The Middle East is at a crossroads.
The fraught political situation in the Middle East is a direct contradiction; a perfect juxtaposition of permanence and impermanence. The region never changes; the region is constantly changing.
The tides of history have shaped and reshaped the fertile valleys, towering mountains and coastal regions of the Middle East constantly over the centuries; conquerers, modern and ancient, have traversed the landscape.
Improbably, considering certain technological advantages, modern provocateurs and would-be conquerers have collected as many defeats as victories. The permanence of the region resists change by outsiders.
Permanence is the key strength of the Taliban, for example, a fact that has been laid bare in recent months. As the political tides in Afghanistan and the U.S. turned and turned again, the Taliban never wavered in its grisly commitment. It was determined to wait western powers out and ultimately it did. The Taliban, in spite of better public relations people and access to social media, is one of those things that never changes in the Middle East.
Judging by the humanitarian crisis of epic proportions currently taking place in Afghanistan, which soon might be classified under a more appropriate heading like “genocide”, the Taliban of 2021 is the same as it was in 2001.
Other things, however, have changed, and radically over the last few years in particular.
Under the steerage of the Trump presidency, some Middle Eastern nations took the almost unheard of step of normalizing ties with Israel. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco all moved closer to Israel.
It was a smart move economically and politically. Who is the real threat to those nations and the people in them? Israel, or radical Islamist forces sponsoring terror throughout the region?
Far from posing a threat to the people of these nations, Israel is a position to be of great help to its neighbors. From advanced anti-terrorism experience to the best desalinization and water reclamation technology in the world, Israel has already proven itself an excellent ally and trading partner.
Without the tacit approval of Saudi Arabia, the Abraham Accords would never have happened. In 2020, other nations seemed likely to join as well.
Iran was then sagging under the weight of crushing sanctions, with anger at the ruling Mullahs growing by the day on the ground in Iran. Some of Iran’s key terror players- including the infamous General Qasem Soleimani- had been targeted by U.S. and Israeli forces.
Since that time, and since the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan by American forces, U.S. power in the region has been badly diminished; China’s power in the region, on the other hand, and the brutal genius of its “Belt and Road Initiative”, which some are calling Economic Imperialism, is waxing hot.
That is another major change which has taken place over the past years. Mineral hungry China is investing in emerging nations all over the world and Middle Eastern nations are no exception.
Under BRI contracts, struggling nations- Afghanistan being a prime example- accept help from the Chinese Communist Party in the short term; infrastructure investments, massive engineering projects, other valuable help.
It is all a loan, of course.
In exchange, China gets mineral rights and other economic benefits in the short-term. In the long-term, if and when these nations default on the BRI agreements, the Chinese Communist Party has guaranteed itself land concessions, mineral rights collateral, taxation powers and other “benefits” that would look a great deal like an invasion if it all weren’t done by contract rather than using military force outright.
Won’t international courts challenge such contracts? Won’t these countries put up a fuss if China seizes a huge, mineral-rich swath of their country?
Won’t China need an armed military force to protect their mining operation or refinery in a scenario like that?
Maybe. Probably. Undoubtably. But this kind of case could take a decade to litigate- longer. Chinese Communist Party lawyers, as well as any officials from countries China can manage to influence, bully, or otherwise incentivize to take its side, could keep complicated court challenges to international law tied up in litigation for 30 years.
And even if China is ever found to be at fault, no international court has much power over Chinese Communist Party officials today- to say nothing of 30 years from now.
Pressure from all other world governments combined, plus the entire international scientific community, hasn’t been sufficient to cause the Chinese Communist Party to open the doors in Wuhan- even after a global pandemic started there.
China has the upper hand, and no one knows that better than the Chinese Communist Party.
Without the threat of military force, which Western powers will not use, a polite, diplomatic suggestion is the best world governments can do.
The U.S. and its allies will not use military force to protect an emerging nation occupied by the Chinese Army after a BNI default; not even to defend Taiwan. Neither will the U.N.
Just last week, Xi Jinping expressed his joy that Taiwan would soon be reunited with the mainland; he wasn’t saying that for his health. Chinese military planes are currently invading Taiwan’s airspace on a daily basis now.
That isn’t all the CCP is doing either; it’s (mis)information ministers are masters are creating political and social strife within Taiwan. Using existing internal divisions- between vying political parties for instance- social media, and influence over corporate media outlets, the CCP makes Russian hackers look like teenagers rigging a prom queen election.
Soon, China will ride roughshod into Taiwan, crush all resistance and no one will be able to do a thing about it- not without starting a war, which world leaders (presumably) have no stomach to do.
And with China backing the Taliban, which they are, there isn’t much the U.S. can do to pressure Taliban leadership into respecting human rights, either.
In Iran, there is a similar situation. With the backing of Russia, and emboldened by U.S. failures in Afghanistan, the Mullahs currently have three goals: 1.) Finish Iran’s nuclear bomb, 2.) fund terrorism against Iran’s neighbors and, almost certainly, 3.) expand Iran’s territory.
Demagogues need war and poverty like plants need sunlight.
With the new undercurrents in the Middle East, Chinese and Russian, the dwindling American influence, who is to stand in the way of Iran, or Afghanistan, or even Turkey invading nearby neighbors?
The lessons of Kuwait and Iraq, of the War on Terror, are still fresh in the minds of policy makers on three continents.
No one understands U.S. foreign policy failures in the Middle East better than China. Understanding the weaknesses of its geopolitical enemies is what is making the Chinese Communist Party unstoppable.
With the help of COVID-19, China has managed to crush utterly any dissent from Hong Kong democracy demonstrators. Pro-democracy candidates are now forbidden by Chinese law from even running for office.
For all the good it did them, bewildered Hong Kong freedom protestors took cell phone videos of their movement’s organizers being detained, loaded onto police buses and driven away into the night. The cell phone videos are useless; there is no authority, no legal system, no free press- absolutely no one to appeal to for help addressing injustices perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party.
The party, its leader Xi Jinping and his successor- Xi Jinping- control them all.
With the ancient force driving groups like the Taliban, and the new forces vying for control, what is next for the nations of the Middle East and the surrounding areas?
With world powers in such disarray and at counter-purposes, Middle Eastern nations need allies more than ever. More and more it seems like a choice between the Mullahs of Iran, and the horrors they have perpetrated against the people of Iran and elsewhere; and Israel, with its Iron Dome designed to shoot projectiles out of the sky and technological advancements.
The people of the Middle East are tired of war, violence, terrorism and conflict and the Mullahs, especially once they start throwing their nuclear weight around, may be making the choice only too easy.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)