Prof. Dr. Albert A. Stahel, a renowned political economist and honorary professor of strategic studies at the University of Zurich, is writing about the actual conflict herds in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Claudio Grass of Global Gold in Switzerland (www.globalgold.ch) asked him to share his view on the role of regional powers and the interests at stake for Russia and the United States, as well as the potential implications the actions of those stakeholders will have on Europe over the coming years.
After the end of the cold war, the United States dominated world affairs for nearly twenty years. However, the situation of a unipolar world has changed since the financial crisis of 2008 to a now multipolar world that includes China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa. These powers are influencing and manipulating the conflict zones we have today to their advantage. By analysing and dissecting the issues concerning the major conflict zones on our world map, as well as illustrating the parties involved, this article will explain what political and strategic interests are at play and how the development in major hotspots shape the big picture. This will identify the geopolitical forces that affect our European continent and what future concerns and worries await us.
Conflict zones in the world
There are now five conflict zones that affect the geopolitical situation of Europe:
- Gaza: the still on-going conflict between Israel and Hamas;
- Syria: the war between the al-Assad regime and different opposition groups;
- Iraq: the war between the regime in Baghdad and ISIS (the Islamic State);
- Afghanistan: the fight of the Taliban against Kabul and the foreign troops;
- East Ukraine: the Russian separatists versus the Ukraine government.
Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan all belong to a region, which the former security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had named the Eurasian Balkans, which included the Middle East and Central Asia. So in fact, our world incorporates two big conflict zones. One is the crumbling structure of different states in the Eurasian Balkans. The second one is Eastern Europe, in which we now have Russia struggling to be recognized as a world power.
The world's conflict zones in detail
Let's start with Gaza. The conflict between Israel and Hamas is a direct function of the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and the stateless status of the Palestinians. Hamas fired rockets of different ranges, mostly coming from Iran, against Israel. By firing these rockets, Hamas demonstrated its willingness to inflict damage on Israel. By responding with air and ground attacks against Gaza, Israel was pursuing the following objectives:
- Destroying Hamas' entire rocket-arsenal and tunnels;
- Inflict serious damage to the political leadership and military command of Hamas;
- Punish the population of Gaza for supporting Hamas.
After the retreat of the Israeli army from Gaza, Hamas reactivated its launching of rockets against Israel. Now there is a truce, but how long will it be observed?
The war in Syria has two origins: the geopolitical rivalries between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and the dictatorship of the religious minority of the Alawites under the leadership of the al-Assad family ruling a Sunni majority.
The ayatollahs of Tehran want to extend the country's sphere of influence. For this reason, they support the regime of the Alawites, an offshoot of the Seventh Shiite branch, in Syria. Turkey and Saudi Arabia feel threatened by such influence. They therefore seek to overthrow the Shiite regime in Syria and replace it with a Sunni one. This is also why Turkey is now supporting the opposition oriented towards the Muslim Brotherhood with weapons. Because of this situation, the Salafist jihadist Islamic State (of Iraq and the Levant), ISIS, could grow to the best-organized group in Syria.
The situation in Iraq is similar: Under the leadership of their Caliph al-Baghdadi, ISIS has conquered the western part of Iraq! The Iraqi army now controls only the southern region of Iraq. The Peschmergas, the army of the Kurdish Republic, are fighting ISIS from their territory in the northeastern part of Iraq with the support of American airstrikes. The fighting between ISIS and the Iraqi army is mostly around Baghdad. ISIS' main objective appears to be to destroy the Iraqi government and its army. Like in Syria, there is no longer an identity of a state of Iraq. With the creation of the Caliphate, ISIS has changed the whole structure of Iraq and Syria that was built by the British and the French after 1918 and the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. This leads us to question what the future holds, whether other states like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia could fall and new states could be created based on different religions and ethnicities.
It is expected that the USA and its allies will mostly retreat from Afghanistan by the end of this year. This will create a vacuum in large parts of Afghanistan, which the Taliban who mostly belong to the ethnicity of the Pashtuns and the Tajiks of the former Northern Alliance could fill up with their combatants. The security forces of Afghanistan are still too weak to control the whole country. Obama had previously announced the Americans would definitely leave by the end of 2016. If the Taliban could occupy the South of Afghanistan, the North and the West would belong to the Tajiks. Such a development could also destabilize Pakistan. With these ambitions in mind, the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan could erect a new country, Great Pashtunistan. The Tajiks of Afghanistan and Tajikistan could unite, creating a Great Tajikistan.
