Countries that were politically destabilized by the Arab Spring have become the new focus for the redistribution of spheres of influence in the region. What role will Russia play?


A Palestinian throws back a gas canister previously shoot by Israeli forces, not pictured, during a protest to support Palestinian prisoners, outside Ofer, an Israeli military prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah on Feb.19. Photo: AP

As events inspired by the Arab Spring continue to engulf a growing number of Near and Middle East countries, the obvious strengthening of Islamist forces has become a growing concern around the world. Some observers have even started talking about a possible establishment of an Arab or Islamic – depending on their interpretation – “caliphate”.

The confrontation of three “caliphate” networks

Conservative Salafis, “moderate Islamist” forces represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, and Shiites are active in the geographic area extending from North Africa to the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and even Pakistan.

A dynamic model of struggle between the three trans-regional “caliphate” networks led by Saudi Arabia/Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, respectively, can be considered an emerging factor in global politics.

They have clearly positioned themselves as the main candidates for regional domination since the beginning of the new process of the redistribution of spheres of influence triggered by the Arab Spring.

Infographic by Natalia Mikhailenko

The confrontation between the three “caliphate” networks fits into the American self-regulating system of checks and balances in the Greater Middle East, where its allies and Iran balance each other out while nevertheless playing on the U.S. side –against Russia, China, and occasionally Europe (particularly France).

In the meantime, Washington has decided to gamble on the “moderate” Brothers – apparently to hold back the Salafis who are often unabashedly linked to Al-Qaeda, which is increasingly acting out of line with American interests.

Salafis for the Saudis, Salafis for Qatar

The nucleus of the Salafi “caliphate” is located in the Persian Gulf. The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf [whose members include Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia – Editor’s note] serves as a basis for gradually deepening integration and strengthening the financial and, most importantly, military components of these countries.

The Council is planning to welcome the “sister” monarchies of Jordan and Morocco into its fold soon and, according to some reports, Egypt too, followed by other Arab countries.

The Gulf’s toolkit includes traditional financial injections in the form of preferential loans and grants to “friendly” regimes, informational propaganda via Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, as well as cooperation on education and culture. In addition, as far as the “caliphate” concept is concerned, it also includes support for Salafi groups that are often affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

The main goal of the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf sub-region is to resist Tehran’s attempts to destabilize the situation through local Shiites.

However, after Qatar became more active in regional politics with the advent of the Arab Spring, the rivalry for regional leadership between it and Saudi Arabia has become obvious.

Riyadh has traditionally supported the monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, sending them considerable financial aid to bolster the regimes there. Saudi Arabia is one of the top three investors in Egypt, yet it is unlikely to be able to establish positive political ties with the “moderately” Islamist government there.

Saudi interests are also promoted by certain groups within the Syrian opposition, as well as by some political forces in Lebanon and in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has traditionally supported the Palestinians loyal to the Palestinian National Authority, and financed Sunni forces in Sudan and Yemen, where the Saudis have been increasingly squeezed out by Qatar.

Infographic by Natalia Mikhailenko

Financial and religious tools are also actively used to build ties with the Muslim Caucasus and Central Asian states where the Saudis are facing competition not only from Qatar but also from Turkey.

As for Qatar’s Salafis, they ensure Doha’s presence to a certain extent in Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, and apparently also in Egypt.

Qatar puts its money where its mouth is – the governments of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Sudan have become recipients of generous Qatari investments and grants – and also mediates in regional conflicts, to say nothing of its active support for the Syrian opposition.

Notably, the Emir of Qatar is also especially active in Palestine where, in contrast to Riyadh, Doha has chosen to put its chips on Hamas.

Essentially, “raising” Salafi forces in different parts of the region boils down to expanding their influence on the politics of a given country as much as possible – either via the government or through undermining security via armed groups – to serve the interests of Riyadh or Doha.

It appears that Qatari-Saudi cooperation will continue in the medium and long-term.

Turkey’s Brothers

Another “caliphate” – the “moderately” Islamist one with its regulatory center located in Turkey – represents a Muslim Brotherhood network that has noticeably strengthened in the Arab world on the wave of the Arab Spring.

Tunisia and Egypt, two nations where the Muslim Brotherhood have come to power, may be considered Ankara’s most important footholds in the Arab world.

Egyptian-Turkish cooperation flourished after a Muslim Brotherhood member became president of Egypt, especially as Mursi and Erdogan built personal ties. A discussion on implementing the “Turkish model” in Egypt began.

The removal of the Islamist president in a key Arab country arguably didn’t put an end to Turkey’s presence in Egypt. First of all, it appears that the Brotherhood’s alienation from active participation in running the country’s affairs won’t last long. Secondly, Ankara won’t abandon its presence in the “heart” of the Arab world after having built such a solid foundation there.

The Brotherhood is also vying for power in Jordan under the guise of the Islamic Action Front, controls the Gaza Strip via Hamas, acts through the Al-Islah main opposition party in Yemen, and represents a considerable portion of the oppositionist Syrian National Coalition.

Unlike the Salafi “caliphate,” which follows a hierarchical structure centered in the Gulf with vassal relations with other states that are part of the network, the Brotherhood’s “caliphate” must in theory be based on a network of elements interacting on an equal basis.

The latter structure is less stable by definition, and also keeping in mind the ambitions of national leaders.

