Nabeel A. Khoury
Dr. Khoury taught at the National War College (NDU) this year as a Department of State faculty advisor. He retires from State this fall to join the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as senior fellow for Middle East and national security. He wishes to acknowledge the valuable assistance and insights offered by Dr. Lina Khatib, of Stanford University, and Dr. Sami Hajjar, formerly of the Army War College at Carlisle. MargaretAnne Khoury, Elysaar Khoury and Deborah Ferro offered editorial suggestions and proofed the first draft of this paper.
Starting in 2011, a series of uprisings triggered domestic changes in several countries in the Arab world that affected regional and international politics. The aim of this paper is to explore the foreign-policy dimensions of those domestic changes and project the potential impact on regional and international alliances using Malcolm Kerr's Arab-cold-war model.1 Kerr, in 1965, posited a power struggle between two camps, conservative monarchies and socialist republics.2 Islamists, more or less quiescent at the time, began asserting themselves two decades later, creating a power triangle with ideological, political and military dimensions.
The Arab Uprising3 has resulted in the break-up of this triangle of power, or at least in its transition into a different mold. The "conservative-monarchism / radical-socialism / Islamism" triangle is being replaced with a new one composed of the following players: conservative monarchies, transitioning republics and non-state Islamist groups. The key difference between the two triangles is that, post-Arab Spring, Islamist parties are evolving as mainstream political forces within the transitioning republics, as opposed to forces competing with entrenched regimes in those republics. At the non-state level, radical Islamists, first of a Sunni/Salafi variety, emerged with strength on the scene. In the twenty-first century, however, it is the Shia militias that are shaking things up the most, particularly in the Levant and the Gulf region. The new model proposed in this paper necessitates revisiting intraregional dynamics in the Arab world as well as its international alliances, as the three power blocs compete for influence. This paper investigates the impact of this new dynamic on patron-client relationships in the region. Some of them are likely to continue (such as that between the United States and conservative monarchies), while new patron-client relationships are emerging (such as Turkey and the transitioning republics and Iran and non-state Shia organizations and groups). In this new era, regional superpowers will assume new importance, with Turkey, Iran and Israel as competitive power brokers and with Russia and China as spoilers in any attempt at international conflict resolution.
Contradictions are already apparent at both the internal and international levels: the conservative monarchies, aspiring to continue a patron-client relationship with the United States, are ambivalent about the best course of action in individual uprising cases; the emerging group of republics, at various degrees of democratic transition, are largely dominated internally by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and MB-type parties, all seeking and likely receiving help from Turkey, while aspiring to strike a balance in their relationships with regional and international powers — Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Finally, the non-state actors (primarily Hezbollah but also other predominantly Shia groups) seek to continue on Iran's path of "resistance politics," while having to strike internal political deals in their own countries to ensure their survival.
Like all models, this one will have exceptions, and the main players will send contradictory messages and espouse conflicting narratives. The group of monarchies, largely uncomfortable with the idea of democratic transition, will tout stability and economic development instead of revolution, but will nonetheless seek to influence, control and otherwise intervene in the affairs of the emerging regimes. Qatar, thus far rather adept at navigating the waters of the Arab Uprising, may have a better chance than other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members in leading efforts to support some regional players, mediating between regimes and opposition forces where possible, all while trying to stave off the winds of change that may blow toward the Gulf itself. Motivated largely by self-preservation, the monarchs will be far more adventurous and interventionist than in recent decades, harkening back to the days of the Arab cold war.
The "transitioning" republics will have new Islamist majorities that will mandate at least the appearance of a different approach to regional and international politics. These new leaders will, however, still have some old problems, namely the struggle for resources and the need to provide goods and services for their constituents. The need for foreign assistance, most likely to come from the Gulf monarchies, will temper their foreign policies and force them to collaborate with their regional and international patrons.
Finally, non-state actors, primarily Hezbollah and other Shia groups, will likely experience the most difficulty in adjusting to the changing region and in narrowing the gap between their narrative and their behavior. The persistence of revolutionary rhetoric and behavior will be increasingly difficult to justify and defend, given the shifting balance of power against them and the inconsistent behavior of their patron, Iran, as it offers rhetorical support to some rebellious Muslim populations while actively supporting the suppression of others. The populist Islamist rhetoric of Iran and Hezbollah has already been stripped of any regional credibility, thanks to their blatant support for the Assad regime in Syria. Hamas, previously in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah orbit, has already taken steps to navigate a more independent path that is likely to bring it closer to both the monarchs and regional MB leaders. The politics of accommodation, internally in the transitioning countries, and regionally among the various competing players, will make for a very unstable system.
The Arab cold war of the fifties and sixties revolved around the regional axes of monarchies vs. socialist republics, with Islamist forces forming either a suppressed opposition or a rising underground movement. The rivalry was at its most intense between monarchies and socialist/nationalist republics, albeit with a military dictatorship underneath the façade in the case of socialists and a tribal/military mix buttressing the regime in the case of the monarchies. Regional alliances largely mirrored the international Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, a rivalry that included proxy wars but also set certain limits to regional instability. Today the monarchies are still intact and allied with one another, though somewhat shaken by events and taking slightly nuanced approaches to them, both internally and externally. The formerly socialist/secular republics are succumbing one after the other to local uprisings.
