Middle East: countdown to nuclear war?

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Middle East: countdown to nuclear war?

 Ken Crawford argues that the growing tension in the Middle East, and the threat this poses to our energy security, means the shift to a low carbon economy is needed now more than ever.  

That the problem has a solution is in our schooling from the earliest age. From the basic sums in primary school to the killer equations in later applied mathematics, from the basics of spelling to the frustrating crossword puzzle that has you screwing up the page in annoyance, there is always an answer if only you were smart enough to find it.  That the problem has no solution is intolerable to the human spirit and that has done much to drive us forward through our evolution, pushing the fields of science and medicine to ever dizzying heights.  Even in the sphere of geopolitics, we have tried hard to learn from our mistakes.  The Western hemisphere has been brought to peaceful trade and Japan turned into a likeminded friend even after the horrors of the last century.  One puzzle yet eludes us.  Political commentators, strategists and analyst turn their gaze on the Middle East and apply themselves to the task – how can peace be brought to this troubled region?

The Middle East is a region sown with ancient tribal hatreds that predate Biblical times, some fresh in the memory, others long buried under the iron fist of the tyrant.  The region has only had extended periods of peace when an Empire grew sufficiently powerful to dominate.  The Romans ran out of steam and could only secure the Mediterranean coastal provinces but the Ottomans were more successful and perhaps have the best claim to bringing peace to the region in all human history.  The human rights activist would not have approved though since the Ottomans wrote racial discrimination into law, classing Jews and Christians as second class citizens, operated as a tyranny under a Sultan and were arguably the worst slavers history.  Their heirs, modern Turkey, can also lay claim to a genocide campaign, that of the Armenians in 1915.  Empire has not proved a satisfactory answer to the puzzle.

The First World War eventually shattered the Ottoman’s and from the Balkans to the Middle East we are still feeling the consequences a century later.  Slow to enter the industrial revolution and on the losing side with Germany, the Ottomans were by-standers as their Empire was carved up by Britain and France.  Revolution overthrew the Sultan and modern Turkey was born with the much-reduced borders we see today.   The other modern borders of the Middle East are essentially the same as set by the colonial powers (excepting the more complex Israeli situation) as Cold War politics found it favourable to lock these in place to secure oil supplies.

These colonial borders were set in haste and not always in great wisdom, with hostile groups brought together and kin groups divided.  The seething tribal and religious tensions have not gone away in the meantime.  When a power vacuum forms, as happened when the removal of Saddam Hussein was coupled with the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, these old hatreds are fully unleashed.  Astute Iranian political manoeuvring ensured it was pro-Iranian groups, their fellow Shia, who became dominant in Iraq, drawing a counter tribal response that found its expression in the Islamic State.  Unconstrained by the normal bounds of normal civilian or even martial law, it reverted to a brutal religious doctrine that would not have been out of place in Ottoman times.  It required no great impetus for Islamic State to sprawl over the artificial border with Syria and start lifting the lid on Syrian tribal politics, not all tribes being loyal to Syria’s President Assad.  The intervention of Cold War allies Russia and Iran saved Syria and Islamic State has eventually been crushed but Syria has still to fully close out its tribal civil war. Expect ongoing reprisals by Assad against the tribes that dared defy him.

In the current phase it, therefore, appears the nation-state will again be able to suppress the tribe. This means the next phase of conflict may focus on the nation-state.  The main potential flashpoints involve Turkey, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia.  On a simple geographic analysis, Israel always looks vulnerable, with enemies on all its borders and wars of survival already fought in living memory.  However, Egypt, having flirted with ‘failed state’ status, is preoccupied with domestic stability.  Syria’s travails have already been discussed.  Moreover, deliberately ambiguous on her nuclear weapons capability, my guess is Israel acquired at least tactical nukes some decades ago.  I would guess Israel could nuke Damascus and Cairo if required and perhaps further afield.  For now, as the only nuclear power in the region, Israel looks secure.  That would change if an avowed opponent, such as Iran were to obtain nukes.  A nuke launched at short range over the Golan Heights or from Lebanon must remain Israel’s enduring nightmare.  If Israel were ‘wiped off the face of the map’, as some seem to desire, all bets are off.  Nations would likely hazard radical steps for their own preservation and I expect America would nuke any site in Iran it had the slightest concern about.  Let’s hope we don’t find out and that genie stays in the bottle.

Having recently survived a military coup, Turkish President Erdoğan has purged the army and civil service and is taking Turkey back to its Islamic roots.  As the heir to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey could make a claim on both Iraq and Syria.  Turkey already has troops and tanks on Syrian soil to keep Kurdish ambitions of their own nation in check.  Turkey as leader of a revived Ottoman Empire would be a natural opponent of Iran, with Iran itself already taking on the shape of the Persian Empire of old.

Iraq has been stabilized in the aftermath of Islamic State but Iranian influence is waxing, not least because Iraq has had to fall back on the Iranian military to survive.  These developments put Saudi Arabia firmly in the firing line and the early shots have already been fired in what could be the next phase of the conflict.  Yemen descended into civil war in 2015, allegedly after Iranian machinations.  The Saudi’s are embroiled in the conflict and have been required to shoot down missiles fired into their airspace seven times, including over their own capital, Riyadh in March.  Saudi Arabia must now contend with hostile forces on both its northern and southern borders.  It is hard to know how much Iran would risk in its conflict with the Saudis.  A direct invasion seems very unlikely in the short term but neither nation will want to be last to acquire nukes and it would not be a surprise if both have clandestine programme running.

How can peace be secured in the region with deadly flashpoints on so many fronts?  The puzzle must have a solution.  It is tempting to add my own ideas to the myriad that have gone before but perhaps it lies beyond our ability at this time.  There are too many moving parts, operating in multi-dimensional complexity, running at fast pace and with a fluidity that can make yesterday’s news, assumptions and options obsolete.  The Western powers have invested blood and treasure to find solutions but it may be we, nor anyone else, has the sophistication to get this right.  I am sorry to say it seems quite plausible that the next nuclear strike after Nagasaki will be somewhere in the Middle East and perhaps not that far in the future, with all the human horror that brings.  Such a catastrophe would likely bring an abrupt end to the era of Middle Eastern oil and so we would be wise to develop a future in which we move with all speed to the low carbon electric model for our transport and economy.  Hoping, even striving for the best but preparing for the worst seems our best bet.

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    Ken Crawford
    Ken Crawford is a graduate of St.Andrews University and a certified Chartered Accountant. He has worked as a project manager in a range of industry sectors, currently in the defence industry.
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