What Middle East Hot Spots Could Cause Another World War?
Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the incident that started World War One, the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo. The incident is more than just a historical event because it shows how a small event can cause a world war and turmoil that lasts decades. This assassination not caused the First World War, it caused the downfall of the Russian czar, which lead to the Communist takeover that precipitated the Cold War. In addition, it was the post WW I unrest in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise in Germany and the Second World War.
At the time of the assassination, the world was enjoying a period of international peace. France and Germany, historical enemies, hadn’t fought since 1870. England, Germany, and Russia were close since their ruling families were closely related.
The death of Franz Ferdinand changed that. The Balkans were a tinderbox and many major powers were trying to expand their influence there – especially the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire, who was anxious to use the assassination to expand its influence in the Balkans, demanded severe concessions from Serbia, where the assassination took place. When Serbia refused to agree to one of those demands, Austro-Hungary declared war on them. This caused a string of declarations of war that soon set the whole world at war.
Russia, as an ally of Serbia declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Germany then declared war on Russia in order to support Austro-Hungary. France then declared war to support its ally Russia. When Germany invaded Belgium in order to attack France, they triggered the declaration of war from Britain.
How does this equate to the situation in the Middle East today? The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a political extremist and Serbian nationalist. And, today, the region is filled with political and religious extremists that threaten to create an incident that could cause another major conflict. And, just as the Balkans were a tinderbox before WW I, the Middle East is a tinderbox today with unrest and small scale conflict throughout the region. It is also a region where several world powers are seeking to expand their influence.
Let’s look at some of the potential scenarios that could cause a wider conflict.
The Strait of Hormuz
Iran lies currently at the intersection of many sources of potential dangers in the Middle East and one of the most likely is a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait allows the passage of about 20% of the world’s oil and choking off this waterway could cause a major war.
There are several events that could spark a closure. One would be a move by the US, Israel, or other Western powers to prevent Iran from fielding a nuclear bomb. The most likely would be an attack by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities. In retaliation, Iran would launch a barrage of ballistic missiles and close the Strait and move additional military assets to the disputed islands of Abu Musa and the Tunb islands.
Such a move would likely spark a move by the US and NATO naval forces to force opening the Strait. Although Iran couldn’t stop the NATO forces from inflicting serious damages, they might counter such an attack by launching missiles against other targets in the Middle East, like U.S bases and GCC oil fields and Israel. In the case of an attack on
Israel, a major Israeli retaliation could be expected. It’s even possible that Israel might even launch nuclear tipped missiles against Iran.
Although Russia and China would be expected to stay out of the conflict initially, it’s possible that Iranian allies like Syria and Hezbollah might then attack Israel with missiles and possible incursion in the Galile occupied area. Israel would then retaliate, leading to a major war in the Middle East that would range from the Mediterranean to the Strait of Hormuz.
The ramifications would be enormous. As in WW I, many governments and ruling houses might fall and more radical regimes might take power. Casualties would be high from the possibility of WMD attacks and the possibility that violence would spread beyond the region is great.
Coup Against one of the GCC Nations
The GCC nations are ruled by hereditary ruling families that aren’t always in tune with the population (Bahrain being a prime example). And, the history of the last few decades is replete with attempted coups in the Middle East.
The most likely scenario is a military coup against the ruling families in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The coup leaders would be quickly recognized by Iran, which might quickly move Iranian forces into the country to solidify the new government’s control.
Reaction to the coup and Iranian presence could be quick. Other GCC nations could attempt to move forces into the country in response to the ruling family’s request for assistance and in order to secure oil facilities. As with the previous scenario, Western nations might also act in order to guarantee their oil supply. The result would be a wide spread conventional war in the entire Gulf.
Although the war would probably remain conventional, it could escalate if Iran decides to blockade the Strait of Hormuz in order to stop oil shipments or to stop reinforcement of GCC nations by NATO naval forces. However, since nuclear armed Israel wouldn’t be involved, the chances of the incident going nuclear are less.
Iraq, Syria, and ISIS
The current events in Iraq are certainly capable of causing a major conflict. And, unlike the other scenarios, the war could be multi-sided with Kurds, ISIS, Iran (and the Maliki and Assad governments), and extremist forces vying for control of Syria and Iraq.
As it stands, no side has the ability to achieve a total win. Iran and its allies in Syria and Iraq control the capitals, but not all of the surrounding territory. ISIS has control of a lot of territory in Iraq and Syria, but its radical version of Islam has caused it to lose support from larger population, which precludes a quick win. Meanwhile, other militias have more support from outside countries, especially GCC nations, but don’t have the manpower to convert that support into major battlefield victories. The Kurds are currently satisfied to harass ISIS and consolidate their hold on Kurdistan in hopes of creating an independent Kurdistan as Iraq fractures.
Much depends on ISIS’s moves because they are currently fighting a two front war – in Iraq and Syria. As it stands, they can’t advance much further in Iraq, so military strategy says, it would be in their best interest to shift their military assets into Syria in order to attempt to defeat the other Syrian militias and the regime. Then, theoretically after securing Syria, they shift back to Iraq, with a larger force.