The ascendance of the MB or MB-type parties presents a common thread and presages a potential return to an alliance among at least some of the republics, but this time with a different political agenda. The Islamist elites will be challenged at home by forces to both the right and left of center. Regionally, they will be pulled in opposite directions by Iran and Hezbollah, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the GCC, on the other. In the absence of a clear superpower fault line and the emergence of a strong regional rivalry among Turkey, Iran and Israel, the international linkages promise to be complicated. The Arab Uprising may indeed have opened the way to democratic development in the region, but the road is strewn with landmines and may, at least in the near term, seem quite impassable.
The Club of Monarchs (GCC + 2)
The GCC members, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, though unhappy with the sudden turmoil of 2011, decided to play the (regional) cards they were being dealt. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were certainly not welcome news. Saudi Arabia immediately took in the fleeing president of Tunisia, Ben Ali, along with any resources he had presumably acquired while president. The Saudi and Emirati rulers then reacted very negatively to the departure of Egypt's Husni Mubarak and did not take kindly to President Obama's statement expressing the need for Mubarak to step aside and allow democratic change to take its course. The Saudis openly accused the United States of having abandoned an important long-time ally. Even while Mubarak's military was transitionally in charge, Gulf aid was withheld, seemingly to bargain for better treatment for the ex-president.
The Al Saud were puzzled and eventually angered by Washington's direction. In the Saudi view, it had treated Mubarak shabbily, and it was reported that King Abdullah had upbraided President Obama about it. The family was asking, is this any way to treat a U.S. ally?4
Egyptians living in Saudi Arabia reportedly felt pressured not to celebrate Mubarak's departure and stifled their enthusiasm for fear of a crackdown. Said one Egyptian expatriate,
Police here and in Dubai have dispersed even small gatherings of Egyptians who waved flags and sang the national anthem. Kuwait warned that any protesters would be immediately deported along with their families.5
Despite a turn to pragmatism and a display of willingness to play politics with the Muslim Brotherhood's coming to the fore in regional elections, none of the Gulf countries has any tolerance for MB influence at home. The minister of foreign affairs of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abdallah Bin Zayed al-Nahayan, expressed his revulsion at what he saw as chaotic challenges to law and order and the rise of the MB on the coattails of these "unwarranted" uprisings.
[I]n a press conference with his Ukrainian counterpart, [Abdallah] charged that the Muslim Brotherhood did not believe in nation-states and it was not unusual therefore that they would take advantage of current circumstances to wreak havoc in total disregard of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of established states in the region.6
Bahrain presented a clear case of damming against the flood. Saudi Arabia reportedly pressured the Bahraini king not to offer any compromises to the opposition and sent troops on May 15, 2011, to help quell the Shia community's protest when it looked as though Bahraini forces might be overwhelmed. The UAE contributed troops to the Peninsula Shield force in its incursion across the bridge into Bahrain. Qatar's own drawing of the line at its borders (the Qatar-Bahrain causeway is still on the drawing boards) was reflected in its contribution of forces to help suppress the uprising in Bahrain, but also in the noted absence of vitriol against the Bahraini dynasty on the Qatar-owned al-Jazeera network. Al-Jazeera, with the exception of Bahrain, had championed practically every uprising in the region and has loudly touted "the people's revolution" on its airwaves.
Libya and Syria presented easier choices for the GCC. With no love lost for Muammar Qadhafi, who had been accused by the Saudis of having tried to assassinate King Abdullah and was derided by Qatar and other GCC members as a dangerous buffoon, Qatar actively participated in enforcing the NATO no-fly zone over Libya, contributing jet fighters, fuel and other material support. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia joined in funding the rebel groups fighting Qadhafi. Here, as in post-uprising Egypt, hints of nuanced differences emerged between the GCC allies. Saudi Arabia and Qatar did not necessarily fund the same actors, with the former leaning towards Wahabi/Salafi groups and the latter going with the more mainstream MB-type parties and organizations.7
Regarding the uprising in Syria, Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar, after an initial attempt at mediation failed, threw caution to the wind and invested diplomatic, informational and financial assets in a full-throated outcry against the Assad regime. They combined this with an unabashed attempt to empower the political opposition and the armed insurgency against him. This effort is obviously not so much about democracy as about the regional balance of power, both sectarian and national. The Syrian uprising pitted the majority Sunni population against the Alawi/Shii regime, with other minorities left to fear their fate, should they join the fray. This left little room for Saudi Arabia, at least, to do anything but support fellow Sunnis. With Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah firmly committed to the support of the Assad regime, and Lebanon split along the now traditional March 14-March 8 fault line over the Syrian crisis, the regional implications were clear enough for the two GCC leaders to put their money where their interests lay.
Yemen, despite some mixed feelings regarding its uprising, at least regarding Saudi Arabia, presented what has thus far been a case of successful leadership through diplomacy for the GCC. The Saudi monarchy, in the midst of a transition from one elder brother to another, along with the passing of Crown Prince Sultan, left the Yemen portfolio somewhat in a vacuum and Saudi policy on uncertain footing. Between that and the role of Qatar, what might otherwise have been a hanging on to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (the devil they know), ended up instead with a diplomatic triumph for the GCC (aided in no insignificant manner by the efforts of the UN special envoy, Jamal Benomar) in getting a transition agreement signed that averted civil war.
