The Middle East is a region of major importance in today's international scene, but this is mostly because of its problems and its strategic resources.
First, it is a fragmented area under many aspects. Most states are Arab in linguistic and cultural terms. Saudi Arabia is the world's leading oil producer and the centre of the Sunni branch of Islam; and is now engaged in an effort to diversify its economy and is directly involved in the thorny conflcit in Yemen.
Egypt controls the Suez Canal, a major crossroad for maritime trade.
Besides, there are three non-Arab powers.
The first is Iran, the champion of Shia Islam; which is engaged in a fierce rivalry with Saudi Arabia and its main ally, the United States. It pursued a military nuclear programme that it stopped after an international deal (JCPOA) was reached in July 2015. However, incertitude reigns since US President Donald Trump decided to abandon it.
Turkey enjoys a geostratigic position as a crossroad between continents. It is a NATO member and therefore an important US ally; even though bilateral relations have been deteriorating recently. It hosts a consistent Kurdish minority, but is determined to avoid the emergence of a Kurdish state. Because of this, it intervened militarily in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Israel, the Jewish state, is the only democracy in the area (since Turkey's democratic credentials have worsened in recent years). It has a thriving economy and a powerful military and is the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons. It is also a close US ally. However, it must deal with a challenging security situation, since it lives under the constant threat of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. The latter is linked to the longstanding Israelo-Palestinian conflict, which basically revolves around the creation of an independent state of Palestine; a solution currently supported by most of the international community.
These five countries are also the main powers in the complex geopolitics of the region. Apart from the Sunni-Shia divide, there are also divergences between secularists and supporters of political Islam. The latter are also divided between moderates and extremists, whose most radical fraction is represented by Jihadi terrorism. This includes local-based groups like Hezbollah (Lebanon) or Hamas (Gaza) as well as international networks such as Al-Qaeda or the self-declared Islamic State. Other separating factors of political nature are the position towards Israel, Palestine and the United States.
But apart from internal dynamics, the Middle East is also object of foreign interest due to its strategic importance. The region is located at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe; and is extremely rich in hydrocarbons. The US have a primary role: it has major allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) as well as rivals in the region (like Iran), and is also committed to fighting terrorism.
Today, there are three main war zones in the area: Iraq, where the government is struggling to consolidate its rule; Syria, in which the civil war is gradually ending in favor to the Russian-backed government; and Yemen, where the fighting still rages on with no end in sight.
North Africa shares many similarities with the Middle East, in the form of hosting Arab-Muslim countries generally dependent on hydrocarbons. Compared with the Middle East, it is not affected by the same degree of inter-state rivalry and cultural divides; but terrorist and separatist movements are nevertheless present. Moreover, Sahara-Sahel area is the gateway for important illicit traffics (including human beings, weapons and drugs). Foreign powers sometimes intervene in their affairs; as it happened in Libya, still ravaged by a civil war following a French-led intervention. This had deep effects on Europe, since the country has become a hub for illegal emigration to the continent.
Outlook 2021: US-Israel Relations
Sound relations with Israel have been the constant of US Middle East policy for decades. And over the past four years, Trump has proven one of the most pro-Israel presidents ever, allowing the US-Israeli partnership to grow closer than ever before.
But the Biden administration will hold starkly different stances on key issues of importance such as Iran and Palestine, and this will reverberate not only in bilateral relations between Washington and Tel Aviv, but across the wider region as well.
Read more in my contribution to Geopolitical Monitor (subscription required).
‘QUAD of the West’ Forms against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean
The Eastern Mediterranean has become increasingly tense in recent years. As Turkey continues to assertively advance its claims in this strategic region, other powers are reacting by strengthening their cooperation.
This complex situation presents many similarities with the South China Sea dispute, and just like an informal coalition known as QUAD has emerged in Asia in response to China’s actions, something similar could happen here with regards to Turkey. Growing security cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt suggests that this ‘QUAD of the West’ could emerge over the next few years, and other regional powers might become involved as well.
