Matthew Wright is a former British Army Officer. He previously served as the Temporary Equerry to TRH The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall.
During recent weeks, attention has focused on the tragic suffering in Ukraine and the consequences on European security, the rules based international order, and disruption in energy markets.
Instability in Europe will not only affect the West but will reverberate further afield. It is an unhappy coincidence that just as the Middle East had entered a period of greater optimism and relative stability, Europe faces Great Power competition. The Islamic World seemed, for the first time since 2001, to be emerging from a period of instability, turmoil, and civil wars. Tragically, it seems inevitable that war in Europe will jeopardise fledgling normalisation in the Middle East.
More than Oil
The Middle East’s increasing self-confidence is borne of more than the rally in commodity markets. Importantly, the region’s strategic fault lines are finally starting to close.
UAE, Bahrain, and Israel signed the Abraham Accords – a permanent peace treaty – in 2020 signalling a remarkable and historic commitment to stability in a troubled region. More recently, the Middle East has seen progress across issues that were often fraught and, sometimes, positively violent: the détente between Turkey and UAE shows that normalisation is possible between one-time antagonists; and the civil wars in Syria and Libya seem, at first glance, to be at a near-end.
The Turkish-Emirati détente
Turkey and the UAE have engaged in military-political competition since the Arab Spring in 2011. In Egypt, Erdogan supported Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, before he was toppled in a military coup backed by UAE and Saudi Arabia.
In Libya, the Emiratis supported Khalifa Haftar while Turkey and Qatar reinforced the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Such was the distrust between them that Ankara accused Abu Dhabi of funding an attempted coup against Erdogan.
But in recent months, we have seen a rapprochement between these erstwhile rivals. Cooperation agreements have been signed, with UAE promising billions in investments boosting Turkey’s foreign exchange reserves. As some in the Gulf increasingly consider the US an unreliable partner, the Emiratis are de-escalating regional tensions, while Erdogan looks to improve the economy prior to next year’s presidential election. Competition between these regional powers is over for now: the focus is increasingly on political normalisation and economic integration.
Endgame in Libya…
In Libya and Syria, the civil wars had been grinding to a halt. No-one can currently rule the entirety of Libya: Haftar dominates his Eastern fiefdom while the internationally recognised government sits in Tripoli.This may well be a dissatisfying conclusion, but it is, nonetheless, a conclusion: the days of savage violence thankfully seem to be in the past.
In Syria, we see a similar pattern. Assad’s regime controls about 70 per cent of Syria’s territory and the civil war is at a stalemate: Assad cannot currently be toppled due to support from Russia and Iran, and it is unlikely that the regime will regain territory held by Turkey or Lebanese Shia militias.
Assad will presumably not be held accountable for the atrocities, mass killings, and human rights abuses committed during the war. This has been recognised in much of the Arab World: Assad recently concluded a visit to UAE – his first visit to an Arab state since the civil war began in 2011 – and it is expected that Syria will soon return to the Arab League. Many in Europe may be appalled but relations with Bashar al-Assad are normalising. In ordinary times, Syria’s civil war would seem to be drawing to a close.
But it is in Syria where the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine is likely to be most acute. Having faced successive droughts, Syria relies on Russian imports to feed its suffering people.
In anticipation of a supply shock – Russia and Ukraine supply almost a third of the world’s wheat – Assad is already rationing wheat, sugar, and cooking oil accentuating Syria’s destitution. Poverty is likely to worsen further as economic sanctions reduce Putin’s ability to finance Assad’s regime.
Furthermore, there are reports that Syria has sent members of its Republican Guard to Ukraine and that Russia is recruiting Syrian mercenaries.
Finally, as Putin reinforces his invasion, Russia may be forced to re-balance its military forces in Syria. The spectre of famine, reduced Russian financial support, the depletion of Assad’s elite forces, and the presumed reduction in Russia’s military presence are a noxious mix for Assad to contend with as he hopes to re-integrate into the Arab fold. We may yet see another chapter in this most awful of civil wars.
A sting in the tail
As ever with the Arab World, things can change quickly – and violently. Yemen remains embroiled in a civil war and recent Houthi drone attacks on Jeddah and Abu Dhabi show the risks of escalation.
The negotiations in Vienna on Iran’s nuclear programme may provide a lasting settlement, or arm Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards with the financial muscle to further support proxies across the region. Either way, the negotiations risk alienating America’s historic Gulf allies, complicating Joe Biden’s requests to increase oil production.
Finally, as Moscow reconstitutes its invasion forces and Syria faces further impoverishment, we may see another cycle of violence in Syria. The consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are not limited to Europe alone, they risk undermining a historic moment of optimism and normalisation in the Middle East.