Mideast Alliances Shift Again

Like shifting desert sands, the volatile Middle East is going through a new, though subtle, realignment of adversaries and allies, with Turkey’s political tensions shaking up one area while Saudi Arabia makes moves of its own, as recounted by ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Some recent policy decisions by Middle Eastern governments have the potential to shake up regional alignments, or what are widely perceived to be alignments. In the near term this will have little to do with the Iran nuclear agreement, despite the attention the agreement is getting at the moment. That accord will not lead to realignments as great as its opponents fear, and its larger impact on regional diplomacy will be gradual and only slightly apparent in the near term.

The agreement by the Turkish government to cooperate more actively than previously with the United States in combating the so-called Islamic State or ISIS in northern Syria represents a more immediate shaking up.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his entourage arrive to greet President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his entourage arrive to greet President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The recent suicide bombing by an ISIS member that killed 32 victims in a Turkish town is one of the immediate precipitants of the Turkish decision, but the thinking behind the decision is more complicated than that. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems at least as interested in ensuring that Kurdish rebels do not establish themselves in the patch of land that is the focus of the U.S.-Turkish agreement as that ISIS not establish itself there.

These priorities are demonstrated by Turkish military operations since the agreement was announced, which have included strikes against Kurdish targets as well as ISIS ones. To the extent that the newest twist in Turkish policy involves a partial lessening of what has been another Turkish priority, which is the toppling of Bashar al-Assad, the twist represents a reversal of sorts. But Erdogan’s determination in recent times to shove out Assad is itself a reversal of what had been years of cordial relations between Turkey and the Assad regime.

Domestic politics have much to do with the Turkish gyrations. The failure of Erdogan’s AK party (AKP) to win a parliamentary majority in recent elections, due mainly to the success of a liberal Kurdish-dominated party, is directly related to the latest twist in Turkish policy toward the Kurds. AKP is looking for support in forming a governing coalition from a nationalist party opposed to political openings to the Kurds. Thus Erdogan has effectively closed his own earlier opening, another reversal of a reversal.

Domestic political change is also involved in recent policy revisions by another major regional state, Saudi Arabia, that are likely to have even greater consequences for regional alignments. The assumption of the Saudi throne by King Salman and the accretion of power by his young son have been associated especially with a more aggressive stance in the neighborhood, especially prosecution of the war in Yemen.

But another significant change since the transition from Abdullah to Salman has been a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, after years of strong Saudi opposition to the Brotherhood. The Saudis recently received a visit from Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal, although they sought to downplay the significance of it.

The improvement of relations with Hamas was made possible partly by the estrangement between Hamas and the Assad regime in Syria. The conventional wisdom about the Saudi overture to Hamas is that this is part of an effort to displace Iranian influence and to bolster Sunni unity with regard to conflicts such as the one in Yemen.

The conventional wisdom may be largely correct with regard to Saudi objectives, but the further consequences may not be what the Saudis intend. A softened posture toward the Brotherhood and a partnership with Hamas puts the Saudis on a possible collision course with both the Egypt of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel, for whom bashing of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas have been dominant features of their respective policies.

Confrontations are likely to arise that will expose the fragility and artificiality of what is commonly described as an “alliance” between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the supposed convergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel with respect to Iran. Saudi Arabia and al-Sisi’s Egypt have almost nothing in common beyond being Sunni and Arab, and Saudi Arabia and Israel have nothing in common besides being states defined largely in terms of a specific (but different in each case) religion.

The next major armed conflict in the Gaza Strip, and barring a major change in Israeli policy, this is a matter of when rather than if , would be the sort of confrontation that would lay these realities bare.

Looking beyond the immediate ripple effects of current diplomatic doings and thinking about farther-reaching ripples, it is not at all crazy to suggest, as Leon Hadar has, that Israel’s best long-term interests lie in the direction of developing (or rather, recalling the days of the shah, redeveloping) a partnership with Iran.

For the time being the invective and enmity that flow in both directions of that relationship make such a development seem out of reach, but the geopolitical considerations that argue for it are still there. The same can be said of Israel’s relations with Turkey, the other major non-Arab power in the region.

The chief implication for U.S. policy is to be aware of how fragile and ephemeral putative alliances and alignments in this region can be, to realize that domestic political changes far short of revolution or regime change can have major effects on those alignments, and to be nimble and to avoid getting wedded to what is fragile and ephemeral.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “Mideast Alliances Shift Again

  1. John
    August 2, 2015 at 01:52

    It has been reported in Turkey and Kurdish regions that the bombing in Suruc was a false flag; no-one has claimed responsibility, it has provided justification for the bombing of Kurdish villages, a pretext for the roundup and detention of opposition leaders, and the possibility of a snap election as Erdogan hopes to win back his party’s majority in parliament.

  2. a.z
    August 1, 2015 at 09:50

    the day iran mends fences with israel and normalizes its relationship with israel is the day iran loses the legitimacy of its theocratic model. so from the the next day onward it would either take the path towards becoming a democracy with a under a changeable constitution or it must become a brutal dictatorship fully occupied with keeping the masses down and using the national resources to benefit the ruling elite

    • Aman
      August 1, 2015 at 11:47

      Modern Israel, born from Zionist terrorism, never was legitimate from day one as they self-declared statehood on stolen land where they massacred people to acquire, just as they continue to do today.

      Would you care to state exactly what was or is legitimate about any of what Israel has done to date?

      Or did you just come to deliver more of the same old Zio-propaganda the world is so tired of hearing?

      Iran has attacked no one for about 300 years without being attacked first.

      Modern Israel, even before statehood, has done nothing but attack weaker people to steal land or have their American patsies do it for them…

      You actually described Israel perfectly when you wrote: “a brutal dictatorship fully occupied with keeping the masses down and using the national resources to benefit the ruling elite”, that is what they do in Israel and in surrounding countries — they are the epitome of devious while having cost the US trillions to date while also having been behind countess lost lives from around the world!

      • Peter Loeb
        August 2, 2015 at 05:23


        The “democracy” brand for Israel is PR for Western consumption
        as Aman notes. Iran also has a parliament. Except in coups
        parliaments of whatever kind do not customarily vote out the
        structures under which they function or dysfunction.

        Theodor Herzl, the so-called “father of Zionism”, was hatched out
        of pan-Germanism succinctly described by Hans Kohn as
        follows: “According to German theory, people of common
        descent…should form one common state. Pan-Germanism was
        based on the idea that all persons who were of the
        German race, blood or descent, wherever they lived or to
        whatever state they belonged, owed their primary loyalty
        to Germany and should be citizens of the German state, their
        homeland. They and even their fathers and forefathers
        might have grown up under ‘foreign’ skies or in ‘alien
        environments’, but their fundamental inner ‘reality’ remained

        Add the anti-Semitic volkish beliefs and change the word
        “Germany” to “Israel” or Jewish” and you have the perscription
        for Zionism. Pan-Germanism and volkish belief were both
        anti-democratic and opposed the “equality” in French
        revolutionary thought. Instead it relied on estates of
        the aristocracy, peasants etc. See Norman Finkelstein,
        CONFLICT, Chapter l, and George L Mosse, THE

        —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. Peter Loeb
    August 1, 2015 at 06:59

    With thanks to Paul Pillar for this vital contributions.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

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