2018: The Morning After the Night Before

Three events defined the Middle East in 2017. Each was declared a military victory or a bold act of reform. Success went like pure alcohol to the victor’s head but their euphoria was short lived. Each in turn triggered an unchartered shift in regional alliances.

Putin is learning that it is one thing to chase America and Saudis out of Syria. It’s quite another to become the owner of a second-hand civil war

A year on, the morning after looks somewhat less inviting to the movers and shakers of this brave new Arab world than the night before.

A war of choice

The first victory of the year went to the Russians, who retook Aleppo in the last days of 2016. Russian President Vladimir Putin marked his inauguration as Syria’s new imperial ruler by walking in front of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president whose skin he had saved, at a victory parade at the Hmeimim base in Latakia. It’s a scene Putin might have unconsciously copied from a Roman proconsul.

For Putin, Syria was a war of choice. Russia shared no border with the Arab state and could have allowed Damascus to fall without Russia being touched. Enter Putin with a military force dismissed by Nato as unfit for purpose.

He had a point to prove not just about his air force but also about the new world order, too: that America no longer possessed a monopoly of military action, nor a veto on anyone else’s. And he did prove that.

The rise of a new Saudi tyrant in bin Salman, with ambitions to become the regional hegemon, has re-energised the Qatari camp, which now has military backing from Turkey and Sudan, and logistical support from Iran

But the strategic consequences of that intervention were not as straightforward as a shrunken Russia, a shadow of the global military force the Soviet Union once was, could cope with on its own. Putin soon found he needed allies.

Assad now has two masters: Russia and Iran, whose interests diverge, particularly over the question of the Syrian leader’s fate. In this, Assad is scarcely following in his father’s footsteps.

Hafez al-Assad kept strong relations with Iran and America simultaneously, helping George H Bush against his Baathist rival Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. The father preserved his country’s independence. The son surrendered his. Hafez al-Assad emerged as a strong ruler. His son is a crippled one.

Putin has two permanent bases on the shores of the Mediterranean, but he also now finds himself handcuffed to a ruin called Syria. If the Soviet Union spent money in the Middle East, the Russian Federation is there to earn it.

For this, Putin’s bomber planes are of no use to him. He needs stability, a commodity neither he nor Iran can readily provide to millions of Syrians who sought to end the Assad dynasty’s rule and who have lost everything in this war.

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Plates bearing portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (L) displayed at a handicrafts shop in the Syrian capital, Damascus (AFP)

For that, Moscow and Tehran need Turkey. Iran needs Turkey to balance Russia and to reach out to the Sunni world. At the same time Iran is trying to mend fences with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey after the damage done by its presence in Syria.

If it is to get a return on its Syrian investment, in the form of arms sales and nuclear reactors, Russia too has to straddle the sectarian divide.

The rival camp

Turkey on the other hand needs both Russia and Iran, now that it has cut itself adrift, at least psychologically, from America. The jockeying between all three will continue. Each pursue different agendas in Syria, but for the time being their fate is bound by common enemies.

Putin is learning that it is one thing to chase America and the Saudis out of Syria. It’s quite another to become the owner of a second-hand civil war. The rebels have been subdued by Russian air power, but the embers of the conflict are still burning under the ashes.

The second victory was notched up by the rival camp – Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis, Israel and America. This was the ovation that Donald Trump received in Riyadh. It was supposed to herald a new alliance of “moderate” Sunni Arab states against Iran, political Islam and any domestic dissident or rival prince who challenged their tyranny.

On paper this alliance holds all the cards: the largest sovereign wealth funds, the biggest armies, Western bodyguards and hackers and the backing of Israel. In reality, the alliance of new-age tyrants is blinded by clouds of self-delusion.

What could possibly go wrong?

The plan, like their wealth, was on a grand scale. Not just to replace a retreating America as the regional hegemon for the 21st century but to dominate communications and trade around the Sunni Arab world through ports, islands and trade routes running from the Gulf of Oman, westwards to the Suez Canal, and southwards to Africa – a true recreation of a 16th-century-style seaborne empire.

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Mohammed bin Salman was able to win over the US administration in his power struggle with his cousin Mohammed bin Nayef (AFP)

Trump’s visit triggered a rush of blood to the head: first the siege of Qatar, then the ousting of Mohammed bin Nayef, Mohammed bin Salman’s elder cousin; then the purge of the princes; then an order to the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign; then instructions to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to surrender East Jerusalem and the right of return, or move aside for someone who will.

Each throw of the dice revealed the totalitarian mindset of men who wanted to dominate the region. Public opinion, accountability, history, religion, culture, identity did not matter to them. These men were there to rule, to own and to order. Everyone else existed only to obey them.

The Trump Declaration

And so to the third and final event. One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, Trump waded in with a declaration of his own – to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. If the first two events produced tremors, the third one provided the energy for an earthquake.

