West Asia Politics and Conflicts
26th Dec, 2019
The regional dynamics of West Asia is rapidly changing. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey are contending each other’s views and are divided on the basis of their deep vested interests. Recently, United States announced its pull-out from Syria. The complicated and multifaceted nature of West Asia politics and conflict has roots in the region’s history, which warrants an in-depth assessment.
- Strategic location: Geopolitically, West Asia occupies an important position in international relations due to its geographical location and proximity to continents and countries –
- South Asia, China, Central Asia, Europe, and Africa.
- Trade routes and birthplace of Abrahamic religions: The region is strategically significant due to its enormous energy resources, trade route links to different parts of the world and for fact that it is the place of origin for the Abrahamic religions.
- Energy resources: It is the world largest oil-producing region accounting for 34% of world production, 45% of crude oil exports and 48% of oil proven reserves.
- All powers seek a stake in the affairs of the region due to the abundance of natural resources.
- Instability and conflicts: It is also a region plagued with instability largely due to the involvement of external forces, and sometimes due to internal conflicts.
- Geography: West Asia is the westernmost sub region of Asia. It includes Anatolia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Sinai Peninsula, and Transcaucasia.
- The region is considered to be separated from Africa by the Isthmus of Suez, and separated from Europe by the waterways of Turkish Straits and the drainage divide of the Caucasus Mountains.
- Population: 20 countries are located fully or partly in Western Asia, out of which 13 are part of the Arab world.
- The most populous countries in Western Asia are Turkey (partly in Southeast Europe), Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
- The total population of Western Asia is estimated to be 300 million (as of 2015).
Political history of the region – A time line
- McMahon–Hussein Correspondence 1915 –16: Under this correspondence the Britain offered Arabs across the Middle East self-rule in exchange for their aid in defeating the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
- Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916: Britain and France sign a secret pact outlining their spheres of control in Middle East after the First World War. Palestine is designated for international administration pending consultations with Russia and other powers. The agreement is seen by Arabs as a betrayal of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.
- Balfour Declaration 1917: It was a public statement issued by the British government during the First World War announcing support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with a small minority Jewish population.
- Later in the period, many Jews arrived in Palestine.
- Arab-Israeli wars: After the arrival of Jews, many wars took place between the Arab and Israeli coalitions, in which sides were often changed depending on changing scenarios.
- The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which would later play a significant role in Arab politics, was founded in Cairo by the Arab League in 1964.
- In 1967 Israeli strikes against Egypt and Syria launched the Six Day War. Israel has occupied the West Bank, Arab East Jerusalem, and Syria’s Golan Heights ever since.
- The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was also one of the Arab-Israeli wars.
- Camp David Accord 1979: In 1956, Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal and took control over the Sinai Peninsula. This led to further confrontation between Egypt and Israel.
- Finally, in 1979, a peace deal was reached between Egypt and Israel through the Camp David Accord. Egypt became the first Arab country to recognise Israel.
- Following Egypt's peace agreement with Israel, Arab League suspended Egypt's membership to the league.
- Iranian Revolution 1979: The Iranian Revolution was a series of events that involved overthrow of the last monarch of Iran, and replacement of his government with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, a leader of one of the factions in the revolt.
- This movement against the United States-backed monarchy in Iran was supported by various leftist and Islamist organizations and student movements.
- Since the establishment of Iran as an Islamic Republic, governments of United States and Iran have been at odds.
- Iran is also the largest Shia majority country in the Arab region, which often brings it at odds with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states in the region.
- First Intifada 1987: The First Intifada (uprising) was a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of West Bank and Gaza. The uprising lasted from December 1987 until the Madrid Conference in 1991, though some date its conclusion to 1993, with the signing of the Oslo Accords.
- It is during this time that Hamas was created from the Gaza wing of Muslim Brotherhood.
- Muslim Brotherhood was a Sunni Islamist religious, political, and social movement founded in Egypt in 1928.
- Iraq–Iran war, 1980 – 88: Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 because it was worried that the 1979 Iranian Revolution would cause Iraq's Shi'ite majority to rebel against its Ba'athist Sunni government, led by Saddam Hussein. Roots of the war also lay in a number of territorial and political disputes between Iraq and Iran.