The recent bombings of ISIS forces in Iraq by Syria could be a move to preclude this shift.
Since ISIS has captured considerable Iraqi military equipment, they are much more powerful than before and pose a greater threat to other Syrian militias and Arab Syrian Army. The most likely result of a ISIS shift to fighting in Syria is that the GCC nations, Russia, Turkey, and Iran will provide more support to their allies in Syria, which will only increase the bloodshed.
There is also an additional threat of widespread conventional war if neighboring countries see ISIS threatening them. For instance, if ISIS moves closer to the Saudi border, it is likely that a call by some Iraqi factions opposing Maliki government” to protect” them might mean Saudi Arabia (or even a joint GCC force) would move into Iraq to protect them and provide a buffer against ISIS advances. The same could happen with Jordan.
As violence escalates in Syria, Israel could become involved; either in response to attacks against it (as seen in the last few days) or in order to support a militia that would occupy the Golan Heights and act as a buffer between ISIS and Israel. It would also try to covertly stop ISIS, which would create the interesting position of Israel, the GCC nations and Iran all having the same goal of stopping ISIS.
Although it appears that Turkey has acquiesced to the creation of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, in the past they have threatened an invasion lest independence fever cross the border and inspire Turkish Kurds to seek independence.
If Kurdistan becomes independent, Turkish, Syrian, and Iranian Kurds may seek to join that nation. Although Syria is less powerful now, both Iran and Turkey have the forces to try to quash such desires for independence. In such a case, Kurdistan might need to switch sides and sign a truce with ISIS and shift those forces against Turkey and Iran. This, in turn would give ISIS more forces to move against Baghdad or Damascus, which would further destabilize the region.
Collapse, Coup, or Assassination of Assad
Just like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the assassination of President Assad (a dream of his desperate) opponents could change spark a wide ranging conflict.
Opponents of President Assad still hoping to affect the collapse of the Syrian regime, but such outcome would benefit the militia with the greatest resources – currently ISIS. In that case, the plans of the outside nations to train and equip other rebel militias would go out the window as ISIS could be expected to take nearly total control of Syria. Even Israel might move further into Syria to build up a buffer zone, under a friendly, puppet militia as they did in Lebanon.
Elsewhere in the World
As we saw in WW I, events in one part of the world can cascade into other regions. World War One saw conflicts in Africa, where the Germans were actually winning when the armistice was signed. In addition, Japan took German colonies in the Pacific and several nations, including the US invaded Siberia in an attempt to stop the Soviet rebels in Russia.
Spreading unrest in the Middle East would allow Russia to push its interests in the Ukraine. Currently, world attention and NATO deployments in Eastern Europe have forced Putin to rein-in his territorial interest in the Soviet era. However, if those NATO forces need to deploy to the Middle East, he would have the opportunity to move against the Ukraine and the Baltic nations.
China would also benefit as they have become increasingly active in the South China Sea and have had military confrontations recently with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Since any hostility in the Middle East would require the movement of American aircraft carriers from the Western Pacific to the Arabian Gulf, it would remove the largest threat to Chinese influence and power.
The same movement of American military assets would also encourage North Korea.
Even events inside America could have an impact on Middle Eastern events. Obama and his administration are unpopular with American voters and plagued with scandals. This makes his reactions hard to gage if events occur overseas. Many presidents who are unpopular try to regain favor with voters with foreign military initiatives,, which may mean that Obama might suddenly take an aggressive stance towards events in the region.
However, Obama has been unwilling to intervene much in the Middle East and polls show Americans are uninterested in sending troops to the region again. Therefore, Obama might try to regain popularity by steadfastly refusing to move internationally. This uncertainty only makes the situation more dangerous as world leaders are more likely to misjudge.
And, it is misjudgment that led to WW I. The Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire misjudged Serbia’s response to its demand. Germany misjudged its ally, when it gave unconditional support for Austro-Hungary. And all the countries misjudged when they thought the war would be over in months instead of 4 years.
Such a misjudgment today could turn a small event in the Middle East into a major war.
FYSA: For Your Situational Awareness
By Samuel J. Brannen, David Miller, Robert Kim, and Sarah Weiner
Center for Strategic and International Studies
June 24, 2014
The Eastern Mediterranean was once a strategic geography discussed in reverent tones in Washington. It was NATO’s southern flank: a gateway to chokepoints and supply routes,in the crosshairs of the Soviet Union, and ignored at the peril of global stability. The Eastern Mediterranean demanded deep subject matter expertise, drove Pentagon planning, and invited big geopolitical strategy from the Truman Doctrine through the Camp David Accords. After the Cold War’s end, the United States largely managed crises as they appeared and fostered stability in the region despite waves of instability on its periphery. This was a successful overall strategy for the region for several decades. But in recent years, shifting domestic politics, internal violent conflict, and uncooperative governments across the region have challenged an ad hoc and disaggregated approach to advancing U.S. interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Traditional regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel are asserting themselves in ways that are increasingly at odds with U.S. policy. NATO has failed to reengage the region. And Russia, China, and Iran are increasingly asserting themselves, exposing the region again to the return dangers of international competition with consequence for transatlantic and global security.
