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Power Politics and Adjusting to the New Middle East Reality

Author : Gergely Varga

The new Middle East will likely be more dynamic, more democratic but more chaotic. It has both opportunities and risks for NATO countries, which have learned the hard way they are not omnipotent in this volatile region. They should adjust their policies accordingly – a complete retreat is not an option either.

Throughout the last decades the US was the prime target for Arab anger concerning external forces meddling in Middle East affairs. The decline of US soft power in the Middle East had direct implications on the political and strategic choices of the US administration. One year after the start of the Arab awakening, even after US involvement in the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt and military intervention against Kaddafi in Libya, the basic negative perceptions on US foreign policy in the region hasn’t change dramatically. As a survey conducted by the Brooking Institute and Maryland University, made public in November 2011 shows the US, despite some improvements in favorability around the region, still ranks low in the region among other world powers.

While the US was struggling with the huge political burdens it took on itself with the war on terror and the Iraqi war, emerging powers such as Russia and especially China, with their pragmatic approach focusing on economic opportunities seemed to be gaining influence in the region. Both of these powers deepened their cooperation especially with the “rejectionist” camp in the region, foremost Iran, although considerable tensions and distrust are present as well especially in the Russia – Iran relations.

The developments of the “Arab Awakening”, similarly as to the United States and the EU, has bought new challenges for these powers, as the case of Libya proved. The Libyan civil war with the NATO intervention hasn’t turned out in the end the way Moscow and Beijing would of thought. Although it is not the case that the new rulers of Tripoli are determined to be a staunch ally of the West after NATO’s military engagement on their side, Russia and China will face probably more difficult challenges to build close ties with them. Moscow’s and Beijing’s objection of the intervention will likely not disappear from the memories of new Libyan leaders and large proportions of the Libyan population who supported the Gaddafi - regime’s demise.

A similar story is at play in Syria now, where the regime primarily backed by Iran and Russia is trying to crush the opposition with increasing brutality. The Syrian internal conflict is just one episode of the region wide sunni – shia competition for power ranging from Lebanon to the Gulf, although in each case the front lines and the coalitions are always more complicated on the ground than it is sometimes perceived from the outside. Nevertheless, after the recent UN Security Council vote on Syria, it has become clear not just to the Syrian opposition, but to the Arab masses in the whole region seeking for change that which major power is on who’s side of that conflict.

The concerted effort of key Western powers following the Arab League in increasing gradually the pressure on Assad has been the most viable option. As numerous military experts have pointed out, a Libya – like military operation would have tremendous risks concerning the execution and the outcome. Syria’s population is much bigger, the army is much more capable, supplying the regime from Russia or Iran is much more easy to organize, and probably most importantly, the opposition is much more fragmented and disorganized then it was in the case of Libya. Not to mention the low appetite in NATO countries for another risky military intervention. A sustained and concerted effort by the Arab League, Turkey and the West to isolate the regime politically and economically would sooner or later likely force Assad to back down, although this outcome clearly does not solve the current serious humanitarian crisis posed by the regime’s brutality...

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