Middle East in Motion

Alliance formation in versatile contexts

The Middle East can be seen as a huge and complex network system, where new and unexpected connections and constellations emerge now on a continuous base, partly endogenously, partly exogenously induced and partly in combined processes.

Traditional conflict sources, Israel versus Palestine or Israel versus Arab/Muslim countries are now dimensions under severe shaking as a whole. Shia – Sunni religious dichotomy, Iran versus Saudi Arabia camp, is also facing unprecedented changes. Turkey, a renewed Ottoman empire, is again rising and intervening in many political and military processes. Egypt, a former prominent Arab leader, is looking for its place in thoroughly changing political environment. All the present great powers – the US, China and Russia – are actively re-organizing and re-playing their positions openly and behind the scenes in this tectonic change of political carousel.

Outside analysts have difficulties to understand the present Middle East theater comprising a multitude of actors with different logics who, depending on the circumstances, make or break alliances. If in any place the old saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is valid right here. What makes things more complicated is the fact that all friends / enemies are changing in time.

Since the end of the WWII, the political landscape of the Middle East had become fixed around a few crises, mainly organized by great (colonial) powers: Rebirth of Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinians aside (the UN resolution 1948), the weakening of the British and French empires in comparison to the USA and the USSR (Suez, 1956), the surveillance of Gulf oil by the USA (Nixon, Carter, 1970s), the disappearance of the USSR and the hegemony of the USA (Desert Storm, 1991), the Rumsfeld / Cebrowski strategy (2001), and finally the return of Russia (2015). All political and military events, including the Iranian revolution or the “Arab Spring”, are only reflections in this “grand framework”. None of them have created new alliances. On the contrary, all have strengthened existing alliances in a vain attempt to give one or the other a victory.

Looking at the players in the Middle East, they can be categorized in many ways but this two-category approach seems to be politically relevant now.

Tribal based actors, who have lived in desert regions, organized themselves into tribes by force of circumstances, whose survival has depended on their obedience to the chief, who are alien to democracy and have communitarian reactions. Saudi and Yemeni tribes, Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, Lebanese or Libyan tribes are some examples of these people. Actors defending their nation are similar to the tribal groupings but are able to perceive things in a broader way, growing from small villages, building a city and finally a state. Example of these are Syria and Iran.

Actors driven by self-interest; these actors are interested in getting more power or more resources and have no empathy for anyone, they adapt to all political situations and try to be on the winning side. Some examples are the Ottoman Empire and nowadays Turkey, then the British and French Empires, now the US and other great powers China and Russia.

Israel – Arab relations in Abraham Accords, Trump vs. Biden with the end of Netanyahu era

In 2020, Israel, supported by the United States, began a diplomatic offensive in the Arab world. The goal was evident: containing Iran. As the US analysts see it, the countries that signed peace agreements with Israel, are “so frightened of neighboring Iran that they would happily have opted for Israeli rule rather than welcome the angry, unforgiving Iranians”. Bahrain, UAE, Sudan and Morocco said yes, the former peace contractors were Egypt and Jordan. During last few years, the US has directly and indirectly expressed its intention to dis-engage from the region. This, of course, has given impetus to normalization by some states with Israel – to shelter under its security umbrella.

Another driver is that the end of Netanyahu era may be approaching. Israel is fragmented at the decision-making level, no political majority government, new parliament elections after few month intervals and the security cabinet’s work vague. Israel is bitterly divided on too many fronts. Netanyahu possibly is attempting to signal to Washington that he has a veto over any Iran deal.

Washington seems to be between a rock and a hard place: on the other hand, Biden tries to restore JCPOA in some way or other but on the other hand Netanyahu insists on that maximum pressure would bring Iran to its knees. Thus far, Biden has not yet published the US new detailed overall plans for the Middle East and particularly regarding Israel. What will be his proposals for Palestine issue, two-state solution, Westbank settlements, position of Jerusalem etc. All these are open questions so far.

Recent Gaza Strip clashes

The recent fighting in Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas was triggered by days of escalating clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at a holy hilltop compound in East Jerusalem, from where the fighting expanded to Gaza. Hamas began massive rocket shooting and Israel replied with missiles and artillery, the cycle of violence is difficultly stoppable. These incidents can be seen as “small” parts of the overall context of Israel-Iran hostilities, where cyber strikes, assassinations, missile and bombing strikes against oil tankers and other ships, air strikes in Syria etc. are emerging in uninterrupted flow.

