A New Middle East? Or Has It Always Been This Way?
If we take an abstract look at the strategic state of affairs in the Middle East, we can say that much of the media hype is not a reflection of what is taking place in reality.
The reported increase in the adversarial American posture vis-à-vis Iran is simply not accurate. Some have said that the Trump Administration is upping the ante against Iran. We do not think so.
What is true, however, is that the hostility is neither escalated not diminished, or, more precisely, there isn’t any plan to increase the antagonism in near future. Perhaps the opposite is true if Iranian President Rouhani’s plans succeeds.
While measures to tighten sanctions are debated, more permits are granted to companies intending to do business in Iran not to mention the back channel communication, some of which we can monitor.
For example, the Russian proposal for an agreement on a land bridge between Iran and Lebanon was not met with outright rejection from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His position was ambiguously noncommittal implying that the United States will not implement the land bridge for the Russians, nor will they ensure its safety; however, if they can set it up themselves, the maybe “it’s OK.”
Based on that logic, Syrian President Bashar al Assad attempted to push the envelope and expand the breadth of the land bridge to make it more stable. The attempt was met with American aerial strikes. The Syrian Desert does not belong to Iran, Assad or Russia. Rather, it primarily belongs to forces sanctioned by the United States. Assad exceeded the agreed limits and overstepped the course described by the Russian: a path exclusively through Palmyra and a return to status quo ante.
Surprisingly, Turkish President Erdogan had a precise grasp of the situation at an opportune moment, and now he is preparing to approach Tehran. He quickly realized that much of the ongoing discussion is merely a media hyperbole aimed at the Arabs while things are moving in an entirely different direction.
It appears that the regional alliance was not built on an institutionalized foundation, and only makes casual reference to Iran in a secondary clause and in few exceptions. Moreover, Iran seems essentially involved in the process of re-shaping the region in general.
Meanwhile, the Qatari-Turkish retraction is likely related to create additional maneuvering space to deal with this new alliance in addition to the internal situation in Saudi Arabia. Regional support is now needed following the perceived international support. Another consideration is connected to the international measures aimed to weakening ideologically oriented organizations, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
Trump’s First Iran Test
President Trump’s resolve against Iran will undergo a litmus test in the form of approval of Boeing and Airbus aircraft sales to Iran.
There is a general attitude in the Department of the Treasury to oppose granting the approval of the sale whereas the tendency in Congress is to approve it. The message Trump received from the Arab countries is that they can compensate for the accrued losses. Meanwhile, Trump is under intense pressure from Airbus and Boeing.
Furthermore, Tillerson is eager to conclude a deal with both companies to sell nearly 330 jetfighters, more than half of which are for European armies. Therefore, we can say that the approval of the Iran aircraft sale has considerable chances of success.
Additionally, the exports of an American company specialized in oilfields and refinery services were licensed to Iran marking the first time an American company engages in Iranian oil industry since 1979.
We prefer to set aside the current media coverage and in the final analysis we find that the Iranian element is present, albeit not to the extent apparent to the outside observer.
Indeed, we can conclude that the United States continues to deal with the region on the basis of managing the balance of hostilities.
We view this rising escalation between the two sides of the Arabian Gulf will eventually re-draw the entire region’s map.
Perhaps we dare say that what is being planned is probably a “Sunni-NATO” in a new form. The political aspect of this alliance is stability, while the ideological aspect is the embodiment of the confrontation between the national identity of existing states and the religious ideology, whether Sunni political Islam or political Shiism.
In that sense, recent developments involving Qatar and Turkey can be properly inferred. In that game the Muslim Brotherhood are no longer perceived merely as a political tool. The game itself targets a much larger objective; cracking down on the Brotherhood would severely weaken all the different shades on the broad spectrum of political and jihadi Islam.
We think that Erdogan took action on the basis of this perception; he revived the Iranian card, and we expect that in the coming few weeks Turkish-Iranian relations will warm up again. Meanwhile, Khamenei played the Rouhani card to fend off external contempt.
Therefore, we are embarking on a new phase where the region is being re-shaped in a fundamental way. We will have to forget the Middle East as we knew it in past decades, for we are about to witness a new Middle East as it undergoes its final stages of its remaking. Perhaps this stage will last till the end of the year.
As with all new things, the new Middle East will carry the burdens of the past. The first task will be to face the Islamist surge. The second task will involve the potential shock to the political structure of the alliance’s countries. The following task will require taking measure to counter Iranian provocations until it sign a regional accord.
The ongoing dynamics are reminiscent of the 1950s dynamics, while the names and players have changed. In the 1950s, Egypt was the main challenge. Today however, Egypt is in a precarious position as times have changed, international relations have changed and the elements of surprise, incidence and chaos will be more relevant than they were in the past.
The question is no longer where will Syria be next year
From now on, the question will be different: where will the Middle East be in a year or two?
On the one hand, we do not see continuity in Trump’s policies (initiative and aggression) because the survival of Trump himself is not guaranteed, although his Arabian trip improved his standing domestically.
On the other hand, there are no guarantees that the street will not produce surprises, as it usually does, and that is where it becomes crucially imperative to monitor the situation in Egypt where the extent of the difficulty in surviving the economic difficulties facing President Sisi and the rising possibilities of an imminent explosion at any moment. Gradually, we discover the length of the bottle neck that leads Egypt out of its economic woes and inefficient public administrative apparatus.
Alternatively, there are no guarantees associated with the party molding the shape of the region (Trump). A scenario similar to the Bush invasion of Iraq cannot be ruled out. In retrospect, it was a naïve attempt to shape the region. However, the attempt went out of control and subsequently, Bush abandoned the operation and left Iraq to deal with multiple disasters.
Conversely, the region itself, which is the subject of this re-shaping process, may be susceptible to unchecked turmoil and unforeseen disturbances.
Conventional wisdom holds that while the stage is being set for a new scenario, we must take into consideration the new forces that will implement the task as well as the old powers’ response to the new scenario. Therefore, the prospects of moving forward in the process of paving the way for the new realities will be subject to how these old powers will struggle against change in addition to other subjective factors related to the region and the nature and depth of the forces operating therein.
Even if we assume that the emerging powers who will put the new scenario in place, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates followed by Egypt, are the ones who embark on re-shaping this new scenario, and assuming that the scenario has a timeline that depends on the element of surprise, we must account for the rapid rise of new forces that will resist the new scenario.
Consequently, the position of Qatar and the Turkish shift are only a prelude to the rise of forces that threaten and resist the new scenario being planned for the Middle East.
There are two principal links in reality in this chain. The first lies in the level of stability in Egypt, while the second is related to the smooth transition of power in Saudi Arabia.
These are the two major question marks that make up the first signs of surprises for the plan to re-shape the Middle East. There is another counter surprise that may arise from the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran which will potentially accelerate the pace of developments.
The question about how the region will look in a year will be changed to be more specific: how will the situation in Saudi Arabia and Egypt be more stable and clear.
Therefore, there is a series of misconceptions that should be reviewed based on several facts:
The fact that Iran will not occupy the primary position in the process of re-shaping the region.
The fact that the Sykes-Picot formula will remain in force in terms of appearance, however, alliances will be reformulated.
The fact that the issues of Syria and Iraq will no longer be the center of gravity or the regional and international focus. We are witnessing the emergence of new powers that will form a security alliance that primarily aims to protect the stability of the current political setup and to simply build a setup that “sets and controls” the Middle East.