A network of Iran’s outposts

Iran is the center of the third “caliphate,” called Shiite for the sake of convenience. Shiite communities constitute its mainstay. With Iranian backing, these communities often become participants in skirmishes with security forces in the Gulf monarchies.

In Yemen, a state that is vitally important for Saudi Arabia’s security, the Iranian presence is ensured through the Houthi Shiites – a community that not only the Salafis but also the Muslim Brotherhood’s Al-Islah have been fighting.

Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria has long served as an Iranian outpost in the Middle East. Iraq, with its Shiite majority and a Shiite prime minister, has been playing an increasingly important role for Tehran as well.

Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah and Amal movements remain important outposts for the Iranian “caliphate” in the Middle East, in addition to the Sunni Hamas, which the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have been trying so hard to remove from under Tehran’s tutelage.

Iran is also trying to establish non-Shiite based ties with Cairo and Khartoum. There have also been reports of Iran’s support to a number of Islamist groups operating in Central Asian states.

Overall, Iran’s “caliphate” has a worse outlook for its continued existence or success due to the obvious quantitative ratio of Sunnis to Shiites in the region. This is why the Iranian leadership has based its influence-peddling on a network of “outposts” in the form of corresponding parties/movements and NGOs, which are not necessarily their Shiite “brothers.”

Key points of confrontation between the three “caliphates”

Countries destabilized by the Arab Spring processes will become the main scenes of regional confrontation for the redistribution of spheres of influence in the short- and medium-term. These include Syria and Iraq where the traditional Sunni-Shiite rivalry will be complicated by the Turkish-“Gulfish” struggle for influence. They also include Palestine, Egypt, and Libya, where “moderates” and Salafis will mainly fight it out.

As far as the Syrian and Iraqi “redistribution” is concerned, the main goal, especially for the “Gulfists,” is to weaken Iran’s positions as much as possible while not letting Sunnis from the opposing camp assert themselves.

This is the origin of the struggle for the “sympathy” of different opposition groups in Syria. It is also necessary to take into account the fact that Turkey, for which the Syrian crisis is a matter of national security, has been directly involved in it.

It’s fair to assume that once Al-Assad is toppled, the destabilized country will come under control by Turkey and the Gulf, with the former doing its best to maintain the territorial integrity of the Syrian state and the latter playing the Syrian/Turkish “Kurdish card” amid continued yet considerably weakened Iranian influence through Alawite communities.

The fight for Iraq appears to be gaining importance for Tehran under these circumstances. In practical terms, a decrease in the Iranian presence there signifies the strengthening of Turkey, which even now projects the main influence on that country’s domestic political situation through Sunni members of parliament, the economy, “water” manipulation, and flirting with Irbil.

Iran will also fight to keep its outpost in the Gaza Strip, where it will have to face competition from the free-spending Qataris and the Egyptians seeking to act as intermediaries. Meanwhile Tehran appears to be able maintain its influence on Hamas at least over the medium-term as its key arms supplier.

It’s only Turkey, with its emerging ambitions as a self-sufficient arms manufacturer, that would be able to replace the Iranians over the long-term.

As far as Egypt is concerned, the strengthening of the Brotherhood there in close cooperation with Turkey and with minimal chances for the Gulf or Iran to have a say in the situation appears destined to last for a long time.

Given the strong positions held by the Brotherhood’s Islamists, it is evident that Egypt has fallen within the sphere of influence of Turkey, which will use this key Arab country as a springboard to move into Africa and Maghreb.

In Libya, on the other hand, the situation is apparently developing in a way that is more beneficial for the Gulf – the financial backer of local Salafi Islamists.

The new Libyan government has been building ties with Iran and Turkey, albeit amid a lot of mistrust. Nevertheless, there is no way Ankara or Tehran could achieve serious success in consolidating their influence in the Libyan Republic.

As for a direct U.S. presence in the region, it will apparently be increasingly limited to the role of the main arms supplier.

The U.S. will protect its interests through regional allies that will prevent Iran from strengthening, on the one hand, and the excessive strengthening of each other’s geopolitical positions, on the other.

A participant of the Arab Spring protests in Yemen. Photo: Reuters

The “caliphates” and Russia

It is important to discuss Russia’s increased efforts in the region because Central Asia and the Caucasus, influenced by the developments in the Near and Middle East, are a zone of Moscow’s special interests.

The Arab-Muslim region remains an important factor of global politics from a geostrategic standpoint. It is important for the Russian leadership to maintain and expand its influence there.

At the same time, it is clear that this expansion can proceed in the most successful and beneficial manner for Russia not by gambling on one of the “caliphates,” but through expanding contacts at the state and private levels, primarily in the economic sphere.

In the Caucasus and Central Asia, a focus on restoring the erstwhile level of social and cultural ties would make sense, whereas in the Arab world the emphasis should be on the gradual development of cooperation in various areas of the economy as well as in the military and technical sphere.

“Soft power” should be a central component of Russia’s increased activity in the region. To develop such power, it is important for Moscow to consolidate its positions at the social and political level and to “raise” a pro-Russian lobby in economic, political, scientific and military matters.

The Arab and Muslim region has entered an era of redistribution of spheres of influence. The dynamics of the confrontation will only accelerate in the years ahead as players’ interests increasingly become entangled in knots both big and small.

It is important for Russia not to let this chance slip away and to become more active in the Arab world, where any sort of rivalry with the United States on an equal footing will not be feasible for a long time to come. That said, it is quite possible for Russia to create a basis for pursuing its own interests.