Is the House of Saud a house of sand?

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Saudi Arabia and Iran are the principal actors in the Middle East’s spreading Sunni-Shi’ite battle. The two have for the past decade been the respective heads of the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, but the competition between them was more Great Game than Game of Thrones. However, the related phenomena of the Syrian civil war spiralling out of control and the apparent US decision to pull back (note: not withdraw) from the Middle East has forced the Saudis to a realisation they need to be more hands-on.

Mostly, both parties act to empower proxies, much like the US and Soviets did during the Cold War. The problem for Western interests (because Western interests continue to lie with the Saudis) is that the Saudi product, with which it hopes to encourage proxies and the ‘Arab Street’, isn’t very good—Saudi Arabia is having trouble winning hearts and minds.

The message the Iranians are selling is:

  • Iran is the defender of Shi’ites
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Shi’ites and will either kill them (e.g. Islamic State, al-Qaeda), oppress them (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can or wants to protect the Shi’ites, but Iran can supply Shi’ites with weapons and aid
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Shi’ites putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Shi’ites live (unless you live in Iran!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!

The message is easy to sell because most Shi’ites in the Middle East believe it. Indeed, cut out the Shi’ite-centric message, and it’s effectively the same message the various Sunni Islamist groups are selling:

  • We [name of group—e.g. al-qaeda, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood] are the defender of the Sunnis
  • All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Sunnis and will either kill them (e.g. rival groups), oppress them (e.g. every Arab government, plus Iran) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
  • No one else can protect Sunnis (some groups are able to promise arms)
  • The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Sunnis putting their fate in its hands
  • The government of the countries where Sunnis live (unless they live in areas under our control!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
  • Death to America! Death to Israel!

The problem for the Saudis (and, for that matter, every Status Quo Bloc member) is that they are corrupt and aligned with the US (which is, of course, aligned with—and widely seen as subservient to—Israel). The Saudis also back many of the other corrupt states in the region, including Egypt. Although they are the guardians of the two holy mosques (i.e. Mecca and Medina), they struggle to present themselves as representative of the true Islam. The various Salafi groups out there also present themselves as such but their message is easier to sell because it is much closer to the message of Muhammad. The Saudi message is entirely flawed because what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell is, essentially, hypocrisy.

To mollify their own Islamists, the Saudis have spent billions investing in Wahhabi religious education throughout the Middle East, as well as the rest of the world, for several decades. The Middle East has become more devout—and more extreme—because of this.

There is little wonder that, faced with corrupt, basically secular political leaders, extremist Sunni Islamists felt they needed to take things into their own hands. Al-qaeda and the various militias that were organised after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 really started the process. But the Arab Spring and, particularly, the Syrian civil war let the cat out of the bag. And there’s no stuffing it back in now.

The problem for the Saudis is that unrestrained and popular Sunni Islamist movements are a real threat for the Saudi regime. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Islamic State will continue expanding southward until it overruns Riyadh, but that continuing successes of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East could sufficiently embolden Saudis to rise against their political masters.) The Saudis think that the way to resolve this problem is to have all manifestations of successful Islamist groups fail. That’s why Riyadh has been arming and funding groups in Syria that are opposed to both the regime there and Islamic State (for now, these groups are still under Saudi control, but I would expect that to change after a while). The Saudis have directly interfered in Yemen, in a badly-thought through attempt at defeating the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. And they’ve been propping up the Egyptian military dictatorship in Egypt (which overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013). Doing so is expensive, as Egypt is hopelessly corrupt, provides endless subsidies to its people, does not garner much tax from them and has no possibility of turning things round any time soon. Pouring money into an endless hole that is Egypt shows how much the Saudis want the Muslim Brotherhood to remain out of power. The Saudis have also tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) backed Israel in every war it has fought against Islamist movements Hezbollah and Hamas since 2006.

The Obama Doctrine and the rising tide
But it increasingly feels as if the Saudis are fighting the rising tide. To a certain extent, the US has realised this (consider President Obama’s April interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, where the former pointed out that the biggest threat to Saudi existence was lack of democracy within its borders).  That said, I don’t believe the US effectively abandoning the field, as it has been progressively doing during the Obama Administration, is a reflection of this realisation (were it so, it could only be described as Machiavellian strategic daring rarely seen in the real world). Rather, I think this US pull-back is part of the two-pronged Obama Doctrine.

