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middle east

In the Middle East there exists no certainties, but a continuously evolving situation that does not allow for lasting alliances, rewards from political stances, or a clear definition of who is a friend and who is not. Today's friend could be your enemy tomorrow and vice-versa. Often the enemy of my enemy fatally becomes my friend, albeit temporarily so. This happens because interests intersect one another and there exist no ideological common denominators, just threats that either unite or divide. Thus alliances, although unnatural, find their own peculiar logic.

The cause of all this is surely to be found in the social upheavals that have invested the Middle East in the past two years. Behind many of these circumstances there operates the US administration, the only remaining superpower in the world, which has failed or has refused to play a leading role in the region, perhaps because of the heavy legacy left on the ground by George W. Bush. After all, the US has dedicated its efforts in disengaging from local conflicts rather than piloting their outcome. The middle-eastern oil is strategically less important today than it was in the past, and this may be one of the reasons. Notwithstanding, the absence of a strong American policy has allowed many regional actors to recite their part and to cultivate tactical interests that are scarcely connected to a stategic overall vision.

The areas of conflict

Today the areas of major conflict are Syria, Iraq with the ISIS, the civil war in Libya and the classic Israel-Palestinian face-off. Other hotbeds are eager to capture the spotlight, like the issue of the stability of Yemen (with the growing conflict against the Houthi), that of Lebanon (which is slowly catching the civil war virus from Syria) and the precariousness of Jordan which sees its territory literally filled with Islamic extremists. Then there is the Kurdish issue, which cannot be forgotten, after the role they played in the fight against the ISIS (which opens the door to a future request of autonomy/independence) and in the stability of Iraq itself. Lastly, we have the Iranian nuclear issue which, although leapfrogged by more imminent problems, is no less important than it was in the past.

Doha, Qatar

A labyrinth of interests

It is most interesting, in order to find your way among this layrinth of intersecting interests, to figure out who stands with who.

There are 'de facto' sides that confront each other over the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood: Qatar and Turkey support them; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates oppose them. For Saudi Arabia, the motive is ideological – Wahabism does not allow for a 'political' Islam like the one of the Brotherhood. The UAE have always been faithful allies of their Saudi neighbor so they support them in this issue as well. Siding with them is also Bahrain, a Sunni regime that governs a country with a Shiite majority thanks to the military support of the Saudis and Emirates. On the opposing front we have Qatar, a small country with great ambitions and ample financial means that for some time has been competing against Saudi Arabia's hegemonic policy in the Sunni world. Qatar has thought it wiser to position itself alongside the Muslim Brothers and the more radical fringes that ravage the region (Qatar even harbors an official delegation from the Afghan Talibans). Qatar's stance was dictated by the growing ambitions of its emir, Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani, who succeeded his father on the throne in June 2013. The emir runs the television network Al Jazeera, which is often used with clear political aims. Turkey supports the Brotherhood because Erdogan's AKP is in fact the Turkish branch of the same movement. Also, the Turkish president has for some time adopted a political line that follows the regional ambitions of the dissolved Ottoman empire, thus trying to recite a hegemonic role in the region. The privileged relationship Turkey had with Mohammed Morsi in Egypt constituted the first building block of this strategic pattern. The ousting of the Muslim Brothers and the restoration of the military regime in Cairo has in fact invalidated the project. Thus, the formations that confronted each other over the Muslim Brothers – Saudi Arabia and UEA on one side, Qatar and Turkey on the other – are the same that now fight over wether to support General Al Sisi or not.

Yet, again, absolute certainty does not exist. In the past weeks some of the heads of the Muslim Brothers residing in Doha have left the emirate. It is not yet clear if Qatar is trying to fix its relationship with Egypt and/or Al Sisi, or if the US is pressuring them or if – and this is the more accredited version – emir Al Thani has realized that the side of the extremists is a dangerous ground to walk.

It is on the support of the Muslim Brothers that the issue of Hamas has been lately unraveled. Qatar has expressed its unconditional support to the Islamic Palestinian movement and, within it, to its most radical wing which embraces the armed conflict. The political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, a guest of the emir of Doha, is said to have been forced to refuse any and all mediation with Israel if he wanted to remain in the emirate. On this front, Qatar is siding with Iran and Hezbollah, while on the opposite side sit Saudi Arabia, General Al Sisi and the Palestinian National Authority.

On the Syrian front

Speaking of the war in Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia also compete on the support of the rebellion, where the more extremist factions, including the ISIS, are secretly financed by Qatari non-governmental organizations, while other groups are supported by the Saudi side. In this theater, Kuwait is in line with Qatar and the UAE. Siding with the Saudis, for obvious survival-related reasons, we find Bahrain. But there are other supporting actors: Iran and Russia, which support the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad; Turkey which unconvincingly supports the armed opposition, often closing their eyes on its more radical fringes that hide on Turkish ground; the US, which supports the 'secular' armed opposition but who is still uncertain as to what kind of support to deliver; the Lebanese Hezbollah, who fight alongside the Syrian loyalists.

Strange alliances

Because of the natural domino effect which befalls the various middle-eastern events, the confrontation between the sides emerges even in the light of the emergency determined by the military victories of the ISIS in Iraq. Qatar and Kuwait sympathize, in a dissimulated way, with the caliphate; Saudi Arabia and the UAE oppose it; Iran sides with Iraq, this time in the company of the USA.

The convergence of interests between Tehran and Washington is surely a passing breeze dictated by the wartime emergency, yet it nonetheless represents an event emblematic of the contradictions that affect the region. It is not policy that alters the events, it is the events themselves that marginalize policy.

Amid these contradictions, it appears equally unnatural but realistic that the Americans are today on the same side of the barricade with the Syrian regime and it is equally emblematic that Qatar, which harbors the biggest US military base in the region, is the same country which does not express hostility towards the ISIS. We could argue that Qatar is an ally of Iran when speaking of support to Hamas and to the Syrian opposition, but when we speak ISIS, they are on the opposite front. Siding with the Kurds, who are supported by Europe and the US, are, for instance, the Turkish PKK militias, which are considered a terrorist group by both Europe and the US.

And in Libya?

What about Libya? The Islamic groups in the country are supported by Qatar; there is a rebel General called Haftar who is well-liked by Egypt and the US; there are the UAE that support Egyptian aerial strikes on Libyan ground (it seems that they even participated directly in some of them). Today the civil war in Libya is not influenced by a power struggle internal to the country but by the interference of those that support the various factions involved.

sunni shia
Sunni and Shi'a in the middle east

The only common denominator: extremism

It is difficult to find one's way among this complex labyrinth of interests and worries which seem to define the role of each single actor involved. Surely the main problem is today represented by Islamic terrorism that finds room to operate and connivance in the instability of several countries in the Middle-eastern region of the world.

Either way, a clearly religious matrix that juxtaposes Sunnis and Shiites doesn't seem to exist: Sunni Hamas has the support of the Iranian Shiites; the Kurd, whom are mostly Sunni, fight the Sunni ISIS; the Egyptian and Emirates Sunnis shoot against the Libyan Sunnis; the Shiite Hezbollah sympathize with Sunni Hamas.

Sometimes the only common denominator is the extremism which strikes minorities, as happens today in Iraq on the part of the ISIS. Not because such minorities profess different religions or rites (it is the case with the Yazidh and Christians), but because they represent a different ethnic entity, such and the Turkomans, the Shebak or the Sabei, whom are Muslim and are divided among Sunni and Shiites internally. It is also the case of the Sunni Kurds, which oppose the Sunni Arabs. Other times the common denominator is extremism pure and simple, so you'll have the moderate Sunni Islam of the Kurds facing the extreme Sunni Islam of the ISIS.

In such context, when everyone fights everyone else (when the Soviet Union was around, the juxtaposition was at the level of superpowers, thus preventing the insurgence of so many regional conflicts), there is a loss of clarity in the choice of one's side. There are no ideologies, no historical basis; there exists only that which is apparently more convenient at the moment.

A dangerous game

Even those that support the more radical fringes of Islam, as is the case with Qatar, know that the game, leaving aside contingent interests, is a very dangerous one. For instance, it is quite possible that the initiatives of the Emir Al Thani are so outrageous because he feels guaranteed by the American military presence in his country.

The creation of the Caliphate itself postulates the cancellation of the borders as they were traced during the colonial period, therefore Qatar too could find itself engulfed in a Muslim empire guided by people like Al Baghdadi.

As we have stated, there are other hotbeds that still burn under the ashes. Some have manifested themselves already in the present fragility of Jordan, Yemen and Lebanon. Others will emerge later, depending on what will happen in Saudi Arabia when the old king Abdallah will abdicate; or on what will happen in Oman, where sultan Qaboos has no heirs; or on whether Rouhani's moderate line will prevail in Iran; whether Erdogan will manage to Islamise the country any further without sparking social unrest; on whether the 40 million Kurds that occupy six of these nations (Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan) will manage to achieve their dream of independence. We can definitely easily foretell that what is happening now in the middle east is but a prologue to something much worse that will happen in the future.