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.  

Turkish troubles

It’s not without a small amount of schadenfreude that I read this article about Turkish trevails:

Throughout his political career, Erdogan has boldly zigzagged between his Islamist and pragmatic selves. But he has now been enslaved by a nation that is pressing him for more confrontation with Turkey’s enemies. They include basically the entire non-Muslim world, plus Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Muslim Kurds, and all the Shia in the Middle East.

The context is the Turkish position on the Middle East’s strategic triangle of Status Quo Bloc, Resistance Bloc and Sunni Islamist continuum. Erdogan has always chafed against the status quo, because the status quo relegates Turkey to outsider, and favours the Arab states.

Under Erdogan, Turkey dallied with Iran in the Resistance Bloc, but that didn’t sit comfortably, either. Iran is not Turkish, not Sunni and, as leader of the Resistance Bloc, would, again, relegate Turkey to second fiddle. Turkey, imagined Erdogan, was destined for greater things.

Erdogan saw an opportunity in 2011 and leapt into the unknown, but the gamble backfired. It is for this reason that Turkey is now largely friendless. The opportunity was the emergence of the ‘Arab Spring’. What Turkey saw was the overthrow of the Status Quo Egyptian government, and its replacement with a Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government. Likewise, it saw the disintegration of Syria (member of the Resistance Bloc) and the rise of a myriad of Sunni Islamist militias. It also saw Hamas (a member of the Resistance Bloc) leave Syria (and thereby effectively leave the Resistance Bloc) because Syria was killing so many Sunni Arabs, in order for Hamas to identify with Sunni Islamists.

Turkey saw the emergence of a Sunni Islamist Bloc (as did, it must be admitted, this author), and thought it could become its leader. It threw itself behind the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government, and threw itself against Syria, all the while maintaining the rage against Israel. Had the Sunni Islamist Bloc successfully emerged, it would have been a good gamble. But the Bloc didn’t stick.

Having over-reached, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown by a popularly-backed coup (Egypt is now once again a Status Quo dictatorship). The Syrian civil war dragged on, with no decisive victory by a Sunni Islamist militia (indeed, the most successful militia in Syria internationally gave Islamists a bad (well, worse) name. And Hamas, having seen its allies in Egypt fall, has slowly retreated back into the folds of the Resistance Bloc.

Turkey has been left out on that limb all alone.

What should US MidEast policy be? 

The Trump Administration is reviewing US policy toward Iran. Good. But reviewers should keep two things in mind. First, US strategic policy in the Middle East should not be binary. Second, the US needs to work out how its strategic vision (once adopted) fits in with the interests of other parties, and use that to US advantage

Two years before the US election, I made a policy recommendation about what US policy in the Middle East should be. Those recommendations haven’t changed. What has changed, however, is that Iran has become stronger, and Arab countries more vociferously worried by that—and all because of poor US policies under the Bush and Obama Administrations.

In short, in Trump’s rush to label Iran as the evil empire, he should not lose sight of the fact that there are three groups of interest in the Middle East—the Status Quo Bloc, the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist continuum—the last two of which are inimical to Western interests.

The strategy of the West should be to defeat (eventually) these last two blocs. This strategy will be achieved by choosing tactics that undermine any and all parties or policies that represent or bolster the last two blocs, and strengthening or supporting any and all parties or policies that bolster the first bloc.

Iran needs to be sanctioned heavily, just like in the years before the nuclear negotiations, due to its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah. A concrete goal of ending such support should be the trigger for lifting sanctions.

Countries like Israel that want to undertake espionage in Iran, including things like cyber attacks that damage the regime (as opposed to the people) should be allowed to do so. Countries like Saudi Arabia, which fears Iran, must play their part, by keeping down oil prices, by reducing discrimination against Shi’ite subjects, and by defeating Iranian proxies in Yemen. (The US should start advising the Saudis on how to defeat the Houthis, because current Saudi tactics aren’t working.)

