hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Dignified Dutch, Revisionist Russia

Alphen, Netherlands. 29 July.  French statesmen Charles Maurice de Talleyrand once said, “To succeed in the world it is much more necessary to discern who is a fool, than to discover who is a clever man”.  The tragedy of MH17 is about so much more than the murder of 300 people or even the tragedy of eastern Ukraine.  It is about a Moscow that has decided to become a radical, revisionist power and a Europe that simply does not want to recognise that. 
Living here in the Netherlands during these dark, depressed post MH17 days the contrast between two very different cultures is stark.  The Kremlin seems to have retreated into a self-justifying, self-pitying narrative that somehow the West has got it in for Russia and Moscow must act whatever the cost.  The Netherlands and its people by contrast have behaved with a quiet, solemn dignity as the bodies of MH17’s fallen have all-too-slowly returned.  There is little or no talk of retribution here.  It is a profound clash of cultures that concerns two very different ways of seeing the world.

Yesterday I learnt that the black boxes from MH17 confirm what the world already knew – the Malaysian Boeing 777 airliner was shot down by a missile.  The immediate cause is clear; one-group of pro-Russian separatists under pressure from Ukrainian forces fired an SA11 missile at what they thought was a Ukrainian Air Force military transport.  It was an act of brutally indifferent incompetence made possible by Russia.

Indeed, it is not just MH17 or the illegal annexation of Crimea or even the incompetent proxy and not-so-proxy de facto occupation of eastern Ukraine that confirms my fears of a Kremlin (and I mean Kremlin) that has radically changed strategic course over the past year.  Through the testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile Russia is now in possible breach of that cornerstone of European security the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

And that is the essential problem for Europe; an inability to understand the extent to which Russia has changed track.  Proof may well come in the next couple of weeks.  As pro-Russian separatists are forced back on Donetsk and Luhansk Moscow must decide whether it will allow their collapse or intervene.  Moscow’s worse nightmare would be a sudden collapse of the separatists with significant amounts of Russian heavy weapons suddenly falling into Ukrainian hands.    

This morning the EU will agree new sanctions on Russia.  Much of the haggling over the past few days within the EU has been about how best to share the consequent pain of imposing sanctions against Russia.  New EU sanctions will be imposed on the defence, energy and finance sectors but they will be sufficiently limited not to hurt Berlin, Paris and London too much.  The French will still sell their warships to Russia, Germany will still send advanced engineering components to Russia’s gas industry and the City of London will still be a haven for dodgy Russia money.  Indeed, it appears that Chancellor Merkel only agreed to even these limited measures because President Putin did not return three of her telephone calls this past week. 

Here in the Netherlands the question I have been asked repeatedly by my Dutch friends, family and neighbours is that eternal question at such moments – why?  For all my many years of experience in the business of statecraft it is not a question I can easily answer.  Talleyrand once said that, “The art of statecraft is to foresee the inevitable and expedite its occurrence”. 

The Kremlin seems to believe that conflict is inevitable and that Russia must prevail.  Working with Russian colleagues over many years I have been struck often by how vulnerable Russia is to a sense of conspiratorial victimhood to justify good old-fashioned Machtpolitik.  If so then 2014 will mark much more than mere culture clash.  Indeed, the loss of MH 17 may not be the 2014 equivalent of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the Archduchess Sophie.  However, it is one of those big summer moments in European history.

It has been an honour to live here amongst a great people these past couple of weeks.  To see the strength of the Dutch still seared by anger and disbelieving incredulity that something like MH17 could happen in 2014 Europe.  Will EU sanctions and other pressures be enough to force Russia to return to the standards of international behaviour implicit in Dutch dignity?  My sense is not and that Russia is indeed committed to a new strategic course of action of which Ukraine is but one element.  If Russia invades eastern Ukraine what then? Time will soon tell.

