How explosive is the Mediterranean and the Middle East?


2012-11-15 by Robbin Laird

Throughout the past two years a number of events have occurred which although discrete add up to a single story: the role of the West in the Middle East and North Africa is changing.

And with the changing role of the West in the region, the approach of the Al Qaeda to survival and success is shaped as well.

They are highly correlated.

The “Arab Spring” has put in play several Arab regimes.  It has as well had reverberations in conservative states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The incomplete Libyan intervention of the West has left Libya in limbo, a situation that Al Qaeda certainly will seek to leverage to their benefit.

Iraq and Iran

Then there is the withdrawal from Iraq with no status of forces agreement providing an anchoring role for the US in working with the Iraqis to shape the Iranian efforts for dominance in the region.

The linkage between Iraq and Iran is a crucial one, and celebrating the withdrawal from Iraq while prioritizing a strong response to Iran simply does not make sense.

In his recent book, The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan makes the linkage between Iraq and Iran very well indeed.

Iran, with its rich culture, vast territory, and teeming and sprawling cities, is, in the way of China and India, a universe unto itself, whose future will overwhelmingly be determined by internal politics and social conditions.

Yet if one were to isolate a single hinge in calculating Iran’s fate, it would be Iraq. Iraq, history and geography tell us, is entwined in Iranian politics to the degree of no other foreign country. The Shiite shrines of Imam Ali (the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law) in Najaf and the one of Imam Hussain (the grandson of the Prophet) in Karbala, both in central-southern Iraq, have engendered Shiite theological communities that challenge that of Qom in Iran.

Were Iraqi democracy to ensure even a modicum of stability, the freer intellectual atmosphere of the Iraqi holy cities could have an impact on Iranian politics.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2012-09-11). The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (Kindle Locations 4451-4457). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The Mediterranean and the Middle East are in significant strategic flux. Shaping Western interests in this period will require a level of commitment and effort which the Western states might well not provide. Credit Image: Bigstock


And now we have the Benghazi incident, discussed and debated in the United States but in ways not congruent with how players in the region are looking at it.  It is not simply a prelude to the next movie about US actions in the region, it is a real world event with real world consequences.

For an Al Qaeda perspective on this event we have some recent statements provided by the Western media.

Deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggest American “awe is lost” in the region, a message from al-Qaida’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said.

Zawahiri, in an audio message addressed to Somali militant group al-Shabaab, said U.S. influence in the Middle East was waning now that it’s military engagements there have ended.

“They were defeated in Iraq and they are withdrawing from Afghanistan and their ambassador in Benghazi was killed and the flags of their embassies were lowered in Cairo and Sanaa (Yemen),” a translation of the message published by the online Long War Journal read.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered the FBI to investigate the Sept. 11 attack in Libya. Shortly afterward, she suggested al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was likely behind the raid. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said it was “pretty clear” that the attack in Benghazi was an act of terrorism.

“Their awe is lost and their might is gone and they don’t dare to carry out a new campaign like their past ones in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Zawahiri.

Not exactly the Inside the Beltway perspective, but one, which needs to be taken more seriously than it, has been in the United States and in Europe.

When you add the dynamics in Syria to the picture, and the role of Russia in Syria, you extend the reach of how much is changing and how rapidly.  The Syrian repression continues unabated, with the Russians seeking to not only support the regime but to expand their influence in this key country.  The impact of Syria on Iraq and Turkey to mention to key states is significant as well and generating dynamics of change in the region.

The Bahrain Red Line

Another key dynamic which has interactive results in the region is what Dr. Harald Malmgren calls “the Bahrain Red Line.”

Underlying political instability in Bahrain is a fundamental conflict between the Sunni Arabs and the Shi’a Arabs. Bahrain is a Red Line for all Sunni royals and Sunni business and banking leaders in the Persian Gulf. Keep in mind that Bahrain is the banking center for most of the region.

In essence, if the pursuit of democracy were to succeed in Iran, the Shi’a majority (75% or more of Bahrain’s population) would take strong control of a new legislature. The US President would not find it easy to argue against democracy if the majority of citizens sought to oust the Sunni king and vote to kick out the US Fifth Fleet from its base in Bahrain. This base is the primary location for US Navy maintenance of security of the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz [1]. With the loss of this US Naval base, the security of Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as Kuwait and the UAE would be under greater threat from Iran.

