If you think European colonialism, Russian imperialism, Zionism and American militarism have made a mess of the Middle East over the past century, be prepared for worse. We have entered a wild new era in which actors within the region are driving new ideological tensions, civil conflicts and regional wars.
Now when Saudis, Iranians, Turks and Egyptians fight, they do so to pursue their own goals rather than be proxy responders to superpowers’ wishes. This is a paradigm shift, and we should expect much greater destruction, longer wars, a trail of shattered lands and ungoverned terrain, with terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) taking root.
At least a dozen regional players — both states and nonstate actors — routinely stir the pot in the area, starting with local powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran (and its allied Shia militias in Iraq) and Hezbollah. Add Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, a resurgent Egypt and assorted Kurdish groups to the mix; aggravate tensions by introducing ISIL and the Ansarullah group (Houthis) in Yemen; and you are left with a veritable mess of powers vying for regional influence. And that’s without even counting the hundreds of local militias and political and tribal groups that operate in and across many countries.
The complex, multifaceted nature of these conflicts means that there’s no going back to when Middle East conflicts were shaped mainly by Arab-Israeli wars and occasional proxy local battles on behalf of world powers. Some of these actors fight to maintain their place in the local or national power structure; others seek to generate regional strategic alliances. Others still fight back to prevent regional the big powerhouses from dominating the region.
The foundation for local powers taking over the driver’s seat of regional developments was laid at the end of the Cold War 25 years ago, but only Iran then was strong enough to develop a coherent regional political strategy at the time through alliances with Syria and Hezbollah. The U.S. military remained active regionally through its wars in Iraq, but these started to wind down around in early 2011.
Around that time, the Arab uprisings began, and the two superpowers’ lower military profile in the region opened the door to power-hungry local armies: Saudi and other Gulf air forces bombed government and Islamist forces in Libya, moved troops into Bahrain to protect the monarchy and assisted rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government. Their reasons for the assaults included supporting their allies in Libya, blocking a popular challenge to the Bahrain monarchy and overthrowing the Syrian regime in hopes of weakening its Iranian allies. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah followed suit to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, and Turkey and Qatar assisted Islamist rebels in Syria.
These actions have given rise to three important new trends across the region.
First, the ideological struggles and civil wars in countries such as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt are fueled mainly by direct military and economic support from regional patrons. Traditional powers like Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have initiated military assaults on their own, with minimal and often just last-minute coordination with their big-power allies. Examples include the Saudi-led war in Yemen that Riyadh initiated and the U.S. subsequently supported from afar, Turkey’s attacks against Kurdish and ISIL targets in northern Syria and the Iranian military support of the Syrian regime.
The second is a maze of interlocking and often contradictory alliances of convenience across the region. For example, while Saudi Arabia supports and arms Islamist militants fighting to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria, it fights Islamists in other Arab countries whom Saudi leaders see as a threat to their leadership of the Sunni Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has promoted hard-line Salafist movements that they see as weakening Iran and Shia groups, though some of their offshoots — notably, ISIL — now carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia and represent a serious threat in places to neighboring states such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
In northern Syria the U.S. supports Turkey in creating an ISIL-free zone while Turkey attacks Kurdish resistance forces that the U.S. supports and counts on in the battle against ISIL. The incoherence of this patchwork of foreign interventions in the region becomes more glaring by the day, and it will only metastasize as local wars are increasingly initiated by regional rather than global powers.
Third, this creates opportunities for world powers to support their allies and weaken their adversaries, mostly by injecting massive amounts of weaponry into the region or supporting military campaigns spearheaded by local parties, such as in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq. This usually creates more chaos and destruction and leaves behind shattered societies, which are fertile ground for the emergence of extremist groups.
An important new twist is the emerging alliance between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The two countries signed an agreement in Cairo last week to boost military and economic ties and to cooperate on launching a multinational Arab military force to fight terrorism and other unnamed security threats. Riyadh has backed Cairo since the 2013 overthrow of the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood; Egypt in turn sent warships to support the Saudi war in Yemen and has offered ground troops if needed.
A declaration issued after Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Cairo last week said “the two sides stressed the need to exert all efforts to boost security and stability in the region and to work together to protect Arab national security.” This reflects Saudi-Egyptian cooperation for creating a joint Arab military force to fight terrorism in the region — never mind that Egypt has been unable to protect even its own troops in Sinai or its senior officials in Cairo, who have been killed by Egyptian militants allied with ISIL.
Ironically, Saudi-Wahhabi support for Salafists across the region has provided a huge pool of manpower that groups such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda draw from, and Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups has blocked peaceful political development and pushed some discontented Egyptians to join ISIL’s violent ways. In the bizarre and violent new world of regional powers at war, in some cases like these, they unite to wage war against a criminal foe they inadvertently helped to create through their own misguided policies.
These two Arab powers, together leading others militarily across the region, may well be a cause for concern for the damage they might do — especially given that the U.S. this week expressed its military support for them both. This is perhaps the most dramatic and troubling example of the major new trend that now defines the Middle East: Regional powers decide to go to war, the superpowers support them, and third-party Arab countries are smashed to smithereens in the name of security for all.