The Middle East is dangerous, complicated, and generally just plain messed up. You may respond to that statement by saying, “Yeah, and the sun rose this morning,” or something less polite. But for all the turmoil that the region has been through in recent years it’s actually much worse right now.
A combination of shifting alliances, horrific blow-back from past adventures, and an ancient rivalry blowing up fast are converging rapidly into one regional conflict. Who is on whose side? Who might or might not be winning? It’s nearly impossible to tell, and that makes everything far more dangerous than ever.
The region has become a complicated chessboard with three players standing on the field – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. The first two can be relied upon to take up any cause that is Sunni or Shi’ite, respectively, with some kind of support. The US is a close ally to two of them but a bitter enemy of the third – with some kind of new agreement with Iran very likely by 31 March. None of the players have a history of aligning with each other.
The war in Syria has collapsed into a Sunni-Shia conflict, as discussed here last October. What is new is the dramatic escalation of the Yemeni Civil War, pitting the ruling Sunnis against Houthi rebels, who are Shia. The latter appear to be winning lately, running the President out of the nation into Saudi Arabia for security. The Saudis have taken to providing airstrikes on the rebels. Iran is calling for an end to escalation while they deny the commonly reported claim that they are backing the rebels.
This marks the second place in the region that Sunni and Shia are shooting at each other and the backing of the two supporting nations is reasonably overt.
How does this play into the negotiations with Iran? The short answer is that it doesn’t, apparently, with the deadline for a broad agreement coming up fast. The US is largely staying out of sectarian conflicts, allowing Saudi Arabia to act as it sees fit. Weapons on both sides are largely US made, at least since the rebels captured a Yemeni goverment position – much as ISIL was made into a strong fighting force by overrunning a US supplied Iraqi army. That came after they were armed by the Saudis, who now fear ISIL as much as anyone and reasonably see them as a threat at leas as big as anything posed by the Shia. It’s making them paranoid and reactionary.
Other than drowning the region in weapons, the US is largely staying out of the conflicts except the bombing of ISIL.
Our strongest ally in the region, Israel, is seeing its relationship with the US in the most peril ever. Recent statements by Netanyahu have strained relations enough, but allegations of even more Israeli participation in US politics are far more troublesome. That Israel spied on the Iranian talks is not a surprise, but the allegation in the Wall Street Journal that Republicans (and a few pro-Israel Democrats) were fed information from the spying is rather alarming. The Obama administration has to be fed up with Israel – just as we are negotiating with Iran, again, on nuclear weapons.
This all comes on the heals of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request coming to light that shows that in 1987 Israel definitely had nuclear weapons, something never stated so explicitly before. In other words, the very Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that we are attempting to apply to Iran in the negotiations was definitely violated by Israel (a non signatory) with US assistance.
And, of course, the only other place in the region with shooting was when Iran-backed Hamas took on Israel.
Where does that leave the US in terms of diplomatic or military alliances? We know for certain that the fight against ISIS has required cooperation between the US and Iran, which at least partially completes our connection with the third player on the field. Weakened relations with Israel and a wariness against Saudi Arabia leave us remarkably neutral all around.
But there are indeed three sides in various states of hostility flaring up into a regional war. It is impossible to keep track of who is gaining where. Without any possibility of alliances between the three sides no one has the advantage. With a lot of US made weapons the region can expect bloodshed to only accelerate.
There is nothing more dangerous than a heavily armed stalemate, and that is what the region has achieved. We can reasonably assume that the US relationship with all three is moving toward a strange equality, meaning that will not favor one over the other as much as we have in the past. And each has a long standing feud with the other two.
It can only get worse, especially if Israel feels compelled to act on its own as a new isolation powers a new paranoia.