Russia needs to be encouraged to abandon Iran. Russia is transactional (as, happily, is Trump). If Russia is assured its naval infrastructure in Syria will remain and, more importantly, if Russia is granted a privileged sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, by stopping any hints of NATO expansion and removing support for Ukraine, as well as the removal of anti-ballistic missiles from a Poland and the Czech Republic, it will allow the US to have its own privileged sphere of influence in the Middle East.

But the issue isn’t merely Iran. The public and private support for groups on the Sunni Islamist continuum—including those fighting in Syria—needs to end. The Saudis have come a long way since September 2001, but they have a long way to go. The US has a lot of leverage over the Arab states—not least the promise of concrete action against Iran. 

As for Syria, it’s time for Arab countries to get involved. Coordinated and, if necessary, led by the US, Arab country troops need to operate in Syria. All groups associated with Iran, including Hezbollah, Iranian soldiers (if they don’t pull out) and the myriad ‘Popular Mobilisation Fronts’, must be fought. Syrian soldiers will stand down very quickly. Any other group, such as al-Qaeda, that fights this Arab–US coalition, must be swatted aside. Once stabilised—and it wouldn’t take long—the Arabs and the world would be in a position to determine what to do next. But it would not involve a precipitous withdrawal or a prolonged occupation of US troops. Arab troops would occupy the country. The outcome would not be excellent, but it would be better than the situation as it is, or the situation we are currently drifting towards, where the Iranian bloc wins and sets up permanent control.

In international diplomacy and war, things are messy. Things are rarely black and white. Desired tactics are not always available. However, identifying strategic objectives is the first step. Once these have been identified, and once the courage is found to pursue them, the right tactics (or best of a bad bunch) can be chosen. But pursuing tactical actions without a clear strategic direction will always lead to failure.

Turkish democracy votes to end itself

This blog has long been concerned about the trajectory of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. A substantial post in October 2014 provides background. In short, Turkey is a key member of the Sunni Islamist continuum. In 2011 and 2012, it saw what it thought (and, admittedly, what this author thought) was the emergence of a Sunni Islamist Bloc, to compete with the Status Quo Bloc and Resistance Bloc (background here). However, with only one principality (i.e. Turkey) run by a member of the nascent bloc, Turkey has been left dangling, strategically.

But that hadn’t stopped Turkish President Erdogan’s ongoing policy of increasing autocracy. His rise to being a president with unprecedented powers over the executive and judiciary while sidelining, oppressing and arresting opponents is at once a masterclass in politics and a valuable lesson, (which we didn’t learn in Russia and Hungary), and given the populist politics in much of the West.

Two recent articles describe his rise, though neither mention his purposeful undermining of a ceasefire with Kurds in 2015, so as to earn populist support among ethnic Turks and, with it, a clear election victory.

The articles are here and here.

Reward Jordan

Jordan is an increasingly important part of the pro-West Status Quo Bloc. It doesn’t have much money, but it has a king (but, sadly, not a population) that is willing to go out on a limb to support Western interests, including recognition of Israel, an anti-violence Islamic message, outspoken concern about Iran, and boots on the ground in Syria (well, bombers in the air) to back up its rhetoric. 

With few natural resources and massive Iraqi and Syrian refugee populations, Jordan has been struggling economically. Add to that its Palestinian population, there since 1948 and largely naturalised (though not really integrated), Jordan could have easily stayed on a populist Islamist, anti-Israel, anti-West path. But it didn’t, and so deserves as much financial and diplomatic support the West can muster. Australia could have a role by directing development aid to the country. Too often in the Middle East, bad behaviour is rewarded and good behaviour is ignored. This should be reversed, and Jordan is a country where it should happen.

Here’s a good backgrounder from the Washington Institute.

Plan or coincidence?

