The Middle East is divided today along different lines than in the past, but it primarily boils down to three alliance systems.
Houthi troops ride on the back of a police patrol truck after participating in a Houthi gathering in Sanaa, Yemen February 19, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/KHALED ABDULLAH)
Turkey is increasing its role in Libya while the Iranian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar Assad struggles to deal with a major economic crisis at home. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to face off against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Middle East today is divided along different lines than in the past, but it primarily boils down to three alliance systems. These systems are rooted in Tehran, Ankara and Riyadh, and they all seek different authoritarian agendas.
To understand the current alliance system, we need to go back a bit to understand what once was. The Middle East has always been divided. Where once parts of it were occupied by the declining Ottoman Empire and the ailing Persian regime, the region was later carved up partly by colonial powers in the 19th century through the end of the First World War.
Once independence came to most countries between the 1940s and 1960s, the region was then divided mostly along Cold War lines. There were revolutionary and nationalist regimes, embodied by men like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, and there were monarchies, such as those once found in Iraq and currently existing in Jordan and the Gulf. The region was defined partly by a series of wars against Israel.
Iran and Turkey played a more peripheral role in the Middle East in the 20th century. Turkey, a NATO ally, worked closely with the US and lurched between secular Turkish nationalism and military coups. Iran, once a more secular monarchy, became an Islamic Republic after 1979. In some ways the era of the 1980s set in motion the major upheavals that led to what we have today. It was in that era of the bloody Iran-Iraq war and the rise of Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that led to crises in Syria and Egypt.
THE GULF WAR and the subsequent era of US hegemony in the 1990s was a momentary break. There were stirrings of democracy and there was the Algerian Civil War. Ailing and ossified dictatorships ran Egypt, Syria, a reconstituted Yemen and Libya. Jihadists who had flocked to fight in Afghanistan came home and didn’t know what to do next.
It is largely forgotten then that this era of ossification in the 1990s led to the upheavals after 9/11. The US toppled Saddam Hussein, and Yasser Arafat died. A Palestinian civil conflict between the ostensibly secular and nationalist Fatah and the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Hamas was a preview of more to come.
What happened after the Arab Spring rebellions of 2011 was that there was momentarily hope for a new era. Tunisia transitioned to democracy. So did Egypt briefly in 2012, but the Brotherhood came to power. Libya’s strongman was killed. Iraq also had imperfect democracy, as did Lebanon. But Libya, Yemen and Syria sank into civil conflict.
It is during this turning point that the authoritarians stepped in. Turkey, run by the Brotherhood-inspired AKP party, abandoned its policy of “zero problems with our neighbors” and set about a more active role in the region. Iran, already involved with Hezbollah in Lebanon, increased its role in Iraqi politics and eventually in Lebanon and Syria as well.
The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, sought to support the removal of the Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries. Eventually this led to a break in the Gulf between Qatar, which is closer to Turkey and Iran, and the Saudis. Fuel was added by the Obama administration’s Iran Deal, and also by the former Bush administration’s interventionist and pro-democracy stance, which many blamed for sowing chaos. Between the two US administrations the region took away a lesson that chaos was not to be accepted and that into this vacuum would have to come either Turkey, Iran or the Gulf monarchies.
TO SOME extent the new authoritarianism was a reaction to the rise and fall of ISIS. But it has now become a more active proxy war across the region. In Libya, Turkey has poured in money, drones and weapons to fight the Libyan opposition of Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt and the UAE.
In Syria, a three-sided conflict takes place. Turkey opposes the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which it alleges are Kurdish leftists. The Syrian regime is backed by Iran, which wants a land bridge via Iraq to Lebanon. In Yemen, the Iranians send weapons to the Houthi rebels, who fight the Saudis.
The region has rarely had these kinds of clear proxy conflicts in the past. It always had some upheavals, whether during the era of Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s or the conflict between Iran and Iraq. But today it is a three-sided conflict. The reduction of the US role and the rise of Russia and China help to fuel this.
For instance, Turkey sends drones to Libya, and China sells drones to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with some Chinese drones ending up in Libya. Follow the guns and the money and you’ll see who controls what. Turkey has a proxy army of former Syrian rebels it uses in northern Syria and Libya, for example. Iran advises Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
None of these systems offer anything by authoritarianism. Turkey is the largest jailer of journalists. The Egyptian government also jails dissidents; so does Iran. The only question is which group will come out on top. Will it be a “Neo-Ottoman” empire or an Iranian hegemony, or will the “reactionaries” in the Gulf, as the Brotherhood calls them, push back against Iran and Turkey. Nothing is ever what is seems. Turkey and Iran both work with Venezuela. But apparently so does Haftar. And everyone works with Russia.
There are not always cut and dry alliances, but there are three main agendas. Either the region becomes more influenced by the Brotherhood or the Islamic Revolution in Iran, or by the generals and monarchs that come out of the Gulf. For liberals and democrats in the region, there are no friends or allies.