The exit of Saleh and the installation of a new interim president and cabinet have, at least for now, spared the country a very destructive conflict and paved the way for a two-year transition plan that all sides seem to be doing their best to implement. Yemen, for the time being, seems to be moving in the direction of a more or less orderly transition, with a national dialogue underway and a new constitution in the offing. Saudi Arabia, which took Saleh in after an attack on the presidential palace in Sanaa in June 2011 left him critically wounded, resisted the urge to support his return to power. In fact the Saudis weighed in on the side of gently easing him and his family out, despite the apparent lack of a credible alternative. For the Saudis, President Hadi, and indeed the GCC plan itself, are part of a diplomatic gamble and a bold move to use diplomacy and international aid to resolve this particular uprising without resort to force or, at least for the time being, political subterfuge.
From Libya to Yemen and Syria, not to mention Bahrain, the zigs and zags of GCC policies vis-à-vis the Arab Uprising are neither revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary. They are, rather, indicative of their dilemma: having to fend off the turmoil from their own shores while jumping into the fray where their interests are clearly implicated in favor of one side or the other and with the overall goal of containing the situation. Faced with turmoil and possibly prolonged chaos in some cases, Iran inevitably emerges as a likely victor if it intervenes and Saudi Arabia does not. Fredric Wherey writes:
The Saudi and Iranian approaches to the Arab Uprisings cannot broadly be labeled revolutionary or counterrevolutionary; instead, realpolitik considerations carry the day. Thus, both states buttress friendly regimes that face protest movements, but they also find themselves in the uncomfortable position of fanning opposition when it threatens their adversaries. In Bahrain, Iran is on the side of political change as a path to Shiite empowerment and a blow to its Saudi rival, while in Syria, Tehran stands firmly against change. In Riyadh's case, the reverse is true. Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to quash the revolt there, but in Syria it has called for the fall of Bashar al-Assad's regime.8
In the end, for Saudi Arabia, as well as for Iran, the Arab Uprisings are not about which ideology prevails, but rather about their own rivalry for regional supremacy.
New Republics (and Turkey)
In every transitioning country where a dictator has fallen and elections have taken place, an MB or an MB-type party has come to center stage. That said, none of these parties dominate their rivals to the point of being able to rule without them. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, moderate Islamist forces have won large numbers of seats in the new legislative assemblies, but they share legislative powers with other political parties to the right and left of their own. In Morocco, where the king chose to anticipate or preempt revolt, he initiated reform from above, giving up his prerogative to appoint any prime minister he chooses in favor of recognizing the result of elections and appointing the head of the party with the most seats in parliament. Here, too, the result has brought the head of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) to the fore, albeit with limited powers; the king retains the ability to pull the strings on defense, security and intelligence matters. This division of power, albeit still skewed in favor of the monarch, demonstrates most visibly what the other "transitioning" states are going through: a power sharing dubbed by the French the politics of "cohabitation." One party, failing to dominate both legislative and executive branches, has to coexist with one or several other power centers in order to exercise influence as primus inter pares. In Jordan, King Abdullah has also been trying to stay ahead of protestors' demands, but he has yet to invite the opposition Islamists to share executive power with him.
Given the internal balancing in which the new majority parties have to engage and the regional patrons they have to please, an Islamist (or MB) foreign policy is not likely to emerge any time soon. It would even be difficult to predict whether countries with Islamist majorities or pluralities will take an easily identifiable line in foreign affairs. Nevertheless, patterns may be emerging that reflect a difficult regional and international environment.
Egypt, under MB leader and president Mohamed Morsi, may be trying to adopt a leadership role in the Middle East akin to Nasser's nonalignment of the 1950s and 1960s. The itinerary of President Morsi's first overseas foray since assuming office may shed some light on this new course: Saudi Arabia, China and Iran (the latter, a first for any Egyptian leader in over 30 years). Morsi seems to be signaling that a new generation of leaders has taken the helm and that Egypt wants to remain in the good graces of Saudi Arabia, but that it would not be joining any anti-Iran coalitions. Visiting Iran sends the message to his Islamist constituency at home that he means to be sensitive to Iran's legitimate rights and needs in the region; stopping in China and Saudi Arabia points to economic as well as political pragmatism. Morsi's tip of the hat to Saudi Arabia (in addition to the hat-in-hand aspect of the visit) indicates he has no objection to its pro-Western orientation, while making it clear he wishes to veer away from the perceived subservience of his predecessor to American and Saudi wishes. Going further in his balancing act, Morsi's anti-Assad remarks in Tehran also put Iran on notice that he will not be veering in the opposite direction either, preferring to strike an independent middle ground between the two regional rivals.
