If the Middle East’s old order crumbled in 2011, perhaps the shape of the new one is gradually becoming clearer. Three trends are now visible. The first is a stronger and bolder Saudi Arabia, willing to take risks in its mission to roll back Iran’s regional influence. The second is the narrowing of what had been a major faultline within the anti-Iran bloc, over the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood. The third is the dramatic fissuring and weakening of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and the new scenarios this brings into play.
Each of these changes may seem trivial in isolation. Together, they create the very stickiest of wickets on which President Barack Obama must play, as he convenes a meeting of his Arab allies at Camp David this week.
Consider Saudi Arabia first. It has been easy to assume that an opaque, absolutist kingdom led by ailing octogenarians must be intrinsically unstable, in contrast to the managed democracy of its rival, Iran. In fact, the new King Salman last month dramatically consolidated his power, appointing his nephew as heir and his own son next in line. Meanwhile, he launched a pan-Arab war in Yemen against Houthi rebels who are seen, in Riyadh, as Iranian proxies.
This is the first independently launched war by an Arab state since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 – and it was done without White House permission, although the US is now helping Saudi Arabia vet targets and enforce a blockade. Although it has had only limited military results, and Riyadh was unable to persuade key allies such as Egypt and Pakistan to contribute ground troops, it nevertheless reveals remarkable confidence. Saudi Arabia is disturbed by the prospect of a US-Iran nuclear deal giving Tehran a freer hand in the region, and is willing – up to a point – to take matters into its own hands.
It is helped in this by the second shift: the narrowing, if not quite closure, of a chasm within the group of otherwise like-minded, anti-Iran states. The division is between those, such as the kingdom, which vehemently opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that won the Egyptian presidency before being overthrown, and others, such as Turkey and Qatar, which felt the Brotherhood and other Islamists, ought to be welcomed and supported. The battle-lines spanned North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
But last November, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador returned to Qatar, after a long period in which the smaller country had been virtually made a pariah in the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). And in March, Turkey’s mercurial president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, went to Riyadh to meet King Salman.
This trio, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, now seem to have reached a landmark understanding. After years of each country backing separate factions in Syria, they will co-ordinate their efforts. Most controversially, the latter two, in line with their more relaxed approach to Islamists, are rumoured to have persuaded Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s front in Syria, to peel away from its parent organisation and join a more respectable rebel coalition.
Would Saudi Arabia back Turkey’s longstanding demand for a no-fly zone in northern Syria, even without US backing? At present, that’s unlikely. But Iranian generals watching from Damascus or Tehran are likely to be perturbed by this new constellation of forces.
The third development, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that President Assad is losing. In the past months, he has lost the town of Jisr al-Shughour and the major provincial capital Idlib, and his counterattacks have been blunted. Equally important is the apparent disarray at the top. The heads of two of the top four security agencies were fired last month, with one later killed by a rival, and another, Ali Mamlouk, reportedly detained for opening a secret backchannel with Turkey. There is also evidence of frustration within the minority Alawite community, which may no longer see the regime as a reliable protector against the rebels.
Some of this is down to the rebels’ new weapons – particularly wire-guided anti-tank missiles – provided as the result of the new alignments described above. But it is also the friction and resentment caused by Iran’s massive role in every part of Syria’s security apparatus, particularly the sprawling militia forces that have, in parts of the country, wholly eclipsed the army.
On Wednesday, Mr Obama sat down at the White House with several leaders and representatives of his allies in the Gulf. His dilemma is simple enough. They want aggressive containment of Iran, while he seeks détente. They are happy to risk toppling Mr Assad, while Mr Obama hopes an over-stretched Iran will agree to a peace deal which might save the Syrian state from total collapse and the region from further disorder.
Mr Obama may be gambling that while his Arab interlocutors are flexing their muscles now, their accumulated military dependence on the US – for arms, and the means to deploy them – is simply too great to be cast off in a fit of diplomatic pique. He is probably correct, but that does not mean his disgruntled, emboldened friends won’t seek to prove him wrong first.
Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services InstituteReuse content