The old Middle-Eastern order has collapsed. Like a glacier that has been undermined gradually by hidden trickles from within and then subjected to a final spring thaw, it has come crashing down. The ongoing Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 have unseated or threaten to unseat every Muslim government in the region. Swirling conflicts have replaced former arrangements, and, from afar, these conflicts look like a shapeless free-for-all. But beneath the chaos, patterns are forming among regional players who are working to come out on top once things settle down.
The new Middle East is being built on the rubble of the old dispensation, but it is vastly different from it. For generations, there was an “Arab World” stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Regardless of its internal rivalries and rifts, it shared a consensus about the identity of the region as Arab (and mostly Sunni Muslim) and tended toward autocratic and dynastic government. Non-Arab countries in the region, such as Turkey, Iran, and Israel, were deemed alien to this identity and for the most part were sidelined politically.
But in the nearly four years since the Arab uprisings, the non-Arab powers have been drawn deeper into regional power politics. The resulting realignment consists of five broad, cross-regional, and loosely ideological confederations. Each has a clear leader and is pursuing a new set of defined interests, often at the expense of the others. For Western observers, formerly useful distinctions are fast losing their analytical value in this remade universe. These are not explicit coalitions, with treaty arrangements and the like; they have come together strategically in pursuit of common interests and against common foes. If Western policymakers hope to engage the new Middle East, they must come to terms with these five coalitions and their significance in the region.
First is the Autocratic Sunni Coalition. Led by Saudi Arabia, the only large and solvent Arab state left standing after the Arab Spring, this coalition is the most important. Awash in oil wealth, it represents what remains of the formerly hegemonic Sunni-Arab consensus. Its members, besides Saudi Arabia, are Jordan and most of the Gulf principalities—all the Arab monarchies except Morocco, Qatar, and Oman.
The goal of this coalition is simple enough: to attain regional preeminence and stop the rise of Shiite Iran. Wherever there’s a power struggle in the Middle East, the coalition is there fighting it out. Where the struggle is mainly political, the coalition bankrolls sympathetic factions. These include the Sunni- and Christian-supported parties within the Lebanese government, the non-Hamas half of the Palestinian Authority run by Fatah, the new anti–Muslim Brotherhood government in Tunisia, and the tottering Yemeni government. The coalition is also warming up to the decrepit Algerian regime. And where politics has given way to armed struggle, the coalition pays and arms its affiliates, such as the non-jihadist rebels in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The coalition is preparing for similar circumstances in Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
The interests of this coalition were significantly advanced last year in Egypt, where a military coup ousted the antagonistic Muslim Brotherhood government and installed the friendly General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president. The coalition is also looking to strengthen ties with Pakistan, which it perceives as having the size and the nuclear arsenal to counter Iran’s rise.
Second is the Sunni-Populist Coalition. It is led by Turkey and funded by Qatar. It upholds a populist version of Islamism, largely spread via numerous organizations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. It has used Qatar’s fantastic fossil-fuel wealth to place a kind of bet that Sunni populations will vote for and support political Islam in any given election. This bet has paid off fairly well. At the dawn of the new Middle East, Brotherhood-inspired movements enjoyed majority or plurality support throughout the region and became players in the governments of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and (to a lesser degree) Morocco. In Syria, Brotherhood-inspired militias initially led the anti-Assad uprising.
In the past year, however, populist Islamism has been hit hard by a backlash because of its failed record of governance. The Brotherhood has been banished from politics in Egypt and Tunisia. And its strength in Yemen and Gaza has become more precarious. Although militias inspired by the Brotherhood are fighting in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, jihadists inspired by al-Qaeda are increasingly stealing their Islamist thunder. Next to groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Brotherhood brand looks dated and tame.
Next comes the Iranian-led Shia-Radical Coalition, which seeks Shia hegemony in the region. Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is Iran’s strongest ally in the coalition, which has been fitfully extending its power through the political rise of Shia groups in the Middle East. In Lebanon, both Hezbollah and Syrian proxies are formidable political and military forces. In post-Saddam Iraq, the Shia-majority government has gravitated toward Tehran. Rising Iranian influence is also evident in newly emboldened Shia groups in Yemen and Bahrain.
The coalition has a hard road ahead, because the so-called Shia Crescent it worked for decades to create—a swath of Shia power extending from the Indian Ocean through Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean—is facing new and profound challenges. The civil wars in Syria and Iraq have shrunk areas of Shia rule in those countries and put Iran’s allies on the defensive. The conflicts, moreover, are radicalizing Sunnis and galvanizing the most virulently anti-Shiite among them. Thus in Syria and Iraq, the coalition is confronted with vicious jihadist groups; in Lebanon, Hezbollah is now on the defensive against Sunni Islamist militias; and in Yemen, the local Shiite militias are increasingly under fire from Sunni al-Qaeda affiliates. Indeed, the persistent effort by the Iranians to downplay doctrinal differences with Sunnis by concentrating on the United States and Israel as common enemies has now foundered. Most regional conflicts are increasingly being fought over the Sunni–Shia divide.