Read more in my latest publication on Geopolitical Monitor (subscription required).
Photo credit: Apache Helicopters Overlooking Greece, Israel Defense Forces, published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean Conflict
The Eastern Mediterranean has become an area of maritime disputes and mounting tensions involving multiple regional and external powers.
Turkey has been particularly assertive in recent years, not hesitating to deploy its military to support its claims. In the most recent episodes, Ankara sent a seismic survey vessel - escorted by five warships - in waters that are part of Athens' exclusive economic zone. At one point, a Greek frigate collided with a Turkish unit. Later, France dispatched two Rafale fighters to Crete and one of its warships took part to joint exercises with the Hellenic Navy and agreed to sell Rafales to Greece.
In this article published on Geopolitical Monitor I examine the complex diplomatic interplay in the region, which (as I pointed out as early as 2018) is becoming increasingly similar to the South China Sea.
Photo credit: 151206-N-ZZ999-095, Gonzalo Alonso, published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Geopolitics of the Strait of Hormuz
The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world's most strategic chokepoints. Around 20% of the global oil traffic transits through its water, but the area is marked by intense geopolitical tensions between the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other lesser powers.
The recent incidents show the real risk of a crisis in the Persian Gulf, which could escalate to a full-fledged war. This is a very risky scenario that would have a serious impact on the global economy (due to the spike in the price of oil) and that could alter the region's geopolitical asset with unpredictable consequences.
Check my analysis for KJ Reports in both video and written format (subscription required for the latter).
Photo credit: Straße von Hormuz (modified), Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC, published under public domain.
From KGL To Qatar: Can The US Military Overcome Its Persian Gulf Complications?
Tension remains high in the Persian Gulf after a series of incidents that have brought Iran and the US close to an armed clash. War remains an unlikely scenario due to the considerable risks it raises for both sides, but while America's global superiority is undeniable, its military would face several challenges in fighting Iran.
Apart from the commonly-acknowledged ones (like Iran's A2/AD capabilities, rugged geography etc.), there are also some less-evident issues.
One is America's reliance on private companies for key logistic operations: An example is KGL, who has been suspected of breaching US sanctions on Iran.
Moreover, the ongoing feud between Qatar and other key regional powers is a diplomatic headache for Washington that has complicated its strategy in the Persian Gulf.
In this article published on Eurasia Review, I outline how these two issues affect America's policy in the region.
Photo credit: US 5th Fleet in Persian Gulf 120306-N-DR144-387, Petty Officer 2nd Class James Evans, published under public domain.
What Prospects for Sudan After al-Bashir?
Political uncertainty reigns in Sudan since the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir, who had been ruling the country as a dictator for almost 30 years.
The Transitional Military Council who deposed him is now facing pressure from the crowd to transfer power to a fully civilian government.
In this complex situation, Sudan remains a poor and fragile country keen to plunge into instability and possibly armed conflict.
Watch my contribution to KJ Reports and learn more about this issue.
Photo credit: Sudan coup military afp, Agence France-Presse, published under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Russia's Interests in Libya
Russia is among the countries that are backing General Haftar, who rules over Cyrenaica and who has recently launched a campaign to take the capital Tripoli.
Apart from political support, the Kremlin is also offering more practical forms of assistance.
But what does Russia really want in Libya?
Have a look at my latest contribution to KJ Reports to know more about the topic.
The protests in Algeria
In the past few weeks, Algeria has been shaken by large-scale protests against the decision by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a fifth term.
But apart from the immediate political reasons, the manifestations look like the symptom of deeper social strain caused by the country’s economic problems.
Considering the challenges that Algeria is already facing in the form of terrorism and illicit traffic and that neighbouring Libya is still in chaos, a destabilization of Algeria would seriously impact the region and Europe alike.
Watch this video on this topic by KJ Reports, to which I contributed.
Stabilizing Iraq & Syria
After years of chaos, it appears that Iraq and Syria are gradually stabilizing.
The government forces supported by the US and Russia respectively are restoring their control over the two countries, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State has lost virtually all of its territory.