An interesting incident took place in April, when “unknown units” fired primitive Soviet-design anti-aircraft missiles toward Israel, one of which landed about 30 kilometers from the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona. Few days later some Middle Eastern news agencies told that in fact the question was not “old Soviet missile” but a new Iranian missile, which was sent as a test purpose, for testing technical features of Israeli Iron Dome. What can be seen now in Gaza, is the second round of the Iranian test protocol regarding Iron Dome.

Washington’s “Arab NATO” Initiative to isolate Iran failed

The Trump-led anti-Iranian initiative for the Middle East, formally known as the “Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance” (MESA) and also referred to as “Arab NATO”, has been disclosed by a Lebanese newspaper with some top-secret documents. President Trump, from his first visit to the Middle East in May 2017, sought to lure partners into forming an anti-Iranian front, alleviating the burden of the security challenge on America and “milking” local nations by forcing them to purchase large quantities of US-made military equipment.

Saudi Arabia appears initially to have been the initiative’s most enthusiastic supporter and tabled its own proposals for anti-Iranian regional security even before Trump became president. However, it would appear that over- elaborated hopes and disagreements between possible alliance members eventually proved insoluble, even for Riyadh.

Leaked documents told that although states would be obliged to “accelerate arms deals” with Washington and conclude an agreement for a joint missile early-warning system, the United States did not include a commitment to a NATO-style Article 5, stipulating an integrated military command or the integration of military forces of member countries. US officials confirmed that America would not be obliged “to take any military action in the event of attack” against MESA member states, except to provide “security consultations”.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman indicated irritation at the lack of American security guarantees. The leaks also revealed fissures between Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia and others, with Kuwait expressing skepticism for the Saudi-led security-focused initiative. Egyptian delegation expressed a desire to “focus on the political side” and said that Cairo saw the MESA concept as one of “an advisory nature”. Egypt skipped the MESA concept.

Oman, which has long managed to balance relations between both Washington and Tehran, reportedly rejected military-focused position supporting “the economic rather than the military aspect” of the proposal. Oman was willing to change the word “alliance” to something less menacing, such as “grouping”, “forum”, “union” or “initiative.” Jordan’s sole concern seemed to be that it should continue to receive American economic aid and to that end it enthusiastically supported Trump’s original vision and the proposed alliance’s military, political, economic and energy sections.

Saudi Arabia and Iran prepare for a breakthrough in their relations

Information of secret negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has already appeared in the media. Iran-Saudi relations became very difficult, especially after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. There is a noticeable polarization of countries in the region, in the context of Sunni or Shiite, which consider Saudi Arabia or Iran as their spiritual and political reference point. After the US-led coalition overthrowing of President Saddam Hussein in 2003, a Sunni Arab and one of Iran’s main enemies, there was no counterweight to Iran’s influence in Iraq, which has been steadily growing since then. During the wave of Arab Spring protests (2011) Iran and Saudi Arabia tried to use it to promote their influence, particularly in Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, which further increased mutual distrust.

In recent years, the strategic confrontation has become markedly intense because Iran has become the winner in the regional struggle by many indicators. For example, in Syria, thanks to the support of Iran (and Russia), President Bashar al-Assad managed to suppress most of the opposition forces supported by Saudi Arabia. Regarding the confrontation in Iraq, the supporters of Tehran are also winning. The six-year war waged by Riyadh against rebels from neighboring Yemen, partly driven by Saudi Arabia’s desire to nullify Iran’s supposed influence is also unsuccessful for the Saudi monarchy requiring too much money. The attempt to escalate the political confrontation in Lebanon in order to destabilize the country, in which the Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah plays a leading role in politics and controls the Armed Forces, has not yet brought Riyadh the expected success.

Although Iran and Saudi Arabia have not engaged in direct combat, their support is involved in armed conflicts in the region. Syria and Yemen are clear examples of this. The missiles that the Houthis have repeatedly fired at Saudi Arabia have intensified the war of words between the two countries. The current situation has long forced Saudi Arabia to take steps that would defuse tensions in the region. Despite its economic power, from a military point of view, the country is fragile compared to Iran.

