War in Syria and Iraq has upset the traditional balance of power in the Middle East. In the short term this has already led to some fascinating developments and political realignments. While there is broad agreement that the only solution to the conflict is political, the interests flaming the fires of battle have continued to send arms and money, feeding the black hole of sectarianism which has enveloped the region. In the long-term it is increasingly likely that we are past the point of no return. Syria, Iraq and perhaps the rest of the Middle East will require new borders and new leaders, developed to serve different centers of influence in a massive shift of the status quo.
Regional Proxy War & Global Cold War
While the conflict in Syria and Iraq is frequently still described as “the war in Syria,” it is in truth today a regional proxy war, a hot war taking place within the conflict of growing global international cold war. Existing states in the region have polarized around Saudi and Iranian interests. Religious identity and sect have largely replaced any lingering nationalism that once existed. Other states like Yemen, are at risk of breaking apart themselves. The longer the conflict is allowed to continue, the more the conflict becomes a fight for existence, the greater chance that global powers will be drawn into the fold directly, raising the specter of a larger world war. This is why there must be a political agreement to end the war in Syria and Iraq soon as possible. The longer the conflict goes on the more intense the conflict becomes and the greater the risks and rewards for all involved.
Many of the political decisions and weird alignments of the past several years have taken place behind closed doors, but recent developments illuminated a number of things. First, the pragmatic tie between Israel and those regional powers which have gone on the offensive against a shared enemy in the Muslim Brotherhood. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared before the UN in September that “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas” he was speaking a language which aligns Israel with its Arab neighbors. But reality is far more complex.
In the aftermath of the Muslim Brotherhood’s removal from power in Egypt many Arab states undertook their own crackdowns against the organization. Many senior leaders from the group fled to Qatar, the MB’s largest patron, which was very nearly expelled from the GCC. At the same time, many Gulf states continued to provide support to factions fighting in Syria and Iraq either directly or by looking the other way as they were supported by rich individual patrons. Without continued Arab support to Sunni fighters in Syria as a counterweight to Iranian support for those fighting on the side of the Assad regime, it is likely that war in Syria would have ended years ago.
Broad Crackdown on Islamists
At the same time that Gulf states provided support for fighters in Syria and Iraq, they undertook domestic crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood. Long seen as useful constituencies which served the interests of Gulf monarchies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular have aligned to attack the Muslim Brotherhood as a common enemy wherever it is found. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned thousands without trial. Egypt sentenced hundreds to death in kangaroo courts. Israel has gone after Hamas (long supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, but weakened following events in Egypt) with tanks and F-16s. All have gone after Al Jazeera, the media arm of the Qatari monarchy, the MB’s primary and perhaps last remaining patron. So discredited has Al Jazeera been as a source of reliable new, that Qatar has invested millions into developing an entirely new network.
And there are signs that Qatar has finally begun to fall back into line with the other gulf states. Last month, when Zaki Bani Arshid, the deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan was arrested for writing a Facebook post critical of the UAE, Qatar was noticeably quiet. A number of senior members of Muslim Brotherhood have left Qatar in recent months and Egypt and other Gulf states recently restored relations. It will be interesting to see how the country responds to the recent INTERPOL arrest warrant for Sheik Yusuf Al Qaradawi, who has long been provided safe haven in Qatar.
Interestingly, Jordan–which has a sizable Muslim Brotherhood contingent which the monarchy has allowed to exist for political reasons–had until the arrest of Bani Arshid been very quiet in its dealings with the organization. Most likely the timing is not yet right for a larger crackdown or concern is too high of the potential for unrest given Jordan’s key regional importance.
The significance of recent crackdowns by Arab states on Islamist groups cannot be understated. These moves are not without risk as they are likely to upset longstanding understandings between governments and the leadership of Islamist groups which have long been mutually beneficial in establishing a status quo for domestic stability.
Iran: The Greater Threat
The willingness of Gulf states to align to enforce this crackdown as unspoken GCC policy–a crackdown which it should be noted, did not take place to a similar extent in the aftermath of 9/11–is motivated by the shared threat of a stronger Iran. The ongoing Syria-Iraq war has strengthened the collective resolve of GCC states to eliminate internal threats and their willingness to support each other in their efforts to do so faced with the re-emergence of Iran as the singular external threat.
In the wake of the 2003 war, Iraq as a result of demographics and geography–to say nothing of the fragmented politics of its failed democracy–is almost certain to fall under the long-term influence of Iran. Without the support of the U.S. for Iraq in a renewed war with Iran, a war which would never be democratically supported by Iraqis let alone militarily feasible, Iraq is destined to become a weak state that tilts toward Iran.
This prospect of an Iranian-influenced Iraq bordering Saudi Arabia on the doorstep of the other Gulf states is something which has driven Gulf states into panic. The U.S., as a result of Obama’s pragmatic realism and lack of democratic support for the sort of large scale war which would be required to push Iranian influence back, has resisted further military engagement against Iran on behalf of the Gulf states. In fact it has done the opposite in engaging proactively with Iran.
This unprecedented shift, from the U.S. as backer and enforcer of the Gulf monarchies, to embracing a shift in the regional status quo has led the Gulf states to act together with an independence, confidence and a united voice which is equally unprecedented. Rather than Gulf states meddling in the affairs of other Arab states through proxies like the Muslim Brotherhood, the GCC has shown signs of speaking with a single voice, capable of direct military action.
The GCC recently announced the formation of a Joint Military Command. The UAE in particular has taken on a more visible role, seen through recent news that their first female fighter pilot participated airstrikes against ISIL, the recent public designation of 83 groups as terrorist organizations, and in the fact that in other Arab states laws prohibiting language of “offense towards the Emirates” are being actively enforced. While some of this may be “reputation-laundering propaganda” it is a very different type of propaganda than Gulf states have traditionally pumped out, an example of the proactive high level regional shift taking place.
If there is one positive to emerge from President Obama’s much maligned strategy of “leading from behind,” it may be the reemergence of this reinvigorated unified and proactive GCC. Without the United States as guarantor of the regional status quo, the GCC, an organization with a long history of not doing much, has begun perhaps for the first time ever, to assert its own voice and accept accountability over its future in the region.