The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don’t do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby change in their behaviour into being more complying.

The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)

While the Obama Doctrine might work well on paper, to those it affects, it feels as if the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies (especially since it is happening at the same time as the Middle East is aflame in violence). Iran has not been more conciliatory as a result of softening US policies. It continues to call for the destruction of the US and Israel; it continues to insist on its right to nuclear enrichment and to deny UN nuclear inspectors the right of entry to suspect sites; and it continues to aid proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As a reward for this behaviour, it appears to be on the brink of the US and international community removing many of the crippling international sanctions against it. These sanctions, I would add, were applied because of illegal Iranian behaviour which hasn’t actually changed.

Saudi Arabia is, indeed, panicked by US distancing. But its reaction isn’t to run, pleading, into American arms, promising all the while to undertake the internal democratic reform that Obama wants it to. Rather, it has been rolling up its sleeves and getting involved—by funding its own anti Syria, anti-Shi’ite and anti-ISIS proxies in Syria, by heading a coalition against Iranian-backed proxies in Yemen, and by agreeing to buy nukes from Pakistan.

The Obama Doctrine feels as if it’s a decade too late; it might have worked when the Middle East was stable (even then, it probably wouldn’t have).

The tide is rising faster and faster
Were the Saudi product a good one, the implementation of the Obama Doctrine probably wouldn’t matter so much. The Saudis could have ridden out the two terms until Hilary Clinton arrives in the Oval Office (an early prediction!) without too much bother. But because the product the Saudis are selling is flawed, and because the Middle East is so unstable at the moment and, especially, because Iran is rising so quickly (with Western acquiescence), the tide will rise faster for the Saudis.

We will see more and more frenetic activity by the Saudis, and more and more money being thrown at unsolvable problems. But the Status Quo Bloc will become progressively weaker relative to Iran, and their respective governments progressively less legitimate in the eyes of their people, to the point where some of the stable countries that were not adversely affected by the Arab Spring might go under (quite possibly including Saudi Arabia itself).

The fact that the governments of Saudi Arabia and every other Arab country are endemically corrupt, with a near total lack of representation (and support the same throughout the Middle East), with the only people presenting a ‘solution’ being the Islamists (since secular democrats are both gaoled by the regime and discredited because secular democracy is seen as a trait of the hated/resented West) means there has always been an air of inevitability about the House of Saud’s house of sand crumbling from within.

I’m not blaming the Obama Doctrine for this approaching calamity, but it has certainly sped up the process.

In and out: Hamas and the Resistance Bloc

hamas_logo_by_juba_paldfIn 2012, with Allawite and Shi’ite bombs raining down on Sunni Syrians, hamas, which is Sunni and was based in Syria, faced a real dilemma — it was aligned with the Allawites and Shi’ites. It wanted out. That turned out to be a poor decision. Now it wants back in again.

Hamas was a member of the Resistance Bloc, a regional grouping of mostly-Shi’ite countries and militias led by Iran and in competition with the Status Quo Bloc.

Egypt was a major player in the Status Quo Bloc (indeed – a symbolic leader). In mid-2012, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt on the back of Arab Spring protests, which felled the 50-year military dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power marked what looked liked the beginning of a third bloc in the Middle East. This third bloc was the Sunni Islamist Bloc.

It was different from the (Sunni) Status Quo Bloc in important ways. The Status Quo Bloc leadership (despite pretensions) are corrupt and secular. They look to the US for security and want America to retain its presence in the Middle East. They want a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel. They epitomise an acceptance of realpolitik. The Sunni Islamist bloc want the opposite in all these thing; religious leadership and society, no US presence in the Middle East and for a Palestinian state to replace Israel. Like the Status Quo Bloc, however, the Sunni Islamist Bloc was suspicious of Iranian hegemonic ambitions, and generally didn’t like Shi’ites.