President Obama noted that Saudi Arabia should learn to live in the region together with Iran and share spheres of influence with it. Riyadh was given to understand that Washington would not, as before, cover Saudi Arabia in the event of a conflict with Iran and would not take an openly pro-Saudi position. Given that the current administration at the White House essentially repeats the political line of President Obama’s era, Washington’s position on Tehran was voiced by President Biden to Riyadh. The current situation forces Riyadh to step towards rapprochement with Iran, which will help defuse tensions in the region and reduce the burden of enormous resources on defense.

Iran, for its part, is also interested in improving relations with Saudi Arabia for many reasons. First of all, it tries to counteract closer cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, strengthening the anti-Iran bloc in the region.  Israel’s outspoken dissatisfaction with the rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran was demonstrated by Tel Aviv in early April to Saudi Arabia because the latter did not inform in advance about the nature of the ongoing negotiations in Baghdad. In addition, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hope that the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia will strengthen their positions in the internal struggle for power in Iran.

The bigger picture.

There has been unprecedented busy process of traveling, meeting, public statements etc. going between numerous regional countries during last four months, when the winds of change sweeping the whole Gulf region. Top-level politicians and diplomats are shuttling around the region’s cities in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Syria and Egypt. The Saudi-Iranian contacts that began last month in secrecy have gained momentum and can be seen as a part of this bigger picture.

Significantly, this Saudi-Iranian process is an exclusively regional initiative.

The US assistant secretary of state for the region, Joey Hood, acknowledged that Washington supports the Saudi-Iranian talks, “but we don’t have anything to do with them.” This echoed the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s non-committal stance “If they’re talking, I think that’s generally a good thing. Talking is usually better than the alternative. Does it lead to results? That’s another question.” Blinken sounded unhappy and somewhat irritated. His words reflect the reality that the US is a mere passive bystander while the two Gulf powerhouses in the Gulf are drawing close — and one of them is Washington’s client state for almost 80 years while the other is an archetypal enemy for the past 40 years. Blinken betrayed the waning influence of Washington in the Middle east, although the White House keeps insisting that “America is back.” 

The Saudi-Iranian drive to normalize ties is motivated primarily by the two sides’ deep distrust of American intentions. The US-Saudi alliance is in an impasse and Riyadh no longer trusts the US as a provider of security. As for Tehran, the regional climate today is conducive for advancing its long-held belief that the regional security issues are best handled by the regional states without outside interference. The breakdown of the decades-old US policy to exploit the frictions in the Gulf to sell weapons and keep the local regimes on tight leash is self-evident but it does not work any more like before. The Biden administration’s focus on engaging Iran is a wake-up call for Riyadh and other Gulf Arab regimes. 

Saudi Arabia is chartering its own course rather than merely sub-serving or harmonizing with Washington’s regional strategies. Besides, Saudis realize that engagement with Iran could increase Riyadh’s capacity to maneuver and create space to negotiate with the US. Above all, Saudis would like to be on the right side of history, as the US-Iran engagement holds the potential to galvanize conflict resolution in the “regional hotspots” — Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Saudi-Iran reset will take time.

However, a reset of Saudi-Iran ties will take time. Herein lies the weak spot, as variables come into play. Fundamentally, the regional balance is tilting in favour of Iran as its integration into the world economy accelerates. In turn, Iran’s surge as a regional power will demand a lot of adjustment on the part of the regional states, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the fizz has gone out of Abraham Accords. All things considered, the wide withdrawal of the US from the Middle East is not to be expected, as Washington fears that it may only open new opportunities for China and allow Russia to consolidate its regional standing further. Blinken’s remarks suggest that the US does not think that a Saudi-Iranian reset is a done thing yet. These are early days and the US could always work its way back to the centerstage by creating new contradictions in Gulf security.

The latest unofficial news shed light on Iran-Saudi talks. The US withdrew from JCPOA in 2018 and slapped sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, which have crippled Iranian crude sales abroad. Until the sanctions are removed, Iran is looking for alternatives to have its oil sold on the international markets and is reportedly looking to negotiate with Saudi Arabia for this. Iran is looking to persuade its regional rival Saudi Arabia to help it to sell Iranian crude oil on international markets in exchange for limiting attacks from the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen on Saudi oil infrastructure, according to local, unofficial reports.

JCPOA talks in Vienna, low expectations due to the US sanctions regime which is not possible to remove soon, if ever.

Iran is currently negotiating with the signatories to JCPOA as well as indirectly with the United States, to potentially return to the deal. It is against the “right-side-of-history” context that the JCPOA negotiations with Iran should be seen. The Biden administration seems to believe the US will come into compliance, yet the officials also say contrarily that some sanctions will remain, which is hardly surprising. There are some 1.600 sanctions that have been added post-JCPOA, together with those already in force due to numerous laws.