Julian Lindley-French

Friday, 25 July 2014

Why EU Foreign Policy does not Work

Alphen, Netherlands. 28 July.  In Monty Python and the Holy Grail the somewhat weak-kneed and weak of will Sir Robin confronted by the Three-Headed Knight says to King Arthur, “Would it help to confuse him if we ran away more?”  I was reminded of this scene when doing a TV interview yesterday to discuss the debacle of the EU’s pathetic non-response to MH17 and Russia’s continuing proxy and not-so proxy aggression in Eastern Ukraine.  Unless Moscow changes tack something even bigger and nastier is about to happen. Russia is now locked onto a course that somehow or another will see it take another part of Ukraine.  And yet in the face of such aggression EU member-states seem more interested in fighting each other than blunting Russian ambitions.  Yet again EU foreign policy has been proved not to work.  Why?

Yesterday Sir Tony Brenton the former British ambassador to Moscow discussed the crisis.  He told a story that explains all too graphically why the EU routinely fails in a crisis.  While serving in Moscow he received the text for the May 2003 “EU-Russia Common Spaces” agreement.  This long-term plan suggested four grand spaces: a Common Economic Space; a Common Space for Freedom, Security and Justice; a Common Space of External Security; and a Common Space of Research and Education.  So meaninglessly lofty was the document and so lacking in diplomatic substance that Sir Tony read it out to his appalled staff.  This EU fantasy was about as far as one could get from applied statecraft.

It highlighted the three essential dilemmas of the EU and its so-called external relations.  First, EU external relations only work so long as no-one really tests it.  That is why Brussels loves the long-term and the meaningless language of unstrategic ‘strategic partnerships’.  Second, the only crisis the EU really focuses on is the eternal internal crisis that the EU has become.  One only has to look at the ridiculously labyrinthine structure of the European External Action Service to recognise it is just about the worst possible instrument to conduct real time crisis management.  Third, as soon a crisis breaks the member-states are far more concerned about using the EU to shift the burdens and costs of crisis management onto other member-states than actually confronting the challenge.

That is precisely what happened this week.  On Tuesday EU foreign ministers met to discuss tougher sanctions on Russia in the wake of MH 17.  They could not agree.  Britain wanted to protect its financial services sector, France wanted to protect its warships deal, Germany wanted to protect the 25,000 German jobs dependent on the oil and gas sector it shares with Russia, and Italy did not want anything that would reveal the Faustian energy pact it has struck with Moscow.  Only those Central and Eastern European members in the firing line of Putinism were really willing to confront the wider strategic implications of Moscow’s actions which had been re-iterated by President Putin as recently as his 1 July speech to Russian diplomats.

As usual when there is an impasse the European Commission was sent away to consider more sanctions.  The draft document that emerged yesterday and which will be discussed by ministers today was archetypal of all that is wrong with EU foreign and security policy.  It was little more than a blatant Franco-German attempt to shift almost all the cost of any further sanctions onto Britain and the City of London.  So much for the impartiality of the European Commission.  And, far from deterring Russia this absurdly unbalanced document if enforced would probably do more to push Britain closer to an EU exit than damage Russia.

The consequence is not just an expensive foreign policy white elephant, and the EU is certainly that.  So much political energy is expended by EU member-states trying to out-manoeuvre each other for narrow, short-term gain within the EU (in EU parlance the search for common positions and joint action) that their own national foreign policies are gravely weakened.  Britain is a classic example of this.  For that reason the EU foreign and security policy whole is far smaller than the parts of its sum resulting in a Europe that punches way below its weight not just in the world but also in Europe. 

In the long-term either Europeans move towards a genuine EU foreign policy or they renationalise their efforts to enable the construction of coalitions of like-minded states.  The problem with the former idea is that it would require an EU Foreign Ministry which would in turn need a country called ‘Europe’.  The problem with the latter idea is that it would mean an end to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. 

The bottom-line is this; until Russia sees that Europeans are prepared to face economic pain to blunt Moscow’s ambitions they will continue to regard the EU as somewhat of a foreign policy joke; an institution long on grand declaratory rhetoric and very short on power and substance.  And, until all Europeans are prepared to share such pain equitably then any and all such efforts will do more damage to each other than the intended miscreant.

