A monumental strategic shift is taking place in the Middle East as an Islamist super-bloc is forming. Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood are making up with Iran and Hezbollah. Egypt and the Gulf states are forming their own alliance. The U.S. outreach to Iran and the Brotherhood has left it missing from the equation.
The Syrian civil war has pitted the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey against Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and the Syrian regime since 2011. Now, with a bloody stalemate resulting in consequences each side fears, the two sides are looking for ways to make amends.
Turkey has been trying to move its relationship with Iran past the ancient Ottoman-Persian rivalry for years. The Erdogan government gave secret U.S. intelligence to Iran and in early 2012, informed Iran about ten of its nationals meeting with Israeli intelligence inside Turkey.
One of the architects of the Turkish-Iranian relationship is Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, who the Israeli Defense Minister described as a “friend of Iran.” Some Israeli officials privately refer to him as the “station chief in Ankara” for Iranian intelligence.
These statements about Fidan’s role is not hype. The recent U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, James Jeffrey, put it this way: “Hakan Fidan is the face of the new Middle East.”
Until recently, the bitter civil war in Syria blunted Fidan’s aspirations. Turkey’s ideological ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, is trying to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, Iran’s most valuable ally. But now both sides are exhausted. The war is costly, bloody and no one is gaining anything by its continuance.
Turkey sees Al-Qaeda affiliates taking control of the Syrian rebel cause and Kurdish militias gaining control near the border. The cost of overthrowing Assad would be exorbitant. Al-Qaeda and the Kurds would be even stronger and sectarian warfare will exasperate the refugee crisis.
Assad’s Iranian and Russians backers want him (or at least his regime) to remain in power for strategic reasons, but both have to realize that his forces are overstretched and cannot hope to reclaim the entirety of the country.
High-level Turkish and Iranian officials are meeting with the expressed purpose of ending the sectarian conflict. An unnamed senior Turkey official told Reuters, “Both Iran and Turkey are at a point where they think they can work together on Syria.”
Turkey has become the “regional hub for the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organization.” It also hosts a Hamas command post. If Turkey is reaching out to Iran, it must be assumed that the Brotherhood is doing the same.
In late September, it was revealed that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to unite Islamists into an international “Islamic Council.” At the same time, representatives from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah were meeting and agreed to form an "axis of resistance."
Hamas has been in a dire financial crisis since losing Iran’s support and its stress is only going to increase as the Egyptian government continues to shutdown Hamas’ smuggling tunnels on the Sinai-Gaza border. The Iranians and Hezbollah are spending a ton of resources to save Assad from the Brotherhood-supported rebels. Both sides have major incentives to reach a settlement.
Economics and resources also play a role in the Turkish-Iranian relationship. Their trade is due to reach $30 billion by 2015. Iran wants Turkey to replace the pro-West United Arab Emirates as a re-exporting center, and Turkey wants to be a bigger customer for Iranian natural gas.
A major breakthrough happened when Hamas Deputy Politburo Chief Moussa Abu Marzook publicly criticized another Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, for supporting the Syrian rebels. Marzook emphasized that Hamas has no official relationship with the rebels.
Hamas leaders began calling for renewed violence against Israel, Mashaal showed up in Turkey and a planned trip to Iran was reported. It was subsequently reported that Iran postponed the visit, but there have been secret high-level visits from other Hamas officials recently.
Another important player is the U.S. “ally” Qatar. It is firmly in the camp of Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Qatari Emir is making overtures to the new President of Iran.
Saudi Arabia is leading a third bloc that opposes Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The United Arab Emirates has loudly lobbied for such a coalition. Other members include Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman. The North African countries of Libya, Morocco and Algeria are likely participants, as is Tunisia once the Brotherhood’s ousting there is completed.
This is the bloc that is the least hostile to U.S. interests and Israel. It’s been long reported that these countries privately welcome an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program. Their officials are holding secret meetings in Israel.
Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia is a Sharia-based Salafist state that cannot be expected to support Muslim moderates with a diametrically-opposed vision. The Saudis are supporting so-called “moderate” Salafists in Syria to compete with Al-Qaeda.
A rebel commander says that “Saudi tribal figures have been making calls on behalf of Saudi intelligence” and spreading money around to buy loyalty.
Approximately 50 rebel groups near Damascus announced they were uniting into the “Army of Islam” and would fight for a country solely based on Sharia. It is suspected that the Saudis engineered this in order to steer the rebel cause.
There may be a difference of opinion within this bloc regarding Syria. Egypt has not taken a clear stance. It isn’t adding its voice to the Saudis’ loud demands that Assad step down, but it isn’t dissenting either.
Where does the U.S. fit into all this? Nowhere.
The U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has alienated the majority of Egyptians. After the Obama Administration suspended a significant amount of military aid, the Egyptian government embraced Russia as an alternative.
The U.S. outreach to Iran and minimal support for the Syrian rebels has caused Saudi officials to talk of a "major shift" away from America. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to soothe the Saudis with a visit and a joint statement reiterating that Assad must be removed from power.
The Saudis are eager to convince Russia to end its support for Assad in exchange for a secret oil deal and strategic alliance. The Saudis may also move aggressively towards China; a country that has been a bigger customer for Saudi exports than the U.S. since 2009. It is apparent that Asia is going to become the most important customer for Saudi oil.
If the Turkey-led Sunni Islamists and the Iran-led Shiite Islamists divide Syria and agree to a ceasefire, a formidable cross-sectarian Islamist bloc will form. The Saudis, Egyptians and other Gulf states already see the U.S. as an unreliable partner and are looking to Russia and China for help.
This is the consequence of the ill-conceived American policy in the region.