The Accidental Strategist 

Despite his best efforts, it’s just possible that President Obama accidentally stitched together the makings of a new Middle East favourable to Western interests. 

Let’s consider Obama’s record. During his administration: the distrust among Israelis and Palestinians became complete; Syria descended into civil war; Saudi Arabia and Iran began conducting a proxy war in Yemen; Egypt went from military dictatorship to Islamist ‘democracy’ to military dictatorship; Iraq went from mostly stable to failed state to Iranian client; the Islamic State rose out of nowhere and took over a third of Iraq; Iran became emboldened and free of UN sanctions (all the while continuing to pursue a nuclear option and missile technology), and is now openly supporting militias that defy Western interests in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Syria. So, yes, he left the region worse than he found it (which, given his predecessor’s record, is impressive), but the conditions Obama created in the Middle East are ripe for meaningful improvement. 

This is because a key gripe of US strategists—and Trump as candidate—is the assumed expectation among America’s partners that because the US guarantees their security, they need have little responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof). But Obama provided the Middle East with new assumptions. The lessons he imparted is that America is not trustworthy and can no longer be relied upon to guarantee regional security. This created throughout the Middle East a mood that actors would have to help themselves. A wise Trump Administration would not reverse this mood, but rather guide it—a carrot and stick approach along the lines of ‘we will help those who help themselves, but thwart all those who defy us’. 

In order to understand how this policy might work, we first need to understand the region’s strategic environment, as this will explain why each actor acts as they do. 

In a long process beginning with the First World War and culminating during Obama’s presidency, the Middle East coalesced into three main groups of interest. The first is an unofficial ‘Status Quo Bloc’, consisting of most Arab states (Qatar, Syria and Oman being the exceptions). The Status Quo Bloc is Sunni and Arab. It wants things to stay as they are—monarchical or military dictatorships whose security is guaranteed by the US. These states have long experience in swatting away clumsy Western attempts to improve their human and civil rights record, and increasingly accept Israel (which shares their objectives and enemies) as a proxy member. 

The second group is the ‘Resistance Bloc’. Although its members have different end-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 Shi’ite, Persian Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, Hezbollah and, until 2012, Hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly Arab, and most of its Arabs are Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq was allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for the US, given all the blood and treasure it spent from 2003). 

The third group is harder to define, which is why I describe it as the ‘Sunni Islamist Continuum’, rather than Bloc. The common end-goal among all adherents is the establishment of a Sunni caliphate over the Middle East and, eventually, the world. But that’s where the commonality ends—some want to start with internal religious reform, others with the ruthlessly-enforced imposition of new rules over areas obtained militarily. Some are willing to work with the West in the short term, others are not. Few cooperate with each other and some fight each other. However, their common end-goal allows us to place them on a continuum from non-violent, political Islamist groups like Hezb u-Tahrir, to increasingly strident groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Islamic State and its successors. Turkey and Qatar are also on the Continuum, and act accordingly. 

In a fascinating series of events sparked by the Arab Spring, this continuum almost coalesced into a genuine bloc. Turkey under Erdogan would like a Sunni Islamist Bloc to emerge, and so, after being snubbed by Assad in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, came out strongly against Syria and the Resistance Bloc. In the same period, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. This saw Egypt leave the Status Quo Bloc. Sunni, Arab Hamas—part of the Resistance Bloc and based in Damascus—was so embarrassed by Syria killing so many Sunni Arabs that it pulled out of both Damascus and the Resistance Bloc. It had the courage to do so because of Egypt’s then-Sunni Islamist government. With Muslim Brotherhood control of Egypt (actively backed by Turkey) and Sunni Islamists on the rise throughout the region, it was thought by many that their time had come. 

However, in July 2013, the Egyptian military regained control of the country and re-joined the Status Quo Bloc. Turkey was on the outer (again) and Hamas realised it had lost badly, which is why it has become so reliant on Qatar. 

