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The new great game

  • Published at 11:00 pm January 14th, 2020
fire flag US Israel protest
Israel has always been in bed with the US REUTERS

How will things play out in the Middle East?

The old Great Game, a set of military-diplomatic confrontations, was played out between the British Empire and the Russian Empire in lower Central Asia and Afghanistan, primarily in the 19th century. 

The Russian Bear was suspected to be eyeing British India and, on the other hand, the former was wary about the British Lion’s inroads in Afghanistan and potentially further north in Turkistan region. 

Expansion, domination, and commercial interests were at stake. 

Now, a new great game is being played out in the oil-rich Middle East. The protagonists of this new game are multiple and in, at least, two categories, direct and indirect. 

The current Iran-US showdown is part of this new great game. This great game is many times more complex than the old one. 

Some reasons for this high complexity are various domestic, regional, and international dynamics. 

So much of interconnectivity was absent in the old great game and other geo-political discords of the far and less far pasts, in various regions of the world.  

Trump’s assent to the helm of the US and his following actions sent crazy signals across the globe. Global politics and geo-strategy entered an era of unpredictability. The ongoing US involvement in the Middle East has to be viewed in that light, and in the light of other developments in that region. 

Arab Spring and the devastation it caused completely changed the power equation of the Middle East, which had already changed quite a bit with the razing of Iraq, initially due to the Iraq-Kuwait crisis, and later on flimsy grounds of WMD.  

The final nail on the old power equilibrium was the decline of Syrian and Libyan military power due to civil war and Western interference. 

An emboldened Israel took it with open arms, and attempted to legitimize its occupation of Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and even parts of the Jordan River valley in the east of the West Bank with support from Trump, who seems to have no sense of international relations or diplomatic ethics, unlike his predecessors, including Republican presidents who had some. 

The disproportionate focus on Iran by the US and Israel is an outcome of this changed power equation. 

The US, with all its military might, finally thinks it has found a job. IS was a disruption in this pattern of development, and was strangely decimated through a tacit understanding between the US, Iran, and their allies.

However, as the IS got reduced to a negligible force, the understanding fell apart, and all were back to square one in terms of pre-existing animosity. In post-Saddam Iraq, and during the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia and one or two Gulf emirates started siding with Sunni entities in the troubled countries. 

Iran did the same with the Shias. 

A new power struggle got added to the new great game. The US found one more reason, not ideological but opportunistic, to meddle more in the Middle East with the hidden agenda of favouring Israel more and more. 

They term anything anti-Zionist as anti-Semitic, despite their clear agenda to favour Israel very disproportionately, and for no conceivable reason. The Zionist lobby in Washington DC appears the strongest now in recent decades. 

Regardless of the changed context, Trump’s action on Iran is also marked by his own impulsive personality. Diversion from impeachment proceedings and scoring domestic points could well have been on his immature mind.  

He doesn’t have the competence to foresee how his plan may backfire, how he might actually end up strengthening Iran with his mindless actions. The assassination of charismatic Iranian General Soleimani, responsible for Iran’s overseas operations -- including the ones against IS -- has, in fact, raised sympathy for that country across the globe.

Iraq asking US troops to leave its territory, which the US may not comply with at the moment, is a direct outcome of overflowing passion for Soleimani and Iran. 

Iran has also launched missile attacks on US bases in Iraq -- although they did not cause much damage -- by error or by deliberate design to strike a balance between face saving and not escalating. But Iran did demonstrate that they can strike back, which is significant and underlines the fact that Trump hasn’t won this bout.  

Trump hardly got any support from the major European or Asian allies. The Gulf nations were also relatively quiet. 

The Gulf Arab nations are allies of the US in a strange way. They follow orthodox Islam domestically, yet have a client-patron relationship with the US internationally. 

The US guarantees, diplomatically and militarily, the undemocratic perpetual power-grabbing of the emirs and kings of those oil-rich countries in return for their weird and un-Islamic loyalty towards the US. Within the Islamic world, the biggest among them -- Saudi Arabia -- aspires to be the leader, even if in a limited and harmful way. 

It’s a question of how much of this aspiration is natural and how much is US-advised to perpetuate trouble. They don’t seem to want to concede any domain of influence to Iran, although they can hardly do anything for the Ummah they talk about so often. 

Iran, although generally a deplorable theocracy, seems to be comparatively more progressive than Saudi Arabia. It has strength of its own. 

The new great game in the Middle East has too many irrational actors. Morality and propriety-based ideologies and collective understandings are sorely missing. 

Although sane voices of the world want a status quo of peace and stability there, the shrewd minds in the West desire mutual destruction of closed-minded Middle Eastern Muslims and domination of Israel. 

The best practicable outcome could be dialogues among the Middle Eastern countries, and the working out of a durable geo-political equilibrium. 

Or else, the troubles of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya will continue through the proxies, and there will always be a danger of a real destructive war and further human suffering. 

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.