Analysis |

Middle Eastern States Fight Each Other Like There's No ISIS

What started as a civil war is now creating new confrontations for regional power players.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A still image from Russian Defense Ministry footage showing Russian Bastion coastal missile launchers launching Oniks missiles at an unknown location in Syria, November 15, 2016.
A still image from Russian Defense Ministry footage showing Russian Bastion coastal missile launchers launching Oniks missiles at an unknown location in Syria, November 15, 2016.Credit: Reuters via handout
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Most Egyptian newspapers carried reports on Tuesday of a visit by a very high-level Saudi delegation to Cairo to discuss relations between the two countries. The reports did not reveal who was in the delegation nor what exactly was said. There were no photos, and reports were attributed to “knowledgeable sources” in the Egyptian government.

The next day, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Egypt, Ahmed Kattan, said the reports were mistaken. “Perhaps it was no more than a wish by the Egyptians,” an Egyptian opposition website said.

Such a visit could perhaps resolve the crisis between the two countries, which peaked in October when two resolutions on Syria were presented to the UN Security Council. One, by the French, called for an immediate cessation of aerial attacks on Aleppo, including a no-fly zone barring fighter aircraft over the city.

The second, by the Russians, was similarly worded, except for the critical clause demanding the cessation of bombardment of Aleppo. But shockingly, Egypt voted for both the Russian and the French resolutions instead of, as expected, voting only for the French one.

For the Saudis, Egyptian support for the Russian resolution meant support for the Iranian position, at a time when Saudi Arabia is making huge efforts to curb the influence of both Russia and Iran in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia did not make do with its statement that Egypt’s vote was “painful.” This month the national oil company Aramco announced a hiatus on the delivery of petroleum products to Egypt until further notice. That could be a fatal blow for Egypt, especially because it has only enough stockpiles of oil to last two months.

Shortly thereafter, at a conference in Tunisia, the Saudi Minister of the Haj and secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Iyad Madani, mocked a statement Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi made the previous month in which he said that for 10 years, the only thing in his refrigerator had been water.

“I’m sure your refrigerator had more than water in it,” Madani retorted, enraging Sissi. According to reports, Sissi demanded a public apology from Saudi Arabia. No apology was forthcoming, but the minister was forced to resign “for medical reasons.”

Saudi Arabia has given Egypt billions in aid, a five-year oil deal at preferred prices and a 15-year loan. In exchange, it expected Cairo to be its committed ally. But things have gone sour in recent months. Celebrations over the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in March ended when an Egyptian administrative court ruled that the islands belong to Egypt. Saudi Arabia did not publicly respond.

Egypt has not concealed its opposition to Saudi Arabia’s continuing failed war in Yemen. Sissi does not support the Saudi position on Syria. He believes that Syrian President Assad can continue in office during - and possibly even after - a transition period, because he fears that without Assad, Syria will fall under the control of Iran or, worse, of rebel and terror groups.

Upheaval in Turkey

The shock waves from the war in Syria have not stopped on the banks of the Nile. They have also caused a deep rift between Turkey and Iraq, and, of course, between Turkey and Iran.

Iraq’s threat to attack Turkish forces operating in the northern part of the country against ISIS and the Turkish president’s talk of the “Persian expansion in the Middle East” bring the conflict back to the local arena - at least until it is clear what President-elect Donald Trump’s position is on Assad’s continued rule, on possible cooperation with Russia, and on Iran.

In the current battle for Mosul, in Iraq, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considers the city too important to leave in the hands of the Iraqis. He sees himself as the defender of the Turks who live in Mosul and Bashiqa. But, more importantly, he needs a military bridge to operate in Iraq against the Kurdish PKK rebels. The paradox is that Turkey is cooperating with the Iraqi Kurds, so they will later serve as a wall against the Syrian Kurds.

Tensions between Turkey and Iran are somewhat mitigated by their economic interdependence – after Russia, Iran is Turkey’s second largest supplier of gas and annual trade between the two countries is estimated at about $20 billion dollars. Neither does Turkey want to anger Russia, with which it cooperates economically and militarily.

Still, Turkey’s interests on its southern border could overshadow this relationship.

The war in Syria and Iraq has entered a new phase. What started as an internal struggle, developed into a conflict between the major powers, and is now shrinking back to the borders of the countries involved, a process that could complicate even more the effort to find a political solution to these crises.

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