In recent years, Middle East analysts portray the region as divided into alliances or 'camps.' The most common depiction sees a tight, hierarchical bloc of states and movements that dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the other side of Tehran's nascent caliphate, the usual portrayal is an alliance of ‘moderate’ states. They are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Israel.
Coherent and elegant, this portrayal is pleasing to the mind, especially in Jerusalem. It posits a powerful regional alliance in which Israel is a key member.
The picture is attractive but does not confirm with reality.
Specifically, while the bloc led by Iran is observable, it is far more doubtful if anything resembling an alliance of ‘moderate’ states even exists.
✓ Iran stands at the head of an alliance that has made significant gains across the region over the last half decade.
✓ Its Lebanese client, Hezbollah, is increasingly absorbing the institutions of the Lebanese state.
✓ Its clients in Yemen (the Ansar Allah movement or ‘Houthis’) control the capital and a large swathe of the country.
✓ In Syria, Bashar Assad is no longer in danger of being overthrown. He now dominates the main cities and coastline of his country, as well as the majority of its population.
✓ In Iraq, the Shia militias of the Hashd al-Shaabi are emerging as a key political and military player.
The Iranian alliance is a kind of nascent caliphate characterized by a pyramid-type structure, with Iran itself at the top. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is perfectly suited to manage, and control, this bloc. As the Syrian war has shown, Teheran is able to muster proxies and clients from across the region and as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan, in order to deploy them in support of a beleaguered member of its team.
This is what an alliance looks like.
By contrast, the so-called moderate bloc consists of countries who agree on some issues but bitterly disagree on other important matters.
Observe: Saudi Arabia was the first country to express support for the military coup in Egypt on 3 July, 2013. The new friendship between Cairo and Riyadh looked set to form a Sunni Arab bulwark against both the Iranian advance and the ambitions of Sunni radical political Islam. It has not turned out that way. On a number of key matters, Saudi Arabia and Egypt today are on opposite sides.
✓ Regarding Syria, Saudi Arabia was and remains among the key supporters of the rebellion. As a client of Iran, the Assad regime was a natural enemy for the Saudis.
The Egyptians, however, saw, and see, the Syrian war in an entirely different way. For them, it is a battle between a strong, military regime and a rebellion based on Sunni political Islam.
In November, 2016, President Sisi said that Assad’s forces were Syrian government forces were “best positioned to combat terrorism and restore stability” in the country. Sisi identified this stance as part of a broader strategy according to which “our priority is to support national armies...and deal with extremist elements. The same with Syria and Iraq."
This places Egypt and Saudi Arabia, supposedly twin anchors of the ‘moderate’ bloc, at loggerheads in their respective stances toward Syria.
✓ Regarding Libya, and in keeping with its orientation toward Syria, Egypt fully supports General Khalifa Haftar and his forces. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is largely indifferent to events in that area.
✓ In Yemen, meanwhile, the Egyptians have offered only half hearted support to Saudi Arabia’s war effort against the Houthis.
✓ This, in turn, relates to a further key difference between the two – namely, Iran.
The Saudis see Iran's regional bloc as the key regional threat to their interests. Cairo does not. It is drawing closer to Teheran.
Egypt and Iran have not had full diplomatic relations since 1980. Recently, however, the Iranians acknowledged Egypt's shared stance toward Syria. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif specifically requested John Kerry to invite Egypt to participate in talks about Syria in the Swiss city of Lausanne on October 15, 2016. That same month, to the Saudis’ fury, Cairo voted for a Russian backed UN Security Council resolution allowing the continuation of the bombing of rebel held eastern Aleppo.
When, in turn, the Saudi oil giant Aramco announced the cessation of fuel transfers to Egypt, Sisi declared that "Egypt would not bow to anyone but Allah." Shortly thereafter, Iran and Russia asked Iraq to cover the shortfall. It did.
Clearly, the core Egyptian-Saudi alliance is fraying.
Jerusalem's chief concerns are Iranian expansionism and Sunni political Islam. But Egypt is concerned only with the latter, while Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is increasingly concerned only with the former.
In short, the three main members of the ‘moderate’ alliance are drifting in different directions:
Riyadh appears to be headed toward rapprochement with political Islam while maintaining opposition to Iran.
Meanwhile, and in opposition to Saudi sensibilities, Egypt is strengthening ties with Russia, Syria, and Iraq, lynchpins of the Iranian bloc.
For its part, Israel will seek to maintain good relations with each. Undoubtedly, it has a number of matters with which it shares both interests and concerns.
Still, any notion of a united bloc of aligned countries standing as a wall against Iranian and Sunni Islamist advancement is little more than a mirage.
What might change this a return of the United States as the once and future patron of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Alliances work when they have leaders. Only Washington could re-fashion the disparate enemies of Iran and Sunni political Islam into a coherent unit.
It remains to be seen, however, if the Trump Administration is interested in playing this role.
This is an edited version of the original essay by Jonathan Spyer published on his website at https://jonathanspyer.com/2017/02/04/the-mirage-of-the-mid-east-moderate-alliance/ and by the Jerusalem Post's edited version of the same at http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Behind-The-Lines-The-mirage-of-the-Mideasts-moderate-alliance-480431