Connecting Middle East and South Asian security

Spearhead Analysis – 05.05.2017

By Hira A. Shafi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The middle eastern security order is a complex, continually evolving phenomenon.

The roots to these complexities and fluxes appear to be embedded in:  the very  design of the  order- which is largely shaped under Cold War dynamics, uniquely entangling the regional stability to   a minimum two player paradigm.

Secondly, the region seems  divorced  from the traditional sense of balance of power — thereby enhancing the scope of hybrid approaches.  

However, two crucial trigger points paved way for a re-engineered Middle Eastern balance: the Iraqi invasion and the Arab Spring.

Developments following the Iraqi invasion, enlarged the Iranian footprint into the Arab world, enabling it to deepen its networking in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and supposedly Yemen. These changes encouraged stronger links between- Saudi Arabia, Jordon, some GCC monarchies and Israel. Apart from cutting off Iran’s major nuclear pathways, the JCPOA also aimed at substantiating this balance while aspiring to inculcate a shift in Iranian strategic thinking so it evolves towards more credible deterrence options.

Therefore, today while Iran’s compliance to the nuclear aspect of the deal is largely agreed upon; it is the ‘violation of the spirit of the agreement’ which remains an issue.

But, these re-engineering attempts appear to have enhanced anxieties in traditional US allies; primarily Israel and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps , because such a balance seems to carry two significant inherent problems:  one which stems from the absence of a buffer zone between Iran and the rest of the Middle East and the second which stems from disparate defense capabilities of these key players, which caused reluctance in significantly changing approaches.

Moreover, prior to the JCPOA, developments post-Arab Spring — seem to have created another balance to the utility of superior offensive capabilities of the Israel- Saudi belt against any Iranian threats. Russia’s direct involvement post Syrian crisis has surfaced two more key players in the ‘3rd zone’ i.e Turkey and Egypt. Their hedging approaches seem to serve as a multifaceted deterrence against decisive actions.

The threats posed to the center alliance under the Muslim Brotherhood seems subdued. But, even under Sisi’s rule, hedging strategies continue . Whereas Turkey,  apart from utilising these dynamics to pursue its various national interests,  has also developed genuine concerns regarding its territorial integrity, especially as the creation of a buffer zone in shape of Kurdistan gains traction. But, for now, Russia, who has also been carving out its own relations with the Kurds seems to be evaluating this option in the context of its broader security concerns with the West. These elements of interlinked unpredictability further cause the players to make restrained and calculated decisions.

So far, US  unilateral efforts to restructure the Middle Eastern balance, seems to have blurred the distinction between friend and foe for its traditional allies.

General Mattis’s recent Middle East trip carries great significance in US efforts to ‘mend fences’ with its traditional allies; apart from committing to enhance defence ties, most states were also assured of US support against Iranian subversions. US recent amplified use of power in Yemen and Syria could perhaps be viewed as a gesture of this commitment. The US is also exploring possibilities of enhancing troop deployments in Iraq and Syria.

Thus the overview of the current scenario is : The US supported monarchies and Israel find their threats as –Iran centric . Iran on the opposite side stands with some of  its support systems in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria; this link is viewed as largely Russian backed. This arrangement is also commonly referred to as the ‘Shia-Sunni crescents’ The role of Turkey and Egypt– for now– cannot be viewed as definitive in this scenario.

But, once again revisiting some innate characteristics of the Middle Eastern security order ; it is Russia( or another capable player)  which seems to  serve as the ingredient for longevity for such a balance.  As the US seemingly commits itself to enhanced use of force to ward off various threats; these increasing costs would likely determine how Russia would play the Middle Eastern game; without a helping hand , effectiveness  of any Iranian subversive techniques also becomes questionable.

However, underneath this balance lies the alternate arrangement ; one where Israeli security concerns are rooted. ‘The post Iran’  Middle East, which carries high chance to buoyant the Arab -Israeli conflict. Presently, the Israeli security establishment appears watchful of such developments and seems driven to create favorable conditions for  this possible future. Threats of this possibility have often caused the Israeli security establishment to stand at odds with its political realm in tackling threats from its neighbours– including Iran.

Contrary to recommended approaches of political leaders, the key curators of Israeli security– besides sporadic adventurism in the battle spaces–  prefer refraining from  excessive overt military actions in its neighbouring zones.  

This thinking was once again recently echoed by the ex-mossad chief who claimed that the only remaining imminent threat to Israel is now its Palestinian issue; and that the sustainability of Arab Israeli alliance is questionable without its resolve.

Coupled with these regional tensions and power rivalries,  In recent times, the region has also become a top victim of terror and is often also viewed as the ‘hub of terrorism’. Middle East at present is undergoing a wobbly transition. Multiple outcomes for a new order are possible. But, the least likely of them still remains the ability of any transnational terror group to attain absolute victory. The infeasibility of this outcome cannot solely be attributed to role of external efforts; but observing the warring dynamics of the current Middle Eastern battlefields, it becomes apparent that  large local sections regardless of ethnicity , religious creed, political differences, unite in order to deny operational space to such groups.

Owing to this phenomenon -centrifuging the definitions of terrorism from the diverse Middle East discourses  becomes a challenging task , as at the core lies political complexities operating in close proximities.

Under these complex dynamics, the former COAS will be leading the Islamic Military alliance to essentially to counter terror. But, before getting down to that task; some challenges could be faced. First,  seems to be the very task of architecting such diverse military cultures and paradigms driven by various threat perceptions– under a coherent structure . Second could be the implications on evaluating South Asian stability once a link with Middle East is substantiated. Despite the fair share of South Asian complexities, the overall security order in comparison to Middle East seems more evolved and well structured.

Nonetheless, this challenge seems to  also bring forth certain opportunities, especially in the wake of tipping South Asian balances. Pakistan- would however, have to make extremely calculated decisions, and ensure all aspects of its security (both military and social) remain well guarded as Middle East braces a  connect with South Asia.