Egypt under Morsi's leadership is also sending friendlier signals to another regional and international power, Turkey. Speaking at the fourth AKP Congress in Istanbul, Morsi heaped praise on his host, describing Turkey as "a source of inspiration for the whole Middle East." This, followed by recent Turkish-Egyptian naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean, portends a closer relationship, all the more significant given Turkey's early support for the Egyptian uprising and its offers of assistance and coordination with the new regime in Cairo. The maneuvers also suggest that Morsi's ruling partners, the Egyptian military, are not resisting this new friendship. Morsi's sentiments towards Turkey may well be shared by fellow post-uprising Islamist rulers, who have themselves either visited or been visited by Turkey's leaders, establishing an indication of warm relationships in the making.
While striving for balance and, therefore, distancing himself from the close alliance his predecessor had with Washington, Morsi clearly does not wish to antagonize the United States. Putting aside any skepticism felt by his constituency and his allies in the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Morsi simply sent a message to President Obama congratulating him on winning a second term and stressing the two countries' common interests and values.9 On more substantial grounds, Morsi has signaled his interest in continued U.S. financial assistance and in avoiding any serious rupture with Israel. Hence, he has declared that the peace treaty with Israel would hold, albeit while intending to put the special commercial relationship between Egypt and Israel under closer scrutiny. Morsi is not putting any of his country's security arrangements in the Sinai in jeopardy. Thus far, he has shown sensitivity to Israel's security needs on the Egypt-Gaza borders, and there has not been a flood of movement of goods and people through the Rafah crossing. Morsi's recent mediation of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas shows he is aware that he has much more to gain from using Egypt's unique capability to play the middle man and achieve diplomatic successes than from playing to his Islamist/populist base and ending up jeopardizing both his country's interests and his own.
Morsi's regional balancing act, far from appearing wishy-washy, is actually showing considerable coherence and seems to place his economic, political and military priorities in the context of a new assessment of Egyptian strengths and national interest. Genuine mediation of conflict is indeed an activity for which Egypt is well-equipped, and the Gaza experience may well be relevant to other conflicts in the region.10 Morsi's tougher challenge will be to maintain the delicate balance at home, consulting and conferring with his rival power centers to make sure the policies he pursues represent their interests as well as his own.
Unlike Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have yet to take any strong initiatives in regional or international politics that might give a clear indication of which direction their foreign policies might take. This may be due to their preference at the moment to focus on internal affairs or their lack of desire to project a leadership profile in the region, given their lack of resources (financial in the case of Tunisia, political in the case of Libya). A measured pro-Western approach, however, seems to be slowly taking shape. Libya has voiced support for the Syrian uprising and has allowed arms, paid for with Gulf money, to be shipped to the Syrian rebels. Libyan and Tunisian leaders alike took a brave stance in condemning the violence that erupted over the anti-Islam video, The Innocence of Muslims. Tunisian President Moncef Marzouqi dispatched his palace guard to protect the U.S. embassy from angry mobs and make arrests that his police were either unable or unwilling to carry out. Marzouqi later wrote an op-ed, published in The New York Times on September 27, 2012, in which he tried to reassure the West and ask for their continued patience with, and support for, the Arab Spring:
While these fears are understandable, such alarmism is misplaced. The Arab revolutions have not turned anti-Western. Nor are they pro-Western. They are simply not about the West. They remain fundamentally about social justice and democracy — not about religion or establishing Sharia Law.11
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafiq Abdessalem visited Gaza on November 15, 2012 — right after the Egyptian foreign minister — in a show of support for Palestinians in Gaza, and therefore for Hamas, literally under Israeli fire. This, again, is not something one would have expected from the pre-uprising regime in Tunisia. It is another sign of a new orientation, more in line with popular sentiment — though it does not yet rise to the level of an altogether new strategy.
In Libya, the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi led to an assault by government forces on the Islamist group said to have carried out the attack. The Libyan government has shown a willingness to take counterterrorism action, albeit not very effectively thus far, against their radical Islamists, despite some internal blowback. Again, this attitude indicates at least a moderate shift in foreign policy that aspires to win friends rather than make enemies; it represents a pragmatic approach to regional and international affairs.
Non-State Islamist Actors (and Iran)
Non-state actors in the post-PLO era are numerous but, for Islamist credentials and links to Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) stands out. Having spent two decades struggling against Israel and another trying to dominate Lebanese politics — as a major actor on the national and regional scenes and by virtue of its alliance with Iran and potential impact on U.S. and Western interests in the region — LH has become an international player. In Iraq, Muqtada Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) first asserted itself on the Iraqi national scene as a force at once representative of the less-well-to-do masses (al-mustadafeen) and an armed militia capable of fighting foreign forces on Iraqi soil. Somewhat akin to LH, this Iraqi Shia force has transformed itself into a political party with a large national following, while retaining the ability to fight as a militia, should the need arise. Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and Asaibahl al-Haqq (AAH), both Shiite militias listed by the Department of State as terrorist organizations, have also declared an interest in Iraqi national politics in the aftermath of the U.S. troop departure. They have, however, failed thus far to transform themselves into credible political entities and remain active militias with strong links to Muqtada al-Sadr inside Iraq and to Iran and LH outside it. This patronage gives them both domestic and regional credentials and capabilities that allow them to continue functioning even though the American military presence — ostensibly the raison d'être of their organizations — has ended.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has welcomed the recent decision by AAH to lay down its arms and join the political process. But bringing the former militants into the fold incurs the cost of further alienating the Sunni minority and increases tensions among competing Shiite groups.12 This is all the more true because of the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria and the increasingly obvious spillover into Iraq, leading potentially to a proxy war inside Iraq between Iraqis who currently champion the Syrian regime (Shiite militias) and those who champion the opposition (largely Sunnis). AAH's links to Iran and LH also cast doubt on the group's conversion from militia to political party. When asked in a recent interview about his affiliation with Hassan Nassrallah, Akram al-Kaabi, leader of AAH, said, "Mr. Hassan Nasrallah — God bless him — is the best Arab Mohamddi (sic) model for resisting arrogance. The victorious Hezbollah is defending Arabs and Muslims against the Israeli threats. Therefore, it is an honor for us to have relations with them."13 Asked further about sending his militiamen to train in Lebanon, al-Kaabi declined to answer for "security reasons." Kataib Hezbollah also maintains at least the Jihadi rhetoric, even though their jihadi activities (against U.S. troops in Iraq) have now come to an end.14
Regardless of their attitude towards violence, the attempt by these Shiite militias to transform themselves from armed anti-American movements into viable political anti-American parties could complicate Iraq's political crisis and strengthen Iran's clout in Iraq as U.S. influence wanes.