In short, US sanctions are easily done, but not easily undone – even temporarily. Very deliberately, lifting them completely is institutionally almost impossible. It is not at all clear that the US administration can come into full compliance – even if it so wished (and even the extent of Biden’s motivation to lift them is opaque). There have been recently two bi-partisan Congressional letters addressed to Blinken expressing opposition to any reactivation of the deal.

If Iran expresses to hold seriously on JCPOA but the US fails to lift sanctions and therefore is “out” of the accord, it will be a regional game-changer, especially should a conservative be elected Iranian President, in June. The consequences will be felt across the region. The pressures to oust the US forces from the Middle East (Syria, Iraq) will augment significantly, particularly thereafter when the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan.

The Middle East’s new “Strategic Axis”

Late April 2021 saw the emerging of a new strategic axis in the Middle East, when Cyprus, Greece, Israel and the UAE held a significant meeting. Trump’s Abraham Accords is still continuing to shape the geopolitical landscape in this region. The fact that all participants of this meeting have a history of “problematic” relations with Turkey, speaks volumes about how old geopolitical rivalries will be played on a new geopolitical platform.

While Iran remains on the agenda of every meeting that involves Israel and the UAE, Gulf states have recently become increasingly conscious of Turkey’s efforts to expand its influence and reach at the expense of its rival states. Turkey’s operations in Syria and Libya and its support for Qatar during Saudi blockade show that Turkey tends to move quickly to fill any “political vacuum” that becomes available during geopolitical upheavals and that it uses such a scenario to further its “neo-Ottoman” ambitions as well.

Turkey’s strong ties with Qatar have also forced the UAE into joining the “Cyprus grouping” to prevent the two from positioning themselves at the heart of a region-wide Islamist network spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood to stir political uprisings within the UAE and other Gulf monarchies to weak them from within.

The UAE is not the only country that has diverging interests versus Turkey. Other countries in the new axis, such as Greece and Cyprus, with similar diverging interests, stand to benefit from it. Israel and Greece have now signed their biggest ever defense procurement deal (over $ 1,5 billion). The agreement between Israel and Greece follows an earlier “strategic partnership” agreement signed between the UAE and Greece in November 2020, thus strengthening the Abu Dhabi-Athens partnership. It also means that Europe is becoming increasingly involved in Gulf rivalries and Middle Eastern geopolitical strife. As it stands, the most notable clauses of the partnership are those on foreign policy and defense, which seem directly related to consolidating Greek-Emirati cooperation against their common antagonist, Turkey.

Since 2017, the UAE has participated in a Greek-led annual military drill, also including the US, Israel and since 2018, Cyprus and Italy with Egypt participating as an observer. The UAE has also been extending its full support for Cypriot sovereignty against claims of autonomy from the Ankara-backed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The UAE joined Cyprus, Greece, France and Egypt in taking a joint declaration against Turkey’s forays into the East Mediterranean. Targeting Turkey’s external adventures in Libya, the joint declaration also strongly condemned Turkey’s military interference in Libya. There is, therefore, no gainsaying that the Greek, Israel and Emirati interests are increasingly converging with a focus on the containment of Turkey’s expansionist “neo-Ottoman ambitions. “

For Turkey, the worrying sign is that this “axis” has the US support as well. Besides the fact that many in Ankara believe that the US is shifting its alliance with Turkey to Greece with a view to making the latter its major security and defense partner in the Mediterranean. With Turkey already sensing a shift in the US policies, it will be interesting how Ankara counter-balances this axis.

Turkey – neo-Ottoman gratification

Turkey and President Erdogan have been “super-active” actors in many regional theaters and even on world-wide scale. Turkey’s heavy engagement in Syrian and Iraq crisis, Nagorno-Karabash conflict and in Libya war by organizing various proxy militias to fight for Turkish purposes are all examples of Turkish over-active foreign political role it has chosen. Turkey’s Kurds conflict seem to be a “forever” fighting.

Turkey has had significant contradictions with the main NATO partner, the US, from failed coup in 2016 (Turkey accused Gulen, supported by CIA), currency and other economic quarrels, F-35 / S-400 row, Greece-Turkey relations, Biden’s statement on Armenian Genocide to various political disagreements on numerous topics. On the other hand, Turkey has also ambivalent and controversial relations with Russia, examples in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabash and Ukraine conflict.

