Machiavellian Middle East: Shifting Alliances

By Reza Majd, on 23 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

 Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

 The recent proxy wars and geopolitical games the two biggest Middle Eastern powers have been engaging in have involved shifting alliances, as states seek to bandwagon with the two regional powers. Egypt is a case in point. Egypt was a firm enemy of Iran under Mubarak, yet this changed under the Muslim Brotherhood and Muhammed Morsi seemed to open up to Iran. The overthrow of Morsi and the instalment of Al Sisi, and the bankrolling of Egypt by Saudi Arabia seemed to return Egypt into the Saudi fold, yet tensions between Egypt and Saudi brought Iran and Egypt close again, with Iran even lobbying for Egypt to get a place at the Syrian peace talks. Then only a year later, Egypt was back in Saudi’s corner, backing its Sunni ally in its hostile stance with Iran. Iran also lost long-time ally Sudan over their Saudi feud, after Iran’s takeover of the Saudi embassy, Sudan cut ties with its former patron.

There is of course the case of Qatar, which was long hostile towards Iran, and along with Saudi Arabia, helped arm Syrian rebels, including terrorists to fight against the Iranian ally Bashar Al Assad, hoping Assad’s fall would weaken Iran. Yet, in 2017 there was a diplomatic spat between Saudi and Qatar due in a large part to the latter’s relations with Iran, and Saudi Arabia led a blockade of its former ally on the GCC, pushing Qatar closer to Iran. The situation with Qatar also is closely related to that of Turkey, who, seemed to join an alliance of Sunni states seeking the overthrow of Assad, and Turkey even sent troops into Syria for a while. Yet Turkey’s enduring alliance with Qatar, and the fallout between Qatar and Saudi Arabia brought Turkey down firmly on Qatar’s side, and thus an improvement of relations with Syria and Iran, in part due to a concern about their respective Kurdish populations.

Then of course, there is the special case of Israel, and its relations in the region. Due to their joint concern on the perceived threat of Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia have moved closer together in cooperation. While historical precedent doesn’t tell us everything, there is perhaps precedent in the Saudi-Israeli alliance vis-a-vie the French-Ottoman alliance, two peoples ideologically opposed as can be, yet working together against a powerful common enemy, a Machiavellian move on both their parts, more so on Israel’s. Israel already had warming contacts with the UAE as they begin to see each other, if not as allies, then at least sharing a common foe, Prime Minister Netenyahu admitted as much. There is also the Machiavellian alliance between the Saudis, the puritanical Wahhabi Muslims intolerant of other faiths, with US president Donald Trump who has often shown hostility towards Muslims in general.

In the modern Middle East, one can of course not overlook the role of non-state actors, rebel groups like the FSA, the Houthis and most notoriously of all, terrorist groups. Al Qaeda and Al Nusra have been used as proxies in these wars, especially by Saudi Arabia who has a notorious Machiavellian history of funding terrorism, including backing the MKO an anti-Iranian government terroist organisation. The creation of ISIS was a symptom of state support for a non-state actor going too far, empowering it to stand alone, claim territory and challenge its former benefactors legitimacy while spouting their ideology. The evocation of the non-state actor Hezbollah in the conflict was a reaction to ISIS on the side of Iran.

Despite this being labelled as a Sunni-Shia conflict, and while there are clear signs of alliances based on religious reasons, like Bahrain’s alliance with Saudi Arabia and Iraq and Syria’s alliance with Iran, the reasons are more nuanced. It is textbook case of Realism and Realpolitik triumphing over the Constructivism of religious identity, as was the case in the Middle Ages with Francis I and his rivalry with Charles V. Both rulers were Catholics, yet both often were on opposite sides, as is the case in the modern Middle East. Political calculations are more important that religious identity and the conflict is far more about the struggle for power, and each state considers its own interests political interests, and chooses its alliances primarily on that basis. This is why there is back-and-forth bandwagoning between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 

 

 

 

Machiavellian Middle East: A Review of Recent International Relations

By Reza Majd, on 11 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Subtitle explainer: Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

 

