Analysis - Political Transformations

Do undeveloped Interests Drive Widening Disagreements among Allies in the Middle East?

Wednesday، August 30، 2017
Do undeveloped Interests Drive Widening Disagreements among Allies in the Middle East?

In the Middle East, increasing divergence and regression now dominate relations between allies. These allies are either  political parties and militias involved in domestic conflicts, partners in ruling coalitions involved in relations with neighboring countries, or regional and international powers involved in expanding regional conflicts or suffering from strained bilateral relations. One explanation of these various domestic and extraterritorial situations is that the interests of the allies are compromised. 

That is, it is no longer possible to keep disagreements as behind-closed-doors secrets after they evolved to wars of words and actions on the ground by the allied rebel groups in Yemen, for instance, where this impacts the upward trajectory of the conflict. Moreover, it is possible to manage, only temporarily, existing disagreements between Iran and Russia over the fate of Bashar al-Assad, the future of Shiite militias, Russia’s strategic relations with Israel as well as Iran’s designs for an overland corridor to the Mediterranean via Syria. 

The various patterns of these existing disagreements can be summarized as follows: 

1- Disagreement between internal powers inside states. A good instance is Yemen. The current rift between the allies of yesterday i.e. forces loyal to the now-ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the rebel Houthi group, represents a shift from their close ties that lasted for the past three years since the Houthi militants, backed by Saleh forces, rebelled against the legitimate government and together seized power in the capital Sanaa on September 21, 2014. Mediation efforts by tribal leader Naji al-Shayef failed to keep secret the disagreement (between Ali Abdullah Saleh and the chief of the so-called Supreme Political Council Saleh Ali al-Samad, of the Houthi group).

Tug of War of Accusations

Ali Abdullah Saleh made a public appearance in a mass rally of his supporters on August 24, 2017. Surrounded by fighters wearing military uniforms, the former president vowed to send hundreds of thousands of fighters to various fronts and questioned the combat capabilities of the Houthis. The Houthi group announced a state of emergency and suspended all partisan activity and rallies in public squares. However, Saleh supporters did not comply and amassed in Sanaa to mark the 35th anniversary of the establishment of the General People's Congress (GPC). The Houthi group described Saleh supporters’ rally as a betrayal of their internal alliance and a support for what they called the foreign alliance.

Nonetheless, the rift between Saleh and the Houthis is nothing new. Aref al-Zouka, the Secretary-General of the GPC, in a speech published by the party’s news website on August 21, said that the disagreement with the Houthis was sparked by their refusal to allow the House of Representatives to hold a session to accept the resignation of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi which he submitted on January 22, 2015 and then withdrew it because of their rejection. Al-Zouka added that the disagreement, he added, further widened because the Houthis put pressure on their ally Ali Abdullah Saleh and forced him to deploy 40,000 fighters, but has so far offered only 3000 whom the Houthis refused to let them join the fronts, and even blocked the appointment of a commander for the Yemeni Republican Guard, a force loyal to Saleh. 

According to Saleh Ali al-Samad member of the political bureau and head of the supreme supervisory committee of the Houthi movement, told the media on August 23, 2017, that the disagreement is long-standing and the fact that it has surfaced now is a natural result of existing tensions between the political components. 

The Assad Problem

2- Disagreement between ruling coalition partners with neighboring counties. A good instance is the rift between the Future Movement, on the one hand, and the Amal Movement and Hezbollah on the other, over opening up to the Assad regime in Syria. Some defend the establishment of a new relationship with the Syrian regime to address cross-border security threats, as well as the consequences of the refugee crisis. The rift prompted President Michel Aoun to appoint Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the General Directorate of General Security, as presidential envoy to Damascus. 

Contrasting Goals

3- Disagreement between regional and international powers over regional conflicts. Disharmony between Moscow and Tehran surfaced at different times, especially after the liberation of Aleppo City in December 2016, Ankara and Moscow reached a ceasefire agreement for the city without any consideration for the calculations of the Assad regime and Tehran.

Through its presence in Syria, Iran seeks to entrench its regional influence and control an overland corridor through Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Russia, however, seeks to use its presence in Syria to establish itself a rival of the United States, where it uses the country as a central base on the Mediterranean. Regarding the future of Assad, Iran often ensured to emphasize that it does not share the same position with Russia.

