Sunni frailty

Iran and the Wahhabis are still quarrelling and now even the Sunni giants – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey – are making waves. And it’s not just a question of their foreign policies.


The many wars currently being waged across the Middle East and North Africa are often believed to be the result of a clash of faiths, between the Iranian-led Shiites and the Sunnis, represented by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. This view has a number of consequences. Firstly, because the clash is supposedly religious, it would seem intractable or at least difficult to address in political terms, let alone Western ones. Secondly, every rift like the one that followed the Saudi Arabian execution of the Shiite scholar Nimr al- Nimr should be viewed as a new threat to Western interests. In this and other cases, the West has few weapons on hand with which to confront the danger besides acknowledging its embarrassment towards its longtime Arab Gulf partners for its rapprochement with Iran. In order to safeguard old alliances, the US will have to try and limit the impact of this second phenomenon.

But another interpretation is also possible – that the clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran is primarily geopolitical and revolves around three areas. The first area is the Wahhabi territories where Saudi Arabia wishes to contain Iranian influence. The second is the integrity of the ‘Shiite crescent’ that grants Tehran access to the Mediterranean and enables it to threaten Israel along the corridor that runs from Iraq, through Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, and ends up in Hezbollah-run Lebanon. The third and most recent area to come into play is Yemen, where the new Saudi Arabian king, Salman, is testing a more assertive and militarist foreign policy by attempting to eradicate the Iranian influence achieved through the Houthis.

The geopolitical framework also helps us to restrict the impact of the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict to one part of the region. What is happening in Egypt and the rest of North Africa is only mildly affected by the clash between the Wahhabi realm and the Islamic Republic.
But North Africa is where the West has to face up to its gravest challenges. There is the Libyan crisis, the rise of IS throughout North Africa, the vigorous actions of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the increase of illegal immigration from West Africa and the Sahel as well as the uncertain future of Algeria, so far the only regional giant to remain immune to destabilization.
The growing challenge for the West is therefore not just dependent on the geopolitical clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also on the increased domestic frailty and foreign policy unpredictability of the three Sunni heavyweights: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Consider, for instance, the impact that the Syrian war is having on EU stability as a result of the refugee crisis. The conflict is undoubtedly between Assad, backed by Iran, and the “rebels” supported by the Sunni powers. But it is also heavily complicated by rivalries within the Sunni camp that have led to conflicts and divisions among the various rebel factions backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively.
Getting back to our three heavyweights, one can understand how their positions on Syria are by no means determined by their shared Sunni faith. Egypt openly supports the Russian line whereby Syria cannot be stabilized without preserving at least some aspects of Assad’s regime. Turkey tends to view the conflict raging to the south in the context of its renewed struggle against the Kurdish rebels of the PKK. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia still views Syria with an eye on its disputes with Iran, mentioned earlier.
This picture makes the solution of the Syrian problem even more complex for the US and Europe. There’s no doubt that the growing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia threatens the Vienna process. But Turkish hostility towards the Kurds deprives the negotiating table organized by the West of its only reliable ally on the ground in the fight against IS, while the bond developing between Moscow and Cairo reinforces Putin’s role in the area and provides al-Sisi with one more reason to dismiss the Europeans and Americans on other issues.
If we look to Libya, the divergent objectives of the three Sunni giants are even more obvious and are clearly more of a hindrance than a help to Western attempts at finding a solution that might bring some form of stability to the region. As a North African country, Egypt has always supported “Operation Dignity” led by general Heftar. Turkey, meanwhile, has supplied weapons to “Operation Libya Dawn”. Saudi Arabia, which could have had Western interests at heart in this context, has insufficient “human resources” among its leaders to successfully undertake a mediator role, and so far has not managed to shift the strategic focus of its Egyptian client from Libya to Yemen.
Unpredictability is one of the elements that define the foreign policies of these three giants. The Saudi’s foreign policy is wavering and not always rational, managed as it is by young Defence Minister Mohammad Bin Salman al Saud, whose major economic reform projects often go hand in hand with military operations such as those carried out in Yemen. He was also partly responsible for the escalation of fighting in Syria last spring that ultimately led to the Russian intervention. Erdogan is perhaps the living epitome of unpredictability, with his downing of Russian jets and incursions into Iraq. Al-Sisi, on the other hand, prefers negotiating on many different tables, with Russia, the Saudis, various Emirates and even the Chinese. But whether or not he has a regional strategy is unclear.
These three are not just a hindrance to the solution of the main regional crises, they themselves are also dealing with domestic threats. Al-Sisi, whose legitimacy hinges exclusively on domestic security, faces a three pronged terrorist threat based in Sinai (more of a black hole by the day), the border with Libya and Egypt's larger cities. Repression doesn’t seem to provide an answer, partly because the regime rests entirely on the shoulders of the military, unlike in Mubarak’s day when businesses were also involved. This is unlikely to lead to an immediate collapse of the regime, but it portends a gradual deterioration of Egypt's capacity to control parts of its territories and stem the flow of migrants headed for Europe.
Erdogan’s Turkey is also becoming an increasingly unpredictable partner. The agreement on immigration signed with the EU, the appropriate implementation of which is doubtful to say the least, could result in nothing more than a detour in the flow of Syrian immigrants rather than a stop. In the meantime, Erdogan’s strategy seems to have contributed to the growing instability within Turkey itself thanks to the revived conflicts with the Kurds of the PKK and IS, which is regularly targeting some of the country’s most vital infrastructure hubs.

Senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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