Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 2 ­- 9 August 2013

Conflicts Forum

As Ramadan comes to its end, this commentary takes an overview of where the region stands now in the face of the three tectonic plates (principal strategic dynamics), which, as it were, are up against, and grinding away at each other. In addition to these regional events, we also have witnessed two major international shifts playing out here too.  These events in sum, foreshadow a prospect of really significant potential change and realignment in the Middle East.

The first momentous event was the overthrow ­ and repression – of the Muslim Brotherhood. A blow intended by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to wipe the Muslim Brotherhood from the board of politics, not just in Egypt, but by striking at its Egyptian heart, to remove and undermine the Muslim Brotherhood influence everywhere. It was intended, and has now duly taken its shape as an existential struggle for both sides. It has polarized society completely: hence the failure of all the various strands of mediation (US, EU and UAE) in Egypt.  General Sisi, after having had to give space to diplomacy, seems set now to proceed to the next stage of harsh repression.  Let us be clear:  Sunni Islamism will never be the same again. Its major, worldwide strand  – the Muslim Brotherhood ­- is in disarray. Its eighty-year strategy of rising to power through the gradualist infusion into the arteries of power until it was in a position to shape an Islamic state, has just imploded.  This does not herald the end of Islamism; or even the beginning of its end.  But it does, in all probability, mark the end of a certain mode of moderate, liberal Islamism.  As we look around the region, we can see a shift along the Islamist curve towards greater literalism, towards a more Salafist minset, and towards authoritarianism.  Indeed the penchant towards authoritarianism is now evident in both the Islamist and the liber/secular camps.  Historically, the Salafist orientation – for reasons inherent in its intellectual model – has been extraordinarily prone to schism and factionalism.  And we expect Sunni Islam as whole, to follow this pattern, bereft as now is, of its former identity. And whilst, at the beginning of the Sunni unrest (or ‘awakening’), it seemed as if the al-Qaeda style of thinking would be marginalized, it is now precisely such groups that are defining politics in several areas of the Middle East.  It is this orientation which is growing the most rapidly (see Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon) for ample evidence of this trend.

The turmoil in the Sunni world however is not confined to Islamist circles. When Saudi Arabia and UAE decided on their strategy to depose the Muslim Brotherhood from its strength, they probably did not bargain for the corollary political consequences. They probably did not foresee Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ of the coup. They now have ‘cult politics’ and a cult leader (General Sisi), with a mammoth ego, and an Egyptian secular and liberal elite that is on a ‘high’, and on a ‘crusade’ against Islamism that is every bit as illiberal as the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘illiberalism’ of which they complained so vociferously.  It has not just polarized Egypt, it is roiling the Sunni world ­ including even the Saudi orientation of Islamism. See here for a well-respected Saudi author reflecting on the influence and the impact of the coup in Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly, the very fact of having been able to orchestrate the Egyptian coup may seem to suggest a certain strength of the Gulf states, but we should recall that the initiative was born out of extreme fears and a sense of vulnerability articulated by Mohammad bin Zayed, the UAE Crown Prince, to the Saudi monarch on the prospects for the Gulf states survival.

Although it may not be always welcome in certain western circles to say this, the other ‘momentous event’  — the election of Rowhani and the coming together of the Iranian polity and society after the divisions of 2009 election — is pointing in the other direction to the polarization, disarray and confusion in most of the Sunni world.  Iran emerges as a more self-confident, cohesive state. It will pursue a path of openness to better relations with the GCC and other states, and it will continue to look eastwards for its economic future. Significantly, we may see Iran begin its emergence as a significant energy-player.

Connected to this is the third dynamic, which is events and developments in Syria.  If the conflict there continues along its present path ­- and this still remains an ‘if’ ­- this will have huge geo-strategic consequences.  One of them is already apparent:  as the war there peters out, the conflict is being taken by jihadist groups to Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and north Africa. Gulf states are facilitating this export in the hope of circumscribing Iran’s widening influence. Another is the still tentative prospect of an economic commonwealth stretching from Iraq, Iran, through Syria to the Mediterranean, were the Syrian government to prevail in its own conflict, and the likelihood that such a military victory would have its knock-on strategic effect on the conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon too.

Finally, this recent period has highlighted the twin events of relative US powerlessness in respect to its two closest allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt ­- both of which have dismissively ignored US entreaties and advice ­- and the contrasting assertiveness and effectiveness of President Putin’s foreign policies.  Again, the US imperative to think its interests principally through an Israeli prism (and thus support the army in Egypt, with whom it has longstanding ties, and which is weakening Hamas in Gaza), is coming at the cost of wider US influence in the region.  John Kerry’s remark (in Pakistan!) that the Egyptian army merely is engaged, in his view, in ‘restoring democracy’, will be long remembered in the region.  More substantively, it is hard to see how the contradiction of the US tacitly supporting General Sisi in his repression of Muslim Brotherhood ‘terrorists’ in Egypt, can sit with any comfort, with a parallel policy of arming those same forces in Syria against the constituted government there. It would seem that something must ‘give’. The demands of the events in Egypt and the history of the US’ long relationship with Egypt, may end paradoxically by undermining US support for the Islamist insurgency in Syria -­ a consequence that Saudi Arabia may not have hoped for -­ or foreseen.



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One Comment

  1. Eric Green wrote:

    Again the central role of the House of Saud and its Wahabhi-Salafist religious establishment is seen clearly in the first and third of the tectonic plates helpfully drawn out in this summary. In the first Saudi support for the military coup is stated( although not stressed in Western media, according to apparent Western understandings that our great economic and strategic ally must not be criticised for its foreign adventures). In the third, I have gained the impression that Al-Qaeda & friends are well on their way to carving out a Salafist mini state in the north and east of Syria( financed by our Saudi allies and with the aim of disrupting the Shiite crescent)? Press TV and Russia Today etc have been shouting loudly that Saudi Arabia is financing the slaughter of Shiites on a daily basis in Iraq. The West(particularly the USA and UK) refuse to be critical of Saudi Arabia(or Israel) and perhaps therefore cannot think, plan or act coherently or justly in the Middle East? We see clearly, for example, how Saudi policy on Egypt influences the way the USA is acting in this situation.

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