It should be noted that in statements carried by Mehr News Agency in 2015, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Mohammad Ali Jafari  said that his country does not see an alternative to Assad who is a red line that should not be crossed. For Russia, however, Bashar al-Assad himself is only a  means and not an end, a view that represents the fundamental reason of the breakup between the two states. That is, although Assad’s survival serves it, Russia does not mind negotiating on his future to secure other alternatives. In 2015, RIA news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying: “We are not saying that Assad should leave or stay.”

Bilateral Tensions

4- Disagreement between regional and international powers driven by bilateral tensions. This is reflected by the reality of the US-Egypt relations after the US decided, on August 22, to withhold aid to Egypt over human rights concerns. The Egyptian foreign ministry, in a statement, described Washington’s decision to cut $100m and delay another $200m in military and economic aid as a “misjudgment of the nature of the strategic relations” between the two allies. The statement also warned that the decision also implies a mixing of cards that may have negative repercussions on achieving Egyptian-American common interests.

The United States’ decision to deny Egypt millions of dollars in aid came after rapprochement was achieved between Cairo and Washington since US President Donald Trump took office, especially after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Trump in Washington earlier this year. During the meeting, Trump said, “I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”

Factors that  explain the increasing disagreement between allies in this region can be summarized as follows: 

Conflicts over Hegemony 

1- Power struggle between central parties within states. These indicate fragile tactical alliances, including a coalition of convenience between the “enemies of yesterday” in Yemen. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh described the Houthis as a militia, and said that he was ready to withdraw from the rebellion if they seek to take power for themselves. Fighters from the Houthi group decried Saleh as "evil". The Houthi group’s “Popular Committees”, in an August 23, 2017 statement, condemned Saleh’s description of them as a militia and decried him as a back-stabber  and  traitor. 

This public dissension reveals a struggle between the ex-president and the Houthis over control of the ministry of defense, especially after Major General Abdullah Yahya al-Hakim was appointed as chief of the military intelligence agency- as well as funds of government institutions in the capital Sanaa. Saleh accused the Houthis of manipulating funds of the central bank and stopping payment of salaries to government employees for months. Moreover, the two sides blame each other for the worsening humanitarian crisis across the country. The situation pushed members of the General People's Congress to take to streets and social media to demand payment of salaries because they were hungry. 

On August 23, 2017, the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid revealed that 65 ships, 124 aid convoys, 628 trucks, 5,500 food baskets and 6,000 wheat bags were either confiscated or stolen by the Houthi militias. It also highlighted that the Houthi militants attacked UN-affiliated organizations and other aid groups in six Yemeni cities (Sanaa, Hajjah, Taiz, Hodeida, Ibb and Aden), carried out killings and kidnappings and shutting down and looting property. 

Another reason for the rift is the ex-president’s attempt to recover his lost leadership and put pressure on the legitimate government by showing that what remains of the Yemeni national army is loyal to him. His aim is to strengthen his position in any future negotiations in favor of his party or his son Ahmed, a former commander of the Republican Guard. 

2- Contrasting views of armed regional conflicts. The thinly veiled disagreement between Moscow and Tehran breaks into the open sometimes, albeit under the umbrella of their alliance over the Syrian crisis, due to their different priorities. At first glance, Moscow and Tehran seem to have the same views on the crisis in Syria, especially because of Russia’s air support and Iran’s ground support (mainly through Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting) to their common ally Bashar Assad. However, Iran and Russia support Assad for different reasons. While Russia says it is in favor of a political solution to the crisis, Iran prefers a military settlement. 

Through its intervention in the internal conflict in Syria, Russia seeks to strengthen the remnants of state institutions, and the regular army in particular, to safeguard its own strategic and economic interests. Iran seeks to weaken and dismantle the Syrian state to empower its sectarian militias to take over and change the social fabric. This attempt is evidenced in areas liberated from ISIS and armed opposition factions where a rift emerges about concluding truces to contain areas that are still under siege. 

The Russians and the Iranians differ also about a political settlement for the crisis in Syria. Moscow supports the goal of combating cross-border terrorism and imposing a solution that guarantees a stability that would support the solution, even if it means changing the structure of al- Assad regime and deposing its key figures. Tehran aims to maintain the status quo and strengthen the presence of these key figures in any transition. 

