Consider the map and consider the players. Try to gather data and contradictory political statements and to keep track of political moves. Do not forget chronology. Try to define each player’s interests and the strategies he might adopt. You will need to assess economic and financial resources and willpower. Try to figure out other players’ reactions, reactions to the reactions, and the development of the perceptions of each.
Then write a memo considering many scenarios, but not too many, and providing some advise to a leader of a country with limited resources. Concentrate on one or two issues, but do not forget the rest, and keep yourself informed of how the broader picture develops. Be sure you properly understand your own country’s policies and abilities.
You do not have much time, and you only have limited resources. A lot of data is available on the Internet, but much of it costs money, and money is scarce. What is available is contradictory. What you find can be both illuminating and misleading. You have to guess or to learn how to construe the data and each analyst’s sources and biases.
Access to diplomats and security officials from many countries, or to the middle-ranking staff of militias, is difficult at best. You can never be sure if a player who launches a move foresaw its expected (the one you expected) outcome. Understanding the political culture of a country is no guarantee: it is necessary, but not sufficient, for understanding each player, though each has his own idiosyncrasies. In most cases, and in ordinary times, being an old hand who has met the relevant players many times and monitored the same countries for years is an asset. However, sometimes previous experience can blind you, as you may fail to understand how radically new the situation is.
The job of a foreign policy expert or diplomat is incredibly difficult even when things are “normal”. At difficult times, things get much worse. You have to do more homework, and you have to be both flexible and humble. You have to accept the fact that you are going to make mistakes.
Consider the Mashreq, meaning the east of the Arab world, the Gulf, the Red Sea, Libya, the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia as main playing fields. None of these is quiet. None is following well-established patterns. Consider the players. First, there is Iran, a tough player with considerable expertise that has clear policies, competent staff and willpower. It has mastered the art of managing a hostile neighbourhood, as well as international hostility, and it knows how to win asymmetrical wars. It knows when waiting is appropriate and when striking is opportune. It has influence in four Arab countries, though its financial resources and its regime’s stability may be problematic.
It has to think about its relations with Russia, as things could go in either of two ways: the two countries could remain close allies, or they could become mortal foes. Second, there is Israel, which is competent, strong-willed and accustomed to dealing with a hostile neighbourhood. However, it has yet to decide how to deal with the demographic bomb of its Palestinian population and the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
Some Western colleagues have recently said that Israeli leaders have been hesitating and having second thoughts: isolationism, an alliance with the conservative Sunni Arab countries, or a grand bargain with Iran were three different possible strategies. On paper, the last option is attractive, but it would mean one of the two countries having to accept the other’s view on the nuclear issue, and this is very far from being the case. It also assumes the US no longer has a say, or is no longer interested in the region, and we are not there yet either.
Third, there is the Sunni Arab alliance consisting of a conservative coalition of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. The first two face tough challenges and a difficult transition. One has financial influence and the other a powerful army, but despite a close strategic relationship the two often disagree. Egypt has problems in Sinai, Libya and Africa, and this limits what it can do in the Mashreq and the Gulf. Despite some improvements, its financial situation is a serious concern.
The Saudis have their own problems, and Riyadh seems to think patience is no longer an option. Nevertheless, with such huge stakes at play, gambling should not be an option either. Many commentators in Western capitals think this set of players is no longer relevant, except on the Libya issue. This is probably a miscalculation, but it affects their room for manoeuvre. The positive side is that this coalition seems solid enough, despite occasional tensions between one member and the others.
There is also the Islamist axis consisting of Turkey, Qatar and maybe also Sudan and Hamas, although the latter two play a complicated game due to their poor condition. Turkey is a key actor and an unpredictable one. Its blend of nationalism and Islamism is especially aggressive, and Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan has been bullying everyone. Defining Turkey’s national interests seems to be terribly difficult. It could focus on ending the Kurds’ ambitions, but Erdogan seems to be sticking to a broader agenda.
A year ago, it seemed that this axis was trying to draw a distinction between Egypt, which it could criticise, and the Gulf monarchies, which had to be placated. This distinction may still be valid, but it is clear that Turkey’s decision to side with Qatar has lastingly compromised its relations with the other Gulf countries. Relations with Iran are another delicate topic. Qatar has moved closer to Iran, but Ankara and Tehran are potentially on a collision course in the Mashreq. The decision by US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel may push Hamas closer to Iran.
Then you have the jihadists, both local and international, and the large number of militias that have different relations with the regional powerhouses. There is a kind of competition between the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaeda, and the latter is growing more political.
The relations between the two are developing, and their relations with both the Islamist axis and Iran oscillate between antagonism, cooperation and being a stooge. The non-jihadist/non-Shia militias often shift alliances and engage in paralegal and even criminal economic activities. Finally, yet still importantly, there are the multiple Kurdish factions, each one having its own networks, strategies and calculations. This list of the regional players is illuminating but not exhaustive. Moreover, at least two great powers have troops on the ground in the region, and others, including China, have been showing interest.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly