Written by MD Ashraful Alam Rafsan
Executive Member (2020-2021), DUMUNA.
Taking a closer look at the active conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa Region (hereinafter referred to as MENA) we will find that three players always seem to be involved- Iran, Turkey, and the GCC countries. By pulling the strings of various state and non-state factors in the region they influence most of the active conflicts in the MENA region.
An Islamic scholar Ibn Wahhab, inspired by the famous Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, collaborated with Muhammad Bin Saud in Diriyah, Nejd, and founded the first Saudi State. The region was under the rule of the Ottomans and in 1818 they crushed the newly formed state, overrunning its capital Diriyah. The al-Saud family once again rose to power and formed the second Saudi State which was again crushed by the Ottomans. Finally in 1932 with the help of the European colonizers, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed by the followers of Ibn Wahhab (also known as Wahhabis) and the al-Saud family. This new state took control of Islam’s two holiest sites, Makkah and Madinah from the Ottomans. Having control of these two holiest mosques made the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the natural leader of the Muslim World.
Modern-day Turkish-Arab rift:
Turkish Islam is very different from that of the Arabian Peninsula and they both are very different from that of Iran. After Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an ambitious Islamist strongman, came to power in Turkey, he has been advocating for Political Islam across the MENA region. Political Islam is a fusion of Islamic brotherhood, Islamic principles and democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood party has been the main exponent of this ideology in the MENA region. The Gulf Arab monarchs and some authoritarian rulers on the other hand fear that such an ideology, if left unchecked, will inspire their populations to an uprising against them and endanger their monarchial and authoritarian systems. This clash of thoughts has resulted in a fight for dominance in the following countries.
Libya has been in a state of war since the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Although an agreement has been reached in recent months, it was one of the flashpoints of the Gulf-Turkey spat. UAE and Egypt have been backing the Benghazi-based government led by Khalifa Haftar, a warlord military man while Turkey and Qatar have been backing the UN-recognized GNC government based in the Libyan capital Tripoli. Turkey has sent in APCs, drones and other ammunition to the GNC violating a UN arms embargo while investigations have also revealed that the UAE has also carried out several strikes inside Libya. Russian mercenaries also operate on behalf of Khalifa Haftar’s forces inside Libya.
In Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party with Political Islam as its main ideology has been outlawed by the Sisi government. Abdel Fattah el Sisi came to power after a military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohammad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood party. The Muslim Brotherhood is heavily backed by Qatar and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is himself a follower of Political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood is also outlawed in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain as they consider it a threat to their monarchial system of governments. The Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini bloc has been investing billions behind the Sisi regime to keep it in power and keep the wheels of the Egyptian economy running. Sisi is well known for his authoritarian rule in Egypt and limiting the freedom of the press with Egypt having one of the highest numbers of jailed journalists in the world.
One of the major reasons for the Saudi-Emirati led blockade of Qatar was the agreement to build a Turkish military base on Qatari soil and Qatar’s warm relations with Iran. A recent Kuwaiti brokered deal between Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar have now ended the aerial, naval and land blockade of Qatar by the Saudi-UAE-Bahraini bloc although Qatar hasn’t given in to the demands of removing the Turkish military base and cutting ties with Iran.
Even in the Israeli-occupied state of Palestine, the three major players of the MENA region have made their divide and rule game evident. The Fatah party which runs the West Bank portion is backed by the Saudi-Emirati bloc while Hamas which runs the Gaza Strip is backed and armed by Turkey and Iran. Armed conflicts often erupt between these two groups.
Persians and Arabs have a long history of rivalry dating back to the pre-Islamic periods. Modern-day Iran has territorial disputes with the UAE and it once claimed Bahrain as part of its territory. However, the rivalry between the modern Arab states and Iran wasn’t that violent until the popular Islamic Revolution in Iran led by Shia hardliner clergy, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei overthrowing the brutal, corrupt, but secular monarch, Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979. Imam Khomenei and his supporters believed that since he came to power through a popular Islamic revolution, The Islamic Republic of Iran was now the natural leader of the Muslim World, a claim contested by Saudi Arabia which housed Islam’s two holiest sites. Imam Khomenei also believed in exporting his version of revolution to the rest of the Muslim world. This ringed alarm bells among Iran’s neighbors particularly in the Gulf monarchies who feared that Imam Khomenei could turn their people against them just like he overthrew the Shah. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, taking advantage of the chaos in Iran, invaded Iran to annex some of Iran’s oil fields. Both sides fought for eight years and in the war, Saddam Hussein used outlawed biological weapons against Iran. Saddam was armed and funded by the U.S. and her allies in the Gulf. The whole world including the U.N. stood idle while Saddam used outlawed biological weapons against Iranian civilians. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has supported various non-state factors and resistance groups such as the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Muslim militias in Bosnia, Houthi fighters in Yemen, Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters in Gaza Strip, Shia militias in Iraq and rebel fighters in Afghanistan. Iran also backs the Assad regime in Syria and has also been blamed for uprisings against the Bahraini monarch. The Iran-Gulf rift has ravaged the following countries.
