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Shaking Up Alignments in the Middle East

Recent moves by Turkey and Saudi Arabia have the potential to shake up regional alignments in the Middle East.

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Some recent policy decisions by Middle Eastern governments have the potential to shake up regional alignments, or what are widely perceived to be alignments. In the near term this will have little to do with the Iran nuclear agreement, despite the attention the agreement is getting at the moment. That accord will not lead to realignments as great as its opponents fear, and its larger impact on regional diplomacy will be gradual and only slightly apparent in the near term.

The agreement by the Turkish government to cooperate more actively than previously with the United States in combating the so-called Islamic State or ISIS in northern Syria represents a more immediate shaking up. The recent suicide bombing by an ISIS member that killed 32 victims in a Turkish town is one of the immediate precipitants of the Turkish decision, but the thinking behind the decision is more complicated than that. President Erdogan seems at least as interested in ensuring that Kurdish rebels do not establish themselves in the patch of land that is the focus of the U.S.-Turkish agreement as that ISIS not establish itself there. These priorities are demonstrated by Turkish military operations since the agreement was announced, which have included strikes against Kurdish targets as well as ISIS ones. To the extent that the newest twist in Turkish policy involves a partial lessening of what has been another Turkish priority, which is the toppling of Bashar Assad, the twist represents a reversal of sorts. But Erdogan’s determination in recent times to shove out Assad is itself a reversal of what had been years of cordial relations between Turkey and the Assad regime.

Domestic politics have much to do with the Turkish gyrations. The failure of Erdogan’s AK party to win a parliamentary majority in recent elections—due mainly to the success of a liberal Kurdish-dominated party—is directly related to the latest twist in Turkish policy toward the Kurds. AK is looking for support in forming a governing coalition from a nationalist party opposed to political openings to the Kurds. Thus Erdogan has effectively closed his own earlier opening—another reversal of a reversal.

Domestic political change is also involved in recent policy revisions by another major regional state—Saudi Arabia—that are likely to have even greater consequences for regional alignments. The assumption of the Saudi throne by King Salman and the accretion of power by his young son have been associated especially with a more aggressive stance in the neighborhood, especially prosecution of the war in Yemen. But another significant change since the transition from Abdullah to Salman has been a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, after years of strong Saudi opposition to the Brotherhood. The Saudis recently received a visit from Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, although they sought to downplay the significance of it. The improvement of relations with Hamas was made possible partly by the estrangement between Hamas and the Assad regime in Syria. The conventional wisdom about the Saudi overture to Hamas is that this is part of an effort to displace Iranian influence and to bolster Sunni unity with regard to conflicts such as the one in Yemen.

The conventional wisdom may be largely correct with regard to Saudi objectives, but the further consequences may not be what the Saudis intend. A softened posture toward the Brotherhood and a partnership with Hamas puts the Saudis on a possible collision course with both the Egypt of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel, for whom bashing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas have been dominant features of their respective policies. Confrontations are likely to arise that will expose the fragility and artificiality of what is commonly described as an “alliance” between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the supposed convergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel with respect to Iran. Saudi Arabia and al-Sisi’s Egypt have almost nothing in common beyond being Sunni and Arab, and Saudi Arabia and Israel have nothing in common besides being states defined largely in terms of a specific (but different in each case) religion. The next major armed conflict in the Gaza Strip—and barring a major change in Israeli policy, this is a matter of when rather than if—would be the sort of confrontation that would lay these realities bare.

Looking beyond the immediate ripple effects of current diplomatic doings and thinking about farther-reaching ripples, it is not at all crazy to suggest, as Leon Hadar has, that Israel’s best long-term interests lie in the direction of developing (or rather, recalling the days of the shah, redeveloping) a partnership with Iran. For the time being the invective and enmity that flow in both directions of that relationship make such a development seem out of reach, but the geopolitical considerations that argue for it are still there. The same can be said of Israel’s relations with Turkey, the other major non-Arab power in the region.

The chief implication for U.S. policy is to be aware of how fragile and ephemeral putative alliances and alignments in this region can be, to realize that domestic political changes far short of revolution or regime change can have major effects on those alignments, and to be nimble and to avoid getting wedded to what is fragile and ephemeral.

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