The coalescence of the Sunni Islamist Bloc was the result of numerous, concurrent regional occurrences. First, all Arab Spring protests that resulted in elections saw Sunni Islamist governments come to power (most significantly in Egypt, long the symbolic leader of the Arab world). Second, Sunni Islamist militias were (in mid-2012) beating back all other Syrian opposition groups as well as Syrian Government-backed forces. For those looking for such an outcome, it seemed only a matter of time until the government was overthrown and all Syria was under Sunni Islamist control.

Qatar and Turkey, both long on the fringes of the Resistance Bloc (due to their competition with the Status Quo Bloc) saw in the nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc a movement they really agreed with. They became card-carrying members. Hamas thought the nascent bloc was ascendant (and an answer to its discomfort over its Shi’ite and Allawite partners killing Sunnis) and leapt. Doing so meant no longer receiving funds, arms and training from Iran and Hezbollah, but it thought the shortfall could be made up by friendly governments in Cairo, Doha and Ankara.

It was all going swimmingly until the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown by a (popular) coup. The military in Egypt was (and is) firmly back in control. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was arrested and many sentenced to death. The border between Egypt and Gaza was closed, and Egypt worked to destroy the dozens of tunnels underneath that border. In recent weeks, Egypt has moved to raze all buildings within a kilometre of the border (on the Egyptian side), leaving thousands homeless.

The hamas-Israel war of July-August 2014 was launched because hamas was in trouble, and needed the international attention (and subsequent aid money) the war brought to rescue itself from real financial troubles. It didn’t work out as well as hamas hoped – it’s still in need of money and friends.

Facing reality, hamas has reached out to Iran for help. In what must have been a humiliating mea culpa, hamas has been looking to patch things up. A series of friendly, coordinated statements about hamas have been released by Iran and hezbollah in recent weeks. Hamas has issued a statement saying non-violent opposition to the Syrian government is justified (that is, everyone should just let the Assad Government retain power). Expect a visit by hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Iran in the coming months. And, around the same time, a grovelling hamas statement that Assad isn’t so bad after all, and all opposition to him is a Zionist conspiracy.

What it means, in short, is that hamas will be welcomed back into Resistance Bloc, and will receive much-needed funds and arms (given the lack of tunnels, it might have trouble receiving them). But the reason it left in the first place – discomfort that its Allawite and Shi’ite friends are killing Sunnis – won’t have been resolved. It’s not a great position for hamas to be in and will cost it friends on the ‘Arab Street’ (in the Arab palaces – that is, the power centres of the Status Quo Bloc – hamas is detested).

In theory, a fatah that had the trust of the Palestinian people would be well-placed to take advantage of hamas’s misfortunes. But fatah still lacks strategic direction, is hopelessly corrupt, and doesn’t have the support of its people. So not much will change on that front in the foreseeable future.

The path to radicalisation

1512_lindt_spA spate of terrorist attacks have recently been carried out by so-called ‘lone wolves’. Attacks have occurred in the US (Boston Marathon), UK (Lee Rigby), Canada (Parliament), Israel (Jerusalem light rail and multiple stabbings), Belgium (Jewish museum), Australia (Martin Place) and, most recently, France (Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket).

Beyond the Islamist connection, what ties these attacks is the loose or entirely absent affiliation the perpetrators had with established terrorist organisations. Broadly speaking, they were individuals (or pairs) that took it upon themselves to conduct a terrorist attack.

The question now being asked by the media (and for many years by the security services) is how to stop lone wolf attacks. The short answer is, they’re impossible to stop. However, there are numerous steps a potential lone wolf perpetrator generally takes in order to carry out a successful attack. Preventing these steps being taken will help lessen the severity of the eventual attack, and might even prevent it from occurring at all.

These steps are:

  • Radicalisation
  • Learning how to attack (online)
  • Learning how to attack (physical training)
  • Preparing for the attack
  • Carrying out the attack

In a forthcoming post, I will discuss how to (try to) prevent lone wolf terrorist attacks. For the remainder of this post, I will discuss the radicalisation process.

Radicalisation of (usually young) Muslims can occur online or in the community. Broadly speaking, the pattern of radicalisation follows the well-worn path of the Arab world’s sense of victimisation since the late 18th century.