I’m not sure if I agree with everything in this report, but it looks pretty interesting. It’s suggestion that a Russian-US-Arab (including Israel) axis is crystallising against Iran is a bit farfetched. For one, Russia would not join such an axis, but would cooperate with it (or, rather, stop cooperating with Iran) if it were to somehow serve Russian interests. Second, the Arab (including Israel) front against Iran crystallised quite a few years ago – the Status Quo Bloc that this blog keeps banging on about. The difference is that, at least according to this report, the US has recognised the strategic imperative of strengthening this bloc, and is acting on that need.

This is good news, as long as decent strategic thought has gone into it. And, given what we think we know about the Trump Administration, there doesn’t appear to be much strategic thought going on. So maybe this is just a happy coincidence?

Trump is having a positive impact

Don’t get me wrong—I’m no fan of Donald Trump and, given his ego- and anger-driven foreign policy-by-Twitter, much could change. But… Trump policies are having a positive influence in the Middle East.

Take this article from an Egyptian daily, for instance. It shows that Arab media are recognising that Israel is not the priority of Arab states; Iran is. It also shows that Egypt will be halting its rapprochement with Iran, and that Trump recognises Egypt as a Middle Eastern leader. This should help shore up the Status Quo Bloc, especially given the announcement that US troops will soon fight in Syria. It shows that the US is no longer retreating from the region. It’s this perceived retreat under Obama that created the vacuum allowing for Iran and Russia, in particular, to become bolder.

They get it (sort of…)

While I disagree with their policy recommendations (to accept Iranian hegemony), the authors of this Foreign Affairs article at least understand the big picture as described in this blog for years: the existence of three groups of interest in the Middle East, the lack of US strategic thinking both now and over the last 14 years, the tensions between apparent allies due to different threat perceptions and more. Also discussed in the article is the rise of Iranian-backed militias, which I’ve never addressed. 

While it’s worth the read, it’s also worth rejecting their conclusion. The answer is not to accept Iranian hegemony, but to determine what US/Western interests are and unwaveringly support actors and actions that advance them, and resist actors or actions that undermine them. I wrote about that here.

Iran’s Axis of Resistance Rises

By Payam Mohseni and Hussein Kalout, Foreign Policy, 24 January 2017

In 2006, in the midst of a fierce war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously stated that the world was witnessing the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” She was right—but not in the sense she had hoped. Instead of disempowering Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran, the war only augmented the strength and prestige of what is known as the “axis of resistance,” a power bloc that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas in Palestine.

But the 2006 war was only one in a series of developments that significantly transformed the geopolitical and military nature of the axis—from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which first opened the door to greater Iranian regional influence, to the more recent fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014, which led to the proliferation and empowerment of Shiite militias. These changes have prompted a fundamental reconfiguration of the contemporary Middle East order. Arab elites, grappling with the consequences of an eroding Arab state system, poor governance, and the delegitimization of authoritarian states following the 2011 Arab Spring, enabled Iran and its partners, including Russia, to build a new regional political and security architecture from the ground up. With the support of Tehran as the undisputed center of the axis, Shiite armed movements in Iraq and across the axis of resistance have created a transnational, multiethnic, and cross-confessional political and security network that has made the axis more muscular and effective than ever before.

The most important issue that the new U.S. administration will face in the Middle East will be the rise of the Iranian-led axis. But given the deterioration of the regional security order and the empowerment of Iran and its allies, especially after the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, the question is what to do about it. So far, policy discussions have focused on single issues on a case-by-case basis: balancing power in Syria, engaging or pushing back on Iran post-nuclear deal, or managing an increasingly volatile Yemen, for example. But crafting a Middle East policy requires a more comprehensive approach, one that understands the nature of the axis and how it has fundamentally changed over the past several years. The axis’ ideology has evolved: From a primarily state-centered enterprise, it has transformed into a transnational project supported by an organic network of popular armed movements from across the region.