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In the middle ages, King Francis I of France embodied the architype Prince that Machiavelli envisaged when he wrote his pièce de résistance the Prince. King Francis was shrewd, cunning and utterly ruthless. As Niccolo Machiavelli said “Men rise from one ambition to another: first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others.” King Francis was an expert at this, surrounded by the powerful Hapsburg empire of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, he was utterly ruthless in making alliances to undermine the Holy Roman Emperor, he continued the wars of Italy, aiding Lutheran German princes, particularly the Duke of Wurttemberg in the budding protestant movement against the Catholic Charles V, and most devilishly of all, making an alliance with the Ottoman Turks to destabilise the Holy Roman Empire. While Francis aided protestants abroad, his policy at home was of staunch Catholicism and Protestants were treated as heretics and at times burned at the stake, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was officially even worse than the Protestants as they were not Christian. And yet, Francis was able to forge these alliances with the Protestant and Muslims to undermine Charles V, his fellow Catholic.

The modern Middle East bears many similarities in the ways that alliances change, strange alliances formed based only the balance of power, where ideological enmity is cast aside for strategic gain. One of the similarities with Middle-age Europe is how often alliances change. Francis I would sometimes make peace with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and then the Protestant Lutheran princes would be his enemies, and then they would fall out and he would be back to aiding them. And so it is with the modern Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and Iran being pitted against each other. In the tragic ongoing war in Syria, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, alliances change rapidly with states between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the ongoing proxy wars between them. Religious divides of Sunni and Shia, are not the simple demarcation of alliances and there is often divergence between the two. I will explore this relationship in detail in my next publication, Shifting Alliances, where few alliances are set in stone, and there are constant shifts and changes that take place that distort the balance of the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Tags

Saudi Arabia, Iran, proxy wars, Machiavelli, Machiavellian Middle East, Realism, Realpolitik, Middle East, changing alliances, Sunni, Shia

 

Machiavellian Middle East: The great losers of geopolitics in the Middle East

By Reza Majd, on 4 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Subtitle explainer: Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

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            As with any protracted conflict, there are the region’s greatest losers, caught in the crossfire of the proxy war, which is principally Syria with its long-standing civil war. Caught not only in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Russia and the US, Syria has been torn apart and the Syrian people have been the tragic losers in the machinations of geopolitical rivalries. Syria is one battlefield that has gone out of control, with so many outside powers having interests and troops in the mix, from state actors like the US, Russia, Iran, to non-state actors like Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Nusra to states with no official ground presence but with a firm interest in the outcome like Israel and Turkey, and international groups like the EU and the UN. While Syria as whole has lost out in these power games, another group that could well lose out are the Kurds, who aided the US by fighting back ISIS, are viewed by Turkey as a national threat. In the aftermath of the war, they could become one of the bitterest losers of the conflict as Turkey moves in to stifle them.

Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in 2017 and continues on into 2018 thanks to the Saudi bombing campaign and blockade against Houthi rebels against the Saudi-installed government of Hadi. Though not conclusive, it is alleged that the Houthis are backed by Iran. And of course, while not directly affected, the long-suffering Palestinians are neglected by the Arab world as countries in the region focus on their national interests in the proxy war.

Cunning and deceit will every time serve a man better than force to rise from a base condition to great fortune” – Machiavelli, Discourses on Ivy. It would seem that the Saudis and the Iranians, as well as other states, are following his playbook. While the Syrian war appears to be winding down at the time of writing, the proxy wars between the two dominant Middle Eastern powers continue, Lebanon sometimes appears like it could be the next battleground. Alliances may change as states calculate their own interest, and nothing should be taken for granted. The alliance of Saudi Arabia and Israel is one to watch, with potentially explosive consequences wherever one looks, the stability of Syria is still questionable, and the role of non-state actors, while right now in decline, could soon return. Each turn and twist the Middle East takes is studied by the Realist states, both in the region and outside, as they try to understand how they can manipulate the outcomes to their own benefits. Alliances are fickle, religion is secondary, self-interest above all guides the way.

 

Region: MENA