For many years the Near and Middle East have been among the most conflicted regions on earth. Most of the controversies that occur there have a long history, and every confrontation bears the seed for new arguments and a further intensification of the existing antagonisms.
BETWEEN THE LINES
The geostrategically favorable central position between Europe and Asia has already led in ancient times to armed conflicts and wars repeatedly occurring in the “fertile crescent” because of its great ethnic heterogeneity, but also because of the conflicting interests between the great powers of the time. Permanent water problems and the abundant energy resources, especially oil and natural gas (see map), still contribute to power-political conflicts between the individual regional powers – for example Egypt, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. In the dispute between Sunni-influenced Iraq and fundamentalist Shiite Iran over power-political supremacy in the region between 1980 and 1988, the so-called First Gulf War, a highly costly military confrontation that was carried out by both sides with extreme brutality and using biological methods and chemical warfare agents.
In addition, especially in the course of the 20th century, the existing religious, ethnic and political divergences due to the interference of external great and world powers – above all the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia – have become inseparable from ideological and global political and strategic Mixed interests. This development has caused a spiral of crisis escalation in the region, which will make the successful establishment of a stable peace order within the framework of the Middle East peace process more difficult in the near future. How tense the situation is can be seen from the numerous military interventions, the large number of military bases and the import of weapons (see map).
THE US PRESENCE
Due to its strong military presence since the Second Gulf War of 1990, which was about the liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation power and the restoration of the previous balance of power, but also due to its function as a guarantor for Israel, the USA has become the most important regulatory power for the region and vital to the success of the Middle East peace process. The USA’s strategic competitor in the region is primarily Russia.
The constantly available naval forces – in the form of the 6th US fleet in the Mediterranean and the 5th US fleet in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf – underscore the will of the USA, as a world power, to enforce international concepts of order and its own regional interests worldwide. The anti-terror war in Afghanistan from 2001 and the intervention in Iraq since 2003 also show that military measures to contain religious fundamentalisms and international terrorism can have incalculable consequences for the affected region and the international power system.
EXAMPLES OF HOT SPOTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
The map display shows several trouble spots in the Middle East, some of which are regional and often global. The longest-running conflict is undoubtedly that between Israel and the Palestinians, over mutual claims over Jerusalem and the land of Palestine. The main characteristic of this conflict is the high propensity for violence. It is carried into society by a not inconsiderable number of irreconcilable fundamentalists.
Iraq, at the interface between the Near and Middle East, has also developed into a permanent trouble spot. After the US military intervention in 2003, which ended in 2011 with the withdrawal of most foreign troops, Iraq is threatened with complete fragmentation due to a lack of internal security and widening, often economically or religiously motivated conflicts and attacks, with the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds make up the largest of the rival groups. Many observers consider the advance of the terrorist organization ISIS (2014) and the disintegration of state structures in Iraq to be part of the consequences of the power struggles within Iraq. Destabilizing crises of this kind have led to very high numbers of war refugees.
According to COUNTRYAAH, in the border area between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, the unresolved statehood of the Kurds has been causing conflict for decades.
Another geopolitical source of conflict is Iran, which under its radical fundamentalist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to take over political and religious supremacy in the Middle East. The fragility of internal structures in Arab monarchies and republics is in keeping with Iran’s long-term interests.
As of 2005, Iran demanded the right to develop its own nuclear potential internationally and evaded monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations (UN). Since then, the region has been in danger of a latent international crisis involving nuclear terrorism, proliferation and compliance with the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The most recent agreement in the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program (agreement between the USA, Iran and other countries in 2015) can, if fully implemented, contribute to long-term relaxation and more security in the region. This would be an example of a conflict resolution through diplomatic means.
The latest source of conflict is the civil war in Syria, which, with 162,000 fatalities (as of May 2014), 6.5 million internally displaced persons and 2.9 million refugees in neighboring countries alone, has become one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in human history. In large parts of the country, the structures of the Syrian state have collapsed. Only in the west did the Syrian army, with the support of Hezbollah militias and Iranian military experts, manage to maintain a contiguous area. Everywhere else, even in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, the Syrian army and several large rebel groups, some of which are supported by the USA or its Arab allies, are fighting each other. The latter pursue different interests, vie with one another for power and influence and often resolve their conflicts with one another at gunpoint. The major rebel groups include the Kurdish combat units in the north, the secular and Syrian-national oriented Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Islamic Front (IF), which distinguishes itself from radical Islamist groups such as ISIS, and the radical ISIS units who founded an Islamic State on the territory of Syria and Iraq.
In addition, there were targeted air strikes by foreign military coalitions against terrorist organizations such as ISIS in 2014 and extensive arms exports to the Middle East. All of this leads to a strong division of Syria into subregions that are ruled by regional rulers and whose influence can change quickly. The role of the United Nations is limited to the extensive refugee aid (UNHCR) activities, intensive diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict and the successful destruction of the Syrian army’s chemical weapons stocks.
For decades, Afghanistan and Yemen have been further trouble spots in the region, characterized by armed conflicts that flare up again and again, interference by foreign powers and the loss of state control. The conflicts each have a long and varied history and complex political-historical, socio-economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds. In Lebanon, on the other hand, the situation has stabilized in recent years.
In recent years, radical Islamist terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaida and ISIS have gained increasing influence in the conflict region. Countries such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are also the recruiting and retreat areas of the terrorist underground organizations. In addition to the terrorist problems that already exist, there is a risk that these organizations could gain access to weapons of mass destruction. American military facilities are particularly at risk from attacks. The strong military presence of the USA – with bases in Central Asia, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar – and its longstanding support for the State of Israel has long been a thorn in the side of Islamist terrorists.
One problem that makes it difficult to resolve the numerous conflicts is the largely authoritarian, often even dictatorial, regimes that exercise power in the countries in the region. There are oppressed or disadvantaged ethnic or social groups almost everywhere. In many countries, human rights violations and restrictions on civil liberties are the order of the day (see map). Mass protests by the population against those in power are often violently suppressed.