The New Arab Cold War
As the United States steps away from the Middle East, its allies have tried to fill the void -- with disastrous results.
A bitter proxy war is being waged in the Middle East. It stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and reaches into North Africa, taking lives in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s Western Desert, and now Libya. Although the nihilism of the Islamic State and the threat of other extremist groups have garnered virtually all the attention of the media and governments, this violence is the result of a nasty fight between regional powers over who will lead the Middle East. It is a blood-soaked mess that will be left to the United States to clean up.
The popular conception of the Middle East is one of a region divided along sectarian lines pitting Sunni against Shiite, but another simultaneous struggle is underway among predominantly Sunni powers. The recent Egyptian and Emirati airstrikes on Libyan Islamist militias is just one manifestation of this fight for leadership among Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these countries have waded into conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and now Libya in order to establish themselves as regional leaders.
Yet these regional contenders for power have rarely achieved their goals. Instead, they have fueled violence, political conflict, and polarization, deepening the endemic problems in the countries they have sought to influence. And if the United States doesn’t step in, the chaos will only get worse.
President Barack Obama’s attempt to disentangle the United States from the Middle East’s many conflicts has only intensified these rivalries. From a particular perspective, Iraq’s chaos, Syria’s civil war, Libya’s accelerating disintegration, and Hosni Mubarak’s fall all represent failures of American leadership. As a result, Washington’s regional allies have come to the conclusion that they are essentially on their own and have sought to shape the Middle East to their own specific geopolitical needs and benefits. This has stoked the embers of conflict in various arenas — notably Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and now Libya — where this competition is playing out.
Take Turkey, for example. Ankara’s activist foreign policy raised Turkey’s profile in the region in the 2000s, but the country’s prestige has waned as a result of a series of missteps in regional hot spots. After significant financial, diplomatic, and political investment in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the ruling Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, the Turkish government has become a leading advocate of regime change in Syria. Unwilling to intervene in the Syrian civil war and unable to coax the United States to do so, Ankara turned a blind eye to extremist groups that used Turkish territory to take up the fight against Assad.
In Egypt, it made perfect sense that the Turks opposed now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s July 2013 coup d’etat. Turkey has a long, unhappy history with military interventions, and then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own worldview places a premium on Muslim solidarity in the conduct of Turkey’s foreign policy. Yet the war of words between Ankara and Cairo since then and the support that the Turkish government has extended to the Muslim Brotherhood — including the broadcast of Rabaa TV, a Brotherhood television station that has sought to delegitimize Egypt’s post-coup political process from Istanbul — has only contributed to the political polarization and instability in Egypt. Despite the Turkish public’s solidarity with the Palestinian people, Ankara’s support for Hamas during the recent conflict in Gaza has extended the conflict and contributed to Palestinian suffering, in addition to further souring Turkey’s relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel.
Like Turkey, Qatar has taken a populist approach to regional issues, which has veered into support for extremist groups. The Qatari leadership wants to resist Saudi pressure on Doha to fall into line with Riyadh’s regional preferences regarding Iran, Egypt, Gaza, and Syria. Saudi Arabia is now trying to offer carrots to entice Qatar into accepting its primacy, recently sending a high-level delegation to Doha, after earlier sticks — in the form of the withdrawal of Gulf Cooperation Council ambassadors from the country — failed. Qatar has been less circumspect than others in its support for groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, both offering official funding to Islamist groups in Syria and allowing private contributions to groups including al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. This has helped create an environment in which groups — both violent and peaceful — seeking to overturn the regional political order can thrive.
The failure of the other contenders for power leaves the Saudis and Emiratis enjoying a moment of ascendancy. This is not to suggest that their approach to the myriad problems confronting the region is wise or that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will be successful everywhere they seek to shape the region. Yet faced with what they perceive to be threatening versions of political Islam surrounding them, unchecked Iranian power, and an American determination to leave the region, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have responded with a coherent policy to confront these challenges. By taking matters into their own hands — sometimes even in opposition to U.S. preferences — and coupling their financial resources with like-minded agents willing to use force and coercion, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been able to shape regional events.
Yet despite the massive amount of money the Saudis and Emiratis have spread around the region, their efforts have so far only resulted in further violence across the Middle East. In Egypt, money and political support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have given the generals in Cairo cover to engage in a wide-ranging crackdown on political dissent. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2,500 people were killed, 17,000 were injured, and 16,000 were jailed in Egypt between the July 2013 coup and last March. In Syria, disputes among Sunni Gulf nations over which groups to back have fueled incoherent leadership among the opposition and undermined attempts to depose Assad. The implicit support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for Israel’s invasion of Gaza has contributed to even more bloodletting.
These conflicts have less to do with Iran and the Sunni-Shiite divide than widely believed. Rather, they represent a fracturing of Washington’s Sunni allies in the Middle East. Left to their own devices, the proxy wars the Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris, and Turks are waging among themselves will continue to cause mayhem. After a month of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State and the potential for new military operations in Syria, this is clearly the lesson that the White House is learning.
It seems that by their own miscalculations and craven approach to regional problems, Washington’s allies have succeeded in doing what the Obama administration was determined not to allow — getting the United States sucked back into the Middle East. In the end, the United States is the indispensable nation after all.
Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.