Impressionable Muslim youths see that some Muslim communities (such as the Palestinians) are ‘oppressed’ (one’s perspective informs one’s reality). They see that the leaders of most Muslim (and certainly all) Arab states are corrupt and do not lead devout lives (despite pretending to). They see the US militarily back these corrupt, secular states.

They see that Muslim countries are weak. They also see that Muslim countries cannot seem to change their weakness. That is, the Muslim countries cannot defeat Israel, they cannot eject the US presence from the region and, when the US (together with a coalition of Western countries) invades a Muslim state, they see the Muslim state powerless.

Those Muslims who would become radicalised would then be directed (either on the Internet or in person) to look at Islamic history. Islamist history would teach these people that back when the Muslim community was pure it was also the strongest. Muhammad and the four caliphs that followed him rode roughshod over all opponents, establishing in just a couple of decades a large empire, which covered what we now call the Middle East. In these first few decades, the Muslim empire overran the pagan Persian Empire to the east (and converted everyone therein), and took from the Christian Byzantine Empire the holy city of Jerusalem and most Byzantine land.

These same imams would teach these impressionable youths that as the Islamic empire grew less devout and more corrupt, and as individual Muslims did the same, it weakened. Eventually, after decades of malignant decline, the French invaded Muslim Egypt in 1798. And no Muslim army was able to dislodge it—it was the British that kicked out the French (but the British stayed). Muslim armies have barely won a battle—much less a war—since that date.

These impressionable youth, now more devout, might also be shown how individual and small-scale acts of Islamic violence have worked. A handful of bombs caused the US to leave Lebanon (1983). The Palestinian intifada (1987–1993) forced Israel to peace talks. A single battle caused the US to leave Somalia (1993). Hezbollah violence (1982–2000) forced Israel out of Lebanon. A handful of men caused death, fear and chaos in New York (2001). A single attack (with ten bombs) on Madrid trains caused Spain to pull out of Iraq (2004). Hamas violence forced Israel out of Gaza (2000–2005). And so on.

These impressionable youths are taught that the West’s strength is like a spider web; it looks loathsome but, ultimately, it’s very weak. That despite all its guns and tanks and planes, the West is afraid of war and death and will retreat rather than fight. They are pointed to the many passages in Islam’s holy books that preach the imperitive to fight, that predict the inevitable victory to Muslims, that teach Allah rewards all those who fight for him, and that martyrs are rewarded more than any one else.

This path to radicalisation has not changed in decades. The Wahhabis (founders of Saudi Arabia) trod this path in the late 19th century. The founders of the Muslim Brotherhood did so in the 1950s. Al-Qaeda’s founders in the 1990s. All followed the same path to radicalisation as the disenfranchised youth in Sydney’s West today.

What these impressionable youths are rarely taught is that many, many millions more Muslims have been killed by Muslims since 1798 than by the West (including Israel). They are rarely taught of the many battles and wars instigated by Muslims that resulted in the Muslim losing. They are rarely taught that the reason the West was strong in 1798 and thereafter was because the weakening of religious control of the state allowed for creative pursuits that resulted in more wealth and better weaponry; and that it was the stifling of such creative pursuits in the Muslim world (along with the fact the Muslim empire grew rich from taxing other people trading across its lands, not because it had to invent anything) that led to the centuries-long decline that allowed mass colonisation after the First World War. They are not told that imposing religious control over a society will not lead to Muslim victories but to degradation and even more weakness relative to the hated West.

The path to radicalisation is a very hard one to stop. The Muslim world (particularly the Arab world) will continue to be corrupt and weak for the foreseeable future. The West will continue to be strong. Palestinians will continue to be occupied.

The Internet will continue to be a source of easy-to-access information, anti-West sermons and gruesome images of dead Palestinian babies.

It is in the physical community that this path to radicalisation can be slowed, if not stopped. But non-Muslims, no matter how cynical or sympathetic, cannot make a difference. It is the Muslim communities themselves that must first acknowledge that there is a problem; that there is an aspect to Islam’s core teachings that leads some to violence. It’s a very bitter pill for a community to swallow, which is why communities have typically blamed the core reason for radicalisation on Israel or the West. But once the acknowledgment that the problem is internal is made, leading radicalised youths back to a devout though non-violent path (which the majority of devout Muslims follow) will be much easier.

