This is an updated version of the piece published by AlJazeera Centre for Studies on October 8, 2019.
Nine years since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, internal tensions and instability are still shaping the situation in the Arab Mashreq region, coupled with intensifying regional conflict. Attempts at restoring the pre-Arab spring situation, undertaken by the counter-revolution countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2013, have failed.
At the same time, despite unprecedented international support and regional ‘normalization’, whether secret or open, the Jewish state of Israel is facing a troubled strategic position and an equally uneasy domestic political situation.
President Trump’ promises during the American presidential elections to withdraw from the Middle East and other conflict zones have not been fulfilled, and the United States remain a key player in the region. Meanwhile Russia is attempting to widen its sphere of influence in the region, especially after becoming a main player in the Syrian crisis.
Internationally, competitions between the USA on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, have intensified. Nonetheless, this international volatility, whether economically, strategically, or in the acute hotbeds of Syria, Iran and Venezuela, do not mean that the major powers, particularly the USA and Russia, have turned a blind eye to the rise of regional powers in the Mashreq.
The International Arena: A Constant Struggle for Influence
The strategy of the Trump administration could be described as a ‘national reconsolidation’ strategy which aims to redevelop US capabilities and assert its superiority, both economically and militarily. In fact, the Trump administration has adopted a military spending policy on a scale that has not been seen since World War II. And since Obama’s global policies were essentially an attempt to rectify US losses during the failed Middle East wars of the Bush administration, there is a tangible convergence between the foreign policy followed by Trump and that of his predecessor.
Obama had made the strategic balance in the Pacific Basin a priority for his administration and worked to gradually withdraw from the conflict zones in the Middle East. However, the sudden expansion of ISIS in Syria and Iraq forced the US to once again engage in military operations. On the other side, Trump now continues his trade war with China, aiming to slow its economic rise, while continuing with Obama’s attempts to lure India into the US strategy to constrain China. However, the policy of trade war has not only affected US-China relationships but also US relationships with its traditional allies, including Canada, the European Union, and Mexico.
Moreover, it seems that the Trump administration supports Brexit as a step towards the establishment of an economic bloc which includes Britain and its former colonies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. This bloc has shared a strategic intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes for decades, and if this goal is achieved, it will have the largest economy in the world, with a GNP that exceeds the output of the whole of the European continent, including the European Union and Russia combined.
Generally, the Trump administration’s foreign policy is consistent with the goals of the national consolidation strategy. However, once these policies start to deviate from the goal of rebuilding US capabilities and avoiding losses, disorder occurs. For example, the Trump administration has renounced the Iranian nuclear deal and imposed deadly sanctions on Iran, but Trump seems determined to avoid resorting to war with Iran. His administration also set out to overthrow the regime in Venezuela but excluded the military option. Therefore, despite the USA’s strong standing compared to the two relatively smaller states, the Trump administration does not seem to be able to achieve its goals in either situation.
In certain cases, Trump’s policies have clashed with the US state institutions and he has been forced to retreat from his stated goals, as happened with his decision in December 2018 to withdraw from Syria. This also happened during his administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan and in his early attempts to improve relations with Russia.
Trump’s main problem is that, on a personal level, he does not know the limits of the president’s terms of reference and he has not been able to rise to the standards of his position or his role within the American state institutions. These ethical and moral shortcomings made him face the possibility of impeachment, and he will perhaps fail to secure a second term in the next presidential election of 2020.
Globally, it can be said that confrontation has become the main feature of relations between the international major powers and that none has been able to or will be able to achieve a decisive victory in the next few years. The trade war between the USA and China is likely to end in an agreement that favors the US side. It is also hard to see how China would exercise exclusive control over the shipping lanes in the China Seas. At the same time, despite the USA’s efforts, China is slowly and steadily expanding its trade and economic reach with a series of partnerships through the Silk Roads project.
The USA, for its part, has not yet been able to overthrow the Venezuelan regime, neither has it been able to restore the situation in Ukraine to how it used to be before 2014 (prior to Russian intervention), although it blocked the Russian efforts to change the regime in Kiev. It also seems that the Trump administration has contented itself with a truce in the Korean Peninsula, without being able to disarm North Korea’s nuclear power. Russia has surely strengthened its presence in Syria and managed to retain the Crimean Peninsula, but was not able to change the pro-western orientation of Ukraine and Georgia.
Perhaps, the renunciation of the Iranian nuclear deal by the Trump administration is one of the most influential US decisions in the Middle East. This decision was followed by a series of heavy punitive measures against Iran. Despite the refusal of Russia and China to abide by the US sanctions, and the continued adherence of Europe to the nuclear deal while attempting to facilitate trade with Iran in spite of the sanctions, the US decision to impose secondary sanctions on countries trading with Iran reveals its great status in international trade and the inability of Russia, China and Europe to challenge this status.
