This blog frequently refers to Kissinger’s machinations in the Middle East during the 1970s. Kissinger recently delivered a speech about the state of the world, including commentary on Russia, China, the Middle East and the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance. In the speech, he urges the West to create a strategic vision. Because, if it doesn’t, others will fill the vacuum, and we might not like the consequences. I couldn’t agree more.
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.
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.
Ehud Ya’ari is one of the few ‘must-read’ Middle East analysts. He writes well, with authority but without emotion, and he’s usually spot on. He’s written an article in Foreign Affairs about Iranian plans for the Levant, and ended it with concrete proposals for US policy:
In responding to Iran’s plan to secure influence in the Levant, the Trump administration should work with its regional counterparts to thwart Iran’s attempt to build these two corridors. Turkey, a NATO ally, should be encouraged to resist Iran’s efforts to dominate, through the corridors, the main trade routes serving large amounts of Turkish exports to the Arab world. The Kurds, both in Iraq and in Syria, should be provided military equipment to face the Shiite militias. Jordan should assist the Sunnis of western Iraq, as well as the Shamar Bedouin federation of the Syrian desert, which has traditional ties with the Saudis, in organizing their own forces. The United States should back Israel’s effort to prevent the Iranians from securing a foothold on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. But above all, the United States should continue talking with Russia and insist that sooner rather than later, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will have to go.
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.
Here’s an article by a Turkish writer about the efforts of Hezb u-Tarir to re-establish the Caliphate. As the article points out early on, establishing the Caliphate—which is the goal of Islamic State, for instance—isn’t a goal limited to violent Islamist groups. Rather, it is the goal of all the groups on what this blog labels the Sunni Islamist Continuum. Hezb u-Tarir is a little further along the Continuum than the Muslim Brotherhood, but not as far along as Hamas, which isn’t as violent as al-Qaeda or Islamic State.
To paraphrase Osama bin Laden, it feels as if Turkey and Egypt are backing the strong horse in softening their opposition to Syrian President Assad (and Russia). This New York Times article has the details.
For those without the time or inclination, the article essentially says that in the face of a strong and apparently determined Russian intervention in Syria, and a weak Obama Middle East policy, Turkey and Egypt are softening their opposition to Syria, whereas once they were both staunch opponents.
What the article doesn’t say is that the Turkish and Egyptian leaders—both strongmen with decreasing democratic credentials—are fickle, compared to the much more strategic vision of the Saudi leadership, which is maintaining its opposition to Assad, because of Assad’s principle backer, Iran.
That fickleness is interestng, because both might come back to the American fold, should the latter start showing some spine (and results). And, come 20 January, that might happen.
And that, to me, is the reason the Syrian and Russian onslaught in Aleppo has ramped up so significantly in the last few weeks; both want tangible and irreversible gains in the key city before Trump takes power. What this indicates is that Russia is actually apprehensive of a Trump presidency (well, aren’t we all?!). Many of the naysayers have stated that Trump and Putin will get along famously (or that Trump will let Putin do what he wants in the Middle East and Europe—which is ironic, since that’s what Putin has been doing during the Obama Administration!)
I’m no fan of Trump, but the Russian actions in Syria show that they’re worried. I bet they’ll be a significant calming of the Aleppo situation or or immediately before 20 January.
…it’s easy to get there. Theres’s more evidence that the US doesn’t have a strategic vision for the Middle East – it’s talking with Turkey about Raqqa’s future.
Rather than having a strategic view, the US sees every problem in isolation, and so looks for options or a partner to deal with that specific problem, with little or no thought as to how that will affect the big picture (or why those options or partners are presenting themselves as possibilities).
Some have argued that the US’s strategic vision is to balance Iran (i.e. the Resistance Bloc) with the Saudis (i.e. the Status Quo Bloc), thereby letting them fight it out and reducing the US’s footprint in the Middle East. But if that were the case, then there would be no reason to bring Turkey into the mix. Turkey is part of the Sunni Islamist continuum (it would like the Sunni Islamists to form a bloc, and has been frustrated in these efforts). The Sunni Islamist continuum is at odds with both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs.
By allowing Turkey in the room regarding Raqqa, the US is showing it either has little understanding of the region’s strategic situation, or no strategic vision (or both).
As always, Jonathan Spyer has captured the essence of what is going on in the Levant, and applied it to the regional context.
He notes that the recent international terrorist attacks by Islamic State are directly attributable to the group losing land. He writes that even when the caliphate is defeated, it won’t go away.
More importantly, Spyer notes that salafi-jihadi groups like jubhat a-nusra are religiously/politically identical to Islamic State – they want the same end result. But some of these groups are massively funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and control large amounts of Syria. In short, we shouldn’t expect peace to reign once the Raqqa falls.
The one difference I have with Spyer is that I tend to include all Sunni Islamist groups in the same category – a continuum from nominally peaceful Islamist groups likes the Muslim Brotherhood and hezb u-tahrir, right through to Islsmic State. I look at these groups’ ultimate objective, not whether or not they are currently holding weapons. Spyer makes a more technical distinction between salafi groups and political Islamic groups.
A fascinating look at the trajectory of Turkey under Erdogan. Well worth the read – it argues that Erdogan’s misreading of history is confusing his path.
Counter-revolutions aim to rewind the political order back to the past, and this is what Erdogan is doing in Turkey. Erdogan’s counter-revolution is focused on making Islam the centerpiece of Turkish politics and sees the country’s foreign policy role as being primarily anti-Western. This, Erdogan thinks, is how he will bring the Ottomans back. The irony is that while trying to revive the pre-Ataturk Ottoman Empire, Erdogan is actually trying to revive the caricature of the Ottomans that he was taught by the Kemalists.