In the West, there are views that Russia pursues barter diplomacy to lift the economic sanctions and get a recognition of its territorial claims in Crimea and maintain diplomatic influence in what Moscow calls “states in close vicinity” i.e. to continue the influence it had in the former Soviet Union for four decades. Another point of disagreement is that Moscow tends to separate between extremist and moderate armed factions while Tehran indiscriminately consider them as terrorist groups. 

Moreover, Moscow rejects a continued military role for Hezbollah in Syria as well as its continued connections to militias loyal to Iran. While Tehran seeks to expand in the region to counter the influence of other regional powers, Moscow is working towards establishing dominance through managing the interests of various regional and international powers. This means that Russia would not mind a key role for Washington in a settlement, address Israel’s concerns, and that President Vladimir Putin would understand Turkish armed forces’ incursion into northern Syria and work to enhance agreement with Ankara to guarantee ceasefire or support a role for Egypt in agreements about de-escalation zones. 

3- Rapprochement between an ally and a rival of the other ally. Israel is closely following cooperation between Russia and Iran, with the government voicing obvious concerns about Iran’s attempt to further expand in Syria and Moscow’s failure to respond. Moreover, Israel demands the ceasefire agreement for southern Syria be changed to ensure the withdrawal of Iranian troops and its Shiite militias from Syria and not only keeping them 20 kilometers away from the Israeli border. That is why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia on August 23 to send a message to Moscow that it should curb Iran’s expansion to Syria-Israel border.

Dual Positions

4- Contrasting views of state institutions on allies. The United States’ recent decision to delay $195 million in military aid to Egypt. According to the Department of State, the US is waiting to “see progress from Egypt on key priorities.” The sudden confusion in the US-Egypt relations is attributed to the contrasting views of the White House and the Department of State, on the one hand, and Congress on the other, about relations with allied and partner states in the Middle East. The approach is not confined to Egypt, but also includes partners in the Gulf and even East Asia.

Varying Consequences

The increasing disagreement between allies in the Middle East will impose varying implications, depending on the nature and scope of disagreements as well as the possibility of escalation. Continued disagreement can deepen internal armed conflicts. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh waged six wars against the Houthis in Saada and Hodeida between 2004 and 2009, and entered into alliances with their rivals, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the salafist jihadists. The bloody history between Saleh and the Houthis indicate that shared interests led the two sides to collaborate in plotting the coup against the Yemeni legitimate government that is backed by the constitution. 

That a large number of Yemenis staged demonstrated not to support of Saleh but to protest against the Houthis can pave the way to new agreements and changes in political interactions in Yemen. When United Nations’ Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed proposed a humanitarian initiative to hand over control of the port of Hodeida and Sanaa Airport to a third party and put them under international oversight, Saleh showed flexibility, which indicates he accepts political dialogue. The development coincided with decisive victories on the northern fronts, and around Sanaa in particular, while the Houthi-Saleh forces failed to advance in the south, and severe humanitarian crisis. Overall, the outcome triggered internal political movement. 

Mutual Concessions

Disagreement between Moscow and Tehran cannot escalate to complete separation because of their shared interests and common grounds. Without Russia, Iran cannot achieve victory in Syria. Russia needs Iran to ensure that agreements concluded by Russia in Syria would not be undermined. Moreover, Russia lacks regional and international alternative allies, which means the two sides are likely to make mutual concessions to reach agreement. 

There are views that US aid to Egypt impacts bilateral relations between the two countries and enhances Egypt’s role in the peace process, reduces the possibilities of solving the Qatar crisis, and even strengthens the impression that Washington’s regional partners cannot rely on it in shouldering the burdens of stabilizing the region. 

That said, it can possibly be concluded that disagreements and divergences between rivals in the region spilled over to also involve allies and friends. Convergences of necessity with third parties, fragile alliances between powers involved in conflicts, including political parties, militias, complicated internal armed conflicts, the impact of regional crises, pressure put by parties lobbying for foreign interests, all can possibly change potential trajectories in the Middle East, which is likely to increase the complications of regional instability in the coming period.

Keywords: Iranmiddle eastSyriaMilitiasQataralliesConflicts