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A Coming Arab Winter?

Lee Smith

It can’t give many Americans much lasting pleasure that the Israeli prime minister humbled our commander in chief this week on his home turf. To be sure, a president who seems to relish provoking public confrontations with an ally may have had it coming, but in the end Netanyahu’s speech before Congress won’t satisfy too many Israelis either—or for that matter many other Middle Easterners who have come to depend on American stewardship. The fact that an Israeli leader makes the case for American exceptionalism and U.S. power better than Barack Obama is a signal that Washington has forsaken its traditional role in the Middle East at a dangerous time.

Netanyahu was only the first to state the obvious in public, but other U.S. allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, convinced that the Americans are living in a fantasy world, are also starting to strike out on their own. If no one knows yet what new architectures and anatomies the Arab Spring will engender, putative U.S. allies and genuine adversaries, states, and even non-state actors like the Muslim Brotherhood are scrambling for position.

Iranian aggression, and not the peace process, as Netanyahu was careful to remind his American audiences this past week, is still the key regional issue. With the administration turning on traditional American allies, some observers are starting to see similarities between Washington and Tehran, in one important respect. “If Obama says the status quo is unsustainable,” says Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “and won’t do anything to sustain it, then Washington, like Iran, is an anti-status quo power. Others have to take it upon themselves to defend the status quo.”

Because Riyadh no longer trusts the Americans to take on Iran, a Saudi initiative led by Prince Bandar, the Wall Street Journal reports, is putting together a large alliance, including Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Central Asian states, to stand against the Islamic Republic.

In the Arabic-speaking states, there’s also a proposed expansion of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to include one North African nation, Morocco, and another from the Levant, Jordan (which would gather all of the region’s hereditary rulers—sheikhs and kings and sultans and emirs—under one umbrella). The Arab press is awash with rumors that the GCC’s leading member, Saudi Arabia, has promised Rabat and Amman large influxes of cash so long as they resist Washington’s entreaties to reform—reform that, in the Saudi view, would pave the way for their own demise and eventually the fall of the House of Saud.

In any case, this onetime regional organization has now become a de facto alliance of pro-U.S. states that no longer believes it can count on the Americans to advance their interests. The major Sunni Arab players outside the enlarged GCC would be Fatah, now reconciled with Hamas, and Egypt, formerly the central pillar of Washington’s Middle East policy, and now after thirty years once again up for grabs.

In a sense, the Arab Spring has also turned Syria into a wildcard. Up until now, Damascus was for Iran what Cairo was for the United States, the key to its Arab strategy. Not only does the alliance with Syria allow the Iranians to arm Hezbollah easily, but Damascus also gives Tehran an Arab face to confront the Sunni states and win points with the Arab masses. However, the continued Syrian uprising is taxing the Damascus regime’s regional prestige, as even Turkey and Qatar, as well as Doha’s satellite network Al Jazeera, have turned against the Syrian rulers. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah may continue to praise Bashar al-Assad’s resistance credentials and argue, along with Hillary Clinton, that the Syrian president is really a reformer at heart, but a death toll that is conservatively estimated at 1,100 and climbing has many around the region concluding the Syrian strongman is more interested in killing Arabs than in resisting Zionists.

The Iranians want to protect their investment in Syria, but at some point Tehran may come to feel that the Alawite regime’s sectarian cleansing of Sunnis is bad for business. The Obama administration has believed, not incorrectly, that turmoil in Syria might prove a setback to the Iranians—but that could happen only if Washington actually moved to tilt the regional balance against Assad. By passively observing the situation unfolding in Syria, the White House has given Tehran time to consider its options. Presumably, Tehran is watching the new Palestinian concord with great interest, and may be learning from its client there, Hamas.

It is true that the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation may not survive even until the Palestinians’ September push at the U.N. General Assembly, but in terms of the regional chessboard Palestinian unity is irrelevant. The major player here is Egypt, which helped broker the deal. Hamas sloughed off Damascus’s problematic patronage once it realized that it could ride Cairo instead—a much more natural fit given that Egypt is a Sunni power, and one whose Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Hamas has strong ties, is enjoying a period of political prominence.

Washington is starting to realize that one of the values of the late Mubarak regime was its implacable hatred of Hamas. Cairo’s present rulers, however, can no longer afford such an ideological luxury; the Egyptians need to raise money quickly or they will starve. The way to do that is by presenting themselves as the antithesis of Mubarak’s stable, or static, Egypt, an Egypt that may well spin out of the American orbit—unless Washington antes up. The concern is not that Egypt will jump sides entirely and join the resistance bloc, but rather make trouble by flirting with Iran, like with its decision to end the blockade of Gaza.

Shortly before the Arab Spring erupted in January, some analysts argued that Washington ought to explore the opportunities presented by countries like Syria and Qatar that weren’t in the U.S. camp but weren’t enemies on the order of Iran either. Now that Egypt has become part of that constellation, perhaps we are starting to long for those simple and innocent days when Washington tied its interests to allied states, and not fuzzy constructs like “the Muslim world.”

“The key to winning the Middle East is in stringing together unnatural allies,” says Kramer. “The American circle was a coalition of unnatural allies, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states. Everyone knew the U.S. was strong, so they were prepared to put up with quite a bit, even though they didn’t like the company. The circle started to come undone when Turkey and Israel had their problems, but now Egypt and Saudi Arabia are starting to move.”

Iran can profit from the upheavals, according to Kramer, “by building linkage with the Muslim Brotherhood.” In other words, with Syria’s problems and the possible fallout for Hezbollah, Tehran would supplement or substitute its Shia crescent with a Muslim Brotherhood crescent—a coalition stretching from Turkey’s AKP to Hamas and Egypt’s newly empowered Islamists.

“The fewer Shia there are in the immediate surroundings, and there are virtually none in Egypt and the Palestinian territories, the easier that is to do,” says Kramer. “The Muslim Brotherhood has their usual reservations about Shia, but they’re not anti-Shia like al Qaeda. The landscape of the Middle East is too broken for coalitions to have only the like-minded. If Saudi Arabia and Israel could be in the American circle, the Brotherhood could be in the Iranian crescent. The Iranians and the Muslim Brotherhood both have an interest in reconstituting an arc of resistance.”

Given the Obama administration’s ambiguous statements regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and other regional Islamist movements, it seems Washington is preparing for the likelihood of a region entirely remade in the image of political Islam, its Shia as well as its Sunni versions. Whether the White House is prepared to do anything to protect American interests and allies against a political current that is anti-American at its core is another question. Netanyahu’s speeches, Saudi diplomacy, and Egyptian brinksmanship are evidence that traditional U.S. allies do not believe Obama is up to the task.

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