It is the countdown to the top diplomatic event of the year, and the UN General Assembly is now just around the corner. The apparently unending conflicts in the Middle East are set to take up a considerable space in the discussions that open in New York on 18 September.
However, according to political science professor Mohamed Kamal the debates over the Middle East this year are likely to be conducted with an acknowledgment of three facts that have not always been recognised fully by diplomats.
First, the Middle East is not one region; second, the US, at least with President Donald Trump in office, is becoming less interested in being the caretaker of the region; and third, with the long-established demise of pan-Arabism in the region, we see the emergence of sub-regional alliances and increased role for “Middle Powers” in the regional politics of the Middle East.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly following academic visits to the US, Japan, China and Saudi Arabia, Kamal argued that his analysis was inspired by the unmistakable dynamics of politics in the Middle East.
“It is very clear now that the world looks at this region as being made up of almost independent entities: the Gulf is perceived as an entity in and by itself, then there is Egypt, the Arab Mashreq and North Africa, and there are the three powers of Iran, Turkey and Israel,” he said.
He added that the view from the outside was not really so very different from the way the parties in the region perceive the situation. “It is very clear that there is an acknowledgment now that the region is not one, and that interests and priorities of regional powers do differ,” he argued.
For now, Kamal suggested, it would be up to emerging sub-regional alliances to handle top regional conflicts.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia And the UAE
One trilateral alliance that has since the late summer of 2013 been bringing together Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is defined by Kamal as a top player in four of the most-pressing regional conflicts: Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Palestinian cause.
According to Kamal, this highly influential alliance is an indication of an important departure from Egypt’s decades-long rhetoric about regional leadership.
“Egypt is now interested in solid coalitions, and it does not wish to single-handedly manage Arab conflicts. This was stated by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri who announced before a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee of parliament on 5 May 2016, that ‘Egypt is not seeking leadership, and we do not want to be a leader of anyone... We want to be partners in a way that preserves common interests.’ This is compatible with the norms of the region today,” Kamal argued.
He said that while the alliance that brings these three countries together has been essentially diplomatic, the military aspect also cannot be overlooked, especially in relation to the intervention in Yemen with an eye on the security of the Red Sea and especially the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait.
“It is true that Egypt was very strict in underlining that its participation in the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen was essentially naval and was designed to pursue the security of the Bab Al-Mandeb, but still it is significant that Egypt chose to take part along with its two top regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Kamal said.
On 26 March 2015, Saudi Arabia announced the launch of a military alliance with the participation of Egypt, the Gulf and the Arab, and Islamic countries to support Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi against rebel Houthi militias. In the same year, Egypt also joined the Islamic military alliance established by Riyadh to counter terrorism.
One year later, in February 2016, Egypt joined Saudi Arabia in a massive military exercise that included troops from 20 nations dubbed “North Thunder” and taking place in northeastern Saudi Arabia. In March 2018, the Egyptian Armed Forces participated in Gulf Shield-1 joint drills, also taking place in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, military cooperation has intensified between Cairo and Riyadh over the past few years. “At the bilateral level, military forces from both nations have participated in several joint exercises, involving the army, navy and air forces.
For example, the Egyptian Armed Forces also participated in the joint military exercises named Tabouk-3 in western Saudi Arabia.
The navy from both countries participated in the Morgan-14 and Morgan-15 exercises in the Red Sea in 2013 and 2015, and in 2017, the Egyptian and Saudi air forces participated in the Faisal-2017 exercises hosted by Egypt, marking the 11th edition of the joint air force training between the two countries,” he said.
There was also what he called the successful “limitation” of the role of Qatar in regional affairs in the wake of the trilateral diplomatic and economic moves of Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to confront Doha over its alleged involvement in rocking regional stability and supporting terrorist groups, Kamal said.
Kamal is not sure how far the military cooperation between Cairo and Riyadh could go or how far the trilateral cooperation of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE could develop in the future.
However, he says that this trilateral alliance still has much to do in the region, adding that this was realistic not just in view of the many unsettled conflicts that influence the strategic interests of these three countries and the stability of their parts of the Middle East, but also in view of the declining involvement of the US in the region.
“It is very clear that the US is not interested, or rather has not been interested for a while, in paying the price of ‘leadership’ in the Middle East. It is not immediately clear how this decline of interest could develop in the future, but for now there is a leadership vacuum in the Middle East and regional leaders are trying to fill this vacuum,” Kamal said.
He added that the countries of the trilateral alliance, and other Middle Powers such as Turkey and Iran are competing for influence in the region.
“It is safe to argue that this is the moment for the Middle Powers, especially when it comes to the situation in the Middle East,” he said.
Kamal suggested that for now “regional players and dynamics are much more important than international players in deciding developments in the region.” So, he said, while leaders of the Middle East would try to engage international players, their regional interactions remained essential.
No Proxy Wars
Given his argument that regional players have a much higher influence in the Middle East today than international ones, Kamal is convinced that the current conflicts in many parts of the region are not wars of proxy, but rather are direct stand-offs between regional powers.
“It is a regional game. I don’t think that the US would mind so much if Russia took Syria as a zone of influence. The continued war there is not about Russia and the US at all, but simply about Saudi Arabia and Iran, just as it is in Yemen and in other parts of the region,” he said.