The existence of three distinct groups of interest both explains regional actions and the confusion of those commentators that appear to assume the region has only two main blocs, typified by Iranian–Saudi tension. 

The Status Quo Bloc sees the Resistance Bloc as an existential external threat, but the Sunni Islamist Continuum as an existential internal threat. The Status Quo’s diplomatic actions against Qatar is not so much because of Iran, but because Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Jazeera, which is intent on highlighting the Status Quo dictatorships’ myriad shortcomings. (If Qatar’s isolation continues, look for Hamas to seek to re-join the Resistance Bloc and Iranian patronage.) 

As above, as a direct result of Obama’s choices, such as pressure on America’s friends (e.g. Israel), a deliberate lack of pressure on America’s enemies (e.g. Iran in 2009 and the nuclear talks), the pivot to Asia, no help to friendly regimes in need (e.g. Egypt in 2011), and entirely hollow threats (e.g. over chemical weapons), America’s enemies learned that they could defy American interests without consequence. And America’s friends learned that that would have to learn to take care of themselves. 

Iran’s undisguised activity in Iraq and Syria is the most obvious example, as is its missile testing and the recent admission—after years of obfuscation—that it was arming Houthis in Yemen all along. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s military intervention in Yemen, to thwart Iranian interests, is another example, as is their willingness to countenance attempts to create an ‘Arab NATO’. The isolation of Qatar has provided Fatah (a Status Quo Bloc member) with the perfect opportunity to squeeze Hamas—hence the recent cessation of payments for Gaza’s electricity and the thousands of people still on the PA’s payroll ten years after Hamas kicked the PA out of Gaza. 

So, what is to be done? The new can-do spirit in the Middle East only works in our interests if those so doing are doing things in our interests. A Middle East strategy needs to be developed, one based on a realistic understanding of the Middle East, what our interests there are, and who helps us advance them (and who doesn’t). To put it bluntly, America and the West must thwart our enemies (the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum) and help our friends (the Status Quo Bloc and Israel). 

I know it’s not a popular view, but I think Trump is on the right path, mostly. He expresses support for those countries willing to act, and pressures those countries intent on defying America’s will. But he needs to refine this policy, and quickly.  

Take Syria. The West’s focus has been defeating Islamic State. But IS is a symptom of the wider Sunni Islamist Continuum, not the cause of instability. Remove IS and others will step up to the plate. More importantly, the Resistance Bloc is heavily involved in Syria, and is the group most likely to achieve its objectives there. Like it or not, the West’s long-term priorities are to thwart Iranian activities in Syria (and Iraq), not kill a few thousand bloodthirsty jihadis. While Trump (and Congress) are placing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, it’s all rather ad hoc. I’m not advocating regime change, but a strategic-level policy of thwarting—diplomatically, economically, and militarily (preferably by proxy)—as many Iranian actions as possible that are against US interests.  

Further, the current and unprecedented (though under the radar) security, intelligence and economic cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc is an unintended outcome of Obama’s policy of turning his back on America’s friends. Trump must be very careful that, as he demonstrates that America is once again engaged in the region, the Status Quo Bloc doesn’t become so comfortable as to hate Israel again. 

Likewise, Trump has to make sure that by rewarding good behaviour, he does not accidentally recreate the conditions where countries in the region once again become ‘free riders’, and head back to the position they were in before Obama stuffed things up / created the pre-conditions for a new Middle East. When America’s friends defy American interests (such as with unwanted settlements or funding yet more Wahhabi mosques), America must use its considerable leverage to put them in their place. 

This is all rather difficult to pull off, but Trump has two things in his favour. First, despite his personal erraticism, his Secretaries of Defence, State and Homeland Security, appear—mostly—to have the correct strategic view of Middle Eastern realities. Second, Trump appears to have the will to implement policies that aren’t domestically or internationally popular. If convinced the strategy outlined above would make America great again (and they would), he just might put them into action.  

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.