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WEST ASIA’S CHANGING STRATEGIC DYNAMICS: An Analysis

Paper No. 695                                             20/05/2003

by Dr Subhash Kapila

West Asia, as a strategic sub-system of the world, encompasses what in the heyday of the British Empire was termed as the Near East and the Middle East. In the West this region rests on the Eastern Mediterranean and in the East on Afghanistan. 

Its significance in term of global power politics lies in the complex inter-mixture of its geo-strategic, geo-political and geo-economic richness primarily centred on oil, the strategic choke-points in the region through which the sea-lanes must traverse carrying the vital energy source to all over the World.

Within a century, three different powers controlled West Asia namely the Turkish Ottoman Empire (a monolithic entity) replaced after first World War by the British Empire. The British broke the monolithic structure into a number of monarchial states and dominated the region till the Second World War. Thereafter as the British gradually retreated from their imperial overstretch, the Americans as the newly emerged superpower took over strategic, political and economic control of West Asia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union as the other super-power contested the American dominance resulting in the emergence of military governments with socialistic overtones and ideologies in major states like Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Needless to say that West Asia is predominantly Arab and Sunni Muslim with the exception of Turkey (Islamic but secular) and Iran (Islamic Shias). 

West Asia as a region has generated more conflicts in the 20th century and even today than in any other region of the world. The emergence of Israel as an independent nation in 1948 has not been accepted by the Arab and Muslim world who view it as an American imposition. Anti-Americanism has therefore been a consistent feature of West Asia ever since. Only the monarchial regimes were politically allied to the United States and they too to ensure their personal political survival. 

The Changing Strategic Dynamics:  The two take-off points in West Asia in terms of strategic dynamics analysis have been Gulf War I (1991) and Gulf War II (2003). Gulf War I (1991) was a United Nations coalition effort directed at militarily forcing Iraq to vacate its military occupation of Kuwait. Gulf War II (2003) was an Anglo-American military invasion of Iraq for a host of reasons advanced by United States ranging from WMDs, to regime change. It was without any United Nations authorization. 

Therefore in both cases, the United States was in the lead in terms of military operations and in both cases it was directed at Iraq. Why was it Iraq? Because Iraq as a relatively modernized and secular Arab Islamic state, with its vast oil revenues was building up a military capability to challenge the existing status-quo in West Asia primarily directed at United States dominance and the Gulf Sheikh-doms who provided the pillar for the American dominance. More importantly this Iraqi challenge to the West Asian status-quo was posing a serious threat, to United States over-riding strategic concern in West Asia, i.e. the security of Israel. 

It also needs to be noted that in both Gulf Wars, Israel was prevailed upon by United States to keep out of the wars so as not to enlarge the scope of military operations. 

In terms of strategic dynamics, it is significant that United States military offensives in 1991, and 2003 took place in West Asia when the erstwhile Soviet Union as a countervailing power had disintegrated by 1991 and in 2003, Russia as the successor state was not yet resurgent to challenge the United States head-on. In other words, United States did not face any serious military challenge in both Gulf Wars. 

United States military offensive in both Gulf Wars took place in what can best be called a ‘strategic vacuum’ against an overwhelming asymmetric opponent, i.e. Iraq. 

While in both Gulf Wars, the United States can claim it achieved its war aims, but what needs to be analysed is whether these successes have contributed to United States long term strategic interests in West Asia, in terms of:

* West Asia’s political stability.

*  Peace in West Asia.

* Security of Israel.

*  Achievement of much published American objectives of promotion of ‘ Human Rights’ and ‘Democracy’ 

For this, the aftermath of both the Gulf Wars need to be analysed singly. 

Gulf War I- The Aftermath: The American military aim was vacation of Iraqi aggression against Kuwait and thereby hoping that the above long range American objectives were achieved. 

But the aftermath of Gulf War I presents the following results:

* West Asia political stability and peace stood further undermined.

* West Asia did not produce any new democratic states or changes for better in terms of Human Rights. US supported monarchies continued to rule autocratically.

* Islamic Jehadi terrorism appeared as a menacing and potent force against American policies in the region and the presence of US troops and bases in the region.

* Israel stood continuously endangered, not by Iraq, but by Islamic Jehadi suicide bombers for whose martyrdom the most loyal American ally, Saudi Arabia, provided finances.

* Iran continued to be ‘demonised’ by the United States when it should have been won over to serve US strategic interests in the Gulf. 

* Missiles proliferation in West Asia continued with Chinese and North Korean assistance as a result of American permissiveness towards China and tolerating Chinese IRBM deployment in Saudi Arabia- the first ever deployment in West Asia.

 * Iraq was subjected to unending economic sanctions, chiefly sponsored by the United States for more than a decade. The United States had totally missed the political logic and dynamics in Iraq, as we shall see later in the analysis. 

In the aftermath of Gulf War I, the United States subjected itself to more self-inflicted injuries chiefly as a result of:

* Over playing tactical interests over strategic interests.

* Losing the United States moral high ground in pursuance of the above.

* Propagation of democracy and human rights in West Asia was given the go-by in preference to securing military bases and positioning US troops by subservient Gulf sheikhdoms to ensure personal survival. 

