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West Asia's Evolving Balance of Power
by Dr. Subhash Kapila Bookmark and Share

West Asia like East Asia which was covered in my last week's column is yet another important strategic region of the global strategic calculus. Its western flank rests on the East Mediterranean Sea and its eastern flank touches South Asia. Some like to classify this region in two halves with West Asia encompassing the region from the East Mediterranean to the The Gulf western littoral exclusive, and the Gulf Region extending from there Westwards to the western flank of South Asia. During British colonial rule the two regions were better known by their geographical proximity to Britain and known as the Near East and the Middle East. For the purposes of discussion in today's Column the former appellation would be used. 

This region before the First World War was one unitary unit as part of the old Turkish Empire. With Turkey's defeat this region was carved into the countries and boundaries as existent today except for Israel which emerged as the homeland of the Jewish people and as an independent country in 1948.

The end of the Second World War in 1945 brought in its wake the Cold War which first brought about the congealment on ideological lines of Eastern Europe as the Soviet orbit of influence or the Warsaw Pact alliance led by the Soviet Union and Western Europe as the Western Alliance more commonly called the NATO military alliance led by the United States.

The Cold War did not take long to spread into West Asia for two reasons. The first reason was its significant geo-strategic location in relation to Europe ,the Soviet Union , South Asia and Central Asia. The region was both a land bridge and also provided sea connectivity between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea via the Suez Canal. In other words it provided the shortest access between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

The second major reason was that within its confines West Asia housed the world's largest supplies and reserves of oil and natural gas . It was but natural that it became a region of strategic focus of the world's two new superpowers and the other major powers. It became a region where balance of power politics practitioners played strategic chess games without pause or remorse.

In terms of Cold War dynamics the West Asia region assumed initial contours as under in the decade of the 1950s and the 1960s. The Arab countries of Egypt, Syria ,Iraq and Libya overthrew their monarchial regimes under the leadership of young military officers and emerged as Arab Socialist regimes or as the West preferred to call them as 'radical regimes. They aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and received sizeable quantities of latest Soviet military hardware and became the leading military powers of West Asia. They emerged as key players in the Arab world's military confrontation with Israel.

In opposition to them the United States Arab allies comprised Saudi Arabia and the other monarchial regimes of The Gulf Region and Jordan. Additionally the United States had two significant non-Arab major nations of Turkey and Shah's Iran as its allies. What the American Arab monarchial allies lacked in military power was made up by Turkey and Iran.

Iran under the Shah of Iran was built up into a modern military power by the United States as its ' surrogate policeman' of West Asia. In American strategy along with Iran the United States built up Saudi Arabia as the 'twin pillars' of US military strategy in West Asia. Rather odd as both of them were antithetical to each other. Saudi Arabia was a Sunni Muslim conservative and orthodox country whereas monarchial Iran was a modern looking and assertive Shia Muslim country.

This carefully contrived balance of power underwent two significant changes. The first one was in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran. The Shah of Iran was toppled and Islamic Iran emerged in violent opposition to the United States. In one swift stroke Ayatollah Khomeini who was in exile for years in Iraq and then France toppled the key pillar of the United States strategic edifice in West Asia.

However, the United States was not without a strategic gain in that Egypt as a key Soviet ally moved into the American orbit after the Peace Treaty with Israel arrived at Camp David.

The next significant shift in balance of power took place in 1990-1991 , that is when three coincidental strategic events took place in West Asia altering the strategic landscape in the region. It began with the invasion and occupation of Kuwait by Saddam's Iraq inviting military intervention by a United States led United Nations Coalition, that is Gulf War I. It coincided with the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union disappeared as the countervailing power to the United States in West Asia and the United States had a free run in Gulf War I and thereafter which was to last till recently. In the decade of the 1990s and till 2003 the United States was to occupy an unquestionable strategic superiority world wide and in West Asia. Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union though not strategically down was economically out and grappling with its internal challenges.

The balance of power situation started changing from 2003 onwards when the United States embarked on Gulf War II. While the United States subjugated Saddam's Iraq and brought about his execution it has landed itself in a military quagmire.

In the wake of the Iraq events what changed the strategic landscape in West Asia was that reinforced by rising oil prices Russia started asserting its traditional countervailing role against the United States in West Asia and also facilitated by the United States strategic distraction in Iraq. A new Cold War had started shaping in West Asia with an important difference that this time China was on the side of Russia in West Asia both plurally and singularly.

The balance of power lineup in West Asia today comprises Iran and Syria in the Russian orbit of influence and the United States finds itself in the strategically uncomfortable position of having wavering allies in the form of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt despite munificent military largesse from the United States to reinforce their regional strategic standings.

Iran is emerging as the major strategic player in West Asia and the United States and the West have not been able to arrest its rise. Russia and China tacitly support its rise. Saudi Arabia lacks the power attributes in comparison to Iran and in any case the United States and Saudi Arabia do not enjoy a trustful relationship today after 9/11 and Gulf War II.

Israel remains as the only 'natural ally' of the United States in West Asia and the United States would be well advised to nurture this relationship to secure its strategic interests in West Asia. It should not buckle to Saudi Arabian political pressures in the formulation of its West Asia policies to the detriment of Israel by pressurizing it to accept unnatural adjustments for peace just to appease Arab sentiments.

Also, it would be in strategic interests for the United States to ' reclaim' Iran as an American asset by a radical transformation of the US-Iran relationship. If the United States could transform its hostile and confrontational relationship with China it should not be difficult to do likewise with Iran

The gains for the United States in West Asia in terms of balance of power politics would be far more significant if Iran was in its camp. Saudi Arabia and the monarchial regimes of The Gulf cannot provide regional 'ballast' which the United States needs in West Asia to restore the balance of power in West Asia in its favor. 

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