LH's goals from the start (per its 1984 Manifesto) can be summarized as follows: (a) liberate south Lebanon; (b) represent and empower the Shia sect in Lebanon; (c) resist Israeli dominance in the region; and (d) resist Imperialist/Zionist designs globally.
Hezbollah's first two goals can be described as finite, limited to local and regional issues of immediate and localized impact. The first goal, having already been largely accomplished in the year 2000, could have led to an agreement with Israel, signed or otherwise, certifying an end to hostilities and establishing an understanding that both sides would work towards the stability of the border region and the avoidance of any action that might provoke a return to armed conflict. The second goal, also accomplished with the establishment of a political wing and the contesting of Lebanese elections, could also have reassured domestic and international opponents and established a role that provided continuity within acceptable national and international norms. It is the last two goals, however, that provided the opening for LH, in collaboration with Iran, to carry out a more ambitious agenda involving terrorism and international conspiracy that promises to keep them on a terrorist watch-list for many years to come. The choice to continue to bear arms led to a "consideration" that Lebanon had not yet been totally liberated and that Israeli aggression, even though potential, required armed vigilance. The choice to resist "imperialist-Zionist designs" required an even more ambitious plan to gradually integrate Iran, Syria and Hezbollah into a strong regional coalition that could take action anywhere in the world to thwart perceived nefarious designs on the whole region by the United States and Israel.
Hezbollah's conclaves since the withdrawal of Israel in 2000, however, represent an attempt by the party's leadership to project an evolution towards more pragmatism. In a 2002 interview, Naim Qassem said, "Much has changed since 1985; our principles remain the same, but positions have changed due to evolving circumstances."15 Qassem cited, for example, the party's position towards France, which became less hostile due to France's changing position towards Hezbollah.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, at a news conference in 2009, also said it was time the group introduced pragmatic changes without, however, dropping its commitment to Iran. In comparing the manifesto of 1984 with that of 2009, Joseph Alagha concluded that, despite differences in tone, not much of substance had changed in Hezbollah's view of the world.16 Hezbollah remained adamant that it was U.S. and Israeli arrogance that kept them firmly in the enemy camp.17
Hezbollah, riding high in Arab/Islamic public opinion after the 2006 war, in which it was seen as having achieved a victory over Israel — or at least as having denied one to Israel — started portraying itself as speaking and acting for the regional masses, not just Lebanon's downtrodden. The Iran-Syria-LH axis seemed, in fact, to be the strongest in the region, an image Iran tried to cultivate when the Arab Uprising came along. LH and Iran initially welcomed it, seeing it as an anti-American Islamist tide. Khamenei saw in it a vindication of the ideology and tactics followed by Iran since its revolution. Certainly, with no love lost for the likes of Mubarak (seen as a lackey of the United States) and Qadhafi (held responsible for the disappearance of Imam Mousa al-Sadr in the early 1970s) or even Ben Ali (pro-West and a total loss to any Islamist or Arab-nationalist trend), the fall of the regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunsia was hailed by both Iran and Hezbollah. It wasn't long, however, before the uprising turned problematic for them. Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni youth all said thanks, but no thanks, to Iran's offers of help, insisting on the independence of their revolutions.
To boot, the Syrian uprising, which seemed so improbable during the early months of the "Spring," soon turned into an insurgency, spurred by the excessively repressive measures of the Assad regime. Iran's official statements marked that turnaround by labeling the Syrian insurgency foreign-born and malicious and vowing to stand by the Syrian regime.18 Hassan Nassrallah's pained efforts to justify his party's support for the regime in Syria really told the story.19 Nassrallah had, up to that point, built a reputation for credibility and consistency in his frequent speeches, particularly on the subject of Israel. On the Arab Uprising, Nassrallah seemed at first to be moving to take under his wing the nascent anti-regime sentiments in the region. In a speech right after the flight of Tunisia's Ben Ali, Nassrallah warned Arab regimes they would meet the same fate if they continued to ignore their peoples' desire for reform, adding that the Tunisian uprising was "a lesson to all those who depend on the United States and Israel.20 His flip-flop when his Syrian ally took a hit was evident to all but his most ardent supporters in Lebanon, who likely bought the argument that the Syrian case was somehow different.