- Iraq wanted to seize control of the oil-rich Iranian border region of Kh?zest?n.
- Iraq also wanted to assert its sovereignty over both banks of Sha?? al-?Arab (Arvand Rud), which formed a historical border between the two countries.
- Iraq’s war effort were openly financed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other neighbouring Arab states and was tacitly supported by US and Soviet Union, while Iran’s only major allies were Syria and Libya.
- Iraq was said to have used Chemical weapons in the war, while Iran counter attacked using revolutionary militia (Revolutionary Guards).
- Iraq made many attempts to sue for peace, but it was finally in 1988 when Iran accepted the UN-brokered ceasefire.
- Iraq invades Kuwait 1990: Kuwait became an independent nation in 1961, a move that the Iraqi government did not support. Iraq claimed that Kuwait was created by British imperialism and it was actually an extension of Iraq.
- Kuwait financed Iraq’s war on Iran: Fearing Iranian Revolution would move within its borders, Kuwait provided financial support to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Later Iraq was unable to repay Kuwait and asked for loan forgiveness which the country denied.
- Kuwait did not reduce oil production: Iraq-Kuwait relations were also strained because Kuwait did not comply with Iraq’s suggestion of reducing its oil production in order to increase prices. Furthermore, Iraq accused Kuwait of slant-drilling in the Rumaila field in Iraq.
- This finally culminated into Iraq’s attack on Kuwait in 1990.
- Operation Desert Storm, an international coalition, led primarily by US forces, launched air strikes and ground invasion into Iraq. The Iraqi military was unable to defend itself. US established an air base within the country.
- Conflict ended through a formal resolution passed by the UNSC in 1991. Since then US has maintained a military presence in Kuwait.
- Middle East peace conference and Oslo Declaration: In 1991, Israeli, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian delegations attend the Middle East peace conference, which opens dialogues on Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian relations.
- In the Oslo declaration of principles 1993, PLO and Israel agree to recognise each other.
- In 1995, an Interim agreement on the future of Israeli-occupied Gaza and West Bank was signed by Israel and PLO. This agreement recognised the formation of a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority - an elected council.
- Second Intifada 2000: Over a period of time, many instances happened that stalled reaching of a "final status" agreement between Israel and Palestine at the 2000 Camp David Summit of which US was also a part.
- Ariel Sharon’s visit: Finally, Second Intifada began in 2000 when Palestinians rioted after Ariel Sharon, of the Likud party in Israel, visited the contended site of Temple Mount (Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem.
- In 2005, leaders from Israel, Palestinian Authority (PA), Jordan and Egypt met in Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss ways towards ending the four year intifada.
- Fatah and Hamas conflict: 2006 was witness to an inside conflict between the two main Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas, resulting in split of PA in 2007. The reconciliation process and unification of Hamas and Fatah administrations remains un-finalized even today.
- Lebanon war 2006: In 2006, Hezbollah conducted a cross-border raid on Israeli border towns. This led to conflicts between the two nations, with unprecedented Iranian military support to Hezbollah. Later in the year, a UN-brokered ceasefire was reached.
Hezbollah is a Shia Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon. It was founded in the early 1980s as part of an Iranian effort to aggregate a variety of militant Lebanese Shia groups into a unified organization. Hezbollah acts as a proxy for Iran in the on-going Iran–Israel proxy conflict. Iran also supported Hezbollah during the South Lebanon conflict (1985–2000).
Arab Spring – Arab Spring 2.0
- Tunisian Revolution 2010: Also called the Jasmine Revolution, this was a campaign of civil resistance. It led to the ousting of long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. It eventually led to a thorough democratisation of the country.
- The effect of Tunisian Revolution spread strongly to five other countries: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain; where either the regime was toppled or major uprisings or social violence took place, including riots, civil wars or insurgencies.
- Egyptian revolution 2011: In 2011, a mass protest movement took place in Egypt which ultimately forced long time president Hosni Mubarak from office. After this a political crisis ensued, with Supreme Council of the Armed Forces taking control of the country until after a series of popular elections, Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012.
- However, disputes between elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and secularists continued until Morsi was overthrown in 2013.
- Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who announced the overthrow of Morsi, won the 2014 elections with a landslide victory and became the president of Egypt.