This, Kamal argued, was perhaps the reason that made Egypt criticise the Turkish and Iranian involvement in Syria, and call for a joint Russian-American effort to resolve the crisis while backing the negotiations sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva.
Fearing the escalation of regional competition in Syria, Egypt has tried to accommodate regional and international views on resolving the conflict there by supporting the continuation of Bashar Al-Assad as a president of Syria at least for a transitional period, while at the same time seeking to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria to accommodate the views of Saudi Arabia.
The final power-sharing plan for Syria, Kamal acknowledged, would certainly have to also accommodate the other regional powers of Turkey and Israel.
“Turkey already has a strong role in Syria, and it wants more, which is unrealistic. Israel wants Iran completely out of Syria, which is unrealistic too. The mathematics of the deal are still being made, but I think the rules have been mostly settled except when it comes to the problematic issue of reconstruction that is going to be a very tough challenge for everyone,” he said.
In any scenario for the future of Syria, Yemen, Iraq or even Libya in the middle of North Africa, Kamal anticipates the close coordination of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As far as Iran is concerned, Kamal argues that it would be difficult to ignore Iran or to fully isolate it, even with the upcoming re-introduction of US sanctions in November, he said, as “Iran is still a strong regional player.”
Egypt also supported the Russian initiative to establish de-escalation zones in Syria, and on 31 July 2017 it hosted negotiations between representatives of the Russian Defence Ministry and the moderate Syrian opposition.
An agreement related to a third de-escalation zone in Syria north of the city of Homs was reached at the Cairo meeting.
Egypt also attended the second round of the Astana talks on Syria, sponsored by Russia, on 23 January 2017 and brokered a ceasefire agreement on Eastern Ghouta between the Al-Ghad opposition movement and the Syrian government.
The signing of the agreement came after three days of negotiations in the presence of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian government, and the Russian Defence Ministry.
The Palestinian Issue
Israel would also continue to be heavily involved in the management of regional issues, Kamal said. “This is the reality — announced or unannounced, Israel is there,” he said.
Unlike some other analysts who have been giving a lot of attention to the behind-the-curtains cooperation that some leading Arab capitals have been having with Israel, Kamal thinks that this cooperation cannot be expected to take a very serious turn in the absence of a peace process, if not a peace deal, between the Palestinians and Israel.
“There is so much that has been eliminated from the once-collective Arab discourse, but I think that it would be very difficult to expect that Israel could be getting into announced alliances, even with its already established peace partners, before something is done on the Palestinian front. This issue is still essential,” he said.
Kamal also does not have high expectations of the promised “deal of the century” that Trump has been promising for the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
“We know that Trump is convinced that he can do something that his predecessors have failed to bring about, and we know that the White House is preoccupied with this issue. But where that would lead to, we really don’t know,” he said.
“There is, of course, some exchange of views, visits of delegations, and so on. But this is one thing. To expect that Trump would be really offering a deal that could lead to a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel is quite another,” he argued.
Clearly, he added, the endgame of this promised deal is not necessarily about the Palestinian Cause as much as it is about the wishes of the US to give priority to the issue of Iran by pacifying the Palestinian issue first.
According to Kamal, the commom views between Israel and the many Arab countries on the threat of Iran and the war on terrorism might open an opportunity for an Arab-Israeli peace deal.
Kamal expects the beginning of a negotiation process on the Palestinian question. But this will not necessarily produce a deal. However, this process might allow Israel to come into the open about its new regional relations.
Kamal is also not expecting Political Islam to leave the equation of Middle East politics.
“There are two factors here that cannot be denied: the first is that the Political Islam movements have mainly failed and lost their appeal to the public at large; the second is that in the market of ideas, the idea of Political Islam is still there,” he argued.
The space that Political Islam now has in the Middle East after the unsuccessful attempts of some of its groups to rule in the wake of the Arab Spring is diminishing, according to Kamal.
However, he argued that representatives of the ideas of Political Islam still exist in places like Syria, and Libya. Kamal also argued that the war of ideas between radical and moderate Islam will continue to be at the core of the war on terrorism.
Kamal is also unwilling to associate the decline of Political Islam with the declining options of the Recep Tayyip Erdogan regime in Turkey, even though this was once perceived as a successful model of moderate Political Islam.
“There is a demise of the so called Turkish model. The Turks were tested in the wake of the demonstrations in 2011, and their performance was assessed by the public. There is no one narrative to take from all the experiences, but overall its role was not appreciated,” Kamal argued.
The current crisis in Turkey is multi-dimensional, he said, and started before the US imposed sanctions on Turkey. According to Kamal, Erdogan could have better managed the disagreements with the US over the arrest of an American priest by Ankara, he said.
“But instead of playing politics, Erdogan decided to get stubborn. Trump also acted very stubborn, and Turkey is now in a big crisis,” he said.
In such a tough situation, Erdogan is willing to play all his cards to the maximum.
“We don’t know yet where that could lead in Syria or Iraq or elsewhere. But we do know one thing — that this is perhaps an unprecedented crisis inside Turkey, and between the US and its NATO ally in the Middle East. It is hard to predict what will be the way out of this situation,” he argued.
Whatever happens between the US and Turkey, or for that matter between the US and Iran or between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Middle East is surely in a state of flux and probably a protracted crisis, Kamal argued.
This, he said, will certainly be reflected in the political debates at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The age of the ‘Middle Powers’