Turkish role in the world politics seems to resemble more and more an “Enfant Terrible”. EU-Turkey relations have suffered several issues like refugee/migration problem, stalemate in EU-membership negotiations and the latest incident of “chair row”.

Many analysts might conclude that Turkey is now more isolated than ever, the new rogue state in the Middle East. However, Turkey has been again active in recent weeks to thaw relations with Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The question is whether the region is better off and more stable and – critically – if the thawing of relations with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia is sustainable.

Turkey has literally dug itself into a deeper and deeper hole entrenching itself increasingly with complicated geopolitical and geo-military relations and rows that it is now stuck out in the cold with no close partners. Yet, with recent shifting plates in the Middle East, some old foes may become friends and old friends becoming foes.

A major reason for why Turkey has recently approached Saudi Arabia and Egypt is how Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” ambitions have backfired. If Erdogan’s plan was to stretch Turkish zone of influence from the Gulf/the Middle East to Africa, its aggressive and antagonistic pursuits have largely left it isolated in the region. With its economy almost exhausted and its foreign policy options, particularly Erdogan’s favourite option of increasingly utilizing Turkish armed forces to pursue foreign policy objectives in foreign territories, reaching its limits, the Erdogan regime has been forced to take a step back and reorient its trajectory.

One of the biggest challenges for Erdogan and AKP party is fast-eroding domestic popularity. Facing declining advocacy in polls of this spring, Erdogan tries to reverse the trajectory through his new economic reforms package and also through a thorough recalibration of Ankara’s ties with two of its most important rivals in the Middle East and North Africa. While a major breakthrough is still not in sight, it remains that a thaw with Egypt and Saudi Arabia could still give Erdogan just enough leeway to consolidate his fast-declining political fortunes. A thaw would allow Ankara to shift its focus away from external tussles to the challenge of winning next elections.

Egypt, the biggest Arab state in the region has kept low political profile in last two-three years, concentrating more on internal and economic affairs of its own. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi keeps all doors open and is observing new opportunities.

Positions of great powers

These topics will be studied in details in the coming blogs and articles, here just a short overview.

The US in a challenging situation.

The US, under Biden-Blinken foreign political leadership, has found itself in a very challenging situation. The withdrawal from Afghanistan makes more pressure on withdrawing from Iraq, where US troops are under continuous rocket strike by militants. The illegal occupation in Syria will be unsustainable in the long term. Destroying tribal and state structures in Iraq, Syria, Libya and interfering in domestic affairs of numerous countries in the region, the US has created large amount of “political badwill” and is generally seen as an unreliable partner.

Russia is back.

Biden’s motto,” America is back”, is much better suitable for Russia’s comeback to the Middle East “Russia is back”. Russia’s military engagement in Syrian war since 2015 was the new beginning for this return. Russia has been re-establishing relations on wide-range with Israel, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Sudan. In most cases, there is a heavy military-technical aspect found in re-established relations as well as large economic cooperation. It seems that Russia is building up relations in the Middle East on strategic, long term basis.

China – a prominent player behind the scenes

China has been active player in the Middle East but mainly behind the scenes. China’s political maneuvers have been in the framework of BRI or Digital Silk Road. Last year was disclosed a large oil trade deal between Iraq and China as well as Syria’s coming position as a hub of one important BRI route in the region.

In the meeting of the US-China in Alaska this year, a sharpened China was seen. Two days later the Chinese and Russian FMs met and confirmed their close partnership and indicated their “rock-hard red lines”. A few days later the Chinese FM Wang Li was in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, UAE and then Tehran, where the large Iran-China cooperation agreement was disclosed. Besides large economic substance, the roadmap also envisages security co-operation (with China endorsing Iranian full membership of the SCO), joint naval exercises, intelligence sharing and other things. Even more significant perhaps will be Iran’s incorporation into the Eurasian Digital Silk Road, a Chinese massive telecommunication initiative covering Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Caspian and Black Sea region, Mediterranean and finally Europe.

Closing words

The Middle East theater is seeing new major players, new unprecedented alliances emerging and new kind of “all-encompassing” political dynamics avalanching to the scene. Each new day may bring new surprises along, that’s the way of today.

If the nation having used to be a hegemon of yesterday, hold on tightly with its old position without seeing inevitable change processes taking place around all the time, will face constantly growing challenges laying ahead.