Prior to the Arab Spring, with the exception of Hezbollah and Hamas, the axis of resistance was a partnership of states—Iran, Iraq, and Syria—that largely assumed the quintessential markers of the modern Weberian state (notwithstanding the militant challenges Iraq faced after 2003): centralized decision-making, official state borders, and militaries with a near monopoly over legitimate means of violence, meaning that the state had the sole right to enforce domestic security and wage war externally. In ideology, they were united in their call for an independent regional order and their resistance to Israel and to what they saw as U.S. imperialism.

After 2011, Arab states gradually lost their monopoly over the legitimate means of violence when the Arab Spring protests erupted, civil war broke out in Syria and Yemen, and jihadist groups like ISIS began establishing their own administered territories in Syria and Iraq. Consequently, with the failure of the modern nation-state project in the Arab world, modern armies contracted due to the inability of political elites in obtaining the loyalty of soldiers willing to die for the state. In Iraq, the national army trained by the United States melted away in the face of an ISIS assault on Mosul, while inside Syria countrymen quickly turned on one another and significant segments of the Syrian army defected. Power within the axis devolved to the many nonstate actors and militias that rose up to fill the security vacuum in an indigenous process of “state building” that moved beyond the Weberian state, and they rallied not only against their traditional enemies but new ones too, such as Sunni extremists like ISIS. These new militias include the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Syrian National Defense Forces (SND), as well as foreign groups such as the Afghan Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Zaynabiyoun brigades operating in Syria. They encompass a rich mosaic of ethnicities and confessions, totaling hundreds of thousands of combatants. And they receive broad popular support, as they are often the military arms of social movements that emerged within critical segments of societies in war-torn countries.

Despite the diversity of beliefs and motives among the armed groups, the Iranian influence over them is clear. They are modeled after the Basij, the Iranian paramilitary that mobilized millions of people during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Indeed, the Arabic name for the PMF, Hashd al-Shabi, carries the same meaning as the Basij—both the Arabic word hashd and the Persian word basij, meaning “mobilization.” The pluralization of military and security forces, trained and organized by Iran, has revitalized and localized institution building and patronage from the bottom up, giving way to new elites with mass support from across Iraq and Syria, and even more recently, from Yemen. In Iraq, for example, the security vacuum left by the failure of the Iraqi state and the fall of Mosul to ISIS gave rise to multiple armed movements, particularly following a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014 calling for armed resistance against the militant group. Notably, Sistani’s decree paralleled the order that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gave in 1979 that established the Iranian Basij. Recently, the Iraqi parliament ratified a law legalizing the PMF on November 26, 2016, immediately following Basij Day in Iran, which celebrates Khomeini’s founding of the paramilitary group.

Today, the new Shiite militias, such as Kata’ib al-Imam Ali and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, have evolved beyond their predecessors. The older Badr Brigades and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, were not as reliant on mass mobilization, did not have a coherent strategic vision of their role in the region, were more hierarchical and conservative, and were usually associated with a political party. And as the controversial cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated, these older militias often had a tense relation with the clerical establishment in Iraq. In Sadr’s free-wielding Mahdi Army, for example, younger and senior clerics clashed over political and military strategy. Moreover, there was much friction between pro-Iranian militias committed to the velayat-i faqih (the theocratic model of governance in Iran) and those that championed Iraqi nationalism or were dismissive of clerical governance.

Today, the rise of ISIS and insecurity in the region—as well as greater clerical authority and the issuing of authoritative fatwas—have made the new militias more cohesive and strategically minded. Indeed, not only does the clerical establishment have a higher degree of control over the militias but it has also narrowed the differences between the clerics who are critical and sympathetic to the idea of velayat-i faqih. The protection of Shiite holy sites is also much more paramount today than in the past, as ISIS has threatened to attack the holy cities of Karbala, Najaf, and Samarra in Iraq and the shrine of Lady Zaynab bint Ali, the sister of the prominent Shiite Imam Hussein ibn Ali, in Damascus, which are the geopolitical and religious nexus of the axis groups. Historically embedded within the social fabric of these shrine communities and centers of pilgrimage, the clergy and clerical institutions therefore serve as the ideological backbone to enable the transnationalization of popular armed movements throughout the axis’ domains of power by providing meaning, symbols, and strategic focus to these groups.