Next comes the Sunni-Jihadist Coalition. Now led by the Iraq-based ISIS, this coalition encompasses an assortment of jihadist movements such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Boko Haram in North Africa, and Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra. Sometimes these groups cooperate with one another; frequently they clash. This coalition regards all innovations since approximately 759 C.E. as essentially blasphemous and thereby considers existing Sunni regimes illegitimate. It seeks to reestablish a Muslim caliphate, which would swallow the region and then the world.
With approximately 20,000 ISIS fighters and an estimated 20,000 more fighters in other organizations, the Sunni-Jihadists are by far the smallest coalition numerically, and until recently they were devoid of any serious political power. This coalition is, in some sense, a state of mind more than an alliance. Its clout rests first and foremost on the fanatical devotion and killing-machine tactics of its militants. Such beliefs and methods can make these forces more effective than bloated Arab armies 10 times their size. Since 2011, the exacerbation of sectarian conflict has given the jihadists a massive boost in popular support. The black hole of Syria and Iraq—largely the result of American retrenchment—provided a central operational hub for the world’s most violent jihadists. They soon spilled over into adjacent lands, beheading, crucifying, raping, and enslaving in the name of Islam. The Sunni-Jihadists eventually established a “caliphate” statelet in eastern Syria and western Iraq. This coalition and its grandiloquent claims now exert a powerful pull on the imagination of Sunni Arabs, who are turning in growing numbers toward the black banners of jihad.
Finally, there is the Coalition of the Nation States. Until recently, this was a coalition of one: Israel. The Jewish state was the only country in the Arab region not officially committed to the ideas of Pan-Arabism and the rejection of Western values. It upholds instead an ideal of national self-determination. For generations, only Israel’s military superiority and perpetual vigilance kept it from being crushed by its neighbors. But for this very reason it has become an example and a beacon of hope to others in the region who wish for democracy and self-determination. The Coalition of the Nation States is in some respects still a coalition in potentia, but the collapse of various powers has freed up some of the region’s oppressed groups to call for either partial autonomy or outright independence.
For some, such as the Berbers of North Africa, this is still a distant dream. But for at least one other people, the 30-million-strong Kurds, the realization of independence may be close at hand. Iraqi Kurdistan is already a functioning, semi-autonomous democracy, and in Syria similarly autonomous Kurdish regions are being established. The shared affinities and interests of the Israelis and the Kurds are rapidly shaping into an alliance. As early as 2006, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani announced that the Kurds, unlike the Arabs, hold no grievances toward the Jewish state. In March 2014, Zubeyir Aydar, the representative of the Kurdistan National Congress to Europe, stated that Israel “has the right to live on its own soil.” In June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared support for outright Kurdish independence. But the most significant development of this alliance went largely unreported, when, in the same month, a Kurdish oil tanker began unloading its cargo at the Israeli port of Ashkelon. The Kurds had long tried to sell oil and gas to raise funds independently of the Iraqi government. Baghdad had consistently threatened prospective buyers with prosecution and a ban on purchasing Iraqi oil. But Israel finally decided that relations with a disintegrating Iraq were not worth prohibiting private companies in Israel from purchasing Kurdish oil.
The Druze, a monotheistic ethno-religious community in southern Lebanon and Syria, are also contemplating statehood. Traditionally loyal citizens of the states in which they reside, the Druze realize that if Syria and Lebanon are torn apart by sectarian conflict, they will have to fend for themselves. Syrian Druze leaders, including their most prominent religious figure, Sheikh al-Aql Hamoud al-Hinawi, have been distancing themselves from both pro- and anti-Assad camps for some time while preparing for a rainy day by building up a self-defense militia, the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen; some have even been considering the resurrection of the Druze Mountain State, which existed from 1921 to 1936. The Druze have covertly sent out feelers to the natural ally for such a self-governed Druze region, its non-Muslim neighbor to the south: Israel.