In this context, regional powers have not yet been able to play a decisive role in determining the fate of the Mashreq and solve its crises. Firstly, because the rise of regional powers has become a growing concern in Moscow and Washington (as well as some European capitals such as London and Paris), which are working hard to preserve their gains in this region. Secondly, because of the intensification of conflicts between regional powers themselves in the Mashreq, such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the divergence of their stances on regional conflict zones.
Regional Arena: The Lost Balance
The collapse of the regional order was one of the most significant outcomes of the Arab Revolutions of 2011. Saudi Arabia’s drive in 2015 to establish a powerful axis in the Mashreq is perhaps the most ambitious in the region. However, it can be said now that the Saudi project has failed miserably.
Despite the friendly relationships between Ankara and Riyadh, especially during the first two years of King Salman’s rule, Ankara refused to join an alliance against Iran, while Riyadh refused to end its support of the Egyptian regime. Since the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkish-Saudi relations have been strained, moving into a situation close to an undeclared war.
Due to the economic weakness of the Sisi regime and the fragility of its political legitimacy, Cairo is no longer a major regional player. Riyadh has been unable to push Egypt to play an active role beyond its borders, neither in Yemen nor in the confrontation with Iran. Saudi Arabia has also failed to dominate Qatar or to subjugate it to its will. The Saudi efforts merely resulted in a limited alliance with the UAE, which is not expected to last long after the Emirati-Saudi disagreements in Yemen and after the UAE resorted to appeasement with Iran.
The failure of the Saudi attempt to establish a powerful regional axis, the sharp disagreements over the upheavals taking place in the region, and the Israeli role in fueling the conflict between the countries in the Mashreq, have all increased the tension between the main regional states and rendered them vulnerable to the pressure of major powers.
Saudi Arabia: Currently going through one of the most difficult periods in its modern history: internally, regionally and internationally. The crown prince’s quest to impose direct and central control over politics, the economy, and the religious sphere has resulted in sharp splits within Saudi society and the exile of thousands Saudi intellectuals, activists, and merchants, leading to widespread opposition of the regime. Today, Saudi Arabia appears to be without any reliable ally in the region. Additionally, after more than four years of war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has failed to achieve its minimum goals, as the war has become an unprecedented financial burden and a direct threat to Saudi security.
If the war in Yemen is placed within the context of the Saudi confrontation with Iran, it is also clear that Iran has had the upper hand, especially after it succeeded in imposing a strategic blockade on Saudi Arabia in the south and north.
The biggest problem for Saudi Arabia is that it has become subject to endless blackmail by the USA, not only financially, but also by being pushed to support US policies, such as the “Deal of the Century”, which could result in undermining Saudi Arabia’s moral status in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Turkey: Witnessed a remarkable decline in the electoral base of its ruling party, AKP in the last municipal elections. Given the disagreements within the party; two political parties from the conservative center-right camp seem to be emerging, which could lead to a redrawing of the country’s political map once again. On the other hand, the Turkish economy seems to be recovering after the financial and economic crisis that hit the country in the summer of 2018.
Turkish-Saudi relations have almost completely broken down. Meanwhile stark disagreements over Syria persist between Ankara and Tehran, despite the Iranian-Turkish economic cooperation. Turkey, like its major regional counterparts, is under intense pressure from the USA and Russia in Syria and in the East of the Mediterranean. In Syria, where Turkey’s vital interests were under threat, Turkey was forced to respond by launching a major military operation in East of the Euphrates. The bold Turkish move resulted in two agreements with the US and Russia, and seemed to succeed in preventing the emergence of the hostile Kurdish entity on the Syrian side of the border.
Generally speaking, Turkey is more qualified than any of its regional counterparts to rise in rank of regional powers due to its strong economic infrastructure, its advancement in the military industry, and its high moral status in the region.
Iran: Has not been able to enjoy long the positive political and economic rewards of the signing of the nuclear agreement with the Obama administration. After the renunciation of this agreement and the re-imposition of sanctions by the Trump administration, Iran is facing sanctions that no other state has ever suffered during peacetime in modern history. It is clear that Iran’s difficulties are not limited to the Trump administration’s hostile policies. Iranians believe that Saudi Arabia and Israel have been playing a key role in fueling hostility towards them in the West. The Iranians also believe that the Saudi war in Yemen, the Saudi’s attempts to establish a foothold in Iraq, the continuous strikes during the last three years undertaken by Israel against Iranian targets in Syria, and recently in Iraq, are all part of the US attack and attempt to bring them to their knees.
Despite the fact that Iran has fortified itself militarily, there is no doubt that in the event of war, the USA could inflict widespread destruction, although the war may also result in losses on the US side. This is likely to make Trump less willing to go to war than his allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Because Iran cannot survive long under the harsh US sanctions, it must escalate the level of tension in the region to force a quick resolution of the crisis. This is why Iran is using its military capabilities and its allies in the region to threaten Saudi Arabia and the security of shipping navigation in the Gulf. In other words, if we look at the Iranian crisis from a tripartite perspective, it is clear that Iran has a stronger position in the conflict with Saudi Arabia, while it is considered the weakest party in the conflict with the USA.