The Arab Uprising, especially with the events in Syria, has placed Hezbollah and Iran on the defensive in both rhetoric and action. Hezbollah, at least, has lost its revolutionary purity in many Arab eyes as a result. Its vulnerability to the Syrian spillover, and Iran's fear of a potential strike on their nuclear reactors, have forced these two actors to devote considerable energy to shoring up the home front, hampering their ability to engage in adventures further afield. Rebellious Shia in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even the Zaidi Houthis in northern Yemen, do not, for the time being, seem energized by either rhetorical or material aid from their regional benefactors. As the struggle in Syria takes on broader regional implications, LH and Iran will find themselves more deeply embroiled, and therefore all the more preoccupied.
Hilal Khashan, a professor in the political science department at the American University of Beirut, comments, "You know how we find out that Hezbollah is under pressure? They remain quiet. They are keeping a very low profile these days."21 Hezbollah's relationship with Hamas, since the latter's exit from Syria, is perhaps the most telling in this regard. Hamas, having decided that being on the side of popular uprisings was more consistent with its own philosophy as a resistance movement, finds itself at odds with its friends and supporters in the Hezbollah-Iran-Syria axis (the Sunni vs. Shia dimension was likely also a factor in Hamas's decision to defect). Hezbollah, on the other hand, seems paralyzed by its alliances and can only attempt, at great effort, to rationalize its predicament. As a result of needing to keep some credible links to the Palestinian movement, Hezbollah is now also bending over backwards to not show its frustrations and promises to keep up its support for Hamas and the Palestinian cause.22
As the Syrian regime slips, and fears increase of an impending strike on Iran, pressure will mount for defensive thinking and for measures inside Iran and Lebanon to take precedence over regional and international adventures. A debate is bound to ensue between pragmatists and ideologues. Iran's alliance with the more radical Islamist forces in the region makes it a force to contend with in the medium and long terms, and the temptation to continue to play the regional field will be strong. Hezbollah will have to make a choice between an all-or-nothing struggle for Lebanon in the aftermath of regime collapse in Syria, and accepting the inevitable — a more realistic arrangement with their Lebanese adversaries. Both Iran and Hezbollah will feel pressure from local as well as regional constituencies to somehow bridge the gap between their rhetoric and their shrinking capabilities. Of all such choices that will have to be made by actors in the region, theirs will be the hardest.
In May 2011, the GCC invited Morocco and Jordan, the two monarchies that are not formal members of the club, to apply for membership, creating a GCC+2 front that, for all intents and purposes, shores up the Gulf alliance by adding more advanced military skills and capabilities to their own fledgling, if very well-equipped, military forces. Morocco and Jordan also add political leverage. They have excellent relationships with EU countries and the United States, whose support has to be won by Saudi Arabia and Qatar if their efforts to bring down the Assad regime are to bear fruit. For Morocco and Jordan, membership in the GCC would potentially bolster their coffers with much-needed financial assistance. It remains to be seen, however, if this invitation is anything more than a paper exercise to make a political statement and enable the GCC, for the troublesome near term, to cast a larger shadow.
Within the GCC, Qatar's emergence as a regional leader, and certainly the most active member, has been all the more impressive in the context of the Arab Uprising. From taking a leading role in the mediation on Yemen's transition, to joining the fight against Qadhafi and leading the charge on Syria, Qatar has been trying to anticipate and better respond to the recent changes. After joining Saudi Arabia in raising funds and arms for the Syrian insurgents, Qatar invited the major Syrian opposition factions to Doha in an attempt to unify them under one umbrella. The lack of unity among the factions up to that point had been a major obstacle to more lethal U.S. assistance. Achieving a genuine unification of the internal and externally based Syrian opposition would give the Qataris an even larger role to play, either by welding a stronger opposition into a more potent political force or — failing a mediated solution à la Yemen — being better able then to justify to the United States and Europe a more robust role in pushing the Syrian uprising to its logical conclusion, the overthrow of the Assad regime.
Similarly, when Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa traveled to Gaza and met with Ismail Haniya on October 23, 2012, he took a bold step in an effort to stir the Palestinian pot at a time when attention had been divided between popular uprisings and political transitions across the region. Hamad drew attention to the continued festering of the Palestinian issue and to the need to jump-start the moribund peace process. The new regime in Egypt (and therefore the uprising) offered Qatar an opening that would have been almost impossible under the Mubarak presidency. Hamas's exit from Damascus left the organization in search of a new home and potentially a new patron. This move certainly irks the Iranian leadership, since Qatar's wooing of Hamas, along with its popular base in Gaza, drives a wedge between Hamas and its Persian patrons.23 But, even though this helps the Saudi monarchy in its rivalry with Iran, it also focuses attention on tiny Qatar's bold move where Saudi leadership has been missing: the Palestinian cause, generally, and Gaza more specifically.