Closer to home, the territory of today's Ukraine had belonged to different larger countries. Until the middle of the 18thcentury, the Tatars, who were controlled by the Ottoman Empire, ruled the southern part. Western and northern Ukraine were part of the Confederation of Poland and Lithuania. Since Empress Catherine the Great, the East had belonged to Russia. With the definitive dissolution of the Confederation in 1795, the Hapsburgs could annex the western part and Russia the northern part. After the First World War, Poland annexed the West of Ukraine, which was a Hapsburg territory at the time. When Hitler and Stalin destroyed Poland in 1939, the West of Ukraine became attached to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Finally, Chruschtschow added the Krim. So in fact, today we have a country that is mostly divided between the West, which is Ukrainian and the East, which is Russian. The southern region belongs to Ukrainians, who in the past were greatly influenced by Russian culture. The struggle we see today could in fact end in the partition of Ukraine, which is certainly one of the strategic objectives of the Russian President Putin.
The role of regional powers
All these conflict zones are dominated by the rivalries and ambitions of different regional powers. In the Middle East the key players are Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Gaza, Turkey and Iran are struggling to influence the military actions of Hamas. Iran is delivering long-range missiles to Hamas to target the southern part of Israel. Turkey and Qatar together have contact with the political wing of Hamas. Both countries are politically oriented towards the Muslim Brotherhood, which was crushed last year by the new regime in Egypt led by former Field Marshal al-Sisi. Meanwhile, al-Sisi's regime found strong political and financial support by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
In Syria, the al-Assad regime receives Iranian support. While Iran is allegedly sending Hezbollah combatants from Lebanon (Hezbollah belongs to the same Shiite sect as the Iranians), Turkey is providing military support to the moderate opposition of the Syrian Free Army against the regime. It is said, yet unconfirmed, that until last year Saudi Arabia was helping the Salafist opposition. Whether this includes ISIS is questionable. The Saudis face a challenge in that they seek both an anti-Assad Syria and an anti-Shiite regime in Iraq, and at the same time want more moderate Sunni regimes gaining ground by fighting jihadist forces such as al-Qaeda, ISIS included. However, the situation in Syria has changed. The moderates are controlling only a small part of the country, the regime is surviving and the Salafists like ISIS are in a strong position. If ISIS can really consolidate the Caliphate with part of Iraq and Syria, then ISIS will pose a great threat to the kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Iran extends its support to the regime and army in Iraq, who also belong to the same Shiite sect, as Turkey promotes the interests of the Kurds in Northern Iraq. By so doing, Turkey serves the interests of the Kurdish population within its own borders and secures the supply of crude oil from the fields of Northern Iraq.
Afghanistan is the focus of the regional powers Iran and Pakistan. On one hand, Iran is influencing and helping the Tajiks of the former Northern Alliance. On the other hand, Pakistan is doing the same with the Taliban who, as we said earlier, mostly belong to the ethnicity of the Pashtuns. However, both have different futures when it comes to the possible partitioning of Afghanistan. While Iran stands to benefit, this is not the case for Pakistan. The identity of Pakistan could be threatened by the creation of a Great Pashtunistan by the Taliban. Therefore, the regime and existence of the Pakistani Republic is at stake.
The case of Ukraine is more complicated. Here we have the global powers struggling for influence in Europe. Smaller states like Poland and Lithuania are mostly interested in Ukraine's membership in the EU and NATO. The region's history and the geopolitical situation are motivating these two countries to play a bigger role in the region's political developments. On the other end we have Germany which still favours maintaining a good relationship with Russia.
The role of Russia and the USA in these conflict zones
In addition to the regional powers Iran and Turkey, Russia and the United States are in direct competition on having the farthest-extending and strongest political influence on the states of the Middle East, particularly since 2008, the year of the war in Georgia. If in the Middle East the USA is helping one side, Russia is supporting the other - it is a matter of balance of powers. At the same time, both have developed opposing blocs of regional powers.
Syria is now the best example, which embodies the rivalries between the two superpowers in the Middle East. The USA is supporting Turkey and Saudi Arabia for their influence on the outcome of the war in Syria. Through its (indirect) support of the Syrian Free Army, the USA not only seeks to destroy the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also to get Russia out of Syria altogether. By so doing, Russia will lose its foothold in the region. The most important difference between the politics and strategies of Russia and the USA are their geopolitical interests. Both seek to extend their own regional influence while diminishing that of the other. Iran is a pivotal issue. As Russia seeks to help Iran gain further regional power, the USA seeks to end this perspective.
