Bursting the Bubble

NATO’s Southern Dilemma: Contesting Security Interests of the Regional Powers in the Middle East

19 November 2014 | by

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) finds itself between two fronts. To the East, Russia, by annexing Crimea, a Ukrainian territory, has violated the post-WW international order which has secured the decades’ long peace in Europe. To the South, the rise of extremism in the Middle East has created one of the most challenging threats to the global security. Even though the alliance has numerously claimed that both, Eastern and Southern, security threats should be dealt carefully, it is clear that most of NATO’s resources are allocated to tackling the latter.

This is because the natures of the two security dilemmas are understood as fundamentally different by the alliance. Extremism is regarded as a direct threat to NATO countries as it contains the potential to exporting terrorism to the rest of the world. With the Islamic State (IS), in practice a group of extremists, the biggest military coalition of the world does not see any possibility, whatsoever, for a political solution; thus, a military response is recognized as the only way to counter the Middle Eastern threat. In contrast, dialogue and a political solution is prioritized in relations with the Kremlin, as Russia is still seen as an indirect security adversary and a rational international actor, aware of the potential consequences of the 5th Article of the NATO treaty.

Though, in the Middle East, NATO is not a driving security actor. The West decided to build an international coalition, including the Alliance members, to eradicate radical Sunni groups. One of the main reasons of doing so was to engage regional powers in the fight against terrorism. While it is almost impossible to deal with the southern security threat without cooperating with Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia or Israel, this also provides an impediment for united actions. Security perceptions of the regional actors in Syria and Iraq differ, their priorities are not similar and their interests, in many cases, are incompatible with each other. Among many other crucial obstacles, regional enmity is one of the key barriers, which keeps the situation in the Middle East barely resolvable.

Turkey: preventing Kurdish empowerment

Turkey is one of the most central actors in the region. Several miles away from IS, official Ankara faces one of the most severe security threats of the decade. However, the Turkish state sees the rise of the extremist group not as a source of the problem; rather, a “symptom of a deeper pathology”. In Syria, Turkey’s bigger security concern is the Bashar-al-Assad regime, which provides a fertile environment for extremism. Turkey has actively supported the rebels in the Syrian war and until now has tried to prove that the solution to IS lies primarily with the removal of the Syrian government. In Iraq, Turkey’s main concern goes to sectarian policies. The secular Turkish state, thus, has numerously criticized the former Iraqi government, led by sectarian Nouri Kamel al-Maliki.

However, when it comes to understanding Turkish security priorities, nothing else shows Ankara’s top interest, better than the events surrounding Kobane. The city, in the province of Aleppo, on the Syrian-Turkish border, inhabited by the Syrian Kurds, became an IS target in March and has been attacked from three sides. In times of the international coalition lacking ground forces, the Kurdish fighters have been regarded as potential allies in the US, contributing to Washington’s decision to provide arms to the Syrian Kurds in the city. Ankara has actively voiced its disapproval of the American decision and subsequent actions.

Kurdish fighters in the Middle East, specifically in Syria and Iraq, represent substantial forces. But they have different agendas and are led by different leaderships, which do not have a good relationship history. In Iraq, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), led by Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional government, has developed cooperative relations with the West. In Syria, including the city of Kobane, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), under the leadership of Salih Muslim, has supported the Assad government. In addition, these Kurdish fighters are strongly affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist organization operating on Turkish soil. Currently the Erdogan government is in the process of peaceful negotiations with the PKK. However, as Turkey shows reluctance to provide better help to the Syrian Kurds, PKK’s withdrawal from the process and re-initiation of its fight against the Turkish state becomes highly predictable. Therefore, military assistance to Syrian Kurds, which potentially may use the Western arms supply against Turkey itself, is the highest security concern for Ankara.

Turkish Middle Eastern policy does not seem to be finding support among the domestic public. Kurds in the country have shown opposition to Turkey’s stance in the region. As the domestic pressure rises together with the international pressure on Turkey, to become more active in the fight against IS, the country is highly likely to re-consider its tactics. One such move has already occurred when after significant hesitation, Turkey decided to open its borders to Iraqi Kurds wishing to join the Syrian Kurds across the border in Kobane.

Iran: securing Shia rule and domination in the region

Although Turkey has become the center of attention, there is no other security actor in the Middle East more influential than Iran. Tehran has considerable power both in Iraq and Syria and represents a potential key to making a real impact on the ground. Compared to other security actors, Tehran’s domination in the region is strengthened by its Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Shia militia, operating both in Iraq and Syria and loyal to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme leader.

In contrast to secular Turkey, semi-theocratic Tehran sees IS as the rise of Sunni ideology in the region. Shia-ruled Iran favors a pro-Shia foreign policy and thus, any kind of empowerment of the Sunni groups in the Middle East represents Tehran’s primary security challenge. Iran has been isolated since the 1979, and Syria represented its only consistent ally. Officially, Damascus, throughout this period, has secured Iran’s direct geographical connection to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia. Assad’s government also ensured Shia domination in the country. During the civil war, by mobilizing the network of Iraqi Shia militias, Tehran has significantly promoted Assad’s power. If this Syrian government falls, Tehran may face a Sunni regime hostile to Shia. This would certainly reduce Iran’s domination in the region and cut direct ties with Lebanon. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Iran will stop its popular support for Bashar-al-Assad. However, Tehran’s primary interest is not securing the continuation of the Assad government, but rather Iran’s interest in the region. President Rouhani’s tone during the September UN General Assembly showed Tehran’s detachment from the Assad regime to be underway.