If Europeans continue to hide a no man’s land of foreign policy irrelevance and incompetence they will be victims of the twenty-first century rather than shapers of it. So, what will the EU and its member-states do to blunt President Putin’s ambitions?  Run away more.  That should confuse the blighter!

Julian Lindley-French 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Seizing Sevastopol: What to do with Russia’s French Warships?

Alphen, Netherlands. 23 July.  Predictably the EU fell apart yesterday over what to do about Russia.  Naturally the assembled foreign ministers all pretended otherwise but the only winner was President Putin.  There was a motley extension to the motley collection of asset freezes and travel bans and some talk of future sanctions covering the energy, financial services and defence sectors. It was only talk. And of course Britain and France fell out (again).  France accused Britain of hypocrisy over London’s demand that Paris halt the €1.2bn sale of two state-of-the-art French warships to Russia.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius not unreasonably pointed out that Britain has been far too “no questions asked” about the London money of Russian oligarchs close to President Putin.  The French were too polite to point out that Britain still has some 252 active arms export licenses worth some £132m for the sale of weapons to Russia.  For all that it is inconceivable that in the current situation France would help Russia create an entirely new expeditionary military capability. 

These are not any old new warships.  Weighing in at 21500 tons the Mistral-class ships are state-of-the-art marine amphibious command and assault ships that for the first time ever will give Russia the ability to launch from the sea 450 special and specialised forces supported by helicopters and tanks.  The first of the ships is due to be handed over to the Russia Navy in October.  France says that Russia has promised not to use them in its ‘near abroad’. Nonsense.  These two ships could be deployed anywhere around Europe from the High North to the Baltic Sea, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. 

France must stop talking contracts and start thinking strategy.  That means seizing the ships.  There is a precedent. One hundred years ago in August 1914 the British seized a brand new battleship they had been building first for the Brazilians and then when that deal fell through for the Turks.   Winston Churchill personally insisted the ship be taken into British custody.  She was a state-of-the art Super-Dreadnought battleship with 14 12 inch guns, displacing 30,000 tons and capable of 22 knots. 

Although contractually obliged the British Government of the day felt the strategic situation of the day warranted seizure.  As one can imagine the Ottoman Empire was none too pleased by the seizure (along with one other new battleship) and some scholars believe it helped to push Constantinople towards Wilhelmine Germany.  Still, they could have been used against the Royal Navy and that would have been just a tad embarrassing.

The problem of course with seizure (apart from a seriously peeved Putin) would be what to do with the ships.  The French Navy has neither the personnel nor the budget needed to crew two new ships of this size. However, there are three alternative, very non-Russian options that Paris may wish to consider: 1. create a new Anglo-French strike force; 2. make the ships NATO common assets paid for by NATO Europe; or 3. make the ships the first EU-owned assets at the core of a new maritime amphibious Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF).

Under the 2010 Franco-British Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty the two countries are working up a CJEF.  Current efforts have been focused on co-operation between air and land forces.  However, with the launch of the two British super aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales the addition of the two Mistrals to a maritime amphibious CJEF would markedly enhance the ability of the two countries to launch and sustain significant operations from the sea.  This would ensure Britain and France were at the centre of efforts to enhance the expeditionary capabilities of Europeans but also offer real support to hard-pressed Americans.  The problem as with all ships of this size is their crewing but that is not beyond the bounds of sensible solution.

One of the big issues at September’s NATO Wales Summit will be burden-sharing.  The ships could become a NATO-owned asset in which all Alliance members invest.  The Alliance would then in effect purchase the ships from France and they would be crewed by personnel from all NATO nations – just like the Luxembourg-registered E3 aerial surveillance vessels.  The beauty of this elegant solution to France’s dilemma is that the purchase and subsequent crewing would go some way to helping some NATO members get towards the 2% GDP defence investment target the Americans regard as the minimum.  It would also help the Alliance develop a serious European High Readiness Force (Maritime).