A-10 vs. fighters and bombers
By Mackenzie Eaglen
American Enterprise Institute
June 25, 2014
It’s a time-honored tradition inside the Beltway to “kick the can” on really hard decisions while making sure immediate “solutions” to defer pain only cost more and create bigger problems later. Congress is set to do it again. But the jig is up for these cut-off-the-nose-to-spite-the-face answers. Thanks to the defense drawdown underway, the military can no longer avoid political pain for the politicians in charge. One high profile example of this is the Pentagon proposal to retire the fleet of A-10 Warthog aircraft. Members of Congress are set to pat themselves on the proverbial back for rejecting the president’s proposal once the defense bills are finalized. But the cost of saving the A-10 fleet will be much larger numbers of fighters and bombers that will be on the chopping block instead. If the outcry was loud from the A-10 proposal, just wait until next year’s budget lands with a thud on Capitol Hill.
The Economics of Egypt’s Rising Authoritarian Order
By Amr Adly
June 18, 2014
Egypt’s economy is in crisis as the new military-backed regime seeks to reestablish its authority. Fiscal restructuring and austerity measures are necessary to spur economic recovery, but they may be politically difficult to pass at this time. The new regime, therefore, will have to broaden its base and forge a more inclusive coalition of supporters in order to stabilize Egypt, retain power, and restore economic growth. Egypt Between Populism and Austerity. Years of political turmoil following the overthrow of then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 have exacerbated many of the country’s economic problems. Annual rates of growth have declined and there has been massive capital flight, which has worsened budget, balance of payment, and foreign reserve deficits.
Liberal Attitudes and Middle East Realities
By Michael Bell
German Marshall Fund
June 25, 2014
A multitude of issues contribute to the dysfunction of Arab Middle East polities, including traditions of colonialism, authoritarianism, the rentier state, clientalism, corruption, and imagined history. Most importantly Arab politics is dominated by ethno-nationalism and ideological belief systems. There is little tolerance for liberal pluralism. Despite the yearning of many for a meaningful pluralistic governance system, there is at best only modest prospect for successful liberal reform, so much are these traditions part of a deeply ingrown culture. For Western policymakers, “sober realism” must be the watch phrase. The spread of what we call “progressive values” is important but can only be satisfying when seen in the light of what “can be” rather than what we think “should be” done. To ignore this reality risks making matters worse rather than better.
Moscow’s Afghan Endgame
By Richard Weitz
June 25, 2014
Few will have been watching the troubled Afghan presidential elections with greater attention than Russia. Although Moscow has not shown a strong preference for either candidate, and has managed to develop a good working relationship with outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Russian policymakers have been seeing nightmares in Kabul for years. Now the Iraq breakdown, coming after the years of civil strife in Syria, has deepened Russian anxieties about social and economic chaos along its vulnerable southern front at a time when relations with NATO remain strained over Ukraine.
Despite its public complaints, Russians have viewed the Obama administration’s initial surge into Afghanistan and its subsequent military drawdown with unease. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin acquiesced to the U.S. and then NATO interventions in Afghanistan, he did so reluctantly, with a fearful eye on potential threats to Russia’s regional influence.
Iraq’s House of Cards: The Primary Mission
By Robin Wright
June 23, 2014
On Friday, a new report by the International Crisis Group, an independent research and policy institute, bluntly warned of both the political and military challenges in Iraq. Under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the report declared, “Parliament has been rendered toothless, independent state agencies shorn of their powers. Ministries, to an unprecedented extent, have become bastions of nepotism and other forms of corruption; the severely politicized judiciary represents anything but the ‘rule of law,’ with even the Supreme Court doing the government’s bidding.” This week, as the jihadi juggernaut solidifies its control over almost a third of the country in a Sunni proto-state, a token American team of Special Forces will embed in Iraq to assess and advise Iraq’s disintegrating military. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry is conferring with regional leaders about ways to prevent a geostrategic prize from imploding into a failed state. He, too, is expected in Baghdad.
Hezbollah in Iraq: A Little Help Can Go a Long Way
By Matthew Levitt and Nadav Pollak
June 25, 2014
As Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured Mosul two weeks ago and set their sights on Baghdad, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah offered to send fighters to Iraq to help turn the jihadist tide. In Syria, the Lebanese Shiite group’s forces have already deployed in large numbers over the past several years and made all the difference in the Assad regime’s battle for survival. In Iraq, Hezbollah would likely dispatch only small numbers of trainers and special operators. Yet given the group’s past special operations and training activities in Iraq and its close ties with Iran’s elite Qods Force, even a modest deployment would likely have a significant impact.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
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