Still, a GCC victory in Syria will not necessarily be without cost or risk. The rising power and influence of Salafi groups among the rebel forces will be a medium-to long-term challenge for both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, not to mention for the West. Lina Sinjab of the BBC news service wrote from Damascus that Syrian rank-and-file rebels are being drawn to Islamist groups, not because of their ideology (in fact, a turn-off for many Syrians), but because these groups have thus far been better funded and armed than their secular comrades.24 One woman interviewed by Sinjab described herself as a Salafi but said she preferred the less ideological Islamist groups, because "democracy, freedom and a civil state" were more appropriate for Syria. "I joined the Ghouta Revolutionaries," says Umm Ahmad, "because this brigade doesn't have a conservative Islamic name like the rest of the brigades across the country." The woman further explained that Liwaa al-Islam (one of the more extreme Salafi organizations) is the one with the most funding and weaponry. Another, perhaps more ideologically extreme, rebel faction enjoying not so well-hidden connections to al-Qaeda is Nusrat al-Islam, reportedly the most effective in its attacks on regime forces and bases around the country, especially during the recent assaults in and around Damascus. Such groups will prove difficult to deal with by the coalition of opposition hammered out in Doha. Indeed, some fear that such groups will turn their weapons on their more secular comrades once the regime falls. Despite current attitudes towards them, given their effective military performance, a strong role for such groups in a post-Assad regime would not bode well for GCC and Western interests, nor for moderation and stability in the region.
The United States will likely continue to support the Gulf monarchies, with or without meaningful democratic reforms on their part, despite a seeming contradiction, given U.S. support for the Arab Uprisings elsewhere. The Obama administration will continue to struggle with the tension between two important national interests: to be on the right side of history and therefore to offer every assistance possible to those who are trying to move their countries towards democracy, and to safeguard national-security interests through relationships that provide bases and/or ports of call to U.S. forces for pursuing the Global War on Terror. The reluctance of President Obama to get involved in any new ground wars in the Middle East, coupled with a serious effort to pivot U.S. foreign policy towards the Far East, will limit U.S. involvement as a patron in regional conflicts. Israel, while offering rhetorical support to democratic values, will struggle to remain neutral as the new regimes in the region take an increasingly aggressive stance on Palestinian issues. Israel may well strike deals, hidden or otherwise, to support Gulf monarchies, finding common interest both in their rivalry with Iran and their attempts to stave off change from the Arab Uprising.
The transitional republics, still in the throes of problematic transformations, are likely to be too weak and consumed with internal struggles for any clear foreign policies to emerge. The Islamist forces taking the lead across North Africa generally lack the experience and political leverage needed to take leadership in the foreign-policy arena. Egypt under the MB seems the most likely to resume a traditional leadership role in the region, albeit under a new banner. President Morsi's faux pas at home (in moving to consolidate his power without prior consultation with the opposition), however, has quickly shown that his domestic front is far from solid and that he will have to learn how to share power or risk being swept away, if not by his political opponents then by a restless military. Turkey, having assumed the mantle of patron of the Muslim Brotherhood region-wide, seems poised to remain engaged in the region for at the least medium term. Turkey, however, has its own contradictions to resolve and a balance to strike between wanting to be a Middle East-relevant European power and a big-brother Middle Eastern country with its own agenda. Its rivalries with both Iran and Israel will likely prove a difficult burden.
Three axes of power are emerging from the current turmoil created by the Arab Uprising, with both similarities and differences, as compared to the regional axes of the 1950s and 1960s: conservative monarchies, transitional republics led by moderate Islamist forces, and a radical Islamist alliance, largely composed of and led by Shia. Each axis will struggle to close the gap between the narrative it espouses and the policies it must follow to safeguard its regional interests. The monarchies, essentially the GCC + 2, despite a continued preference for regime stability and a pro-West foreign policy, will have to engage the new moderate Islamist regimes coming to power as a result of the Arab Spring and will even need to engage in regime-changing interventions when the rivalry with Iran so dictates. Due to strained relations with the United States on the issue of how to deal with the uprisings, this axis will struggle to be increasingly self-reliant, led by an energized and ambitious Qatar, supported and bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and organized loosely under an invigorated GCC. The addition of Morocco and Jordan may or may not add muscle to the club, depending on how serious their integration is into the GCC.
Jordan is also not out of the woods yet; it faces a more radicalized uprising of its own and spillover effects from neighboring Syria. Given the aging Saudi leadership and continued rivalry with Qatar, this alliance will struggle to find consistency in their foreign policy. Though on the same side of the Syrian divide, the two are apparently favoring different groups, much as they had been rumored to have done during the Libyan crisis. Qatar seems to prefer mainstream MB-type Islamists, Saudi Arabia Salafi parties and groups (directly or indirectly). These regional alliances of convenience will prove problematic down the road as new regimes emerge with an uncertain internal balance of power. Regionally, the monarchies will, therefore, still be vulnerable to intervention themselves, with Iran and Hezbollah continuing to exploit internal contradictions in Gulf countries, particularly if these societies fail to set matters straight with their own (Shia) minorities. Iran, along with its radical Shia proxies, will likely remain adversarial in their relationship with the GCC states, regardless of how the current tensions with Israel and the international community are resolved. Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen will likely remain for the immediate and medium term natural arenas as this rivalry continues to play out.