Gulf War II- The Aftermath: The military invasion of Gulf War II prosecuted by the United States can be said to have been impelled by its unipolar arrogance. Regime change was not a strategic American requirement as Iraq in the aftermath of Gulf War I lay militarily and economically devastated. Iraqi regime change was a US domestic political requirement necessitated by the inability of the United States to nail down Osama bin Laden. 

In the interregnum between the two Gulf Wars two military developments affected the United States, namely the 9/11 bombings in New York and Washington and the US response thereafter i.e the Afghanistan War to eradicate the Taliban and capture of Osama bin laden. 

Digressing a bit since it has a bearing on Gulf War II, it needs to be pointed out that in the 9/11 events and the Afghanistan War:

* Iraq was not involved either in terms of a planning base launch pad or finances.

* 9/11 events and the Taliban scourge linked with Osama bin Laden were Pakistani and Saudi Arabian supported entities which wreaked havoc on the United States.

*  Pakistan was the training base and launch pad supported and sponsored by Saudi Arabia, for all Al Qaeda activities with ISI playing a prominent role.

*  Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the “real axis of the evil.”  (See the analysis of this author: SAAG paper 548 dated 20.11.2002 entitled “ United States and the Other Axis of Evil.”)

Since Gulf War II has been a recent and on going event, one does not need to dwell on events but go straight to the analysis of the aftermath.  The aftermath of Gulf war II (2003) presents the following picture:

* United States military invasion of Iraq took place without any United Nations authorisation and in defiance of the wishes of UN Security Council members wishes and NATO allies.

* United States has sown the seeds of disintegration of the United Nations and cracked open fissures in NATO and the European Community.

* Anti-Americanism in West Asia has been at the highest peak so far.

* Israel’s security stands endangered far more than it was in aftermath of Gulf War I.  While Israel has inflicted military reverses in symmetrical conflicts against Arab coalitions in the past, it will be hard pressed to handle asymmetrical warfare of terrorism and Saudi bomber. America as it is helpless here.

* Israel’s security would be further jeopardised  by American pressure to make Israel compromise strategically more than it should to safeguard its security.

* USA has publicly declared Syria and Iran as the next target after Iraq. This will create greater strategic problems for USA.

* Islamic Jehadi terrorism of the Al-Qaeda networks has reared its head in Saudi Arabia and extended to  Morocco- a stone throw from Europe. US targets could next be on the list

* Saudi Arabia  stands side-lined by USA.

*  Turkey is no more an obliging entity in West Asia for US military adventures. 

Coming to the recent military invasion of Iraq, the United States has not been able to produce any evidence of Iraqi WMDs despite their military occupation. In the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, the picture today is:

* Iraq lies devastated by US military bombardments and  is in civil chaos and turmoil.

* USA has been unable to restore law and order in Iraq, Anti-Americanism is in the forefront falsifying US hopes that they would be welcomed as liberators.

* Major European countries like France and Germany are unlikely to under-write Iraqi reconstruction for some time.

* US roadmap of democracy for West Asia can be expected to gather dust as  contemporary developments in Iraq will force USA once again to temporize on tactical gains than strategic vision. 

What appears today is that while USA may have achieved its core war aim of ‘regime change’ (rather coyly graduated into prominence after WMDs) it can be stated that:

* USA has been unable to strategically pacify Iraq or West Asia.

* The emerging domestic scene in Iraq foretells that it may be heading towards “Islamic fundamentalism” and a Khomeni-type Shia revolution.

* Any US attempt to redraw state boundaries in West Asia, will rebound heavily on it.

Collateral Strategic Dynamics: As a spin off to United States military adventures in West Asia, collateral strategic dynamics have been generated further  as evidenced by the following:

* European Union establishing its independent peace keeping force outside American dominated NATO control.

* Russia forging a collective security organization of Central Asia States.

*  China’s efforts to give the Shanghai Cooperation Council more security connotation.

* Trends towards multilateralism in global relationships.

The strategic impact of these on United States global and regional interests are obvious. Obviously, these are the first stirrings against United States unilateralism. See this author SAAG Paper No 609 dated 18-02-2003 entitled “ United States Unilateralism under Challenge". 

Conclusion: Strategic dynamics generated by United States two Gulf Wars in West Asia do not portend that West Asia will shortly witness political stability and peace or that Israel’s security will be that much more assured. On the contrary West Asia will witness growing challenges to American unilateralist impulses in Asia and globally. There are limits to United States military power and high-technology. 

The United States is in danger of learning the wrong military lessons from Gulf War I, Afghanistan War and Gulf War II. Speedy victories in ‘regime changes’ oriented military operations were not because of US military might or high-technology but because these were asymmetrical contests both in terms of military capabilities and technology. Also that ‘top down’ regime changes give you only control of the capital city but not the entire country.

The United States needs also to recognize that the aim of ‘grand strategy’ is not only to ensure speedy military victory and  achievement of  core war aims, but that ‘grand strategy’ extends to cover a much wider horizon of achieving lasting and durable peace in the aftermath and that this vision is not allowed to be  stampeded into oblivion by tactical compulsions. West Asia, regrettably, is not a witness for any such “grand strategy” vision of the United States, working for lasting peace and political stability. 

The obsession with oil and not letting the ‘petro-dollars” because “Petro-Euros” restricts the United States strategic vision and the strategic dynamics so generated in  West Asia and further afield  point to a very contentious period for the United States.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. Email <drsubhashkapila @yahoo.com>)

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