- Yemeni crisis: Yemeni Crisis began with the 2011–12 revolution against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had led Yemen for more than three decades. The opposition groups charged Saleh with financial corruption and criticized him for being backed by Saudi Arabia and United States. After a mediated agreement between the Yemeni government and opposition groups, President Saleh left office in 2012, and former vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi acquired office.
- However, the new government struggled to unite the fractious political landscape of the country, especially facing threats from the Houthi rebels.
- Changing stance of Houthi rebels: Houthis were initially one among the many oppositions groups against President Saleh, but later in 2014-15, with Saleh’s help, Houthis announced the fall of President Hadi’s government and took control of most northern parts of Yemen. Later Houthis also executed Saleh on charges of treason.
- Houthis in power but not recognised: Since then, Houthi’s are in power and enjoy support. But they have been resisting Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen (with intelligence and logistical support of the US), which doesn’t recognise the Houthi government and seeks to restore previous government to power. Houthis are supported by Iran in their fight against the Saudi coalition.
- This conflict for power between the two factions has led to the on-going Yemeni civil war.
The Houthi movement is an Islamic, political and armed movement that emerged in 1990s from the Sa'dah region in northern Yemen. The movement acquired its name because its founder is from the Houthi tribe. They are of Zaidi sect, which is a sub-sect under the Shia sect of Islam.
- Iraqi civil war: In 2014 the Iraqi insurgency escalated into a civil war. The insurgency was a direct continuation of events following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time of insurgency, Iraq was led by a Shia-led government which was constantly under attack by Sunni militant groups who targeted Iraq’s majority Shia population to undermine confidence in the Shia-led government.
- Rise of ISIS: In 2014, the insurgency escalated dramatically following the conquest of Mosul and major areas in northern Iraq by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a Salafi jihadist militant group and an unrecognised proto-state that follows a fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam.
- Extension of conflict: After this, in 2014, the conflict merged with the Syrian Civil War, and became a far deadlier conflict. At its height, ISIS held large parts of Iraqi territory. This resulted in forced resignation of the then Iraqi Prime Minister.
- Yazidi genocide by ISIS: ISIS is also the perpetrator of genocide of Yazidis in Iraq. This genocide led to expulsion, flight and effective exile of Yazidis from their ancestral lands in Northern Iraq whose women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by ISIS and whose men were killed by thousands. They were also subjected to forced conversions.
- Controlling ISIS: Finally, United States, along with Canada, Iran, Russia and many other countries launched massive air and ground combat operations to control ISIS. Iraqi Security Forces was provided military and logistical support for this purpose. The civil war ended when victory over ISIS was finally announced in 2017.
- Insurgency starting 2017: After ISIS lost territorial control in the Iraqi civil war began another round of Iraqi insurgency starting late 2017. Several revel groups, including ISIS and White Flags have since then been fighting the Iraqi military (backed by US).
- Note: A combined force of troops from US, UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq in 2003 with an aim to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, whom they claimed, had armed Iraq with chemical weapons of mass destruction.
Yazidis are an endogamous, mostly Kurmanji-speaking group of predominantly Kurdish ethnicity, indigenous to Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Yazidi practices have roots tracing back to the ancient Mesopotamian religions, but it has mixed elements of Christianity (baptism), Islam (circumcision) and Zoroastrianism (reverence of fire as a manifestation from God). Yazidis have been denounced as infidels by fundamentalists like Al-Qaida and ISIS. Despite many years of oppression and attempts to exterminate them, Yazidis have kept alive their syncretic religion for centuries.
- Syrian civil war: The unrest in Syria started as part of a wider wave of the Arab Spring. It began in 2011 out of discontent with the Syrian Ba'athist government with protests demanding President Bashar al Assad’s removal; protesters were violently suppressed.
- The on-going conflict in Syria is the second deadliest of the 21st century and widely described as a series of overlapping proxy wars between the regional and world powers, primarily between US and Russia, as well as between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The war is fought between several factions. (Refer to mains article “Syrian civil war” for detailed analysis)
Proxy wars between regional heavyweights
- Saudi Arabia – Iran: Saudi Arabia is the major Sunni power in the region, Iran is the major Shia power, and both represent a fairly extreme version of their respective sects. While Saudi Arabia is the ultraconservative Wahhabi monarchy, Iran is a theocratic near-autocracy. Even though they don’t engage in direct conflict, they fight elsewhere, through supporting opposing sides in nearby conflicts, including the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.