The transitional republics themselves, given the internal strife they will be coping with in the years ahead, are also likely to be an arena for competition among the regional superpowers: Turkey, Iran and Israel. Michael Barnett posits that identity rather than ideology is the main factor behind what causes states in the Middle East to distinguish between friend and foe.25 According to this hypothesis, the club of monarchs (GCC + 2) will be wary of the transitional republics, even while meddling in their internal affairs and offering assistance to their fledgling governments. They are simply "not of the tribe," and their democratic/populist/Islamist aspirations offer a worrisome reminder of the days when socialism and Arab nationalism moved these same republics to forge alliances with one another and try to undermine the monarchies. Further complicating the regional dynamic is the fact that the radical Shia axis is precisely that, a sectarian religious alliance aspiring for dominance at the expense of states they may tactically respect (fear) but strategically despise and wish to ultimately overturn.
The international environment and the emerging regional dynamic do not bode well for regional stability. The politics of cohabitation referred to above — critical for the peaceful transition to democracy in the region — has been tried before, largely with disastrous consequences. During the Arab cold war of the fifties, the Jordanian monarchy tried to coexist with the Arab-nationalist/Nasserist tendency, as represented by the government of Sulaiman Nabulsi, brought to office by the 1956 parliamentary elections. That coexistence ended with the dismissal of the cabinet and the parliament and the reassertion of absolute power for the king.26 In 1970, King Hussein's attempts to coexist with the PLO led to the violent ouster of the latter in Black September. Meanwhile, though the Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to function as a social organization, the relationship with the palace was fraught with turmoil, the state security keeping the MB in check with frequent arrests and crackdowns. The regional cold war taking shape today does not offer even the clarity or the more obvious fault lines of the original model, nor does it guarantee any of the restraints imposed at that time by the superpowers to prevent it from flaring into a full-fledged war.
1 Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War (Oxford University Press, 1965).
2 Nabeel Khoury, "The Pragmatic Trend in Inter-Arab Politics," Middle East Journal 36, no. 3 (1982): 374-387.
3 The term Arab Uprising has been deliberately chosen in this paper to reflect a more sober assessment of regional events than the one implied in the terms Arab Spring. Uprising, however, is used in the singular in recognition of a common thread and a revolutionary sentiment in the movements sweeping through the region since January 2011.
4 Posted by Joshua Teitelbaum, March 16, 2011.
5 National Public Radio, Morning Edition, January 31, 2011.
6 "An-Nahar," Lebanese Daily, October 9, 2012.
7 Tracking actual funding trails is a very difficult proposition, though one worthy of further study. Policy nuances can be more easily detected via political support shown to various players in the field.
8 Frederic Wehrey, "Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry," Current History (December 2011): 352-357.
9 Full congratulatory message carried by the Middle East News Agency (MENA) on November 7, 2012.
10 Ashraf Hamdy, Egypt's ambassador to Lebanon, while admitting (in an interview with the Lebanese Daily Star, December 29, 2012) that internal turmoil has kept Egypt's foreign policy activism fairly low key, suggested that Egypt's soft power and its ability to talk to all parties may be quite suitable for conflicts like Lebanon's difficult internal situation.
11 Moncef Marzouki, New York Times, September 27, 2012.
12 Huffington Post, September 11, 2012.
13 Majalla (London based print and online magazine), February 12, 2012.
14 KAH's web site changed its name from Khaybar, which used to post videotaped attacks against U.S. forces, to KataibHezbollah, which now posts general news, albeit with a heavy dose of anti-U.S. rhetoric emanating from Iran and elsewhere. The chant, "God is Great, America is the Biggest Satan," continues to greet the site visitor indicating that not much has changed in the group's orientation, even as they try to adjust to changing times.
15 Joseph Al-Agaha, Hezbollah's Documents (Amsterdam University Press, 2011), 25.
16 Ibid, 29.
17 On its Al-Manar Television network, the United States is often depicted in ghoulish fashion. In a recent cartoon, a U.S. tank, next to a (U.S.) statement forbidding foreign intervention, shoots at a map of Syria with bloodied bodies strewn next to that map.
18 Al-Arabiya News Online, September 21, 2012.
19 Nasrallah, in a May 2011 speech (carried by Ashoura online) said, "Yes, we did support the revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but we leave each people to determine what's best for their countries … and our position on Syria is based on our acknowledgement of all the things Hafez and Bashar al-Assad have done for Lebanon and for the resistance."
20 Nassrallah's speech was carried by the Lebanese daily, Al-Akhbar, January 16, 2011.
21 Washington Post, November 8, 2012.
22 Ibrahim Bayram, An-Nahar, December 22, 2012.
23 Iranian-owned World Press TV (online) reported, November 17, that the Emir of Qatar only visited Gaza for the purpose of identifying the location of Hamas leaders in Gaza and reporting it back to Israel so it could assassinate them!
24 BBC Middle East News (online), October 25, 2012.
25 Michael N. Barnett, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (Columbia University Press, 1998).
26 André Bank and Morten Valbjørn, "Bringing the Arab Regional Level Back in Jordan in the New Arab Cold War," Middle East Critique 19, no. 3 (2010): 303-319.