The West is in crisis and this has had a profound effect on the Middle East. The various aspects of the crisis are often bewildering and the trajectory is hard to divine. Populism, of the like not seen for generations is causing the countries that make up the West to look inwards. Yet this vacillation and circumspection is a friend to no one in the wider world.
The EU looks certain to be shaken by populism. The institution is facing the seismic fracture of Brexit, plus the new authoritarianism of the Visegrad group. France is beset by civil strife. The forthcoming European elections may well redraw the political landscape with right wing and populist parties taking a large share of seats.
The western military alliance that has underpinned the world’s rules based order since the end of the cold war, is strained over key issues such US insistence that European countries should pay more for their own defense. For the first time the relevance of NATO mission is being questioned. France and Britain (and to a certain extent Poland) are the only European countries that have maintained credible armed forces. Britain is the only European power with strategic expeditionary capability.
America’s introspection has taken a protectionist turn, largely aimed at China but it also has the EU in its sights.
All of this disarray and lack of western coherence has resulted in unprecedented bickering between countries that have long stood for democracy, liberty and cooperation. As far as the Middle East is concerned there has been a weariness and cautiousness on the part of the Europeans to become embroiled in conflicts. Britain and France remain active across Iraq and Syria but only with their air forces and limited special forces ground troops. President Obama’s decision to withdraw US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan was a rash.
The moral and security vacuum has cost the citizens of Iraq and Syria dearly. Of all the countries that have prospered from this Iran is the key player. Iran has pursued a ruthless expansionism. Its vanguard is multi-faceted – proxy militias, terror, regular forces and cyber warfare. A few months ago the much vaunted Iranian goal to push a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean looked a distinct reality.
However, there are promising signs that Iran has overplayed its hand on all fronts. President Trump has vowed that US forces will not abandon Syria until Iran’s forces are expelled from the country. This week Pompeo declared that there will be no US reconstruction funds for Syria until Iran has quit the country. Perhaps more significant is the fact that the EU has belatedly woken up to the threat of Iran’s terror operations within its territory. The constituent EU countries are all putting hard hitting sanctions into place. Moreover, these are ‘smart’ sanctions which will target Iran’s financial institutions and its intelligence services. All the signs are that the combined force of US and EU sanctions may cause fractures in Iran’s ability to wage war and to operate in any credible fashion as a viable state.
Where does this leave Iraq, a country that Iran has for so long sought to plunder, occupy and bend to its will? The US led sanctions against Iran will have a crucial impact in Iraq. With the diminution of Iran and eventual regime change Iraq will be able to reform itself and, free from Iranian interference, put itself back on the course to sovereign, federal, non-sectarian stability. Western countries will happily increase investment in Iraq if companies can be sure of this stability and lack of corruption. The EU’s new Iran sanctions are perhaps the main sign of positivity at the beginning of 2019. Firstly, the sanctions show that the West can rise above its divisions and antagonisms. Secondly, they show that concerted action is the only way to destroy Iran’s ambitions for regional domination.