As the world looks to the Levant in anxiety, wondering if an escalation of conflict in Syria would be the catalyst for World War Three, this is an attempt to weigh the issues that could draw the world into it. The conflicts in West Asia have been pulling the world into its vortex for a long time. The region is marked by a history of flourishing trade, the birth of three Abrahamic religions, strategic proximity between Asia and Europe, and the US interest in establishing an economic and armed hegemony in the region.
The current escalation of violence in Syria is seen as a global crisis due to two very important outcomes. The first is the fleeing refugees who have no papers and are trying to disappear into the anonymity of the world. The second is the rise of the Islamic State (IS) that has managed to get the two former superpowers in a possible military face-off.
While the world today looks at the micro-picture of the rise in brutality of the forces of the IS, the macro role of Israel and the ambitions of Europe/US/ Russia, gets overlooked. The domination of the external players in domestic developments has been most marked in West Asia. During the Cold War, the ideological leanings of the leadership in the region could have split the region into two camps. While supporting the socialist leadership, USSR drew a line on the issue of safety and security of Israel. It was careful about maintaining its hold on the arms and ammunition of its allies, as well as on the infrastructural development of the countries involved. The nuclear plants in all the countries, from Iran to Syria, were designed and operated by the Soviets.
The vagaries of the US foreign policy vis-a-vis the region have to be understood in the context of the rise of Israel and the former’s interest in securing profits from the arms and oil trade in the region. Similarly, the interests of Israel have been the key determining factor for the formulation of foreign policies of Europe including Russia. The intervention by the USSR after the 1967 Arab- Israeli war, and again in 1975 after the third Arab-Israeli war, were responsible for the Syrians, Egyptians and other countries involved to accept the status quo established at the end of the wars.
The significance of the cold war for the region lay in the military and political alignments of the countries with the two warring powers. By pegging the dollar to oil, the US had declared its territorial and military ambitions. This meant that the Gulf states, including Iran would be allies of the US. They were to remain in the protectorate status by allowing the US to manage their economic, defence and political alliances in the region and outside. As a result, it was easier for the Arab leadership to highlight the suffering of the Palestinians rather than take up arms for their cause. It was also easier for the leadership in the region to fund and support subversive movements like Hamas and Hezbollah while suppressing Islamist movements at home.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of Russia from the international reconfiguration politics, the first and the most fatal casualty was West Asia. It gave the US a chance to come up with the idea of a ‘New World Order’. The first development after 9/11 was the release of the details of the project to re-structure the region. Popularly known as the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) of President George W Bush, the project aimed to redraw the geography, polity, economy and societal priorities of the region. This included demarcating territory within Iraq to allow for the Kurds to establish their autonomous territories. It defined the strategy of identifying countries with nuclear ambitions or a possible possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as a threat to Israel, which would give the US and its allies a legitimate cause to enforce sanctions. The failure of these measures to produce results would automatically legitimise military action and even occupation.