A third option would be to make them the first EU-owned common defence assets to give EU Battle Groups a much-needed capability boost.  Indeed, the ships would certainly help to create an enhanced EU maritime amphibious capability.  It would help France lead the way towards the 5000 strong expeditionary EU force former President Sarkozy called for back in 2008.  One option would be to place the ships at the heart of a project cluster involving several EU member-states under permanent structured co-operation, possibly the Weimar Triangle.  By making such a move France would again be firmly at the helm of efforts to enhance the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

There is one other option; one hundred years on from Entente Cordiale France could generously give one of the ships to the Royal Navy.  The Russians had intended to name one of the ships Vladivostok and the other somewhat provocatively Sevastopol.  Again there is a precedent for such name changes.  In 1914 the British christened the new battleship HMS Agincourt (of course).  In 2014 the British could offer the French a choice; HMS Crecy, HMS Waterloo or how about HMS Trafalgar?

Just a thought.

Julian Lindley-French

Monday, 21 July 2014

MH17: How Much Do ‘WE’ Care?

Alphen, Netherlands. 21 July. “Why don’t the Russians care about the people on that plane?” That was the question a friend of mine put to me this morning.  It is a question I find hard to answer.  Of course, the Russians do care about what happened, especially the Russian people.  No-one in Russia wanted this ghastly disaster but Russia must be held account for what happened because Moscow made the disaster possible.  However, that begs an even bigger question; how much do WE care about MH17?

The evidence for what happened is now undeniable even by the Kremlin.  Last Thursday MH17 was shot out of the skies by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile that was either fired by a pro-Russian separatist with a Russian advisor standing by or possibly even by a Russian GRU (military intelligence) officer.  Four Ukrainian military aircraft had been shot down over the previous week by Russian missiles a part of an attempt by Russian forces to help the separatists blunt a Ukrainian offensive into eastern Ukraine. 

This morning President Putin said that “all must be done to end the conflict”.  However, whilst the Kremlin did not want this to happen Moscow only ‘cares’ about MH17 and the victims who died therein in so much as the disaster complicates the politics of an expansionist strategy to which Russia remains fully committed. 

So, how much do ‘WE’ care?  There are options open to the West – both Europeans and North Americans – which would hurt an already vulnerable Russian economy.  Tighter travel and financial sanctions could be imposed on top officials in the Kremlin.  Deeper and far better co-ordinated so-called ‘sectoral sanctions’ could be imposed by both North Americans and Europeans on the Russian energy and technology sectors that build-on the restrictions imposed by Washington last Wednesday.  Such sanctions could be further reinforced by a complete stop to all development loans and co-operation projects by the EU and which build-on last week’s limited EU action prior to MH17’s downing.

However, any deeper sanctions will be a real test of ‘WE’ as further strictures would hurt Europeans and their vulnerable economies in particular.  Hence the question how much do WE care?  The question also pre-supposes the idea that a ‘WE’ actually still exists.  The idea of a ‘West’ is open to serious doubt so dysfunctional has the relationship become.  The idea of a ‘Europe’ is even open to ridicule so pathetic has the EU response been and so utterly dysfunctional what might be termed a European foreign policy.

Britain, France and Germany finally stepped into the leadership void over the weekend by jointly calling for stringent measures to be taken against Russia.  However, the strange foreign policy no-man’s land that now exists between the EU and its member-states has reduced the European ‘whole’ to far less than the parts of its sum.  Indeed, too many EU member-states no longer have a foreign policy at all (Britain most particularly).  What is left is a kind of transactional politics in which ‘foreign policy’ is directly linked to perceived economic cost. 

President Putin knows this.  Today, the foreign ‘policies’ of Europe are measured purely and only in terms of ‘cost’ rather than the defence of values central to democracies.  Therefore, concerted action against aggression reduced to a balance sheet analysis of immediate cost given the varying trade and energy relationships Europeans ‘enjoy’ with Russia.  Any sense of a ‘WE’ goes straight out of the crisis window. 

