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Book Discussion

"Battlefield: Ten Conflicts that Explain the New Middle East"

22 February 2024

Book Discussion

The future of the Middle East region continues to dominate discussions in Western academic and political circles. This is due to the region's significant importance to the security and economy of the international system, which is currently undergoing profound transformations. One of the most important manifestations of these transformations is the return of competition between international powers, with the conflict over the Middle East being a focal point.

On February 22, 2024, Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS) hosted a discussion session with Dr. Christopher Phillips, author of the upcoming book "Battlefield: Ten Conflicts that Explain the New Middle East." Scheduled for publication in March 2024, this book provides a comprehensive exploration of the geopolitics of the Middle East. It analyzes ten major conflicts in the region and examines how these conflicts intersect with various international and regional actors.

Dr. Phillips has been a professor of international relations at Queen Mary University in Britain since 2012. Prior to that, he worked in the Intelligence Unit of The Economist magazine. He holds a doctorate and master's degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, as well as a bachelor's degree from the University of Cambridge. Dr. Phillips is also the founder and director of the International Consulting Group at Academia International.

Complex Conflicts

Phillips initiated the discussion by highlighting that his understanding of conflict in the region extends beyond armed conflicts, civil or regional wars. He emphasized that conflict also encompasses a state of division and tension that has the potential to worsen in the near future. In the Middle East, conflicts often serve as a battleground for regional and international powers vying to promote their interests by supporting different factions.

Furthermore, Phillips underscored the complexity of conflicts in the region, cautioning against attempts to explain them through a single factor such as religion or economics. He argued that these intricate conflicts require comprehensive explanations that take into account various factors, either individually or in combination. This emphasis extends beyond the need for theoretical comprehension of the region and encompasses Western policies towards the Middle East, which often exhibit unilateralism and focus on selective factors such as religion, sectarianism, or energy-related issues, among others.

A New Middle East

In his presentation, Phillips discussed the characteristics of the new Middle East that is currently being formed. He emphasized that the defining stage in its establishment occurred after the political turmoil in 2011. Some of the key features of this stage include:

The changing role of the US: The United States has redefined its relationship with the region, moving away from being the sole dominant actor. This shift can be seen as the region entering a post-American hegemony stage. However, this does not imply the end of the American role. In fact, the United States has recently reaffirmed its military presence in the region during the ongoing Gaza war. Nevertheless, the restructuring of the American role has led to a broader presence of regional and international actors vying for influence in the region.

Increased vitality and effectiveness of regional powers: The ability of regional powers to act and make decisions independently has recently grown. For example, Phillips mentioned the case of Turkey entering the Syrian battlefield to establish a safe zone within Syrian borders, despite objections from the United States and Western countries. Similarly, the Arab Gulf states have been inclined to safeguard their interests and assert their own vision, separate from "Western interests." In many instances, these powers have played a positive role in resolving disputes and conflicts. For instance, the Gulf states have mediated the resolution of conflicts in Sudan, Ethiopia, and other regions.

Increased number of weak states: In contrast to previous stages in the region's post-independence history, which saw limited cases of conflict, there has been an expansion in the number of weak and fragile states, or those on the verge of collapse, in the region. Some of these countries, such as Syria and Iraq, were once active forces on the regional scene but have now become battlegrounds for influence between external powers seeking to redirect decision-making within them.

Growth of violent non-state actors: Phillips highlighted the growing significance of non-state armed groups in shaping and impacting events. These groups encompass a range of actors, including cross-border terrorist movements like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, as well as militias aligned with certain countries such as Iran. These groups are utilized by Iran in its quest for influence in the region.

Post-American Middle East

In his analysis, Phillips focused on the nature and future of the American role in the region, questioning the possibility of a post-American Middle East. Despite attempts at American withdrawal, the increasing military presence indicates that the American presence will persist. Ongoing conflicts, such as the Iranian threat and the recent war in Gaza, further reinforce this. While the current American administration has not prioritized the region, it has found itself increasingly involved in its politics, which has started to have negative consequences domestically. If the next US administration, potentially led by Trump and the Republicans, comes to power, they may pursue an isolationist policy, but their actions would be unpredictable.

Phillips dismissed the idea of China taking over the void left by the decline of the United States based on the following criteria:

China's ability and willingness to take on that role: Phillips argued that China lacks the military capabilities to match the United States, citing the disparity in the number of aircraft carriers. Consequently, China is unwilling to bear the security burden or deploy its forces in the region. Instead, China's strategy is to rely on the United States to ensure security, as long as it safeguards China's economic interests.

The Extent of Readiness and Acceptance of Middle Eastern Countries: It appears that the Middle Eastern countries are currently unwilling to have the US's role replaced by another. This reluctance can be attributed to various factors, including historical considerations and the interconnected interests between the parties involved. According to Phillips, the United States may see a decline in its role in the Middle East, but it will not allow China to replace it in this region.

In conclusion, Phillips emphasized that it is wrong to view the region solely as a battleground for international powers, seeing how it oversimplifies the real situation. Regional powers have also demonstrated their ability to maneuver independently. However, what is required is the organization of these movements and the coordination of interests, which will help reshape the security structure in the region and promote stability and mutual benefits. While achieving this goal may be challenging due to the complexity of the conflicts, it remains within the realm of possibility.