The Middle East has always been seen as a vast sandpit for military powers to fight their proxy wars. The latest country to be threatened to have Western democracy visited upon it is Iran.
But after decades of casual violence and conflict, Western interests are now no longer able to topple regimes with impunity and then exploit their natural resources. Citizens in the West will no longer tolerate deftly Middle Eastern foreign policy especially after so much failed military adventurism and Tony Blair’s appointment as a peace envoy.
So are we at a turning point?
Will the presence of other actors in the region now change the balance of international power?
And if that power does shift, is there at last chance of peace and economic progress in a region that has witnessed such indescribable bloodshed?
The shifting of regional geopolitics
Journalist and Middle East based commentator, Sharmine Narwani, joined Renegade Inc. to discuss how the Middle East is reshaping the world order. Narwani sees the Syrian conflict as indicative of a fundamental shift in regional geopolitics:
“What happened in Syria”, she says, “created very distinct camps in the region, though a third did develop during this process. But most importantly, it drew in major powers like Russia and China that put a protective arm around this region and started to engage politically and economically even outside the Levant. We have seen a global change in the balance of power.” For Narwani, these changes are symptomatic of what she refers to as “the main battlefield for WWIII.”
“The reason I call it that is because Syria was the trigger to bring the major powers into a standoff with the global hegemons of the day. And we knew that a third world war would never be a conventional war because of nuclear weapons. So it would be an irregular war.”
These wars are being fought through American proxies, “but”, says Narwani, “Russia and China stepped in and one side is going to come out of this healthier and with larger global clout. I think that will be the Russian/Chinese side”, she added.
Among China’s concerns are the geostrategic and political battle over energy. This is in addition to their Belt and Road policy, both of which it regards as its priorities. But China and Russia also share common goals in Syria which, primarily, are their joint opposition to the terrorist-proxy war fought on behalf of the Western imperial powers.
Russia and China, along with Iran, share a commitment to the founding principles of international law:
“All three countries have found that they very much support the United Nations Charter and the current global order as it was meant to be which is all about the prevention of war and the maintenance of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Those are the two things that underpin the nation-state which is the current world order. It’s really that simple”, says Narwani.
However, key actors within the Western axis – mainly Britain and America – have attempted to reconfigure these legalistic norms for their own geopolitical ends, to such an extent, that the UN Charter has, in the words, of Narwani, become “virtually unrecognizable.” The creation of the Responsibility To Protect (R2P) doctrine is a major part of this reconfiguration process.
Formulated at the 2005 UN World Summit, the R2P, proposed by the [Gareth] Evans Commission, authorises “regional or sub-regional organisations” such as NATO to determine their “area of jurisdiction” and to act in cases where “the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time”.
From the Iraq invasion onward, Western powers have run rough shod over international law by means of the introduction of the concept, “anticipatory self-defense“ (ASD). This concept, initially outlined in a memorandum written by lawyer Daniel Benjamin, dated 7 June 2004, forms what has been termed the Caroline Principle, an integral part of the R2P. The ASD concept contained within the memo has set a dangerous precedent in as much as it has come to overshadow the legitimacy of the UN Charter.
A key part of the memo states:
“It must be right that states are able to act in self-defence in circumstances where there is evidence of further imminent attacks by terrorist groups, even if there is no specific evidence of where such an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack.”
In essence, R2P means the euphemistically named ‘international community’ can intervene in any situation if they perceive it to be a human right crisis that they themselves get to define. The media class have gone along with this charade by normalizing the R2P as part of a political process intended to justify the overriding of long established international legal norms:
Changing global perceptions
“The media and pundit class regularly talk about R2P, that we have the right to interfere in the business of states. We don’t. That is clearly in the UN Charter but they’ve used these constructs to slowly change the global perceptions of what is allowable. This is why the Americans could just march into Iraq and Afghanistan illegally”, says Narwani.
This is what the phrase, ‘rules based order’ – which recently emerged in public discourse – has come to mean. It’s purpose is to subvert international law by promoting an agenda that favours Western imperial interests. The violation of the law based order by the West, as opposed to the meaningless rule based version, has resulted in a backlash from Russia and China.
Unfortunately, though, Syria’s destiny is still controlled and affected by the competing interests of the major power brokers who have a vested interest in the region. The Americans have entrenched themselves in the northeast of the country while the Turks in the north are worried about Kurdish expansion under their tutelage.
Narwani has spent time in the Islamist terrorist-controlled Idlib province where she spoke with soldiers and others in order to try to figure out the possible geopolitical movements and alignments of these various elements. The journalist says that Turkey bought S-400 defense missile systems from the Russians. In return, the Americans have threatened sanctions and other punishments.
Narwani says that on the other hand, the Turks are fundamentally geared towards the Western axis and augmenting their part in NATO. However, the journalist claims that on a smaller level, the Turks are playing with the Russians and Iranians more actively, especially since the Gulf countries isolated Qatar. And then there is the Russian influence, which while not operating at the kingmaker level, their influence, claims Narwani, is not insignificant.
