Turkey and Iran’s move to form an Islamist super-bloc is changing the balance of the Middle East. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have chosen to lead an Arab bloc of their own, rather than capitulate to their enemies’ dominance.
1. The Shiite bloc consisting of Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq and the Syrian regime.
2. The pro-Muslim Brotherhood Sunni bloc, consisting of Turkey, Qatar, Tunisia, Hamas and some Syrian rebels.
3. The anti-Iran/anti-Brotherhood Sunni bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, other Syrian rebels and other Arab countries.
The first two blocs are on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, but are hoping to negotiate a ceasefire that allows them to mend ties. The third bloc feels so threatened by the other two that Saudi Arabia is widely rumored to be offering Israel access to its airspace to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Clarion Project was recently told by an intelligence source that the Saudis and Israelis have moved “beyond talking” and there will likely be on-the-ground preparations for this scenario soon.
The Syrian civil war had put Turkey and Iran at odds, but the prolonged stalemate is compelling the two governments to look for a way forward. The Turkish Foreign Minister was recently in Tehran, where he said they agreed to push for a ceasefire. He also said Turkey and Iran will “join hands” to be “the backbone of regional stability.”
Both sides are bleeding and spending heavily in the Syrian civil war and the demographic realities make it difficult to envision either side prevailing. Syria is likely to be divided with the Iran-allied regime holding onto the Allawite and Christian areas and the rebel-controlled Sunni areas winning autonomy.
Turkey will have to twist the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s arms to make this happen. The group refuses to negotiate with Iran and claims it rejected a recent offer from Iran to pressure Assad into stepping down from power in return for reconciliation.
That is a huge concession. The last reported offer from Iran came in January 2012, when it was willing to hand the Syrian government to the Brotherhood as long as Assad remains at the helm. Now, if the Syrian Brotherhood is telling the truth, the Iranian regime is willing to push Assad aside. Unfortunately for Turkey and Iran, the Brotherhood is unwilling to be seen as a sell-out.
The third bloc led by Saudi Arabia is not giving up on overthrowing Assad and is using its proxies to become the dominant Syrian rebel force. The Saudis arranged for rebel units to break away from the Free Syria Army to form the Salafist-led “Army of Islam.” This Salafist force represents the Saudi brand of Islam but is opposed to Al-Qaeda, an enemy of the Saudi Royal Family.
The Army of Islam is the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s plan to build a 40-50,000 strong national army. The Saudis imported Pakistani instructors to train 5-10,000 of them and have set up training centers in Jordan.
The nuclear deal with Iran heightened the tension between these blocs. As the deal was being finalized, an Iran-backed militia in Iraq fired mortar shells into Saudi Arabia. It said that it was retaliation for Saudi Arabia’s anti-Shiite agitation.
“If they continue their provocations, we will carry out armed operations inside Saudi territories,” the militia threatened.
After the deal was announced, the Saudis abandoned their polite protests of American policy and became downright hostile. Prominent Saudis openly told the press that their country will chart a course independent of the U.S.
“Appeasement hasn’t worked in the past, and I don’t think it will work in the 21st century,” the Saudi ambassador to the U.K. said.
It’s long been an open secret that the Saudis funded the Pakistani nuclear weapons’ program with the understanding that Pakistan would send over nukes if requested. When asked about this deal, the ambassador said, “Let’s just leave it there, all options are available.”
The deal also provides an opportunity for Iran to entice other countries with lucrative trade deals. The Iranians are trying to lure Pakistan by finishing a major gas pipeline.
Turkey says its banks will again be able to make transactions with Iran and will increase their Iranian oil imports to 130-140,000 barrels per day from the current level of 105,000. Turkish imports of Iranian oil were at 180,000 barrels per day before the sanctions were implemented. The two countries are also restarting their gold trade.
The recent Egyptian-Turkish spat is a consequence of this escalating contest. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan continues to rail against the current Egyptian regime for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is allowing the Brotherhood to set up a new television station in his country called “Rabia” with the slogan, “Pulse of freedom.”
Eypt expelled the Turkish ambassador in retaliation for Erdogan’s pro-Brotherhood rhetoric and Turkey responded by declaring the Egyptian ambassador to be persona non-grata. This dispute will intensify if the Egyptian government follows through on its aspiration to ban the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
The Gulf Cooperation Council members except Qatar are trying to stabilize the Egyptian economy. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates immediately pledged $12 billion in assistance after the Brotherhood was toppled. The new Egyptian government returned $2 billion of it.
The United Arab Emirates is encouraging companies to invest in Egypt and is hiring Egyptian teachers that support the new regime. The Egyptian regime has also used the UAE to replace Qatar’s role in developing the Suez Canal.
Qatar, on the other hand, continues to act as the Muslim Brotherhood’s bank. The U.S. “ally” provided the Brotherhood-led Egypt with $7.5 billion in assistance but is now absent. Qatar has made it clear whose side it is on, and Saudi Arabia tried to organize a condemnation of its behavior in Egypt and Yemen.
Qatar is coming to the aid of the weakened Islamist government of Tunisia. The Ennahda Party that leads Tunisia is facing popular protests and may be overthrown. The Qatari National Bank recently agreed to loan it $500 million.
The Moroccan government is poised to play a potentially decisive role in this geopolitical and ideological contest. It is hostile to Iran and fears its own Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated opposition. King Mohammed VI managed to contain the country’s own Arab Spring uprising and protests have faded.
“We can be a model. We can export our reforms and our vision,” says the Deputy Foreign Minister.
Morocco is helping the West with ideologically combating Islamist extremism in Mali. The Mali government picked up to 500 imams to go there for education. The geopolitical position of Morocco places it in the third camp, but how long will Saudi Arabia tolerate Morocco’s promotion of a competing ideology?
U.S. policy is in a state of fatal contradiction.
The White House favors the pro-Brotherhood bloc and is trying to build a better relationship with Iran. This stance has alienated the bloc whose interests most closely align with ours. Egypt is now embracing Russia and Saudi Arabia is openly saying it needs to stop relying on the U.S.
The Middle East is now divided into three alliances and none of them are with the U.S.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.