A real test for Europeans will come tomorrow at an EU meeting called ostensibly to discuss a new approach to Russia.  If European leaders are serious about facing down Russian expansionism and the arms flows that created the conditions for the loss of MH17 and 298 innocent people they will be judged by their actions. 

If Europe’s leaders are serious Russian oil-giant Rosneft will tomorrow be removed from the London Stock Exchange by London, France will scrap the €1.2 billion sale of two Mistral class advanced maritime assault ships to Russia and Germany will scrap a whole host of trade deals with Russia.  A strong signal would also be sent to Moscow if Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is immediately appointed EU Foreign Minister and with immediate effect.

Additionally, access of Russian firms to European financial markets will be blocked even though that would hurt London and Frankfurt.  If serious the meeting will also confirm Ukraine’s status as an EU Strategic Partner and consider accelerated measures to wean Europeans off Russian energy supplies which admittedly will take time.  There would also be a decision to end once and for all the agreement to construct the Ukraine-bypassing South Stream Pipeline to supply gas from Russia to the rest of Europe. 

So, is there sufficient of a ‘WE’.  No.  The same old EU empty nonsense will emerge from the same old type of meeting as very little action is doubtless blown-up in the communique into “decisive measures”.  Italy and others will block anything that might in any way affect their Faustian energy deals with Russia.  It is questionable whether Britain, France and Germany are really prepared to take together real steps that would hurt both Russia and themselves in the name of principle.  After all trade relations between Russia and its fellow Europeans (particularly Germany) are worth ten times that of Russian-US trade links.

President Putin fully understands all this.  He understands that in this crisis as in so many others there is no ‘WE’ – neither a Western ‘WE’ nor a European ‘WE’.  Indeed, his superficially emollient words of this morning are specifically designed to undermine the already very little ‘WE’ that exists.

MH17: How much do ‘WE’ care?  Sadly not enough.

Julian Lindley-French

Thursday, 17 July 2014

MH 17: Russia Stop this Madness!

Alphen, Netherlands. 17 July.  Today I was at Amsterdam Schiphol airport picking my father up.  There can be little doubt I walked past the poor people of many nationalities whose remains are smouldering as I write on the Steppe close to the Russia-Ukrainian border.  It is of course too early to tell what or who downed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 as it made its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.  However, the known circumstances, the location, tweets from pro-Russian separatists congratulating themselves for shooting down a Ukrainian military plane that coincide with the loss of MH 17 and other information which I have seen all point to a surface-to-air missile of Russian design as being responsible. 

Let me say at the outset that Russia did not do this.  The chance that a state-of-the-art Russian military system under Russian military control was used is very small indeed.  Such advanced systems would have had an Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) safeguard that would have ‘tagged’ MH 17 as soon as it was ‘painted’ as a target. What is far more likely is that an older, less sophisticated system such as an SA 11 (NATO codename ‘Grail’) or something similar was involved.  Such systems are known to be in the hands of the separatists who may or may not have the capability to operate the system effectively.  There is clear evidence that Russian military equipment is making its way across the border between Russia and Ukraine and the Ukrainian military may have lost some SA 11s during Russia’s occupation of Ukraine-Crimea.

It is equally unlikely to have been the responsibility of the Ukrainian military.  Two Ukrainian military aircraft have been lost over the past 48 hours to missiles fired either from within the separatist area or possibly even from over the border in Russia.  There has certainly been a clear escalation over the past few days and there can be little doubt Moscow is pulling the strings.

Last week I published a piece for the RUSI Journal entitled “Ukraine: Understanding Russia”.  In the article I tried to look at the conflict from the Russian viewpoint because too often other Europeans simply impose their assumptions on Russia.  Equally, I am no apologist for Russia.  My fellow sitting on the fence Europeans trying to explain Russian aggression away at almost any cost also have to look hard at themselves.  For example, how can France possibly sell two state-of-the-art amphibious attack ships to a country that is creating and managing such a conflict in twenty-first century Europe?