The formation of the PMF in 2014 as an umbrella organization also critically changed the nature of the militias, centralizing power through a ruling committee and unifying their strategic and operational objectives. Importantly, the PMF is seen as legitimate by many actors—Iraq granted the group legal status and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad formally invited it to fight alongside him in the civil war. The fact that these militias now exercise “legitimate” means of violence suggests that there will be far-reaching consequences for the Middle East, one of which is that they will have important roles to play in the post-conflict period, whenever that is achieved.


In the 2000s, the axis was first and foremost marked by its resistance against Israel and the U.S. regional order, and its push for independence and against anti-imperialism. Today, the axis has also turned into the center of resistance against jihadismand Sunni Wahhabi extremism, which has widened its appeal to non-Islamic religions and minorities in the region, such as Christians, the Druze, Yazidis, and Kurds, as well as to secular regimes, such as Egypt’s, as an attractive partner for fighting terrorism. This axis shift has given greater prominence to Shiite identity but not to a sectarian ideology: while Shiite self-assertiveness and Shiite pride are actively cultivated, anti-Sunni rhetoric is actively discouraged (except against the Wahhabi doctrine of takfirism, or excommunication of different religions or Islamic sects, particularly Shiism). This does not mean that Shiite groups in Iraq are innocent of abusing or discriminating against Sunnis. But the overall policy of the axis has continued to be supportive of pluralistic religious and ethnic identities, especially in comparison to the rise of fundamentalist movements in the Muslim world.

The Shiite and religious minorities also now have greater shared interests with secular, Arab nationalist regimes. In Syria, for example, Assad and many of his top military-security officials are Alawi Shiites, but the Syrian state is staunchly secular and pan-Arab. The majority of the Syrian Arab Army is Sunni as are the geographic areas under the control of the Syrian government, such as the strategic urban cores of Damascus and Aleppo. Further, a range of minority groups including Christians and the Druze have rallied around the Syrian state and joined the various pro-government militias. The National Defense Forces, established explicitly in conjunction with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and based on the Basijmodel, are more than 100,000 soldiers strong and have mobilized Christians, Druze, and Sunnis opposed to extremism. In Lebanon, too, the axis has effectively incorporated leading Christian political parties, and there has been outreach to the Kurds as well, both in Syria and Iraq.

With the increased radicalism and fundamentalism of fringe Sunni groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda ally Jabhat Fath al-Sham (formerly the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front), vulnerable minority groups have come to view Iran and its allies as moderate, reasonable, and as a source of protection. This is a far cry from only a few years ago, when Iran was viewed as radical, and the Saudi and Gulf states portrayed themselves as the “moderate” regional allies of the United States working to contain Iran. In addition, Iran’s support for Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has been a key feature in spearheading pro-resistance and pan-Islamic solidarity. The spread of conspiracy theories that the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia worked together to create ISIS and other jihadist groups has also downplayed religious sectarianism and contributed to the axis’ resistance narrative.


Since 2015, Iran has been amplifying its anti–Saudi Arabia rhetoric—yet another policy change within the axis of resistance. That year, Tehran officially questioned the ability of the Saudis to manage and secure the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca—a critical pillar of Saudi legitimacy—after the Hajj Mina stampede in Mecca that year killed hundreds of Iranian pilgrims (and thousands overall). And over the last year, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sought to delegitimize the Saudi state by refusing to acknowledge its official name, referring instead to Saudi Arabia as the land of “Hejaz and the Najd.” This war of words has been fueled not only by the perception that the Saudis back ISIS and other extremist groups such as al Nusra Front but also by the broader geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tensions rose with the regionalization of the civil war in Syria, after Tehran blamed Saudi Arabia for the death of Iranians during the hajj, and then again when Riyadh executed the leading Shiite Saudi Ayatollah, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, in early 2016.

