Syria's Global War and Beyond: Will the Balance of Power in the Middle East Be Restored?

By Dostal, Jörg Michael | Studia Politica; Romanian Political Science Review, July 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Syria's Global War and Beyond: Will the Balance of Power in the Middle East Be Restored?


Dostal, Jörg Michael, Studia Politica; Romanian Political Science Review


Introduction

In politics, actors' intentions are usually invisible. They are hardly ever revealed before the event. Only the event reveals. Revealed intentions allow to suggest hypothesis about previous plans. In this sense, the Syrian war has been an exercise in revealed intentions, and more is still to come. This paper will not speculate about the "real" intentions of actors, but will instead look back at what has been revealed to everyone who carefully observed the country of Syria since mid-March 2011 when the current conflict started off.

The paper will thus provide a geopolitical analysis of the Syrian crisis. While Western discourse has for a long time used the highly misleading term "civil war", the current paper suggests that from the very beginning it has amounted to a conflict over world order with high degrees of foreign interference. For reasons of space, the paper focuses on the role of the US as the major external coordinator of the Syrian insurgency.1 The role of Israel as the leading military power in the Middle East and major factor in explaining regional US conduct is also highlighted. The other actors' intentions are sketched more briefly.

The argument will proceed as follows: the first section presents long-, medium- and short-term geopolitical factors influencing the behaviour of the US on a global scale and with regard to the Middle East; the second section highlights US strategic debates on the Middle East and Syria since the end of the Cold War and puts forward a brief description of the strategic interests of some other state actors; the third section provides a year-by-year analysis of the Syrian war focusing on main events and their political significance; finally, the fourth section analyses the nature and characteristics of state hierarchy in the Middle East with particular reference to peripheral realism theory. Overall, the paper's purpose is to encourage debate about the nature and degree of (Arab) state sovereignty under current geopolitical conditions.

US Geopolitics And The Middle East: Long-, Medium- And Short-Term Factors

Geopolitics concerns the study of the impact of geographical factors on human history and policy-making. Many classical geopolitical authors focused in their writings on conflicts between sea and land powers. From the British maritime perspective, Halford J. Mackinder argued that the "heartland" or "pivot area", located geographically at some point in central Asia, constituted the main centre of (land-) power in world politics. In fact, the heartland amounted to a natural fortress, since it was difficult or impossible to invade by sea powers.2 From Mackinder's perspective, world history unfolded based on conflict between "robbers of the steppe" invading from Asia into Europe and the Middle East, and "pirates from the sea" entering and dominating the coastal zones of the "world island" (a second term introduced by Mackinder to define the landmass of Asia, Europe and Africa connecting in the Middle East gateway zone).

This long-standing geopolitical conflict between land-based and maritime powers was "solved" by the Dutch (since 1928 US-American) author Nicholas J. Spykman. Writing during World War 2, Spykman argued that geopolitical hegemony was neither to be found in naval power, via control of trade routes and maritime choke points, nor, as argued by Mackinder, in the centre of Asia, which in the mid-20th century mostly contained less populated and economically backward territories. Instead, he suggested that political and economic power was first and foremost concentrated in the "global rimlands" (Spykman's term), namely the coastal zones of the world where most of the world's population and economic activity was and still is concentrated.3

In adopting the point of view of the US as a major combined land and sea power, Spykman suggested that US "defence" could no longer be based on control of a single geopolitical region, such as the Western Hemisphere as stated in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which had demanded the European powers to abandon their territorial claims on the American continent. …

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