Long before the Bush administration began selling “the surge” in Iraq as a way to avert a general war in the Middle East, observers both inside and outside the government were growing concerned about the potential for armed conflict among the regional powers.
Underlying this anxiety was a scenario in which Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic violence spills over into neighboring countries, producing conflicts between the major Arab states and Iran as well as Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government. These wars then destabilize the entire region well beyond the current conflict zone, involving heavyweights like Egypt.
This is scary stuff indeed, but with the exception of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds, the scenario is far from an accurate reflection of the way Middle Eastern leaders view the situation in Iraq and calculate their interests there.
It is abundantly clear that major outside powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey are heavily involved in Iraq. These countries have so much at stake in the future of Iraq that it is natural they would seek to influence political developments in the country.
Yet, the Saudis, Iranians, Jordanians, Syrians, and others are very unlikely to go to war either to protect their own sect or ethnic group or to prevent one country from gaining the upper hand in Iraq.
The reasons are fairly straightforward. First, Middle Eastern leaders, like politicians everywhere, are primarily interested in one thing: self-preservation. Committing forces to Iraq is an inherently risky proposition, which, if the conflict went badly, could threaten domestic political stability. Moreover, most Arab armies are geared toward regime protection rather than projecting power and thus have little capability for sending troops to Iraq.
Second, there is cause for concern about the so-called blowback scenario in which jihadis returning from Iraq destabilize their home countries, plunging the region into conflict.
Middle Eastern leaders are preparing for this possibility. Unlike in the 1990s, when Arab fighters in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union returned to Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and became a source of instability, Arab security services are being vigilant about who is coming in and going from their countries.
In the last month, the Saudi government has arrested approximately 200 people suspected of ties with militants. Riyadh is also building a 700 kilometer wall along part of its frontier with Iraq in order to keep militants out of the kingdom.
Finally, there is no precedent for Arab leaders to commit forces to conflicts in which they are not directly involved. The Iraqis and the Saudis did send small contingents to fight the Israelis in 1948 and 1967, but they were either ineffective or never made it. In the 1970s and 1980s, Arab countries other than Syria, which had a compelling interest in establishing its hegemony over Lebanon, never committed forces either to protect the Lebanese from the Israelis or from other Lebanese. The civil war in Lebanon was regarded as someone else’s fight.
Indeed, this is the way many leaders view the current situation in Iraq. To Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, the situation in Iraq is worrisome, but in the end it is an Iraqi and American fight.
As far as Iranian mullahs are concerned, they have long preferred to press their interests through proxies as opposed to direct engagement. At a time when Tehran has access and influence over powerful Shiite militias, a massive cross-border incursion is both unlikely and unnecessary.
So Iraqis will remain locked in a sectarian and ethnic struggle that outside powers may abet, but will remain within the borders of Iraq.
The Middle East is a region both prone and accustomed to civil wars. But given its experience with ambiguous conflicts, the region has also developed an intuitive ability to contain its civil strife and prevent local conflicts from enveloping the entire Middle East.
Iraq’s civil war is the latest tragedy of this hapless region, but still a tragedy whose consequences are likely to be less severe than both supporters and opponents of Bush’s war profess.