Since the Arab Spring that started late in 2010, the Middle East has seen a surge towards democratization, but not without escalating conflicts and continuing tension between the regions geopolitical powers. Furthermore, as the US has found out, it is increasingly difficult to draw clear lines of allegiance between the Arab states – allies in one conflict may find themselves to have competing interests in another conflict’s outcome, and consequently find themselves opposed. The realisation of this may damage relations between groups, whilst allowing others to profit from the power vacuums.
Syria, the war-torn country the UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi described as at risk of becoming “another Somalia”, saw over 190,000 dead between March 2011 and April 2014 as Bashar al-Assad sought, and still seeks, to suppress the popular uprising. Assad is backed by Iran, the most significant Shia power in the region, who sees the country as its only consistent ally since Iran’s revolution in 1979 and vital route to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist militant group and political party, are closely linked to Iran and have provided soldiers in the fight for Syria – in February 2013 Hezbollah fighters are purported to have attacked Syrian villages near the Lebanese border. These three countries form the ‘Shiite crescent’ – the region stretching from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea strongly under the influence of Shiite groups – and thus naturally Iran has a vested interest in propping up Assad. Another supporter of the regime is Russia, who sells arms and munitions to the regime and allows the only Russian naval base outside of the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. Russia’s position in the United Nations council has allowed it to veto UN resolutions to the conflict.
The Syrian rebels who oppose the Assad regime are not a united force and are composed of various militias such as the Islamic Front (not to be confused with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), the Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra, (an Al-Qaeda affiliated group). The Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army are widely believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states which provide American-made arms and munitions with the help of Turkey. Furthermore, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic organisation in Gaza whose military wing is considered a terrorist organisation by the United Kingdom and the US, announced its support for the rebels at the civil war’s outbreak despite its strong ties to Iran.
Nevertheless, all these factions are opposed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the radical Sunni Islamist group infamous in the West for the decapitations of Steven Sotloff (Israeli-American), James Foley (American), Alan Henning (UK) and more recently Keni Goto (Japanese). The group has managed to exploit the turmoil in Syria and Iraq to declare a self-proclaimed ‘Caliphate’ (a form of Islamic government led by a caliph), leading to a US-led coalition with the Gulf states in suppressing ISIL’s rapid military expansion in Syria, whilst Iran has provided support in Iraq. US-Iran relations have been difficult since Iran’s 1979 revolution and the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme, but it now seems they have aligned interests in Syria and Iraq.
Turning to the Gaza conflict, Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah support Hamas, whilst the EU and US have shown support for Israel by condoning its right to defend itself from incoming rockets. Thus, despite cooperation in Iraq and traditionally good relations with Turkey, the US finds itself opposed to them in Gaza.
To add to complexities, former military man Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s leader, has brought about normalization of relations with Israel, even destroying the smuggling tunnels used to smuggle goods into Gaza on the Egyptian border. This would suggest that Egypt and the US might be allies, but Obama’s administration had supported the democratically-elected Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sisi’s coup represented an obstacle to democractisation in Egypt. Thus despite both showing support Israel in its conflict over the Gaza strip, the two nations are opposed over the Muslim Brotherhood. And on top of this, Hamas also supports the Muslim Brotherhood, whilst Assad loathes them.
This article has barely scratched the surface of the multifaceted nature of the region’s diverse array of conflicts, but hopefully it has provided an appreciation of the difficulty the various powers are having in their search for Middle Eastern stability.