A report this week in the pro-Hizballah newspaper Al-Akhbar claimed that the Turks have expelled a number of Saudi intelligence officers from their soil, because of disputes between the two countries over policy toward Syria and Egypt.
Whatever the veracity of the report (Al-Akhbar can have a vivid imagination), a quote in the article from an un-named Turkish source succeeds in pointing out pithily and concisely the current core strategic dynamic in the Middle East.
The quote is “Turkish officials believe Saudi Arabia, along with Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, are strategically working against the interests of two different regional blocs: Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and Iraq on one front, and Turkey, Qatar, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.”
If Turkish officials do indeed believe this, then they have it right. There are today three discernible de facto alliances operating in the Middle East. Interestingly, for the first time in half a century, none of the major blocs engaged are clearly aligned with the U.S. and the West.
Let’s look at these three blocs in a little more detail.
The first, Iranian-led bloc, including Assad in Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon, is the most familiar. The Iranian ambition, clearly stated, is to replace the U.S. as the dominant power in the energy-rich Gulf area, to build a contiguous alliance of pro-Iranian states stretching from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean and into the Levant, and thus to emerge as the strongest force in the Middle East. It is committed to acquiring a nuclear capability to underwrite and insure this process against action to prevent it.
Iran’s Shia nature means that this bloc has a legitimacy gap outside of the minority Shia Arab populations which is probably insurmountable. Because of ideological conviction and also to bridge this gap, Iran noisily proclaims itself for the destruction of Israel. It believes sincerely in this, but it also hopes to woo the Sunni Arab masses through this appeal to an objective also dear to their hearts.
The second bloc noted by the “Turkish officials” is that of “Turkey, Qatar, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.” This is the Sunni Islamist alignment that a year ago looked to be on the march across the region, as a result of the popular uprisings once misleadingly called the “Arab Spring.”
But 2013 has been a terrible year for the Muslim Brothers. They have lost power in Egypt and in Tunisia. A new emir in Qatar appears to prefer a more modest regional stance. And in Syria, al-Qaeda and Salafi-oriented units now form the most active pillar in a confused insurgency which shows signs of turning in on itself.
The eclipse of this bloc in turn draws attention to the third alliance mentioned in the quote. This is the bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries excluding Qatar. It is the bloc of the conservative Sunni Arab monarchies.
The monarchies survived intact the recent wave of popular agitation in the Arab world, which instead took its toll on the “secular,” military regimes.
But Saudi Arabia was infuriated by the Qatar-MB nexus, and set out to roll it back. Saudi support for Sisi’s coup in Egypt formed an important part of the latter’s success.
The Saudis are also terrified at the prospect of a nuclear Iran and subsequent domination of the Gulf and the wider region. Saudi support for and cultivation of allies in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere should be seen in this light.
So the Saudis are engaged in a political war on two fronts, with an acute awareness of the high stakes involved.
The Iranians and their allies have a clear-eyed view of the obstacles to their ambitions, as indicated by the appearance of this article in Al-Akhbar.
The Turks and the Muslim Brotherhood also well understand the nature of the power political game. Their current dismay reflects their recent setbacks in it.
Israel, too, has an acute understanding of the Iranian threat and is a powerful, un-declared ally to the Saudi-led bloc.
Everyone gets the nature of the game. Until you look outside of the region.
The dominant trends in the U.S. and western Europe entirely fail to grasp the nature and the dynamic of this contest. There, the talk remains filled with airy hopes of a new era represented by President Rouhani of Iran, focus on the insolvable, currently dormant Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nostalgia for the “Arab Spring,” and hope that a new wave of supposedly democratizing protest may still be ahead, or simply fatigue and a desire to disengage. In general — confusion and feeble-mindedness.
Now, the Saudis have so far done quite well, using money and political influence, against the Muslim Brotherhood.
But against the Iranians, who know how to utilize hard power effectively, as they are demonstrating in Syria, the monarchies are in a far weaker position. The Saudis can do politics, but have a poor record of organizing insurgencies. In the days when they were just part of a larger pro-American formation in the region, this didn’t matter much. Uncle Sam took care of keeping the really bad guys at bay. But Uncle Sam isn’ t quite there anymore.
This leaves Israel, the undeclared ally, as the only element with both the will and the ability to effectively deploy force against the Iranians and their allies, as it has demonstrated at least five times over the skies of Syria in the past year.
Which means that if the U.S. and the West really are determined to disengage, then the stage is set for a three-bloc fight for the regional crown. This fight and its outcome will define the Middle East in the era following the long Pax Americana that held sway from 1973 til sometime around now.