The Middle East has remained one of the most volatile and unstable places on the world stage. Throughout the history it has been entangled in many inter and intra-state wars, coups d’etat, superpower interventions and rapid shifts in alliances and coalitions. Due to its prime location that connects three main continents- Asia, Africa and Europe, and large oil reserves its importance transcends its geographical boundaries.
Middle East: Region with a difficult history?
Before the First World War the region was caught between the expansionist policies of the two great empires: the Persian and the Ottoman. At the end of the First World War and with the publication of the Balfour declaration in 1917, which announced full support by the British government for the establishment of Jewish homeland in Palestine, it was pushed into an intractable Arab-Israeli conflict, that persists till date.
In the second half of the 20th century, a regional power struggle ensued between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran. This has manifested itself in almost all the intra-state wars within the region in the contemporary history.
What went wrong in the Middle East? Why is there no peace in the region? What are the future prospects of peace if any? These are some of the questions that baffles one’s mind.
Absence of a dominant state creates instability?
A.F.K Organski put forward a power transition approach back in the 1950s, in order to explain the confrontation and cooperation between and among nation-states in international arena.
It explains that international system is composed of hierarchical structure having a dominant state at the top, followed by other major powers, then by less powerful states and so on.
“For years, we have loved Saudi Arabia, our wonderful ally. The only problem is the people that run the country are murderous thugs.”
US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks about Saudi Arabia and offers to bring Saudis and Iranians together for peace in the Middle East pic.twitter.com/Kb2ZGRJmVL
— TRT World (@trtworld) February 19, 2020
The dominant state at the top maintains order in the system. This approach deals with the oft-changing patterns of power relations in international politics. It provides a tool by means of which, one can measure what probable changes in the confrontational or cooperative tactics will effect the preservation of peace or the occurrence of war.
It mainly relies upon the power and is often misunderstood as synonymous to political realism. However, it is far apart from that school of thought. Although both these approaches deal with the question of war and peace but their ways of explaining these are completely opposite.
Is International system anarchic?
Realism views international system as anarchic (having no centralized authority to govern the behaviour of states) while Power Transition says it is hierarchical. In order to establish peace in the world, the former relies on the balance of power among states. While the latter proposes that peace exists in system where there is great disparity of power among the countries. It argues that a dominant power regulates the actions of less powerful states and hence peace prevails.
Rejecting the notion of balance of power as a guarantor of peace, it suggests that in case of parity among the nations, the states dissatisfied with the status-quo would often resort to war in an attempt to acquire a position of dominance. This results in imbalance and chaos. Contrary to that, it propounds that a system with power disparity would be more peaceful — the dominant states would rely less on war to achieve their objectives while the less powerful states will avoid war with more powerful states for achieving their interests.
Douglas Lemke, further analyses that the principles that govern the global hierarchy are also applicable at the regional level. A region which has a clear hierarchical structure, presence of a powerful and dominant state; it would remain more stable than the one having power parity among states. The Middle East is an outstanding example of the latter case. It lacks a clear hierarchical structure and there exists extreme power parity among the rival nations, which has descended this region into chaos.
Saudi-Iran rivalry: Strategic or Ideological schisms?
The two main competitors i.e. KSA and Iran are often involved in conflicts and confrontation; they compete for gaining dominance in the region. Both these states are struggling to increase their spheres of influence, sometimes even using ideological cards of Sunnism and Shiaism. Hence, they intervene in every conflict and civil war within the Middle East to outdo one another in this race. As a result, these conflicts have adopted a sectarian outlook and have been protracted for a long time.
Similarly, Israel is another regional power that has conflictual relations with almost all of the Arab states and Iran. However, some of the major Arab powers, like KSA, have adopted lenient policies towards the Jewish state. Iran, in contrast, poses an existential threat to Israel. The growing influence of Iran in the neighbourhood of Israel has prompted the latter to use its proxies against the former thus pushing the region towards more violence and instability. Such state of affairs in a region provides a space to international actors for their own power struggle, eventually bringing nothing but chaos and disorder.
Syrian Chaos: Struggle for a new order?
Syrian civil war (2011- till date) is an excellent case of the power transition approach. Due to the lack of a clear hierarchical power structure in the region and the diminishing role of the US on the world stage, other actors are making inroads into the country, thus complicating the situation.
The war within Syria, that started in the backdrop of Arab uprising in 2011, owing to the socio-economic and political inequalities in the country, soon adopted a sectarian character due to the interference of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia along with her allies has been supporting the rebels while Iran has been instrumental in backing Assad’s regime. Both these states support opposing parties to the conflict in an attempt to bring Syria under their sphere of influence.
But as neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran has a clear dominant position in the region and both are able to counter one another’s power, so there is no clear winner as yet. Consequently, the hostilities continue and the war perpetuates.
Apart from regional powers, the perpetuation of Syrian civil war also owes its existence to the rivalry of the great powers at global level. With the diminishing role of the US; Russia and to some extent China are the dissatisfied powers, wanting to change the status-quo and tilt the power position in their favour. After its resurgence, Russia has been flexing its muscles, challenging the US in Middle East and other parts of the world. Its role in the Syrian war has been instrumental for Bashar Al Assad to retain his power. It has been supporting the regime, vis-à-vis the US which provides support to the rebels fighting to overthrow the government.
The roots of rivalry between the US and Russia can be traced back to the Cold War era, when after the end of the Second World War, both the states were struggling for acquiring a dominant position in the world— to become the lone superpower. Their competition came to an end with the demise of the former Soviet Union in 1990.
But with the resurgence of Russia in recent years as a global power, the international hierarchy has again shifted. Its efforts to balance the power of US in different parts of the world in general, and in the Middle East in particular, have resulted in even bigger conflicts. Intervening in the Syrian civil war and backing opposing parties in conflicts; both these powers have brought nothing but chaos and violence to the country.
Primarily due to the emergence of dissatisfied powers at the global level, which often challenge the status-quo, and the lack of clear hierarchical structure in the Middle East, peace in the region remains a distant dream.
Muhammad Tayyab has been a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, University of Peshawar. He is pursuing his M.Phil degree from the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at National Defence University Islamabad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.