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Is America up to the challenge of changing Middle Eastern alliances?

Is America up to the challenge of changing Middle Eastern alliances?
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While America has been distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic and recent unrest over racial divisions, emerging alliances are reshaping the Islamic world throughout the Middle East that could affect U.S. interests for years to come. Too many view the Muslim world only through the lens of Sunni v. Shiite, or Israeli v. Palestinian, and the developing alignments require the United States to continually analyze the region and look for opportunities to advance our interests, as our adversaries look for American weakness to advance theirs. 

According to Middle East expert Jonathan Spyer, one new alliance of “three significant Muslim countries — Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia — is a reflection of a shift in power in the Islamic world away from its traditional Arab center.” This is a triad that may be off the U.S. radar and whose potential importance is not appreciated in Washington. 

With the help of gas-rich Qatar, these nations see themselves as the growing epicenter of political Islamism (Muslim Brotherhood), eclipsing conservative Gulf monarchies. Add the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, to the side of political Islam and you have a very formidable coalition representing hundreds of millions of people under a banner that wants to change the Middle East and challenge American allies. Some of the alliances, such as that of Turkey and Qatar, are not new but received a new impetus in 2017 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) tried to isolate Qatar for its close association with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the continuous undermining of the legitimacy of their monarchies by the Qatari-owned and -controlled Al-Jazeera media empire. 

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Another example of shifting alliances is playing out in Libya, where a proxy war has brought together all of the regional players. On one side is Gen. Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, who is backed by Russia, Egypt, the Gulf States, France, Sudan, Jordan and Greece, representing an alignment based on shared interests in the region. Haftar is anti-Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), making him a natural ally of Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. On the other side of the conflict are Turkey and Qatar, supporters of political Islam (Muslim Brotherhood), who back the United Nations-recognized national government based in Tripoli. Turkey considers this war a strategic priority, believing that if Haftar and his allies prevail, Turkey’s Mediterranean maritime interests would be endangered.  

Whereas Syria was the brutal playground of the Middle East from 2012 to 2019 — with Russia, Iran, Salafists, Hezbollah, Gulf States and Turkey all trying to exert influence — Libya returns some of the same players, but, as always in the shifting Middle East, sometimes on different teams. Russia and Turkey are rivals in Syria and Libya, but their shared interest in weakening the United States has for the time being made them more allies than enemies. The relationship reached its apex with the Turkish acquisition of Russia’s most advanced S-400 surface-to-air anti-missile system, moving Turkey from a historical enemy of Russia to a strong military ally. Russia also would like to sell its stealth Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jet to Turkey, now that the U.S. and NATO have ended Turkey’s participation in the F-35 stealth fighter program. This would be another Middle East game-changer, putting a nail in the coffin of Turkey as a linchpin of NATO. 

Another example of a shifting relationship with important implications is India’s closer ties with Israel, pushing Iran towards Pakistan, India’s regional rival. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan has been strained for years; America has grown closer to India, while accusing Pakistan of looking the other way as terrorists operate on its soil. On one hand, America must strengthen its relationship with India, the most populous nation on earth and the world’s largest democracy. On the other hand, delicately reestablishing a relationship with Pakistan sees America’s choice as binary — you are with us or you are against us. Adding to the levels of complex alignments are aspiring hegemons such as Turkey and Iran, who ally against India but conflict in Syria, while Iranian militias use Pakistani-Shiites in Syria and Iraq as cannon fodder. 

What to do and not to do?

American policy under Presidents Obama and Trump, as well as a large part of Congress, has been guided by a desire to withdraw from the Middle East, because American interests have not been advanced and we received little appreciation from most regional players for our efforts. This is a short-sighted strategy. Isolation is not the lesson to learn from these mistakes. America has fundamental interests in remaining engaged in the region, and the new alignments need to be seen as possible opportunities. The goal is pragmatic: to manage relationships and not have the hubris of believing we can solve conflicts in the Middle East.

No matter who wins the White House this November, America will need to invest both diplomatically and economically in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a precarious security situation throughout the Middle East, and American adversaries from China to Russia to Iran are looking to forge new alliances and take advantage of any U.S. distraction. This is not a time for retreat, but a time to stand with our regional friends, while looking for opportunities to create our own new relationships. 

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides on the geo-politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.