The relationships among these five coalitions are intricate. The parties are not neatly divided into geographically distinct areas but scattered broadly across the region. The picture is further complicated by ad hoc tactical alliances among coalitions. For example, Israel and Saudi Arabia are jointly opposed to a nuclear Iran. The Assad regime had shared an interest with the jihadists in stopping Brotherhood-led rebels, but it is now contemplating an alliance with the Saudis or the Turks in order to face down ISIS’s ferocity. Finally, peripheral powers play a growing role. Ethiopia, for example, is perpetually entangled with Sudan and increasingly with Egypt, while Azerbaijan is managing tensions with Iran. Instead of a Cold War–style framework delineating two distinct camps with neutrals at the sidelines, the new Middle East looks more like 17th- and 18th-century Europe: a complex patchwork of rivalries, alliances, and conflicts amid ambiguously defined borders and sovereignties.
For Western countries, this means that policymakers must recognize several new realities. First, it is no longer useful to think of the Muslim Middle East in the immediate post-9/11 framework of “moderate” and “extremist.” Indeed, to use the term moderate coherently one must acknowledge that it applies only to the democratic nation states. The interests and goals of the other four coalitions are shaped by some shade of Islamism: The Shia Radicals seek the regional dominance of an extremist, nuclear-armed Iran while making use of mass murderers such as Bashar al-Assad and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah; the Sunni Populists support Islamist regimes that would impose extremist rule on their societies, from Hamas in Gaza to the Brotherhood-inspired armies fighting in Syria; the Sunni Autocrats harbor a deeply anti-democratic vision of society, where political opposition is crushed, women are subjugated, and Salafist Islam rules; and the Sunni Jihadists are bloodthirsty barbarians.
Second, Pan-Arabism is out and Islamist sectarianism is in. The four Muslim coalitions are defined far more by their differences than by their similarities. Conflicting Islamist visions are animating intra-Arab wars across the region.
Third, there is no way back to the old Middle East. None of the five coalitions really wants to restore the previous status quo: The Sunni Autocrats want a Sunni-dominated Syria, the Sunni Populists want a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt, the Shia Radicals want a Shia-dominated Iraq, the Israelis want a free Kurdistan, and the Sunni Jihadists want to rule them all.
Fourth, and last, stability has been replaced by fluidity. The traditional diplomatic goal of ensuring “stability” is a dead end when most of the region’s societies are in a state of actual or potential civil war. The path toward any future and beneficial stability, therefore, lies in identifying and supporting those who are potential long-term Western allies and in working to redraw the regional map in their favor.
Approaching the new Middle East without illusions doesn’t mean relinquishing constructive policy options. In fact, the current fluidity has opened up new possibilities. All coalitions are willing to cut at least temporary deals with those they consider secondary threats in order to defeat their immediate enemies. The Assad regime and ISIS have refrained from directly confronting each other while both have fought the non-jihadist rebel forces. And Turkey has tamped down its absolute opposition to Kurdish self-determination because it needs Kurdish support in facing more troublesome threats.
For Israel, the fratricidal hatred among the Muslim coalitions has dimmed the prospect of unified action against the Jewish state. This is seen most clearly in the example of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s recent military campaign in Gaza. Sunni-Autocratic Cairo proposed cease-fire terms far more favorable to Israel than to Sunni-Populist-supported Hamas. The other members of the Autocratic Sunni Coalition, including the Saudis and even the Palestinian Authority, essentially adopted the Egyptian position. The Shia-Radical Coalition offered vocal support for Hamas, but its encouragement rang especially hollow considering that the coalition was fighting Brotherhood-led militias—some including Hamas volunteers—inside Syria. The Sunni Jihadists barely bothered with verbal support for Hamas, as they consider rival Islamists their prime enemy. And the Sunni-Populist Coalition backed Hamas in the media and in diplomatic spheres, but the coalition’s weakness and lack of leverage over Israel rendered its efforts ineffective.
There is no question that dealing with the new Middle East will be arduous, but savvy policymakers can find pliability in places where before there was only intransigence.
Perhaps our biggest challenge is not a new Middle East in flux, but a new United States in paralysis. Under the Obama administration, America’s historic aspiration to shape events in the region has given way to confusion and drift. The United States’s willful retraction of influence has left its long-term allies baffled and exasperated. Not only is America’s special relationship with Israel in a state of public crisis, but its strategic partnership with Riyadh is fraying as well. In other words, Washington is jeopardizing both its sole values-based alliance and its chief pragmatic relationship in the Middle East.
It remains to be seen whether current American retrenchment is an expression of cyclical foreign-policy attitudes or the beginning of a longer phase of disengagement. If growing security threats draw the United States back into the Middle East—as seems to be the case regarding ISIS—policymakers will find strategic opportunities to advance American interests. Foremost among them will be strengthening the critical alliance with Israel, supporting the Kurds, and exploiting the weaknesses of the four other coalitions. But what has taken place in the absence of American influence is anything but stable, and negotiating the current terrain will require a brand-new map.