There are signs that key Islamic figures around the world are starting to acknowledge the problem. On 28 December last year, Egyptian President el-Sisi—known as a devout man—said this in the heart of Sunni scholarship:

“I am addressing the religious scholars and clerics… We must take a long, hard look at the situation we are in. It is inconceivable that the ideology we sanctify should make our entire nation a source of concern, danger, killing, and destruction all over the world… I am referring not to ‘religion’, but to ‘ideology’—the body of ideas and texts that we have sanctified in the course of centuries, to the point that challenging them has become very difficult.

“It has reached the point that [this ideology] is hostile to the entire world. Is it conceivable that 1.6 billion [Muslims] would kill the world’s population of seven billion, so that they could live [on their own]? This is inconceivable. I say these things here, at al-Azhar, before religious clerics and scholars. May Allah bear witness on Judgment Day to the truth of your intentions, regarding what I say to you today. You cannot see things clearly when you are locked [in this ideology]. You must emerge from it and look from outside, in order to get closer to a truly enlightened ideology. You must oppose it with resolve. Let me say it again: We need to revolutionise our religion.”

In the face of a handful of Australian Muslims going to fight in Syria, some Australian Muslims are speaking out about the problem of radicalisation in their community. Again, this is a bitter pill to swallow, and I applaud the courage of those at the vanguard of this hopefully growing movement.1512_lindt_sp

Talking Turkey

Turkey is the successor to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of what is now called the Middle East for about 400 years. The Ottoman Empire was also the Islamic Caliphate. However, in the wake of the Ottoman’s dramatic loss of land in the First World War, leaving it with what is today Turkey, the Empire was abolished, leaving a republic in its wake. The republic’s founder, Ataturk, made the country entirely secular, and abolished the Caliphate in 1924. So dramatically did Turkey want to shake off its religious, Middle Eastern background, that its leaders adopted (and encouraged Turks to adopt) Western-style dress. It no longer used Arabic script in its writing, but adopted Latin script to transliterate Turkish. It looked to Europe, not the Middle East for partnerships, joining NATO and wanting to join the EU. The latter quest was never going to be successful, because of Turkey’s shaky democratic traditions (three coups between 1960 and 1980), its human rights record (for instance, it ranks 154 of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index) and, though it isn’t spoken of in polite circles, the fact that Turkey is Muslim and Europe is not.

In 2002, Turks elected an Islamist government, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, ‘Justice and Development Party’), which began a very slow, very careful and very clever process of creeping Islamisation throughout the country. Although it would be wrong to say it turned its back on Europe, the Turks pretty much gave up on ever becoming an EU member and returned their focus to the Middle East.

In pursuing its Middle East policy, the AKP Government dallied with one of the Middle East’s two main blocs, the Resistance Bloc (for a backgrounder on these blocs, see ‘What is the Big Picture?’). This wasn’t because it agreed with Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, but because Turkey’s interests were aligned with Iran—it wanted to change the status quo in the Middle East, it didn’t like Israel, it didn’t like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and it didn’t want Kurds, which are present in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, to seek independence as a result of that invasion. I’ll be writing more on the Kurds further down.

Eventually, however, Turkey tired of the Resistance Bloc. What tipped the scales was a confluence of events in 2011 and 2012. In mid-2011, Syria’s President (dictator) Assad (a paid-up member of the Resistance Bloc) rejected Turkish attempts to moderate Syrian behaviour in the first few months of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s leaders clearly took this as a personal slight (evidence of immaturity in policy making!) and shifted Turkey from believing it had the ability to help engender a peaceful resolution to making its regional priority the removal of the Assad Government.

Previous to that, popular protests had resulted in the removal of the Egyptian President (dictator) Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi in June that year. In January 2012, hamas’s chief left Damascus and, in doing so, left the Resistance Bloc. Turkey saw in these changes the emergence of a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc to challenge the dichotomous dominance of the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc.

Turkey bet heavily on the success of the Sunni Islamist Bloc, with strong support for the Brotherhood in Egypt and hamas in Gaza. It also turned a blind eye to people and weapons entering Syria from Turkey, to fight with jabhat a-nusra (al-qaeda’s Syrian franchise), the Islamic State and other nasty groups.

