Middle East's Tangled Web Of Interests Complicates Regional Solutions

The tangled web of interests of the Middle East's main powers is complicating the search for solutions to the region's two most immediate political risks, namely the crisis in Egypt, and the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Most notably, the US finds itself relatively powerless to shape events. Washington has criticised the violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military, and has cancelled exercises with the latter, but remains reluctant to cut off US$1.5bn in military aid to Cairo. A major problem for US policy towards Egypt is that it is distrusted by both sides of the political divide. Supporters of the military-dominated interim government feel that the US backed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and favoured its continuation in office. However, many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood see Washington as having backed the Egyptian military's popular removal of former president Mohamed Morsi. In any case, even if the US were to cut off aid to Egypt, Cairo can still rely on the financial largesse of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

For its part, Saudi Arabia openly backs the Egyptian military and its crackdown on the Brotherhood, since the Kingdom fears the ascent of political Islam. And yet, Saudi Arabia is supporting Sunni Islamist insurgents in Syria, who are fighting to overthrow a military-dominated secular nationalist regime in Damascus. The reason for Riyadh's position is that Syria's Assad regime hails from a Shi'a sect and is strongly backed by Iran, which is the main regional rival of Saudi Arabia. This quasi-cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia also reflects a broader Shi'a-Sunni struggle in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Turkey, which is broadly aligned with Saudi Arabia on Syria, has condemned the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Admittedly, Ankara can hardly be comfortable with the Egyptian military's crackdown on an Islamist party, due to Turkey's own secular-Islamist schisms. There are parallels between the rise of Turkey's Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Both came to power in countries traditionally dominated by secular establishments in which the armed forces saw themselves as the guarantors of the secular state. Turkey has made much more progress than Egypt in reining in the power of the military, but this has taken 10 years. In light of recent mass demonstrations against the AKP in Turkey itself, and widespread feelings amongst Turks that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed moved too far along the path of Islamisation (criticisms also made against Morsi), Ankara will surely have been rattled by seeing an elected Islamist government ousted by a popular uprising and the army.

Iran, too, is uncomfortable with recent events. Tehran hailed the overthrow of long-time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 as an 'Islamic Awakening', and under Morsi's presidency, the two countries initially moved to improve relations. Arguably, the weakening of a US ally, Egypt, strengthened Iran's position in the region – notwithstanding the fact that a more dynamic Egypt could emerge as a regional rival to Iran over the longer term. But now that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is being rolled back, the influence of Saudi Arabia – Iran's main regional rival – is on the rise in Cairo. Iran has also condemned the crackdown in Egypt. And yet, this is utterly hypocritical, given that Tehran cracked down violently on street protests following the disputed presidential election in 2009.

With Egypt dominating Middle Eastern headlines, attention has momentarily turned away from Syria. Yet, the war goes on, with more than 100,000 people apparently having been killed there. Although some observers have pointed out that the Egyptian crackdown resembles the early days of Syria's uprising, we do not expect Egypt to descend into civil war. This is mainly because Egypt is less fragmented along ethnic lines than Syria. Even so, the power struggle in Egypt (which could entail acts of terrorism by radical Islamist groups) is likely to weaken the polity, and could distract regional powers from working towards a political situation in Syria.

So far, I have not even mentioned countries at risk of spill-over, such as Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. These will all merit close attention in the near term, and probably beyond.

Finally, Russia has key interests in the Middle East. Moscow appears to be cautiously aligning with the military-dominated Egyptian government against the Muslim Brotherhood. The Kremlin is also steadfast in its support for Syria's Assad, who is its last remaining ally in the region. For Russia, it is preferable if Islamist fighters wage war in Syria, rather than join the insurgency in the North Caucasus, which is less than 1,000km away.

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