The World in 2018, Part 5: The Middle East

Predicting the future is impossible. If anyone tells you that they know exactly how America’s devolving relationship with the Kim regime in North Korea will or won’t unfold in 2018, you would be well within your rights to call them a fool. Same goes for Russia’s approach to its neighbors or China’s economy. Don’t let the local tarot card reading ‘psychic’ fool you, nobody knows precisely what the future holds. Not even Theresa May, Kim Jong-Un, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Donald Trump do.

With that said, we do know with a fair measure of certainty what issues, international relationships, and threats foreign and abroad will reside on each region’s to-do list as the new year emerges from its nascence. As part of an international accounting, ‘The World in 2018’ will roll out the most pressing items on each region’s plate.

Part 5: The Middle East

2018 is set to be the first ISIS-free Middle East in a long time, but that doesn’t mean a conflict free Middle East. In fact, I think ‘conflict-free Middle East’ is an oxymoron. So, which conflicts do we have to look forward to America inevitably intervening in, you ask?

It appears as if traditional alliances and centuries-old rivalries mean little, at least for now. Israel and Saudi Arabia are suddenly working together to halt the advancement of Iranian influence. It’s been reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is cozying up to Iran, one of Turkey’s sworn enemies. This is not your grandfather’s Middle East, and in 2018 things are liable to get even stranger.

Iran: Running the Show?

As it stands, Iran stands to become the dominant, or at least most influential nation, in the region. They had great part in assisting the Assad regime in eradicating ISIS in Syria, assistance which undoubtedly gained them sway going forward. They also filled the void of power left in the Iraqi military, not to mention the roaming militias in the same country.

Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy army, originated in Lebanon, and funding from Iran serves to keep Hezbollah in power. It’s not a stretch to say that Lebanon is little more than a proxy state of Iran, which is why Saudi Arabia’s declaration of war on Lebanon made sense. Houthi rebels, who launched the attack against Saudi Arabia that prompted the declaration of war against Lebanon, are pro-Iranian.

‘At this point, the rest of the countries of the Middle East are unsure how serious a threat Iran is to their interests. They’re in no position to organize a resistance to its expansion, either. Tehran must therefore move quickly to secure its objectives – to become the leading power in the Persian Gulf, and then to dominate the Arab world from the gulf to the Mediterranean. This will be Iran’s challenge in 2018.’ (Geopolitical Futures)

In other words, Iran’s aim for domination is unquestioned. They’ve vowed to destroy Israel, and their reach in the Middle East has proven insidious. What measures they will take, if any, to fulfill this agenda of steady imperialism in the Middle East in 2018 remains to be seen. The once-unthinkable allegiance between Israel and Saudi Arabia would imply that Iran is more formidable than they have ever been, and that more aggressive maneuvers on the part of the Shiite nation is not far off.

Saudi Influence is on the Decline, so Who Will Step Up?

Saudi Arabia has come to realize that they cannot control the global oil market as they once could. This has meant a decline in their influence both abroad and in the Middle East. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia would be able to level any serious resistance to Iranian aggression. To the observing eye, that leaves Israel and Turkey.

As I previously mentioned, Turkish President Erdogan has shown signs of being not pro-Iran, but not necessarily anti-Iran either. This makes sense. Both Turkey and Iran loathe the Kurdish minority that causes their leadership headaches through rebellions that have the aim of independence they almost certainly will never be granted. To these leaders, Kurds are nothing more than terrorists. Likewise, both Turkey and Iran do not see eye to eye with the United States or Russia, believing that if there are dominant powers in the region, they should be in the region. This makes the idea of Turkey being the defending power against Iranian aggression, at least in 2018, unlikely.

The Prospect of Foreign Intervention

Israel, as usual, will likely be left to fight Iranian aggression on their own, with what little assistance Saudi Arabia can provide. The issue of foreign intervention is a complex one. Russia has a history of conflict with Iran, and their constant land grabs centering around the Caucuses means that they can never be fully cooperative. However, Iran’s increased influence in the region has furthered anti-American sentiments, a goal that Russia shares.

While America’s primary goal of tamping down Sunni jihadism in the Mid East, they have also historically pushed for a balance of power. No one nation, according to the American doctrine, should come to dominate the region. That is especially true of a nation as open about their anti-Americanism as Iran. However, Iran is perhaps the most anti-Sunni nation, and the Shiite nation with the greatest means to root out Sunni terrorism.

This – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – leaves America with a complete and utterly unclear array of options. Intervening at this point would be overkill. Iran’s approach to furthering their reach has been clever, as they have not been openly aggressive against anybody, including American allies. And American goals – between rooting out terrorists and backtracking Iranian gains – run counter to each other.

2018 will be an active year in the Middle East, you can bet that. It’s always an active year in the Middle East. But the unique alignment of new allies who have been long considered enemies hints at the possibility that it could be a peculiarly active year in the desert land.

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