However, Iran faces other obstacles in its sphere of regional influence. There are growing voices in Iraq calling for Iraqi neutrality in any future regional conflict. There is also some indications that Russia is working to weaken the Iranian presence in Syria, whether by organizing Syrian militias under Russian control, by removing Syrian military and security leaders closely allied with Iran from the Syrian decision-making circle, or by turning a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria. The strong anti-Iranian sentiments, expressed by the Lebanese and Iraqi popular uprisings, are even a more powerful threat to Iranian regional influence.
Egypt: A number of Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have heavily invested in the Egyptian regime since 2013. Saudi Arabia did not want Egypt to become a leading power in the region, but only a strong ally, militarily and politically, to support its goals. However, several factors still limit Egypt’s ability to be active in its Arab neighboring area.
For many reasons, the Egyptian regime’s economic crisis has worsened. Despite the regime’s unprecedented crackdown on its opponents, its leaders lack confidence in the regime’s ability to survive and to establish sustainable stability. Given the Egyptian regime’s hostility to democratic change in the region, Cairo supports the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies against the Syrian revolution. Cairo also failed to take any initiative during the movement for change in Sudan, opening the door for Ethiopia to play the key role in mediating an agreement between the military and the Sudanese forces of change. And despite Egypt’s vital interests in Libyan, the Egyptian regime has only accepted a secondary role to the UAE.
Only in the Gaza Strip (not even in the West Bank) Egypt seems (allowed) to be playing a tangible role, regardless of the moral considerations of that role.
Israel: The Jewish state has made tangible gains in the past few years, both in terms of expansion of settlements in the West Bank and the de facto situation in Jerusalem, but also through opening up to a number of Gulf Arab states, albeit informally, in a coalition against Iran and through the support of the Trump administration. Additionally, as Russia is keen to establish good relations with the Jewish state, Israel enjoys almost complete freedom to act against Iran and its allies in Syria.
However, it is simplistic to conclude that the Israeli state has succeeded in creating a fully favorable strategic climate in its regional neighborhood. The movement of change in the Arab world has not ceased and the amount of anxiety and tension within Israeli circles whenever a movement of popular demonstration erupts in an Arab country, show the fragility of peace between the Israeli state and some Arab states. Despite Israel’s relentless efforts to restrict the armament efforts of hostile forces such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the weapons that anti-Israel organizations now possess pose a real threat to Israeli security.
Iran maintains an arsenal of weapons, especially missiles, which could drastically threaten Israeli security. While Iran still retains capabilities to develop a nuclear weapon, Erdogan’s recent query over the legitimacy of preventing Turkey from acquiring nuclear weapons is a clear indication that Ankara may be feeling the need to develop nuclear capabilities as well.
In light of the changes in Israeli policy, the Palestinian rejection, and the fear of Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia declaring their support, it is now clear that the US settlement project, which could grant the Israeli state the legitimacy needed to control most of Palestine and to establish comprehensive normalization with its neighbors, is no longer subject to discussion, and if it was to be launched, it would be very difficult to materialize.
The Movement of Revolution and Change: The Decline of the Counterrevolution
The movement of revolution and democratic change in the Arab world has suffered a major setback since the successes of counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt in summer 2013. The largest and most influential Arab country, Egypt became the center of the movement of change. The failure of the democratic transition process in Egypt actually led to the failure of the democratic process in most other Arab countries.
However, the counterrevolutionary movement could not maintain its progress. In Tunisia, although some members of the old regime have returned to power, the democratic process in the country has been preserved. The counterrevolution was not able to impose full control over Libya, after the country became embroiled in civil war. Even in Syria, the regime was effectively in retreat until Russian military force was called up in the fall of 2015 to save the situation, albeit at an enormous cost. The Yemeni case, where the pro-Iran Houthi coup triggered a painful and costly civil conflict erupted, is no different.
The issue at stake between the revolutionary forces and the counterrevolution camp is that the latter has failed to offer a convincing alternative, neither at the political and economic level, nor in terms of the relationship between the state institutions and the people. In most cases, the counterrevolutionary movement offered a distorted alternative to pre-2011 regimes. Thus, it could neither establish stability nor gain legitimacy for the new coup-based models.
It has become clear that the popular revolutionary movements that started in Tunisia and spread to a number of Arab countries, were not manifestations of transient anger, but markers of the end of an entire historical era and the failure of the Arab post-WWI state to reestablish itself and regenerate its legitimacy.
It was not surprising, therefore, that 2019 would witness popular uprisings in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq, which albeit slowly and with difficulty are pushing for real change in the respective countries. It was not unusual for Egypt to witness, despite the regime’s massive and bloody repression, signs of restlessness and a new wave of popular movement.
In short, the Arab region will not find stability anytime soon and that the movements of revolution and change will most probably continue for many years to come, no matter how costly the struggle is.