Of course Russia did not want this awful disaster to happen and President Putin rightly called President Obama the moment he heard of the disaster.  However, the bottom-line is this; Moscow must bear some of the responsibility for this disaster.  In 2014 it is Moscow that has created the conditions which has led to the loss of a civilian airliner carrying 295 innocent people to a surface-to-air missile over European airspace by fuelling the crisis and arming the separatists.  In 2014 only Russia can create the conditions for a peaceful resolution to this conflict by insisting on and joining the EU to help craft a negotiated constitutional settlement for a Ukraine at peace with itself and its neighbours.  To make that happen Moscow must stop its efforts to de-stabilise the Kiev regime and begin to behave in a manner befitting the Great Power Russia is.

Sadly, I fear I may be witnessing quite the reverse.  Indeed, Moscow could well be on the verge of launching a classically Russian ‘August’ stratagem.  In 2008 Moscow waited until the midst of the European summer holidays to launch its invasion of Georgia.  Russian forces are now again building up on Ukraine’s border, increased volumes of Russian military supplies and advisers are crossing the border into Ukraine in support of the separatists and more aggressive action is already evident.

If Moscow has any sense of the damage it is doing to Europe but above all to Russia itself the loss of MH 17 must be pause for reflection.  At the very least Russia owes such reflection to the grieving relatives of the people past whom I walked today who are now the unwitting victims, the lost souls to a the ridiculous and tragic theatre of Russia’s twenty-first century insidious Machtpolitik.

MH 17: Russia stop this madness!

Julian Lindley-French

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

NEW Lindley-French Eisenhower Paper for NATO

Alphen, Netherlands. 16 July. Dear Fellow Blog Blasters,  I have today published a new Eisenhower Paper for NATO entitled "Connected Forces through Connected Education: Harnessing NATO's & Partner Nations Strategic Educational Resources".  Snappy title, eh?  It is of course brilliant.  However, if you disagree once downloaded the paper can be alternatively used for a range of practical and bodily purposes.

To download the piece please go to  If that fails and you really do wish to read it please go to the NATO Defense College web-site.

All best,


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Dangerous Connectivities: Why Mid-East War is Imminent

Alphen, Netherlands. 15 July.  Herodotus, the father of history wrote, “Force has no place where there is a need of skill”.  In the Middle East there is a desperate need for ‘skill’.  Like Europe a century ago today or more accurately Europe on the eve of the 1618 Thirty Years War everyone and everything is deeply connected and yet at the same time dangerously divided – the classic cause of what Thomas Hobbes called “a warre of all against all”.  What is at stake and what next?

Israeli forces enter Gaza following the murder of three Israeli teenagers and up to two hundred Palestinians die.  Shia Iran extends its influence over Baghdad as the Sunni Islamic State is proclaimed in parts of what used to Iraq and Syria.  Saudi Arabia mobilises its forces as the Sunni-Shia split deepens across the Middle East whilst states as far apart as Algeria and the Gulf totter in the face of Islamism and liberalism as elites and societies pull apart.

What is at stake? Three fundamental struggles are combining to threaten peace across the region (and beyond); the state versus the anti-state; the battle for regional-strategic dominance by states and the struggle between interpretations of Islam within failing states.  Although ostensibly about religion the Thirty Year wars (for that is what they were) were complicated by shifting ‘state’ power - the Habsburgs versus the Holy Roman Empire and the European core versus the European periphery - England, Sweden and Russia.  They were further complicated by growing populations and divided ideologies.

Critically, the war was triggered in 1618 by a relatively minor but nevertheless explosive event – a constitutional dispute between Protestants in Bohemia and their Catholic rulers and the destruction of a single Protestant church.  What happened next was unimaginable carnage.

Similar dangerous connectivities are apparent across the Middle East today, particularly as notions of pan-Arabism compete.  The Islamic State and the rise of fundamentalism has been fashioned from the failure of Arab nationalism, specifically the collapse of Baathism in Syria and Iraq.  The Islamic State is in fact an anti-state the very existence of which threatens all other states in the region as it seeks the destruction of the entire state system and its replacement with a Caliphate.   