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 has also significantly altered the standing and power of the axis. Moscow has deftly exploited the gradual decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East and the strengthening of Iran and its allies, especially following the Iranian nuclear agreement. Not only have the Russians helped tilt the military balance in Syria in favor of Assad, but Russia is now an important regional actor—from its participation in an intelligence sharing base in Baghdad (comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah), to its improved bilateral relations with Iran (providing Tehran with the all-important S-300 air missile defense system).

But given the messy alignments in the region, it is often difficult to determine who is a friend or foe of the axis as Russia and the United States are engaged in seemingly contradictory axis politics. For example, Washington is simultaneously supporting the Iraqi government’s campaign to oust ISIS from Mosul while also backing Syrian rebels to overthrow Iraq’s ally, the Assad regime. Iraq is an important marker for where relations between Iran and the United States will head as both countries have strong influences over Iraq. Washington’s interest in a centralized Iraqi state is also to ensure, in part, that Iran does not gain complete control of the country. Washington’s policy in the region will therefore be critical in determining the leverage it has in curtailing Russia and shaping some of the core issues facing the axis, such as power-sharing and governance, anti-terrorism and demilitarization, de-escalation of sectarian conflict, and, of course, engagement with Iran.


In response to the axis’ staying power, particularly the unexpected survival of the Baathist regime in Syria, several states in the Middle East have shifted their policy to accommodate its rise. As one of the traditional leaders of the Arab world and the most populous Arab states, Egypt, for example, refused to back a Saudi-favored UN Security Council resolution on the Syrian civil war in October 2016. Shortly afterward, Egypt voted in favor of a Russian-backed resolution on Syria and surprisingly sent its oil minister to Tehran in November after Saudi Arabia punished Egypt by severing oil shipments to the country—an all the more unexpected development given the lack of full diplomatic ties between Iran and Egypt following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The Egyptians have signaled their cooperation over security as well as the fight against terrorism. Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk met publicly with Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo in October (his previous few visits having been conducted privately). And the leadership at Egypt’s al-Azhar, the world’s leading Sunni seminary and academic institution, repudiated the dominant Saudi discourse on sectarianism—the excommunication of Shiites—and strongly defended Shiism as a mainstream Muslim denomination. This behavior demonstrates that, despite the tactical partnership between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Egyptian and Saudi strategic visions are greatly at odds, and Egypt is moving to position itself as an independent actor between the pro-axis and pro-Saudi blocs. Further, as a secular pan-Arab state, Egypt is wary of Wahhabi fundamentalism and rejects sectarianism, which it considers a Saudi strategy to position itself as the leader of the Sunni world.
Similar shifts have occurred in Lebanon, a bellwether for the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In a reflection of the growing influence of the axis, in October 2016, the pro-Saudi Sunni Lebanese leader Saad Hariri endorsed presidential candidate Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah and head of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc. Hariri had originally endorsed Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party and member of Hariri’s March 14 Alliance, expecting the Syrian government to fall, but when that failed to happen, threw his support behind Suleiman Frangieh, a pro-Syrian ally and member of Hezbollah’s political coalition. It took nearly a year, but eventually Hariri was forced to accept Aoun—Hezbollah’s consistent choice for office since the beginning of Lebanon’s political stalemate. Hariri’s decision to cede to these pressures was influenced by the Iranian nuclear agreement, the changing status quo in Syria and the region, as well as domestic factors, including the emergence of other Sunni leaders that threatened to undermine his legitimacy. In the end, Hariri became the prime minister.
In Palestine, pro-Iranian factions of Hamas have now overtaken leadership of the Gaza Strip, following the opaque decision in September 2016 of senior leader Ismail Haniyeh to settle in Qatar, possibly to replace Khaled Meshaal as the head of Hamas’ politburo. (Hamas’ leaders typically live outside of Gaza so that they can travel freely.) The internal splits within Hamas are reflected in the military and political wings of the movement, the former having been historically closer to Iran and the latter to the Gulf monarchies, especially following the Arab Spring. Imad al-Alami, reportedly the new transitional leader of Hamas in Gaza, has been the group’s main link to the axis of resistance, having cultivated close ties to the IRGC and Hezbollah over the past few decades and traveling frequently to Iran.
Also partly in reaction to regional developments favoring the axis, Morocco appointed its first ambassador to Iran in October 2016, seven years after it unceremoniously cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran. Morocco is currently trying to diversify its political relations with international and regional powers, and is looking for opportunities to diminish some of its traditional reliance on Western powers and Saudi Arabia, especially given the perception in the Middle East that Washington had abandoned former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Further, Morocco, like Egypt, is concerned with the rise of the extremist religious threat within the Maghreb, which is largely perceived to be linked to Saudi patronage and funding.
As the key player and lead state in the axis of resistance, and with the completion of the nuclear agreement and the possibility of Iranian “moderation” as a consequence of the deal, the question of whether Iran will shift its policies away from the axis deserves special attention. Will Iran moderate? And what would “moderation” mean in the current geopolitical context within the Middle East?