In the journalists view, the larger picture will be defined by victories of non-US regional hegemons:
“They will emerge victorious because they’re there and they have the best fighting forces in the region. They also have efficiency which we’ve not seen in this region for hundreds of years”, says Narwani, who is keen to reaffirm that it’s the Russian’s, Chinese and Iranian’s, rather than the American’s and other players, who have “common vision and efficiency”. Basically the latter have just ad hoc responses to short term pressures. Nobody appears to know what the US policy is other than a possible scatter gun approach by default. There is the other possibility that they are fomenting chaos as a pretext for a divide and rule strategy in order to secure short term interests.
Impact of war
Narwani considers the likely impact war would have on the region and who would be the possible players:
Hezbollah, Syria and Iran have all said that if the Americans or Israelis launch anything big”, they’re all in because, as far as the first three are concerned such an eventuality is akin to an existential threat to them. “They will fight with everything they have if they’re up against the wall. But the Americans and the Israelis cannot sustain a battle as long as their enemies can. We’re the cockroaches in our areas. We will live and live and live and breed and live and live. They only have so many bombs and they have to go back in production. Who’s going to tolerate this? There is no economy in the western world that is going to pay for this”, says Narwani.
The journalist believes that mediation from the big players – Russia and China – on the international stage will minimize the potential for a long war. “I think if there was any war launched in the region everyone would pile in and try to stop it. So [under those circumstances] you would have a hard but short war. Usually when a war ends people sit to organize the peace. Right now, of course, we’re looking at the American and Iranian standoff in the region. I think that’s the most volatile thing going on right now but it’s not necessarily where the match will strike.”
Sanctions, dignity & pride
On the issue of US sanctions, Narwani says that “If Trump thinks Iran is going to be crushed by sanctions he’s picked the wrong country.”
This is a sentiment supported by political commentator, Shabbir Razvi, who notes that the country is resilient economically because over the last 40 years, since the 1979 revolution, it adopted a strategy referred to as the Resistance Economy which focused on the development of the countries economic independence, technology and infrastructure. It also reaffirmed a sense of national dignity, purpose and intellectual endeavour.
These attributes potentially offer up the threat of a good example to the Americans. “Iran is a strategic country in an important area where a popular Islamic revolution overthrew a king. This happened in a country surrounded by American backed monarchies. It represents a fear to their clients in the region. So Iran’s remained a target”, says Narwani.
Moreover, since the emergence of Hezbollah, Iran has become a threat to Israel. Iran has been target number one. “The strange thing about this to me”, says Narwani, “is, why haven’t they targeted Iran before directly?”
“It’s always indirect, irregular warfare tactics, sabotage, subversion, sanctions and then attacking Iran’s allies. There is an element in Iran that wants this. The confrontations have always been around; they understand that it’s always been the US versus Iran not Saudi versus Iran or any such thing.”
This sense of personal pride, dignity and self respect goes back to the point Shabbir Razvi made previously. This is reiterated by Sharmine Narwani:
“They’ve always spoken very proudly. They talk about their international legal rights, they stick to the script. They’re not saying anything differently other than now there is a volatile situation but come at us and we will strike back. We will retaliate. This is perfectly legal under international law. So you know Iran’s holding its cards close to its chest. Nobody knows how it’s going to react. But I think that’s their major advantage because attacking Iran has never been good for the Americans.”
Propaganda & common long-term visions
“There is a lot of propaganda going on. I mean I always say propaganda is a front line tool to prepare populations for going to war. You cannot do it. The US military does not do it unless they’ve seen, said and laid the groundwork for people to actually support the war. The propaganda rhetoric around it is not taking hold.”
For Narwani, one of the reasons for this is there has been no event like 9/11 to rally the population around:
“Americans didn’t care about the fact that neither Iraq nor the Taliban had anything to do with 9/11. It didn’t matter. It’s all you needed. The trigger event. Whereas with Venezuela and Iran, American populations can’t rally around it unless something specifically happens. Now if Iran had hit even a military aircraft and American soldiers had died, I don’t even think that would be it because legitimately a lot of American politicians were saying, “Why were we flying in their airspace? Why are we provoking them in their waters?” So there is a split, politically, on whether another war is necessary.”
The big theme here is the emergence of a multipolar world as opposed to an American world, or American policed world. Narwani proffers some insights:
“Over the short term we’re going to see conflict continue. Everyone’s hand is still in the game. We are seeing shifting positions but there’s no telling. With the Middle East it’s always an incident that can suddenly change the trajectory of things. However, as I’ve said earlier, the reason Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq will have their full territorial integrity and sovereignty intact in the next two decades, is because these four countries have a common vision.”
“They have also started working out of a single command centre. They never did that before. They now have actual field experience together. They’ve done joint operations. Their fighting forces are very well tested. The four will exploit – with China’s help – the new economic opportunities that will come their way. This is something the West cannot possibly offer the Middle East anymore. And Russia will come in and offer it its S-400’s and missile defence systems which will reduce the possibility of anymore air war. This is Russia’s foreign policy in a nutshell: “If people have this, you stop war. If you stop war you focus on economy”, says Narwani
The journalists positive outlook for the region is predicated on a long vision:
“I see these players. I see how they operate. Their temperaments are the same, they don’t want to rush to judgment and keep their cards close to their chests. But when they need to deliver they deliver. These countries act very sensibly. There is no growth potential like you have in Asia right now. It’s the only place in the world where you have vision and money and the players and the alliances, etc, to make this a reality. And so I think in two decades we’re going to see that being very real and the American Empire out”, says Narwani.