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The Middle East (ME) has never been a peaceful place and throughout history, instability in the ME has always been a concern for the rest of the world.

While these anxieties continue, in the past decade the ME has witnessed several extraordinary developments. If these upheavals, ethnic and religious conflicts, sectarian tensions, clashes of interests continue as they are, a regional war seems inevitable, which might trigger a third World War. In this context a very short list of events to raise eyebrows can be summarised as below:

Syrian crisis, which began with street protests to obtain more rights escalated into a civil war in spring 2011. Bashar al-Assad’s government responded harshly to those protests, resulting in turmoil, so far generating more than 400.000 deaths and more than 5 million refugees.[1] The refugee crisis is one the most important issues with which the European Union is currently dealing.

ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), of which roots go back to Al Qaeda in Iraq and later ISI (Islamic State of Iraq) in 2006, increased the pitch in salafi jihad by declaring caliphate in 2014. At its height in 2015, effectively operating in both Syria and Iraq, the salafi-jihadist network and its affiliates have been responsible for the death of more than 30,000 people.[2]

Yemen’s political upheaval started in 2015, escalating to war between the Houthis, supported by Iran, and the supporters of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi who is backed by Saudi Arabia. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been in a war through proxies in Yemen where more than 8,600 people have been killed and 49,000 have been injured[3]. There has been a concern of the Yemeni civil war potentially triggering a direct confrontational conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in terms of Sunni and Shia sectarian problems.

The United States of America (USA) has been supporting the Kurdish group, Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) against ISIL since 2015. The Trump administration endorsed delivery of a significant number of weapons and ammunition to YPG, despite fierce opposition from its NATO ally Turkey. Turkey opposes this situation since YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has already been recognized as a Terrorist Group by NATO.

The USA support to Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria and processing and settling of Kurdish groups in areas where Arabs formerly dominated, is another significant problem area which might get worse in the future.

On 25 September 2017, a referendum was held in Northern Iraq and the result was almost 94 % in favor of independence. Although many countries, including the USA, were against referendum, Israel strongly supported it. Turkey and Iran were fiercely against the referendum since it was perceived as the first step of a greater Independent Kurdistan, including the Kurdish dominated areas in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey.

A small but hydrocarbon rich Qatar was cut off by a few of its wealthy and more powerful Arab neighbours (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Bahrain and Egypt) on 5 June 2017, due to sponsorship of the USA over its alleged support for terrorism. On the other hand, while Turkey strongly stood up for Qatar, Iran has also helped Qatar to deal with the trade and travel restrictions imposed by its neighbours since June. These proceedings have added extra wood into the fire in the ME.

Anti-corruption operations against 11 Princes including prominent ones led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who will most likely be the new King of Saudi Arabia in the near future, were also important developments in the region.

While the world has been monitoring these progresses in the Middle East, another substantial incident popped up on the night of 28 December 2017, when protests across the whole country were ignited against poverty, corruption, rising costs of staples and fuel in Iran.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there has been no serious remonstrance against the regime, with the exception of one in 2009.  Since that time, the most important challenges for the government have been poverty and economic problems until now, with things currently more complicated. Although the number of protestors is less compared to 2009, the recent protest is much broader, reaching across the country and including more than 70 cities, many of which are mostly poor. Even though the demonstrations started because of financial reasons, they soon evolved into a political dimension.

Despite President Rouhani`s much softer tone against protestors, other officials, including Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, blamed foreigners, such as the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, for the instability.

At first glance Iranian protests look surprising but they are not. Although the 2015 nuclear deal lifted most of the sanctions and allowed the country to sell its oil abroad again, Iranians couldn’t enjoy the economic benefits. While monetary indexes have improved under President Hassan Rouhani’s government, unemployment [4] rate has risen gradually since last year and has reached 29.2%.

The protests were suppressed due to harsh measures taken by the government: more than 1000 people have been arrested and reportedly 20 people have been killed during the demonstrations.

As the protests in Iran have vanished, a significant development occurred in the ME:  Turkish Military Forces commenced an operation, code name “Olive Branch”, together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) units into Afrin, Syria against YPG on 20 January 2018.

Regarding the incidents aforementioned and other crucial progressions in the world in recent years, more and more people have been expressing their concerns about the imminent world war. The last warning came from the United Nations Secretary General in the form of a New Year message which read: “On New Year’s Day 2018, I am not issuing an appeal, I am issuing an alert — a red alert for our world.”[5]

A brief look at the near history which preceded both world wars points to a state of polarisation and an impasse among great powers in resolving their differences.

In particular, the latest situation in Syria and the turbulent events since the millennium have created wake up calls for many. It is arguable that abovementioned extraordinary developments in the new millennium are telltales of a regional war with potential to spill over and evolve into another world war. There seems to exist a consensus among several major powers to change the borders drawn in the wake of WWI.

Iran is a country with profound history and culture. It has proved its resilience in the face of economic sanctions and interference from outside since 1979. However, internal unrest, seen both in 2009 and currently, have potential to weaken the country.  I argue that Iran will not change its policy in the Middle East including its role in Syria and Yemen in the short term. However, President Rouhani will probably try to work out a solution against economic problems by submitting to parliament a package of major reforms. If Iranian officials cannot find a solution in the mid-term, much more serious protests could change the entire regime.

If operation Olive Branch broadens into Manbij as Turkey`s president Erdogan`s claims, the situation will be much more complicated and chaotic due to the US soldiers in Manbij.

The chain of events in the ME are very likely to set the conditions for a regional war which could easily transform into a global one, namely WWIII. To minimize undesired or unexpected results such as warfare in the ME, every country and every actor who has interests in the ME must act with utmost responsibility. If not, a war starting in the ME will almost certainly trigger World War III, which will likely be a Nuclear Version, ending human civilisation as we know it.

 

References:

[1] The Guardian, 2017, “Syrian refugees: more than 5m in neighboring countries now, says UN” found at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/30/syrian-refugee-number-passes-5m-mark-un-reveals, accessed on January 4, 2018.

[2] Julia GLUM, 2016, “How Many People Has ISIS Killed?” found at http://www.ibtimes.com/how-many-people-has-isis-killed-terrorist-attacks-linked-islamic-state-have-caused-2399779, accessed on January 5, 2018.

[3] BBC, 2017, “Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?” found at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423/, accessed on January 5, 2018.

[4] Associated Press, with reports from Reuters and Gloria Galloway, 2018, “What’s happening in Iran? A guide to the protests” found at https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/iran-protests-explainer/article37471990/, accessed on January 7, 2018.

[5] Lauren Said-Moorhouse and Amanda Coakley, 2017, “UN chief issues ‘red alert’ for the world” found at http://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/31/us/un-secretary-general-2018-message-intl/index.html, accessed on January 7, 2018.