peninsula. With U.S. forces deployed along the Saudi-Iraqi border, and with U.S. domination of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, the Saudis will be in essence surrounded.

The same basic problem exists for Iran, although on a less threatening scale. Iran is larger, more populated and more difficult to intimidate. Nevertheless, with at least some U.S. forces in Afghanistan -- and the option for introducing more always open -- and U.S. forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, the Iranians too find themselves surrounded, albeit far less overwhelmingly than would be the case for Syria or Saudi Arabia.

The only probable winners would be Turkey, which would lay claim to the oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk; Jordan, whose security would be enhanced by U.S. forces to the east; and Kuwait, which is betting heavily on a quick U.S. victory and a prolonged presence in the region.

If we consider the post-Iraq war world, it is no surprise that the regional response ranges from publicly opposed ad privately not displeased to absolute opposition. Certainly, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran have nothing to gain from a war that will be shaped entirely by the United States. Each understands that the pressure from the United States to cooperate in the war against al Qaeda will be overwhelming, potentially irresistible and olitically destabilizing. This is not the world in which they want to live.

Add to this the obvious fact of oil, and the dilemma becomes clear. The United States is not invading Iraq for oil: If oil was on Washington's mind, it would invade Venezuela, whose crisis has posed a more serious oil problem for the United States than Iraq could. Nevertheless, Washington expects to pay for the reconstruction of Iraq from oil revenues, and there will be no reason to limit Iraqi production. This cannot make either Riyadh or Tehran happy, since it will drive prices down and increase competition for market share.

Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria have every reason to oppose a war in Iraq. The consequences of such a war will undermine their national interests. They were depending on Europe's ability to block the war, but that strategy has failed. The Saudis and Syrians then launched into an attempt to find a political solution that would prevent a U.S. occupation of Iraq. That centered around either Hussein's voluntary resignation and exile, or a coup in Baghdad that would produce a new government -- one that would cooperate fully with weapons inspectors, and remove the U.S. justification for occupation.

This attempt, in collaboration with other regional powers and countries like Germany and Russia, is still under way. The problem is that Hussein has little motivation to resign, and his security forces remain effective. Hussein apparently still is not convinced that the United States will invade, or that he will be defeated. He seems to assume that, if his troops can inflict some casualties on U.S. forces, then the United States will accept a cease-fire without toppling him. He will not abdicate, nor will his followers overthrow him, until those two assumptions are falsified. What that means is that the United States still would occupy Iraq militarily, even if there was a coup or resignation as the campaign unfolded.

If you can't beat them, join them. The European split -- and the real possibility that France and Germany ultimately will endorse war in some way -- mean that war cannot be prevented. Hussein will not abdicate or be overthrown until the war is well under way. Therefore, it is highly likely that the war will take place, the United States will occupy Iraq and that the map of the Middle East will change profoundly.

Continued opposition to the war, particularly from Riyadh's standpoint, makes little sense. The issue until now has been to cope with the internal political challenges that have arisen in the kingdom since Sept. 11, 2001. hAfter the Iraq war, this issue will be supplemented by the question of how the United States regards the kingdom. It is not prudent for a nation surrounded by a much more powerful nation to allow itself to be regarded as an enemy. Therefore, we are witnessing a shift in the Saudi position that might evolve to reluctant, public support for the war by the time an attack is launched.

Iranian leaders do not feel themselves to be quite in such desperate straits -- since they are not. However, the presence of U.S. power on Iran's borders will create an urgent need to settle the internal disputes that divide the country. The need to do so, however, does not guarantee a successful outcome. The division between those who feel that an opening to the United States is essential and those who feel that protecting Iran against the United States is paramount might become exacerbated and destabilize the country. However, there is no immediate, overt threat to Iran, although the possibilities for covert operations increase dramatically.

Jordan will do well, but Syria's future is cloudier. Washington has concerns about Syria's long-term commitment to U.S. interests, and Damascus might find itself squeezed unbearably. Turkey will fatten on oil and manage the Kurds as it has done in the past. But nothing will be the same after this war. Unlike Desert Storm, which was about restoring the status quo ante, this war is about establishing an entirely new reality.

The United States is, of course, well-aware that its increased presence in the region will result in greater hostility and increased paramilitary activity against U.S. forces there. However, the U.S. view is that this rising cost is acceptable so long as Washington is able to redefine the behavior of countries neighboring Iraq. In the long run, the Bush administration believes, geopolitical power will improve U.S. security interests in spite of growing threats. To be more precise, the United States sees Islamic hostility at a certain level as a given, and does not regard an increase in that hostility as materially affecting its interests.

The conquest of Iraq will not be a minor event in history: It will represent the introduction of a new imperial power to the Middle East and a redefinition of regional geopolitics based on that power. The United States will have from being an outside power influencing events through coalitions, to a regional power that is able to operate effectively on its own. Most significant, countries like Saudi Arabia and Syria will be living in a new and quite unpleasant world.

Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why the regional powers are behaving as they are. The disintegration of the European bloc has, however, left them in an untenable position. The United States will occupy Iraq, and each regional power is now facing that reality. Unable to block the process, they are reluctantly and unhappily finding ways to accustom themselves to it.