Preventing a Middle Eastern Gordian Knot


The crescendo of ever more shocking and destabilizing events from the Middle East, taken individually, can hide the underlying trends that are pushing this region into a potential cataclysm. The longer we ignore the Middle East, the more frequently regional actors will take matters into their own hands, confront each other in conflictual situations, and become committed enemies. This makes it almost impossible for us to build meaningful working alliances and find partners without an ax to grind against each other when the time comes for Washington to engage in the Middle East.

Most recently, these underlying trends are becoming more visible with the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr by Saudi authorities, then in the subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and finally in the breaking of relations between Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states with Iran. Interaction effects among these individual events generate conceivable scenarios ranging from a major Russian military presence to a Shia–Sunni regional conflagration.

The execution of al Nimr and its repercussions has to be seen in the context of other destabilizing developments. From a broader perspective, events such as the Saudi execution of the Shia cleric (along with the execution of a large number of Sunni Arabs for domestic reasons) and the recent shoot-down of a Russian fighter-bomber by the Turkish Air Force, take on a new significance.

If nothing else, Saudi and Turkish actions attained the immediate purpose of breaking an unending chain of military and political successes by Iran and Russia. The New York Times reported early this year that a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard general criticized the sacking of the Saudi embassy. It thus appears that Tehran was outsmarted by the Saudi actions, first executing al Nimr and then exploiting a predictable Iranian violent reaction to close Gulf state ranks. A similar phenomenon occurred with Putin after the Su-24 was shot down. His verbal rage against Turkey had no limits, but his actions were puny — canceling vacation tours, while allowing the almost 60 percent of Turkish natural gas imports that come from Russia to continue, and maintaining contracts for the construction of Turkish nuclear plants.

Ankara and Riyadh saw specific provocations that had to be answered. In the Turkish case, it was Russian overflights of Turkish territory that occurred almost as soon as Russian aircraft arrived in Syria. Not just any Turkish territory, but Hatay province, which Russia’s ally Syria has long claimed. (The Su-24 was also overflying Hatay.) Furthermore, during earlier violations of Turkish airspace, Russian fighters locked on to Turkish aircrafts with their fire control systems. Meanwhile, the Russians began bombing not only Syrian opposition forces supported by Turkey, but ethnic Turkmen who share ancestral links with the Turks.

Riyadh saw a similar, deliberate provocation in the death of Zahran Alloush, a Saudi-backed Syrian opposition figure and leader of Jaish al-Islam, in a bombing raid conducted by either the Syrians or Russians in late December.

There is a third potential motive for Saudi and Turkish actions, which at least in the Saudi case has generated much commentary among analysts. There is a growing belief in the region that as the United States is unwilling to continue its decades-long policy of providing global and regional security, they must act in their own self-interests.

As Kim Ghattas observed in Foreign Policy recently, the failure of the United States to respond in any significant way to the Russian intervention could well have been the last straw. Prior to Russian action, Washington had failed to respond to a series of Iranian provocations in late December, from ballistic missile flights to a minor U.S. visa sanction to a near encounter with a U.S. carrier in the Straits of Hormuz. (And the weak U.S. response to Iran humiliating U.S. sailors seized without resistance certainly will not reverse their dim views of a steadfast America.)

However, their motives may have been deeper than to simply “teach a lesson” and demonstrate resolve. Rather, Ankara and Riyadh may be signaling to the United States that, given Washington inaction, they will act themselves. Deliberately or subconsciously, the instinct here could be to warn Washington that leading from behind, pivoting away, and “ending America’s wars” would force allies to take dangerous actions. This pull-out would end much of the security architecture a willingness to fight undergirds, and a regional escalation could suck the United States back into conflict.

An often-overlooked benefit of various U.S.-sponsored regional security architectures is that, since the early 1950s, they forced strongmen like Syngman Rhee to rein in their aggressive tendencies as the price for continued American support. Through this, the escalatory potential such tendencies could generate would be limited. In return for both direct security guarantees from Washington, and American “management” of security threats, conflicts were resolved in ways that would usually not require U.S. troops to physically enforce these guarantees.

Here, Turkey is a particularly important example. With its extraordinary strength and somewhat different worldview from most NATO and East Asian allies of the United States, Turkey traditionally found itself tempted to go its own way. But in the end, with good or bad will and often with much broken crockery, it has always returned to Washington’s security fold. In this regard, recent Turkish–Russian tensions have helped finally pivot Ankara once again to Washington’s fold — Russia is Turkey’s historic nemesis; like all other Turks, Erdogan is aware that his Ottoman Turkish ancestors have fought 17 winless wars against Moscow.

In Syria, Turkey has followed a policy aimed at ousting the Assad regime since 2012. Accordingly, the Russia troop deployment to Syria to boost the Assad regime in late 2014 angered Ankara. Turkey then tried to enforce a de facto no-fly zone near its border in Syria, which the Russians violated, forcing Turkey to shoot down the Russian plane.

The incident has not evolved into a major conflict between Ankara and Moscow. But Turkey has been the target of massive cyber attacks since the plane incident, a telltale sign of Putin’s asymmetrical warfare toolbox. The confrontation with Russia has pushed Turkey closer to Washington, but the fact remains that Ankara resents the fact that the United States has not done enough to end Assad’s brutality in Syria. Accordingly, Turkey will work behind Washington’s back to provide cover to anti-Assad rebels, occasionally those of the radical ilk.

While more subtle, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly set limits to its cooperation with Washington, from receiving arms sales from China to collaborating with Pakistan, and at least tacitly encouraging Wahhabi proselytizing throughout the Islamic world. But in the end, be it during the OPEC oil crisis or in 1990, the Kingdom has always eventually found a modus operandi with its American benefactors.

Without a fundamental change in its worldview, it is difficult to imagine the Obama administration — on a victory lap fueled by a modest victory at the climate summit, the odd rapprochement with the Castros, and the nuclear agreement with Iran — waking up to what its policies have wrought.

Today we have a worsening Saudi–Iran conflict. Two months ago, we did not have Turkey–Iraq disputes over Turkish military deployments; four months ago there was no Turkey–Russia conflict; and the list goes on. The more we ignore the Middle East, the more regional actors take matters into their own hands, resulting in further regional chaos.

So yes, it has become even more difficult now to end the war in Syria, end Assad’s brutality, and thereby end key drivers of Islamic State recruitment. Further delay in engaging in the Middle East could as well deliver us a foreign policy equivalent of the Gordian Knot.

Any security system depends on trust in an overall “system” and leader by alliance member states sometimes capable of provoking crises themselves. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, along with other regional actors such as Israel, appear to be questioning the trustworthiness of this system and its leader. The results, as seen with the downing of the Russian Su-24 and with the diplomatic row between Iran and Saudi Arabia, are beginning to resemble the Balkans: either the Balkans in the early 1990s, before the United States woke up and played its security leader role, or the Balkans in the decade before World War I, when no one woke up.


Jim Jeffrey is the Philip Solondz distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute and formerly served as the U.S. ambassador in Ankara and Baghdad. Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at the Institute.

The authors would like to thank Cem Yolbulan for his assistance with this article.


Image: A Patriot missile battery sits on an overlook at a Turkish army base in Gaziantep, near the Turkish–Syrian border.  Photo by Glenn Fawcett, DoD

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