A deficiency of peace and security has long been the defining feature of the Middle East, and recent years have seen severe turmoil.
Turkey’s latest military operation across the border into Syria in October triggered a new round of discussions in this regard. It is no answer to the question that security in the region is either at low ebb or improving. The most urgent issue should be joint regional and global efforts to restore the principle of sovereignty.
Sovereignty has never been sufficiently respected in the Middle East. Israel, for instance launched strikes against its neighbors in the name of security many time in recent decades. Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, even in the face of strong international criticism.
Compared with today, these cases were modest. The region in the last couple of years has witnessed various incidents undermining the principle of sovereignty, from cross-border political murders to the arrest of the leader of another country and frequent military incursions by troops, fighter jets, missiles and drones. To put it another way, the fundamental principles of regional and international order have been discarded.
These vast challenges to the sovereignty principle are primarily characterized by fierce competition for regional geopolitical influence by major Middle Eastern players. In view of America’s reluctance to invest more strategic resources in the region, the local powers proved only too ready to show their new activism, either out of a sense of self-protection or merely expansionist policy.
Iran had widened its influence in the so-called Shiite Arc and Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain, and had particularly demonstrated its capability of controlling the Strait of Hormuz this year. In response to Iran’s challenge, Saudi Arabia worked to form coalitions or alliances at the levels of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab world and the Islamic world over the last decade. Turkey in 2018 established a military presence in Qatar, the soft belly of the Arabian Peninsula, and would possibly consolidate its grip on Syrian Kurdish areas by its Operation Peace Spring. Israel has bombed, with fighters or missiles or drones, Iranian targets in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in recent years.
In short, regional players that might have been aware of America’s determination to withdraw from the region had been competing for influence to gain a position in the future regional power structure. And competition in a zero-sum game might have provided the momentum for regional players to act in a way that disregards the principle of sovereignty.
The vast disrespect for sovereignty arises in part from the bad example that the U.S. has set in the region. It has been a dominant power in the region since the Gulf War in 1991.
Unfortunately, the U.S. had shown minimal respect for sovereignty in its interactions with the countries there. It launched the Iraq war on the pretext of protecting human rights in 2003 without authorization by the UN Security Council. It had thousands of boots in Syria, but it had neither authorization from the UN nor an invitation from the Syrian government. President Donald Trump’s unexpected and uninvited visit to U.S. camps in Iraq in late December also demonstrated disrespect for the sovereignty of the nation. He might not have understood that he was traveling to another sovereign nation.
That’s not the whole story. This year, the Trump administration announced its recognition of Israel’s annexation of the part of the Golan Heights taken by war in the 1967. This open recognition was an apparent challenge to fundamental principles of international order. This only encourages other Middle Eastern countries to do the same as Israel did in 1967. Turkey already had its troops in Syrian Kurdish areas: Will Turkey do the same as Israel did? Who knows? Will some other countries follow suit?
All in all, disrespect for sovereignty in the Middle East has become a common phenomenon, and regional security could be further undermined if the sovereignty is not re-enshrined. Competition for geopolitical influence might not be inevitable, but it should be controlled at least within the limits of sovereignty. Actually, Middle Eastern countries are well aware of the serious consequence of violations of the sovereignty principle. In 1990, they were all angered by Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and unanimously opposed it.
These countries will have to stay alert today to the dangers of sovereignty’s destruction. No country except the most powerful can benefit from the violation of the sovereignty principle. Weaker states are the most vulnerable victims of disrespect for sovereignty, but stronger states are not necessarily the beneficiaries. They are equally vulnerable.
Therefore, the international community, particularly the Middle Eastern countries, should work together to maintain the principle of sovereignty. Minimal regional order requires this.
In this regard, China’s efforts should be appreciated. China, as a responsible actor in the international community, has long stressed the principle of sovereignty. It has never interfered in the domestic affairs of Middle Eastern countries, and has no historical burden in its relations with the region. China could promote the principle of sovereignty by means of its prestige in the region.