For Iranians, especially hard-liners such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC, the roots of the regional geopolitical crisis—especially the conflict in Syria—are existential. In their minds, the Syrian conflict has less to do with Syria and more to do with the goal of the United States and its regional partners to undermine Iranian power. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Leader and IRGC will give up on Syria—or, more broadly, the axis of resistance.
Iran’s support for the axis also stems from its revolutionary ideology. The hard-liners wish, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, to be a cause, not just a country. For the Iranian Supreme Leader, support for the axis is a part of its revolution, and a drastic change would otherwise mean emptying the revolutionary regime and turning it into a “hollow tree,” devoid of values. For Khamenei and his faction, this is an unacceptable outcome given the ideological and revolutionary foundations of the state.
What does this hard-line worldview mean, then, for Iranian moderation, especially when moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif do not have full control over regional security files such as Syria? In this light, Iranian moderation does not mean that Iran will give up support for the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and its regional allies. Moderation entails the degree to which Iran will be willing to cooperate and work with the United States, the international community, and regional actors within the geographic territory of the axis of resistance, including collaboration on issues of power-sharing, counterterrorism, development and reconstruction, and other areas of mutual interest. Moderation might also involve bargaining with Iran to pull back from Yemen or Bahrain, which are beyond the main contours of the axis, for example, and pursue meaningful detente with the Gulf monarchies. Iranian moderation on these terms would still be significant given the potentially positive role it could play in stabilizing the Middle East.
Growing Iranian power means that there is a real risk of the axis expanding across Shiite-majority Bahrain and into the Shiite eastern Arabian Peninsula where the main Saudi oilfields rest, or consolidating its position in Yemen and the Bab al-Mandab. However, the regional security order on which the United States has traditionally based its policies to contain and isolate Iran has unraveled, thus rendering obsolete and counterproductive Washington’s previous methods of containing and balancing Iran. Moreover, the challenge is not just limited to Iran. The new U.S. administration will be compelled to deal with a more resilient and autonomous set of actors within the axis.
At this point, dismantling the axis of resistance would be unfeasible. The clock cannot be turned back. There is a critical amount of social support behind the institutions and armed movements of the axis—many of its combatants are willing to fight and die for their cause. Without recognizing the changing facts on the ground and the means for credible engagement, applying greater pressure on Iran and the axis will yield marginal gains given they have thrived under decades of war or warlike conditions. This means that the United States must work pragmatically using the necessary tools of statecraft and diplomacy to negotiate and establish new rules to the geopolitical game and to manage the rise of the axis. This should involve demarcating the boundaries and zone of influence for the axis and engaging both state and nonstate actors.
In this light, dismantling or renegotiating the nuclear deal will be impractical, particularly if it risks alienating the United States’ international allies and the Iranians themselves. It would thus behoove Washington to retain allied cooperation in case it wishes to strike a larger bargain with Iran on a range of outstanding regional, military, and nuclear issues not dealt with in the nuclear agreement. Moreover, the United States has much to gain from axis players as well, such as cooperation over counterterrorism and providing stability in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and the Gulf states—in addition to counterbalancing Russia. And engaging the axis, especially in Iraq and Iran, will allow the United States to balance growing Russian influence in the region.
As the sectarian dynamics in the Middle East may jeopardize any U.S. efforts for engagement and regional integration of the axis, and have only empowered Iran and its allies thus far, Washington must first focus on deescalating sectarianism and mitigating the rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. To do this, Washington must work with Egypt, which is also opposed to sectarianism, to rebalance the region, and to actively work to reduce tensions when flashpoints occur, such as with the execution of Sheikh Nimr. Moreover, throughout this process, Washington must take care not to be seen as taking sides. There is tremendous transnational Shiite support around Iran, and the United States must seem balanced, not taking actions that might be interpreted as heavy-handedly pro-Saudi by the larger Shiite communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Otherwise, this will only empower Iran and radicalize the Shiite world. In seeking to stabilize the Middle East, Washington must also remember that the Gulf states rely on external security umbrellas while the axis of resistance has managed to create its own indigenous regional security structure against all odds.
In tackling these challenges, the United States must recognize that the axis of resistance has transformed in fundamental ways. It has, in spite of all odds, strengthened in the midst of raging conflicts that have otherwise torn the Middle East apart. It has grown more muscular through its transnational alliance of irregular militias and international backing from Moscow and more vocal in its criticisms of Saudi Arabia and its promotion of Shiism. In return, it has received greater support and recognition from key regional players such as Egypt and Lebanon. If Washington is to truly move forward in the region, it must acknowledge these new realities and engage with Iran and its allies to influence the emergence of a new Middle East.