Yet, this may just be an ephemeral peace. The social and economic foundations of the two states remain shaky at best, and many issues are still unsettled; notably the role of Sunni Arabs and the future of the Kurds.
Without a comprehensive action to solve such questions, peace in Iraq and Syria will not be achieved on a solid basis.
Watch this video by KJ Reports to learn more about this. (The video is currently unavailable).
Washington’s Syria Dilemma: The Kurdish Issue
The Syrian Civil War is heading to a conclusion with the victory of the Russian-backed government.
The area controlled by the self-proclaimed Islamic State is reduced to almost zero, and US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American forces.
Yet, an important point remains unresolved: the future of the Kurds, America’s most effective on-the-ground allies in the combat against the IS. Turkey, who considers their armed branch (the YPG) as a terrorist group, is determined to prevent the creation of any Kurdish territorial entity.
Without solving the Kurdish Issue first, the stabilization of Syria will be difficult to achieve.
Read my analysis on Geopolitical Monitor to explore this issue (subscription required).
Outlook 2019: The War in Yemen
As 2019 begins, the War in Yemen will enter its fourth year; and no solution to the complex and bloody conflict seems to be in sight.
The recent ceasefire is shaky at best, and two phenomena will add further uncertainty to the war in the upcoming year: Saudi Arabia’s worsened international image following the Khashoggi episode and the reintroduction of sanctions on Iran.
So, how will the Yemen War evolve in 2019?
Check my forecast on Geopolitical Monitor to know more (subscription required).
Is Saudi Arabia Pivoting towards Russia?
At a first glance, Saudi Arabia and Russia have not much in common in terms of foreign policy.
The former is one of America’s closest allies, whereas the latter is its main geostrategic competitor along with China.
But in the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, their bilateral relations are more multifaceted than it may seem; and recent events may drive them closer.
Photo credit: Vladimir Putin and Mohammad bin Salman (2018-06-14) 02.jpg, Russian Presidential Executive Office, published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
The Khashoggi Episode & Deteriorating Saudi-Turkish Ties
The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in drawing much mediatic attention due to its impact on the complex international dynamics of the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of assassinating him, and this is damaging its relations and international image. Other than creating an unwanted diplomatic headache for both the KSA and its main ally (the US), the episode is another factor that will contribute to the deterioration of Saudi-Turkish relations. Dating back to several decades ago, these have been worsening during the past few years.
Watch this video by KJ Reports based upon my analysis, which examines the history of bilateral ties between the two powers taking into account the role of other actors and the most recent events (as of 15 October 2018).
Photo credit: Istanbul - Landscapes of Turkey - Geography of Turkey 03.jpg, Mostafameraji, published under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Grim Prospects for Turkey-Saudi Relations
The Middle East is in turmoil. Conflict is raging all over the region, in a complex dynamic involving both state and non-state actors. Competition is fierce and alliances are shifting.
Saudi Arabia, one of the most important players in the area, is engaged in a struggle with Iran that has led the Kingdom to a gradual rapprochement with Israel. But while these trends are well-known, Riyad's relations with Ankara are often ignored.
Yet, Turkey is another main regional power, and it has adopted a more assertive stance in recent years. But its growing hostility to Israel and its cooperation with Iran will likely deteriorate its relations with the KSA; and this will have geopolitical consequences on the region.
Full article here (only for Geopolitical Monitor subscribers).
Rising Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean: Another South China Sea?
The Eastern Mediterranean is a geopolitially complex maritime region. Recent offshore gas discoveries have created interest from major energy firms, but have also fostered competition between the area's main powers as well as external players.
In my article, I analyze the latest developments and I show how the conflicts / disputes over in Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus are closely related to a geopolitical competition for offshore gas that will transform the Eastern Mediterranean in a zone of clashes and opposing claims similar to the South China Sea.
Full article here.
Photo credit: Turkish navy frigate TCG Turgutreis (F 241).jpg, Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class David R. Krigbaum, published under public domain.