With the crisis in Syria, the importance of retaining influence over the Iraqi leadership has become even more important for Tehran. By building smaller but loyal militias, Tehran had facilitated the election of the pro-Shia Maliki government, which favored pro-Shia policies. However, the state has played a crucial role in promoting the removal of the same regime. Tehran has successfully managed to influence the new Iraqi leadership and convince it to share power with minorities, still leaving the governing group dominated by the Shia. Iran’s power on Iraqi decision-making is expected to remain highly influential.

The situation comes amidst Iran’s potential breakthrough on the nuclear program with the West. While the P5+1 tries to keep IS and the nuclear program issues apart from the nuclear negotiations table, this creates an opportunity for Tehran. Hassan Rouhani told the UN General Assembly that Iran’s promises to be on board against the Sunni group depend on Western concessions in the nuclear talks. However, the deal is not a one-side interest. The new Iranian President has been elected with the promise of rehabilitating relations with the West. Rouhani has invested all of his efforts to conclude the deal and facilitate sanctions relief on Iran. If nuclear negotiations fail to bring an agreement, hardliners in Iran, led by the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, which are against the Western opening of the country, are most likely to be empowered. This will create a serious impediment to the current Iranian government in achieving its goals.

Saudi Arabia: empowering the Sunni groups

For many, the situation in the Middle East reflects the fight between two regional powers – Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. The two influential security actors in the region are simultaneously ethnic as well as ideological rivals.

Saudi Arabia’s security perceptions in the Middle East, first and foremost, link to the goal of empowering Sunni groups in the region and weakening Iran’s influence. In Syria, where most of the population is Sunni Arab, Saudi Arabia had been outraged by the oppression of the Syrian government, the Shia sect, Alawites. The Syrian uprising by the Saudis had been seen as an opportunity to empower Sunni groups, including the radical groups such as IS, and to contribute to the removal of the Assad government. Saudi Arabia, thus, has supported the rebels in the Syrian civil war and has provided significant support to fight the state regime. But Riyadh’s strategic goals in Syria are quite challenging – empowering Sunni groups on the one hand, and on the other – fighting extremism within them.

When it comes to Iraq, Saudi Arabia believes that the removal of Saddam Hussein has been a crucial contribution to Iran’s domination in the region. In a decade, Sunni-led Iraq has turned into a Shia-dominated state, with a Sectarian pro-Shia Maliki government. This goes contrary to El-Riyadh’s security interests. However, while the importance of Iraq is high, Saudis are aware of their limitations. Tehran is leading the security game in Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s strategic actions remain passive in the neighboring state.

Riyadh’s security strategy in the region depends on supporting an increased US presence to counter-balance Iran’s domination. However, Washington’s increased demand for cooperation with Tehran creates serious concerns for the Arab country and the Gulf States. With such developments ongoing, the state is most likely to be in the process of reconsidering its strategies. One of such signs has been the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister in the country, in August 2014. However, it is unlikely that the decades’ long mistrust and rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia would undergo fundamental change in the nearest future.

Israel: preventing Iran’s nuclear enrichment program

Middle East security cannot be discussed without understanding the security perceptions of Israel and its role in current affairs. The Jewish state, surrounded by Muslim countries in the region, has been threatened by the rise of extremists as well. But, as Tel Aviv is concerned primarily with Iran’s nuclear program, IS does not represent its top security issue. For this state, the Middle Eastern dilemma is rather a Sunni-Shia dispute for power.

A far bigger concern for Israel is Iran’s rehabilitation and de-isolation in the international system. As US foreign policy has shifted over the last year, leading to a potential breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Israel continues to voice out its objections. To defeat IS by allying Iran means to win a battle and lose a war, in the view of Tel Aaviv. Iran, the biggest terrorist organization of the world in the opinion of the Israeli government, is a “50 year old problem with far greater impact”, while IS is a “5 year old challenge” only. The Israeli government believes that if Iran is seen as an ally in renewed US military actions in the Middle East, Washington will overlook Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program. Tel Aviv is particularly suspicious of the potential deal because of past experience when Reagan’s administration restrained itself from putting a stop to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program in the eighties in return for Islamabad’s support against the Soviet Union.

Despite recent tensions between Israel and the US, the two states have been strongly aligned in their foreign policies for years. Tel Aviv has benefited from substantial financial support from Washington, thus, while showing objections about the ongoing developments, the Israeli government has simultaneously supported the Obama-led international coalition. The country had backed US activities in Kobane, and the air strikes in Syria and Iraq. However, Netanyahu’s government remains passive in taking any active role in the fight against IS in Syria or Iraq and continues to advocate for a tougher position with Iran.

Iran nuclear talks deadline ahead

To defeat IS, Washington is willing to cooperate with all of the regional powers in the Middle East, including its most hostile rival, Iran. But while the US is threatened by the possible exportation of terrorism to its streets, not all regional actors seem to be taking the rise of Sunni extremism as their top security concern. For Turkey, Kurdish empowerment is a far bigger dilemma, preserving Shia domination in Iraq and Syria is prioritized by Tehran, empowering Sunni groups is a greater interest for the Saudis, and preventing Iran’s nuclear program is Israel’s highest concern. With different security priorities and strategies, the actions of the international coalition in the Middle East are still limited. Future regional dynamics will very much depend on the outcome of the upcoming nuclear negotiations, to be concluded on the 24th November.

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