Jordan and Abbas, two of Washington’s longest-serving allies, jumped ship publicly. Jordan reached out to Turkey, Syria and Iran, while Abbas declared the US unfit to be a mediator. The silent war between Turkey and the Emirates became a loud one.

A shouting match erupted over a retweet. The Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan retweeted a post accusing Fahreddin Pasha, the Ottoman governor who defended Medina against British forces, of stealing the property of the locals and the sacred relics of the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb.

To which Erdogan replied: “When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent [man], where were yours?”

Erdogan kept up the rhetoric in Sudan, which he visited on Monday. Here Turkey announced a series of far-reaching strategic, military and economic deals.

Sudan is crucial to Egypt. It’s a big country, a gateway to Africa, and it had been trying to mend its relations with Saudi Arabia for the past two years. Over this period, it had stopped co-operating with Turkey and Qatar, and the consequences of that were felt by Islamist militias all over Libya. Today Sudan is changing sides once more.

A Sudanese message

As I reported previously, Sudan is tiring of its role in providing the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen with its largest number of ground troops. There are unofficial reports that the Sudanese pull-out of troops from Yemen has already begun.

A few days before Erdogan’s visit, Sudan informed the UN of its objection to the Saudi-Egyptian naval border agreement, by which Cairo agreed to cede the two uninhabited Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir. The agreement also stepped on Sudan’s toes. In it Saudi recognised the disputed border area between Sudan and Egypt, called the Halayeb triangle, as part of Egypt.

Erdogan’s visit was an opportunity for Sudan to send a message to Riyadh and Cairo. The Turkish president announced he had been allocated the island of Sawakin in the eastern Red Sea to develop. This is a ruined Ottoman naval port of no strategic use to a modern navy now.

But the military agreement formed on the same visit between the chief of staffs of Turkey, Qatar and Sudan is of importance.

Sudan’s message was not lost on the Saudis. The Okaz newspaper called the decision to allow Turkey to rebuild the island “an overt threat to Arab national security”.

The newspaper said: “Turkey is seeking to impose its hegemony on the Horn of Africa region by offering military aid and establishing bases for itself in the countries of Africa.

“The establishment of military bases in Sudan represents an explicit threat to the Egyptian state, on the backdrop of the tense relations between Cairo and Ankara and the escalating Egyptian Sudanese dispute over Halayeb and Shalatin.”

The morning after

What, then, does the new shape of the Arab world look like after a year of breathless drama? Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence has shrunken. It started the year at the head of six Gulf states and summoned 55 leaders of Muslim-majority countries to hear Trump lecture them on radical Islam.

It ends the year with a haemorrhage of that support. Saudi has lost Lebanon altogether.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in Doha on 15 November (AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani in Doha on 15 November (AFP)

As one Sunni politician said, if Iran had spent billions of dollars trying to sway public opinion in Lebanon against Saudi Arabia, it could not have done a better job than the Saudis themselves have done by trying to force Hariri to resign.

Mohammed bin Salman thinks that as long as he has Trump and Israel on his side, it does not matter. But there are three flaws in that calculation.

The first is the assumption that Trump will continue as president of the United States. This is something Steve Bannon, for one, disputes. He told Vanity Fair that he only gave Trump a 30 per cent chance of avoiding a premature end to his first term either through impeachment or removal by the cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment. Without Trump, bin Salman’s grand plan is in tatters.

The next president, whoever he is, will not follow the same disastrous path.

The second is Israel, a shrewder reader of Washington politics than the neophyte Saudis. Which is why it is rushing to create more facts on the ground and put in place the last bricks in the wall of settlements it is constructing around Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a man in a hurry. He not only wants to get the annexation of greater Jerusalem done, but to get Trump to sign off on it while he is still in power.

The third flaw in bin Salman’s plan is Jerusalem. Overnight, the Trump Declaration placed the Palestinian conflict, which had been displaced by the Arab uprisings of 2011 and the counter-revolution which followed, once again back as the core issue of the Middle East. Syria is no longer the main issue.

As a consequence, the Palestinians will have no other option but to start a third intifada. Israeli security chiefs are already warning their political masters of the mood on the ground. Tensions in Gaza, they said, were reminiscent of those on the eve of the 2014 Gaza conflict.

This is what awaits in 2018. The rise of a new Saudi tyrant in bin Salman, with ambitions to become the regional hegemon, has re-energised the Qatari camp, which now has military backing from Turkey and Sudan, and logistical support from Iran.

The Palestinian cause is back centre stage, and the centre of differences between the two camps. Political islam is returning as a strong player. Having run out of cards in Yemen, both Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed are courting the leaders of Islah. Political Islamists also showed their strength in demonstrations in Jordan and around the Arab world over Jerusalem.

The year started as a slam dunk for those who thought they could rearrange the Middle East in their image and to their profit. They are only just waking up to the headache they have given themselves.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani address the media after a trilateral meeting on Syria in Sochi on November 22, 2017 (AFP)


By David Hearst
Source: Middle East Eye

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