The war in Yemen has resulted in one of the worst cases of famine and malnutrition in the world. An estimated 100, 000 people have died since the Saudi-Emirati-led offensive began against the Houthi fighters in 2015 making Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Two key players are involved in the conflict- the incumbent President Mansur Hadi, supported by the Saudi-Emirati bloc and the Houthis backed by Iran. The Houthis are mainly Zaidi Shia (a branch of Shia Islam) fighters from northern Yemen. Saudi Arabia and her allies fearing an Iranian excursion in her southern borders through the Zaidi-Shia Houthi fighters, attacked Yemen, where the Houthis had captured the capital Sana’a ousting the Saudi-backed President Mansur Hadi. It would not be correct to label this conflict entirely as a Shia-Sunni conflict. Formerly, The Saudis had supported another Zaidi Shia President, Ali Abdullah Saleh against the Houthis. The Zaidi Shias also received support from Saudi Arabia and Jordan during the North Yemen Civil War against the socialists in Yemen. Thus it is a complete conflict of national and personal interests being wrongly given a sectarian label. As the war drags on many have dubbed Yemen’s war as ‘Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam’. The Saudi-Emirati bloc has failed to contain the Houthis who have now made targets as far as in Eastern Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. The ultimate sufferers are the Yemenis.
Hezbollah, the biggest non-state factor in Lebanon often dubbed as ‘a State within a State’ has been openly armed, trained and funded by Iran and Syria while other political figures such as Saad Hariri are backed by GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Such interventions have often led to open armed conflicts in the streets of Lebanese cities. Shia and Christian militias from Lebanon have also participated in the Syrian War alongside the Assad regime.
Bahrain has a Shia majority population, but is ruled by a Sunni monarch from the Khalifa family. The Shias revolted against the Sunni monarch several times and the instability has been blamed largely on Shia-majority Iran. The Bahraini government clamped down on the protesters and many of them have been arrested ever since. The Saudi Arabian government has also deployed its troops in Bahrain to back the Khalifa family.
Iraq has a Shia majority population with a large Sunni minority and a Kurdish autonomous region to the north. Sunni majority Saudi Arabia and Shia majority Iran have often backed rival groups in Iraq leading to sectarian clashes. Turkish troops on the other hand often enter northern Kurdish regions of Iraq and conduct strikes against PKK fighters hiding in the region. This has led to a war of words between Iranian and Turkish leaders.
The Ottomans and the Persians also have a long history of rivalry. In modern times however they have a lot of common interests. Iran and Turkey both have a large Kurdish population and outlawed Kurdish groups seeking succession from these countries operate in both countries. They have also collaborated in ensuring the maintenance of cease-fire agreements in Syria along with their Russian partners. Though there has been heated exchange of words from both sides, mostly due to their opposing roles in Syria and Iraq, economic sanctions from the US and EU and their interdependent economies have kept them from a total fallout.
Syria is the most complex warzone in modern-day history. Various countries backing various groups have made the conflict ever more complex. The Assad regime is supported by Iran, Russia and other non-state factors such as the Lebanese and Iraqi Hezbollahs. Assad has a wide range of opponents. The moderate rebels are supported by Turkey, The West and the GCC members. While initially, they received backings from all of them in present Turkey is their biggest ally. Turkey has stationed its troops in northern Syria and has been demanding to form a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria where it can house the millions of refugees who have fled to Turkey from Syria. The buffer zone will also keep Turkey’s biggest enemy in Syria, the YPG, at a distance. Turkey claims that the YPG is a branch of the outlawed PKK group which has been labeled a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the US. With the help of Iranian mercenaries, Iraqi and Lebanese Hezbollahs and Russian airstrikes the war has titled in Assad’s favor and the regime has established control over much of Syria. The Syrian conflict has been a flashpoint of conflict of interest between Iran, Turkey and the Gulf countries. The conflict has also seen a great amount of cooperation between Tehran, Ankara and Moscow. Most of the cease-fire agreements in place in northern Syria are guaranteed by these three countries. The terrorist groups of Daesh, al-Qaeda and al-Nusra also operate in Syria and oppose all the sides and want to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the region.
This write up in no way aims to deduct the influence of world powers such as United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and Israel in the ongoing conflicts. In actual, these countries, for their own gains, arm and fund the regional powers and create an atmosphere of chaos and instability in the region.
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