Moreover, across the causeway from Bahrain lies a large part of Saudi Arabia, which is a predominantly Shi’a population, residing in an area of some of the most important Saudi oil fields. Iran would no doubt assert an overseer role if Bahrain sought to replace Sunni with Shi’a led government, and utilize Bahrain as a thin end of the wedge to penetrate, influence, and eventually seek to disrupt and even split off a large segment of Saudi Arabia.

In the background, the US military is due to withdraw from Iraq later this year, opening much of southern Iraq to Shi’a dominance, enabling Iran’s military to enter the area of the northern border of Saudi Arabia to “assist” in the security of Iraq.

With a transfer of power in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia would be vulnerable to Iran from both the north and from the east. Face to face, the Saudi military would not be a match for Iran’s larger army, and would have to rely on US advanced weapons technologies and US naval and air support.

Israel would feel an existential threat. Not surprisingly, Saudis and Israelis find themselves with a common threat, and Saudis would likely support, explicitly or implicitly, any military action by Israel aimed at weakening or deflecting Iranian efforts to disrupt security in the neighborhood, including in Syria and Lebanon.

Boiled down, a strategic balance of power is in play, and the future of the tiny island of Bahrain could provide huge leverage for Iran if it can succeed in turning up violence and demands for the end of the Sunni reign. In this context, the Gulf Cooperation Council is sending soldiers to support “order” and fortify the GCC Sunni Red Line against active penetration of Iranian-led insurrection. This is not about democracy in a tiny enclave because Iran certainly does not want real democracy in any Shi’a area it can dominate.

Rather this is about the security structure across the Persian Gulf and all of its oilfields.

It seems easily forgotten that national borders in the Gulf were redrawn less than a century ago.  The Sunni and Shi’a see the borders as imposed by foreigners, and could theoretically be redrawn by clever geopolitical maneuver.  This poses serious mid- and long-term questions for US, European and Japanese reliance on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.

Greece and the Euro Crisis

And on the other end of the Mediterranean, the dynamics of the Euro crisis could well lead to Greece being in play as well.

The Greek dynamic can re-open concerns on NATO’s Southern Flank.  The weakening of Greece, and the high probability that Greece will go its own way on currency and other economic issues is occurring in the midst of the Chinese economic global reach and Russian (energy and other) activism in the Middle East.   China and Russia will both be eager to become deeply involved in the destiny of Greece and its geographic position on the Mediterranean Sea. And with Russia expanding its activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, and expanded role in Greece would enable Putin to shape a more comprehensive presence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Again if we turn to Kaplan’s comments on Greece from the standpoint of geography, the importance of the Greek crisis against the backdrop of a fluid Middle East and a significant European crisis becomes very clear indeed.

And in all these rearrangements, Greece, of all places, will provide an insightful register of the health of the European project. Greece is the only part of the Balkans accessible on several seaboards to the Mediterranean, and thus is the unifier of two European worlds. Greece is geographically equidistant between Brussels and Moscow, and is as close to Russia culturally as it is to Europe, by virtue of its Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in turn a legacy of Byzantium. Greece throughout modern history has been burdened by political underdevelopment.

Whereas the mid-nineteenth-century revolutions in Europe were often of middle-class origins with political liberties as their goal, the Greek independence movement was a mainly ethnic movement with a religious basis. The Greek people overwhelmingly sided with Russia in favor of the Serbs and against Europe during the 1999 Kosovo War, even if the Greek government’s position was more equivocal. Greece is the most economically troubled European nation that was not part of the communist zone during the Cold War. Greece, going back to antiquity, is where Europe— and by inference the West— both ends and begins.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2012-09-11). The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (Kindle Locations 2497-2505). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


In his piece written shortly before the election, Colin Clark, editor of AOL Defense focused on what would be the impact of the election.  My comments to Colin focused on the challenges of the next four years and how very difficult they would be.  And I really wonder whether our policy processes are up to the challenge.

The U.S. will face more challenges than we’ve faced in a long, long time. How capable will the policy system be at responding to these?” he wonders, ticking off a “nuclear Iran, increasingly nuclear China and North Korea… The Middle East is blowing up, big time. A number of countries are becoming more assertive. The Russians are becoming more assertive. The Chinese are becoming much more assertive.

“Then you add to the fact we are transitioning in Afghanistan and you have this huge problem of our adjusting US force structure to cope with the future,” says Laird, a member of the AOL Defense Board of Contributors. Then he asks the big question whoever wins the White House must answer: “Are these guys going to put together teams who can deal with it?