But hamas’s position hasn’t improved (it has actually worsened). The Muslim Brotherhood over-reached in Egypt, attempting to impose Islamist policies too quickly, and were booted out after mass protests brought the military back to power in July 2012.

The Sunni Islamist Bloc appears to be dissolving before it could properly solidify, and by acting so dramatically against the interests of both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs (and losing), Turkey has significantly hurt its interests in the region.

Turkey’s short-sighted policy on Syria has hurt it. It sought to become a champion for Sunni rights (and thus popular among Sunni Arabs) when it became so adamantly against the Syrian Government. However, Islamist militias (like Islamic State) that Turkey unofficially helped, have been killing Sunnis as willy-nilly as the Syrian Government. And Arabs in the Middle East know this.

The recent actions of Islamic State in closing in on the town of Ayn al-Arab (commonly called Kobani) have presented Turkey with another opportunity to lose. Turkey, which is deeply nationalist, has a large population of Kurds, which are also nationalist (Like Turks, Kurds are mostly Sunni. And like Turks, Persians and Jews, they are a separate ethnicity to the Middle East’s majority ethnic group, Arabs). Turkey has been in conflict with the PKK (Partiya Karker Kurdistana, ‘Kurdistan Workers Party’) for decades. The PKK is the dominant Kurdish group in Turkey, and is aligned with the dominant Kurdish group in Syria, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, ‘Democratic Union Party’).

After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the PYD declared autonomy in three areas of Syria, one of which is Ayn al-Arab. Islamic State is now closing in on this area, threatening to massacre everyone in it. Turkey, despite being in NATO, and despite its troops sitting idly by watching the spectacle from just across the border, has been doing nothing to stop this. It does not want a successful Kurdish enclave bordering Turkey—least of all one run by PKK allies. What it really wants is for the PYD to come begging Turkey to intervene, after which Turkey would likely invade the area to set up a safe haven, but thereby remove the PYD’s autonomy.

To ensure the PYD didn’t succeed, Turkey was not allowing any Kurds from Turkey enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. This policy has been risking the delicate peace talks that Turkey and the PKK have been undertaking for the past couple of years. Certainly, if Islamic State succeeds in overcoming the enclave and committing a massacre, that peace process will be ruined. It would also significantly damage Turkey’s reputation in the West, given that Turkey is officially in the coalition meant to ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State.

But now, a day after Turkey lost (to New Zealand!) its bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council, Turkish President Erdogan received a phone call from US President Obama, who clearly put the hard word on him. Turkey has now said that it will allow Kurds from Iraq to enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. (The dominant Kurdish group in Iraq are rivals to the PKK and PYD (even to the point of closing the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and a Syrian Kurdish enclave on the Iraq–Syria border!), and are quite friendly with Turkey, mostly because they are rivals with the PKK). At the same time, the US dropped supplies, including arms, into the Ayn al-Arab enclave. So while ensuring it’s Iraqi Kurds, not Turkish Kurds, entering Ayn al-Arab is a win, of sorts, for Turkey, the reality is, it is now looking increasingly like Kurdish autonomy in Syria will survive for a little while longer. Turkey will not be able to establish its safe haven, and its policy of sitting by and doing nothing has helped poison Turkish–Kurdish relations even more, and made Turkey look terrible in the eyes of the West.

Strategically and tactically, the AKP Government in Turkey, in power since 2002, has taken the country out on a limb, leaving it dangling with fewer and fewer friends and no good options.

What is the big picture?

middle-east-map-politicalOver the last few decades, the Middle East has coalesced into two broad groupings, which I and others call the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc. The Arab Spring created the conditions which, in turn, created a third, still-nascent bloc, which I’ll get to in a bit. It is the creation of this new bloc which is the reason for much of the violence and instability in the Middle East today.

The Status Quo Bloc consists of most of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf (led by Saudi Arabia), Egypt and Jordan, with a few hangers-on. Basically, these countries are stable dictatorships (or kingdoms) and will usually swat away clumsy Western attempts for them to democratise. They are Sunni and Arab. They look to the US to guarantee their security. They want the status quo to remain exactly as it is. Israel is a proxy member.