- Battle for energy resources exacerbates the situation—Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves of any nation, and advocates for moderate prices, while Iran’s economic situation dictates that they pursue higher prices worldwide for more immediate gain.
- No diplomatic ties: Iranian revolution of 1979 had threatened Saudi’s influence over the region and it later supported Iraq’s invasion of Iran. A 2016 attack on Saudi embassy in Teheran closed all diplomatic ties.
- United States factor: United States has always been Saudi Arabia’s secure ally, where it also has several military bases. United States’ concern with Iran is its ability to produce nuclear weapons. But after America’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, its lessening reliance on Saudi oil, and potential rapprochement with Iran, Saudi foreign policy had become more assertive.
- Isolating Iran: In 2015 Saudi Arabia formed the intergovernmental Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) with the stated goal of combating terrorism. But this coalition excluded Shia-led Iran, Iraq, and Syria; mostly seen as Saudi effort to isolate Iran.
- Isolating nations engaging with Iran: In 2017, Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on Qatar, principally to punish it for its cordial relationship with Iran.
- Houthi rebels: Saudi Arabia, US, and Hadi’s Yemeni government have repeatedly accused Iran of supporting Yemen’s Houthi rebels with money and arms.
- Iran’s Shia crescent: Iran has tried to take advantage of regional instability by expanding its presence in the Shia crescent and creating a land corridor of influence stretching from Iraq to Lebanon, done in part by supporting Shia militias in the war against ISIS.
- Saudi Arabia – Turkey: Turkey and Saudi Arabia always shared an uneasy relationship. Saudi is wary of was Turkey’s constitutionalism and moderate Islam as it directly challenges Saudis’ absolutist Islamism. After recent rise of Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman and adoption of aggressive foreign policies flaunting Saudi power, Turkish anxiety is that Saudis intend to dominate the Arab world to the exclusion not only of Iran but of Turkey as well.
- Turkey has long conceived itself not just a bridge between Asia and Europe but also a central player in regional and global affairs.
- Turkey support for Arab Spring: During the 2011 Arab Spring, Turkey enthusiastically welcomed the overthrow of authoritarian governments, while Saudi regime, feeling vulnerable itself, strongly opposed it.
- Opposing stand in Egypt: During the Egyptian crisis, Turkey has supported President Morsi who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and represented a constitutionalist Islamist model like Turkey. Saudis however, embraced General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and granted him aid.
- United States factor: United States’ increasing Saudi importance, and its growing differences with Turkey in the approach towards Syrian Kurds, also sent a signal that Saudi Arabia is the kingpin of America’s policy toward West Asia.
- Qatar factor: Qatar also has close relations with Turkey and hosts a Turkish military base. The Emir of Qatar had sent a contingent of soldiers to provide security to Mr. Erdo?an during his failed military coup in 2016. Saudi Arabia has not well taken this relationship.
- Jamal Khashoggi case: Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, exposed the brutal nature of Saudi regime. Turkey used the Khashoggi murder to sharpen the battle lines with Saudi Arabia.
The Israel Factor
- Israel is a Jewish state, and a huge American ally, in the midst of a Muslim region. Israel’s relationship with any Arab country comes down to whether or not they support the Palestinian independence movements.
- Opposition: Currently, Israel is not even recognized as a country by, and has no official diplomatic relations with, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the U.A.E.
- Support: Israel has its strongest regional alliance with Egypt. It has a peace treaty and a $500 million natural gas supply deal with Jordan. It trades with Qatar (even though Qatar has been accused of supporting Hamas). And it maintains a back-channel relationship with Saudi Arabia.
- Political enemies: Israel’s primary political enemies are groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
West Asia politics and conflicts is a complicated and multifaceted affair. The dynamics of West Asia politics keep changing and must be viewed through an appropriate historical lens. It cannot be viewed independent of the international players in the region. Presently, the Syrian conflict is the hotspot of West Asia politics. It can be best understood only after a thorough understanding of the many other facets of the region and its history (Refer to mains article “Syrian civil war”).