To many Arabs nationalism once seemed the future acting in uneasy tandem with and in the name of pan-Arabism.  It was nationalism fuelled and reinforced by the creation of the State of Israel in 1947.  However, two crushing defeats by Israel in 1967 and 1973 helped to undermine the credibility of both the Arab ‘state’ and nationalism in the minds of many.  Defeat also helped Islamists offer a new form of pan-Arabism - Sunni fundamentalism. 

The Arab state has been further undermined by corrupt elites, a rapidly growing population and an imbalance of wealth across the region.  In states such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States oil-rich conservative elites have become fabulously rich whilst at the same time reluctant to disseminate wealth too widely.  They are like all such elites fearful that reform would critically undermine their power.  To buy off opposition Riyadh in particular has at times appealed to extreme conservatism to buttress their power in return for funding the exporting of the very fundamentalism that threatens the Kingdom.

And then there is Iran.  Shia-Persian Iran’s regional-strategic ambitions to be the dominant power have also further complicated an already flammable political landscape.  Worse, in its struggle with both Israel and Saudi Arabia and through the use of proxies in Syria and Lebanon a series of bilateral disputes have slowly morphed into one enormous confrontation over the future shape of the Middle East focussed on the relatively small space in and around Jordan.  Good old-fashioned Machtpolitik informs much of Iran’s policy but also what Tehran sees as a Sunni threat to Shia influence Iran believes it controls. 

What next?  The Middle East is in as dangerous a state as at any time since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.  Indeed, it is hard to see how the acute tension in both Arab societies and between Middle Eastern states and with Israel can be resolved peacefully.  The outstanding question is who will be on what side for what reason?  It would be easy to suggest that a future war would be essentially between those states of Shia extraction and those of Sunni extraction.  This would have Iran and Israel on the side-lines but seeking to influence proxies in a general Arab struggle.  However, the Middle East is simply not that easy.  Such a scenario would be complicated by ethnic divisions within many of the states involved rotting from the top down, which is precisely why the Islamic State has appeared.  It would be further complicated by interference from the Great Powers – America, China, European powers and Russia.  In other words a kind of Sykes-Picot revisited.

The war itself could be triggered by what is in systemic terms a relatively minor event.  It would also be a long war with hatred and calculus causing many twists.  The first war is likely to be triggered by an unofficial, unspoken and unlikely ‘coalition’ of states determined to defeat the Islamic State, i.e. to destroy the anti-state.  Such a coalition might include Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and even by extension Israel, albeit implicitly. 

However, if and when the Islamic State is defeated much would be unresolved, not least between Iran and Israel. To protect its borders and break the link between Iran and Hezbollah Israel would do all it can to establish some form of influence over an Assad successor regime to in Syria.  Any conflict that strengthens the hand of Iran on Israel’s borders would be seen by Tel Aviv as a zero-sum game.  For the sake of its very survival Israel will not and could not tolerate such an outcome.  Iran in turn would also seek to establish influence over Damascus and Baghdad as it attempts to extend its sphere of influence across the Middle East.  Riyadh will act to prevent what it sees as a threat not just to the Kingdom but the wider region over which it too exerts influence.

Of course, the great unknown in all of this is the state of the Middle Eastern state.  So weak are so many Middle Eastern states that ANY conflict in which they are involved could see elites cast away.  Jordan is the most obvious example, but the Arab world’s most populous state Egypt is not far behind.  Logically (for Herodotus ‘skill’), it would actually be in the best interest of all to avoid any such general conflict and try to contain and then weaken the Islamic State.  However, such ‘logic’ would take clear vision and calm judgement neither of which the Middle East is renowned for together with a control over events which today many leaders simply lack.  True to form many leaders will seek what got them into power in the first place and which created the Middle East tragedy – short-term, secret pacts.

War today in the Middle East would not simply be another Middle Eastern conflict.  And, if it breaks out there is no telling to where it would lead...and who would be drawn in.  As Herodotus wrote, “The bitterest of men’s miseries is to have insight into much but power over nothing”.

Julian Lindley-French