The Resistance Bloc wants to shake things up. Although its members have different goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, hezbollah and, until relatively recently, hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly ethnically Arab, and mostly religiously Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq has been allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for US foreign policy given all the blood and treasure it spent ‘liberating’ Iraq from 2003).

Iran is religiously Shi’ite and its rulers are ethnically Persian. Iran wants to be the regional hegemon. The Sunni Arab states fear it. It is this fear of Iran that drives much of the really important stuff that happens in the Middle East, including the origins of the Syrian civil war.

Emergence of a third bloc
The leaders of the Status Quo Bloc are generally secular. And Iran is Shi’ite. So, where does this leave Sunni Islamists? First, let’s take a step back. Basically, an Islamist is someone who wants their country run according to their interpretation of Islam. And there are two types of Islamists; those that wish to achieve their objectives using political means, and those that justify the use of violence to achieve their objectives.

Generally speaking, over the decades, the religious establishments in Arab states have been tolerated, with one important proviso; the religious leadership (or anyone else) were to make no complaint about or attempts to usurp the ruling elite. Over time, in various Arab countries, there have been very bloody bouts of repression, where thousands of people have been imprisoned or killed because a religious movement overstepped this mark.

Thus, the political Islamist movements (like the Muslim Brotherhood) went underground and bided their time, and the Islamists that justified violence formed various groups that have attacked Muslim and non-Muslim targets over time.

The Arab Spring offered the underground political Islamist groups an invaluable opportunity. In those Arab countries where the Arab Spring took off, the movement was originally a genuinely popular movement of people wanting more rights than they had. But in every case where elections were held, Islamists won. This was because the political Islamists had been highly organised, with trusted members and charismatic leaders, for years. The liberal democratic groups that we in the West hoped would have won were newly created, highly factional and rarely had a single charismatic leader behind which to unite.

The stunning ascendance of Sunni Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring created a still-nascent third bloc in the Middle East. Although this Sunni Islamist Bloc immediately made a big impact on the Middle East, it is too soon to tell if it will form into a viable, lasting bloc.

Some of the big impacts made by the Sunni Islamist Bloc:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood was elected to power in Egypt (June 2012).
  • Turkey, which had dallied with the Resistance Bloc for years, became a firm member of the Sunni Islamist Bloc. Likewise Qatar.
  • Hamas, which had for years been in the Resistance Bloc, joined the Sunni Islamist Bloc (both because of the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and also because the wholesale slaughter of Sunni Muslims by the Resistance Bloc’s Syria was making hamas’s ongoing membership of the Resistance Bloc increasingly unpopular.)

But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt overstepped its mandate, attempting to impose its Islamist agenda too quickly. Egyptians went back out on the streets. They brought about a counter-coup in July 2013 and re-installed the military as the arbiter of Egyptian political life. Egypt, though it retains a pretence of democracy, is now to all effects and purposes a military dictatorship once again.

Under the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was clearly the leader of the emerging Sunni Islamist Bloc. The Brothers’ demise embarrassed Turkey, Qatar and hamas, which had heavily bet on its success.

The most immediate impact was that hamas was now without a patron. Having unceremoniously left the Resistance Bloc, hamas was no longer receiving significant funding from Iran. And with Egypt firmly back in the Status Quo Bloc, the free passage of money and arms in the tunnels under the Egypt–Gaza border was quickly cut off. Hamas was in a difficult position and it was this, more than any other reason, that caused it to prod Israel into war in July 2014; hamas knew that Israel would over-react, and that the civilian casualties in Gaza (mostly caused by hamas purposefully putting civilians in harm’s way) and physical damage would cause the international community to pressure Israel into weakening its embargo on Gaza. Weakening this embargo would strengthen hamas both politically and economically. The embargo hasn’t yet weakened, indicating that Israel didn’t lose the war. However, the UN fact-finding mission will only release its report in March next year. International pressure as a result of that report might well hand hamas its victory, encouraging it to pursue more violence in the future.

As for the Sunni Islamist Bloc, it is too soon to tell whether it will last, but the Status Quo–Resistance enemies have a common enemy in the Sunni Islamists, and are working together to destroy it.