In Iraq we have a similar situation. Russia is sustaining Iran and the Shiite government in Baghdad. Because of Russia's involvement in this conflict, the USA is still reluctant to send fighter aircrafts and weapons to the government of Iraq. Now we find them supporting the Peschmergas (and in this way also the army of Iraq) by launching airstrikes against ISIS. Realizing the increasing geopolitical importance of the Middle East, Russia has high ambitions for greater influence on the region. Therefore, the USA's actions in the civil war in Iraq must come with great caution. Any wrong step could cause the loss of a critical Sunni partner, such as Saudi Arabia, to the Russian camp. Although it may be very unlikely to happen, the risk remains.
In Afghanistan, however, the two superpowers see eye to eye on what is at stake. The Russians fear the takeover of the Taliban in the future. Therefore, they were willing to sell combat helicopters to the USA for the army of Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Similarly, a year ago, Russia was supporting the Americans with the use of Russian territory for American logistics in Afghanistan. However, this phase of collaboration is now over.
Ukraine set the scene of direct confrontation between Russia and the USA. While Russia supports the separatist movements with weapons and fighters, American Special Forces are advising the Ukrainian army in their engagement against the separatists. The USA has an interest in the membership of Ukraine in NATO and the EU, but Russia cannot accept such a possibility and is therefore destabilizing the country. With the war in Ukraine President Putin probably has the following strategic objectives:
- to halt the move of the government in Kiev for a membership in NATO and in the EU;
- to annex the eastern and southern part of Ukraine which will serve Russia's geostrategic situation in the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean;
- to undermine the political influence of the EU in Europe.
The role of the EU
Today, the EU is still only a political and economic union as it lacks a military instrument. Because of this situation, NATO is the military protection to the EU. Without NATO, the EU has no military power. In this sense, the foreign policy of the EU is not credible without NATO. That credibility is based on the military capacity to respond to an act of aggression against Europe. Because of the disarmament of different states in Europe like Germany after the end of the cold war, this capacity no longer exists. In the last 6 years Russia has expanded and modernized the conventional forces by increasing its defence budget. Therefore, what we have in Europe is a rather unique situation as NATO's deterrence capacity in relation to Russia diminished over time. NATO can no longer protect the small states in the Baltic region. For this reason the foreign policy of the EU has lost credibility.
On another level, the sanctions of the EU and the USA on Russia could lead to a recession of the economies in Europe. Such a recession will drive up unemployment rates in the EU, which will mainly affect the population under 25. In turn, the result could be social unrest, a danger that the mainstream media fails to address. At the same time, the sanctions of the EU still have very little influence on the strategy and politics of Russia.
The breakdown of the limes and the jihadists
In retrospect of the potential crisis in Europe, many of the Arab states in Northern Africa and the Middle East, which the British and the French created after 1918, are now breaking down. These states were the limes, which gave the European states the possibility to control and to influence the migration process from Africa and Asia to Europe for many years. Now the limes have broken down. In the next ten to twenty years the social, economic and demographic structure of Germany, France, Britain and other European countries will be affected by the influx of migrating Africans and Asians and therefore could completely change the social structure of Europe. The fact that the majority of this migrant population is coming from Muslim countries suggests there is a great probability that the next twenty years will witness the emergence of a Muslim majority in many European countries. The past decades of constant war and struggles in the Middle East region along with the accelerating religious war between the Sunni and the Shiite has and will lead to further radicalization of the masses. Europeans are becoming increasingly fearful of Muslims because of the negative and bad image of Muslims presented in the mainstream media. Moreover, the economic environment, which has already led to a staggering 30-60% youth unemployment rate in European nations, is further deteriorating. Negativity can only bring out more negativity and this will lead to additional tension in the Eurozone. While some are concerned that at some point many jihadists of European origins will come back from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq and be ready for action in Europe, one should never forget the factors that created this situation in the first place.
The future of Europe will be determined by the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and in Ukraine, by the migration of millions of people and by the threat of force by European jihadists. Because of all these factors, there is a possibility that the conflict in Ukraine and the future migration process could destabilize Europe. In fact, I believe that the Caucasian race, which has dominated the world since the 17th century, could disappear in Europe. In twenty years, there could be a new Europe with a strong relationship with Africa and Asia. The tradition of Europe, which was built up by Emperor Charlemagne, will no longer exist.