Against the backdrop of emerging alliances, several different conflicts, and security guarantees being reneged, the Middle East is going through a geopolitical shift that has the entire world focused. In place of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, various nations in the region have reassessed their foreign policies, with either a growing detachment from traditional superpowers, such as the United States or Russia, or emerging ones, such as China.
There have been several critical diplomatic measures and emerging conflicts to look out for, which could either lead to regional stability or potential breakdown into renewed wars.
Shadow War Between Israel and Iran
In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the now-ruling Mullahs declared a fatwa of the destruction of Israel to export the Islamic Revolution fully. As a result, Tel Aviv and Tehran have been in a shadow war since the 80s, with heightened tensions over the past several years.
Taking advantage of the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq and the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic Republic established a land corridor to their proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. The Mullahs have now found multiple fronts in a war against Israel.
In a tit-for-tat foreign policy, Israel formed a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan, the latter of which has hostile relations with Iran and has made the Mullahs panic. Ongoing strikes against Iranian officers (IRGC) and affiliated militias have taken place, with the Israeli government preparing contingencies to destroy Iran’s nuclear program if the international community doesn’t.
Iran’s proxies, such as Hezbollah, have established a joint command center with Palestinian militant groups, such as Hamas, to establish a base in Lebanon—a primary red line for Israel. Ongoing tensions have also drawn in the United States as IRGC-affiliated militias have frequently attacked US Forces in Syria, with the Sixth Fleet in a state of readiness.
Iran’s Tension Inside the Nation
Against the backdrop of the Masha Amini nationwide protests, the Mullahs, for now, have firm control over the nation, but tensions remain. There have been high-value assassinations of IRGC commanders and Mullahs in the country—showing signs of failing security.
Iranian schoolgirls have been poisoned throughout the country—a hallmark of the regime. Over sixty anti-government protests have been executed in 2023, with several dissidents hanged for blasphemy. The most repulsive act of the international community is that Iran was appointed in a leadership role of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which makes a mockery of the global body.
Saudi Arabia-Iran Peace Deal
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the biggest geopolitical rivals in the Middle East. The Saudis are the Sunni-Muslim dominant state, with Iran being the Shia powerhouse. However, both nations have clashed as the ruling elites have seen each other as the leader of Muslims in their archaic Islamic laws.
A recent peace deal brokered by China has seen Riyadh and Tehran rapidly mend relations, with embassies reopening. Potential peace deals over Yemen are now possible, and with both countries slowly reconciling, sectarian violence can be mitigated.
The peace deal has raised important questions about whether it will hold and what it means for the United States, which has had its fair share of diplomatic conflict with Saudi Arabia over the last few years. It also raises the future of the Abraham Accords as Israel looks to normalize relations with more Middle East nations and if the Saudis could dissuade Tel Aviv from launching strikes on Tehran.
Status of Syria and Assad’s Rehabilitation by the Arab League
Bashar al-Assad, the longtime President of Syria, was willing to see his country burn to the ground in an attempt to retain power. Opening his country’s security apparatus to Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias, Syria is still a quagmire despite Assad holding the population centers.
With the Syrian War frozen, Assad is now being rehabilitated by the Arab League. This was opportunistic for Assad as many of the leading members of the league have come under scrutiny for human rights absurd by the United States, and his rehabilitation is all but a middle finger in the name of US foreign policy.
Various challenges remain with Syria, such as the status of American forces, key ISIS leaders using the country as a haven, and the rising attacks by IRGC-linked militias against coalition forces. In addition, Syrian refugees from Turkey and Lebanon continue to fight back against demands to leave and return to their homelands, which has led to a significant human rights debate.
Syria has become the world’s largest drug trafficking mafia as Assad had used the caption to funnel what’s left of his empire of dirt due to being sanctioned into oblivion. This drug trade has negatively affected states such as Lebanon and Jordan, with the latter striking a drug ring inside Syria this May.
The War in Yemen
The Yemeni Civil War has been one of the most brutal conflicts in the 21st century. Already one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes, Yemen has seen various factions and warlords fight for influence at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
The Saudi-Iranian peace deal could have significant implications for Yemen’s outlook, as the two main warring factions are supported by Iran (Houthis) or Saudi Arabia (government forces). Tehran has reportedly stopped shipping weapons to Yemen, and Riyadh is setting a path for reconciliation between the various factions.
Violence in the West Bank has risen, with newly formed Palestinian militant groups frequently clashing with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Israel, which has gone through one of its most turbulent governments, has a significant security threat now that Iranian-backed militias have started to form unified commands—including Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Building a more in-depth base in Lebanon, Hamas has used a golden ticket of trying to bait Israel into drawing Hezbollah into a war, which could have disastrous consequences for the white region. Likewise, the IRGC has organized more militias in the West Bank and Gaza with recent fighting between Islamic Jihad and Israel, the former supported by Iran.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces challenges in the Knesset and these security threats. The recent fighting against Islamic Jihad displayed Israel’s capabilities of numerous ‘decapitation strikes‘ of high-value leaders along with combat testing the David Sling missile defense system.
Nonetheless, tensions will not dissipate anytime soon, the conflict with Iranian-backed militias will heighten, and international pressure over continued negotiations on the West Bank, along with abuse of power, will continue to plague Netanyahu for the foreseeable future.
Lebanon suffers from one of the most rapid economic collapses in modern history. Economic stagnation, successive incompetent governments, a demographic exodus, numerous foreign interference, and the rise of warlords are all significant obstacles keeping Lebanon from stability.
The Beirut Blast marked the grim reality of decades of government negligence, with Lebanon still unable to choose another president after months of stalling. The situation has become so dire that the US State Department has to pay the salaries of the Lebanese Security Forces to keep them from mutinying as they represent the final factor keeping the country from complete collapse.
Calls have started to come forward for federalism or partition in the country, and the status of Iranian-backed militias in Lebanon put seven million Lebanese under threat of regional War breaks out.
Where Does this Leave the Major Global Players?
Russia is by far the biggest loser in the geopolitical shift in the Middle East. Paranoia over Ukraine’s self-determination has led to the Kremlin making one of the biggest political blunders in modern history. With the Russian Military crippled, Moscow has been forced to pull assets out of Syria into Ukraine, and they cannot deter Israeli airstrikes.
China has become the biggest winner of the geopolitical shift in the region. Able to use its rising diplomacy to bring Riyadh and Tehran into peace is a significant victory against the United States and Russia, which failed to stem tensions. Nevertheless, China is unlikely to deter any future war between Israel and Iran and will be unable to militarily and diplomatically stop the Israeli army from striking Iranian nuclear reactors as Tel Aviv views its program as an existential crisis.
Though China has gained influence in the region and America has had diplomatic slights with its Middle Eastern allies, it is unlikely Beijing will achieve a military foothold in the area. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain rely on US military protection and force projection—something China cannot achieve yet. The Middle East-China developments Washington a pivotal alternative to Middle Eastern states who play cavalier politics—rely on China, which cannot supply protection adequately, or the US, which could.
Nonetheless, the ever-changing geopolitical shift in the Middle East is something to study and watch closely. With autocratic governments coming under pressure in 2022, regional autocrats have self-aligned in 2023 despite ideological differences and look to play smoke-and-mirror politics with China and Russia to force more concessions out of Western states.