The crack widens

I wrote back in October last year that a crack was appearing in the Status Quo Bloc, because of differences of opinion (and subsequent action) between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As I wrote at the time, the crack appeared because the Status Quo Bloc is not a traditional alliance, but merely a group of states brought together by shared interests. The Bloc was strongest when the Middle East’s only other real bloc was the Resistance Bloc, led by Iran. But the emergence of the Sunni Islamist Continuum has revealed divergent interests within the Status Quo Bloc. To the Saudis, the Resistance Bloc is the greater threat. To the Egyptians, the Sunni Islamist Continuum is the greater threat. 

There’s also mutual enmity between the Sunni Islamists and Resistance Bloc, typified by bloodshed in Syria. The Saudis have backed (some) Sunni Islamists in its proxy war with Iran, which has upset Egypt. Egypt has come to see the Resistance Bloc as an effective enemy of the Sunni Islamists, and so has taken some policy positions friendly to Iran, which has annoyed the Saudis.

Hence, the crack is widening, as this article describes.

About the only thing that will paper over the crack is strong Western (read: US) leadership. Because both the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum are inimicable to Western interests. With Trump in the White House, we’re in a new world. Who knows if he’ll be able to see the Middle East’s big picture?

The limits of largesse

This article from al-Monitor provides the current score in the Great Game between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If you’re a supporter of Western interests, it doesn’t make for fun reading:

Saudi Arabia is losing influence throughout the Fertile Crescent to its rival Iran. While Riyadh’s position versus Tehran has been in decline for some time, the trend is accelerating.

The Saudis have many things going against them, most of which I outlined in this post last year. 

They are in a losing battle for Sunni hearts and minds because they don’t provide a pragmatic option. That is, the Saudi model is one of Wahhabi Islamism, but they are out-Islamicised by pretty much everyone on the Sunni Islamist continuum. So if the Saudis want to win hearts and minds, they have to offer something else. To date, they’ve offered largesse, which is good for a while, but it has its limits. An alternative – one which would ultimately be good for Saudis – is increasing individual rights and official accountability. But these would likely bring down the regime. It’s a dilemma for Wrsyern policy makers.