The new geopolitics of West Asia: strategic ambiguity and surprise

By Mohsen Shariatinia and Ehsan Razani
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 21, 2015
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 [By Zhai Haijun/]

The security environment in West Asia has undergone dramatic changes during recent years. These trends can be categorized as follows:

Proliferation of crises after existing crises have been solved

Before the Arab uprisings, Afghanistan and Iraq were considered the center of the crisis in West Asia, however the Arab movements led to the emergence of new focal points of crisis in various countries of the region, from Syria to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Great powers and regional actors not only have not been able to manage these crises but also have pursued a strategy with zero-sum results. Therefore, the new developments have unprecedentedly increased tensions between regional powers.

The increasing strategic surprises

Strategic surprise, by definition, refers to an unexpected event with remarkable impact on the distribution of power at international or regional levels. For instance, the collapse of the Soviet Union and 9/11 can be seen as strategic surprises in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

A number of strategic surprises have occurred in the West Asian region during the last four years, including the Arab uprisings, the civil war in Syria, the rapid domination of ISIS over vast territories in Syria and Iraq and the Saudi Arabian invasion of Yemen. As this list indicates, recent years have witnessed many more strategic surprises than any time in the past.

Another point which distinguishes these surprises from those in the past is their sources. While revival or opponent states (particularly Iraq under Saddam and the United States) were the main sources responsible for surprises in the past, today it is non-state actors who have become the main sources of strategic surprises in West Asia in the form of popular movements or terrorist groups. The change in the sources of strategic surprises has made crisis management much more difficult than the past.

As a matter of fact, when a state becomes the source of strategic surprises, facing the unexpected situation can be made easier by understanding the characteristics of that state. By contrast, when an unknown terrorist group dominates some parts of a country or a region, it becomes more difficult to overcome the unexpected development.

The changing regional balance of power

Another emerging development in the West Asia security environment is the rapid and frequent changes in the status quo of the actors which can be called a "changing status." In other words, the regional balance of power has become more unstable than earlier periods. The primacy of regional actors is rapidly becoming unstable and winners are becoming losers. This can be best observed in the ups and down in the U.S. role in the region as well as the changing of the balance of power between supporters and opponents of the Syrian and Iraqi governments. With this in mind, regional actors, facing the increasing fluctuation of balance of power, will find their geopolitical positions unstable. Needless to say, preserving the geopolitical interests in the fluid balance of power is much more costly than in stable conditions.

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