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American Diplomacy
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April 2014

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The Battle for Control of the Middle East
by Curt Jones

As a geopolitical region, the Middle East generates a never-ending power struggle for overall hegemony. That objective has never been achieved by a single contender. The Caliphate came closest. From the death of Muhammad in 632, the Islamic conquest exploded into the power vacuum created by the mutual exhaustion of the Byzantines, based in Constantinople, and the Sasanians, based in Persia. In 30 years the Arabs overran the entire Middle East except the Asian outskirts of Constantinople. The Byzantines took Anatolia back soon after.

Otherwise, the region has oscillated between periods of political consolidation under two or three empires (some indigenous, some foreign), and periods of splintering into a jumble of political entities and disputed fragments.

The approximate dates of the most recent period of indigenous consolidation were 1500-1800, between the Ottomans in the west, and the Safavids and successors in Persia.

The most recent period of foreign consolidation, under Britain, France, and Russia, was 1800-1950.

The last 65 years have been a period of splintering, marked by a four-way contest for control among Turkey; Iran and its affiliates; the Sunni combine; and the Israeli-American diarchy and its affiliates. Several Sunni states have taken out extra insurance by simultaneous affiliation with the diarchy and the Sunni combine. In the confusion caused by the turmoil in the region, and by the inconsistency of American Middle East policy, the Kurdish outcasts have managed to exercise de facto statehood, and even the Gaza Strip has an administration responsible for its own domestic policy, and such foreign policy initiatives as the Israeli lockdown permits. In the Middle East, de facto trumps de jure. Just as Occupied Palestine is for practical purposes part of a Greater Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Gaza Strip are autonomous, and the total of states in the Middle East is now 21.

The status of the US as an active contestant for Middle East hegemony — not widely recognized, perhaps not even in Washington — is an inevitable concomitant of Washington’s security guarantees. Each guarantee contains two promises: 1) defense of the protégé; 2) suppression of any attacker. A textbook example was the damage the US did to the Iranian navy during the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-88.

The components and contributions of the four contesting factions are as follows:

Turkey: Rebel base (admirable care for its share of Syrian refugees).
Shiite Combine: Iran; the Damascus regime (controls territory from the Jordan border north to Damascus and Homs, and west to the coast); the Baghdad regime (central and south Iraq); Hizballah (south and east Lebanon).

Sunni Combine: Islamist rebels (north and east Syria); secularist Syrian rebels (north and east Syria, enclaves elsewhere); Iraq (Islamists in ‘Anbar Province); Lebanon (northwest); Saudi Arabia (logistics only); Qatar (logistics only). [After five crushing defeats by the IDF (1948, 1956, 1967, 1970, 1973), Egypt, traditional leader of the Sunni Arabs, opted out of the regional power struggle by its peace treaty with Israel in 1979.]

Diarchy: US; Israel; Turkey (Truman Doctrine, 1947; NATO membership, 1952; Defense Treaty, 1980); Saudi Arabia (verbal agreement between FDR and Ibn Sa‘ud, 1945); Jordan (reputed agreement with Israel, 1948, plus peace treaty of 1994 with Israel); five Gulf Shaykhdoms (Carter Doctrine, 1980); Kurdistan (northern no-fly zone, north of the 36th Parallel, 1991).bluestar


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Curt Jones, a member of this journal's Board of Directors, has contributed frequent commentaries to American Diplomacy. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1975 after more than thirty years of service, including assignments to seven posts abroad.

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