On June 12, 2013, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion with Anwar bin Majed bin Anwar Eshki, Chairman of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah; BDC Senior Non-Resident Fellow Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert and Chair of Political Science at the University of Vermont; Abbas Maleki, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran; and Bassel Salloukh, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University. The discussion, which was moderated by BDC Director Salman Shaikh, revolved around perceptions of the polarizing conflict in Syria and beyond, and whether the geopolitical dynamics surrounding that crisis amount to the onset of a new “Middle East Cold War.”
Gregory Gause compared the current regional politics to those of the 1950s and ’60s (a period often referred to as the “Arab Cold War”) saying that they constituted a war waged not by armies, but rather in the domestic politics of different states. Unlike the conventional conflicts of the 1980s, then – as now – governments sought to further their interests by supporting groups in states that had become weak. Recently, formerly strong states such as Iraq and Syria had joined traditionally fragile ones such as Yemen and Lebanon, broadening the sphere of this Middle East Cold War. Unlike the cold war of the previous century, Gause said, this one has also drawn in Iran and Turkey, extending it beyond the confines of the Arab world.
Responding to Gause’s portrayal of the region’s geopolitical dynamics, Abbas Maleki urged restraint in characterizing this conflict – whether hot or cold – as one between Sunni and Shi‘a. An imbalance between the “Shi‘a 10 percent and the Sunni 90 percent” meant that one cannot really term this a “war,” he said. Maleki added that strong relations between Iran and Syria were the result not of sectarian ties, but rather interest-based calculations or policies, beginning with the export of oil to Syria after the Iran-Iraq war. Anwar Eshki also emphasized the realist dimension of the current geopolitical struggles, saying that several powers – including the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – were simply exploiting an opportunity to further their interests (and control) in the region. He did say, however, that Saudi Arabia was seeking to avoid the establishment of a “Shi‘a crescent” that would fuel further sectarian conflict. Clearly then, sectarianism is becoming a more prominent feature of regional dynamics – a trend driven, according to Bassel Salloukh, by the fact that governments were using that sectarianism “as a tool of geopolitics.”
Salloukh contended that while there are similarities between the geopolitical dynamics of today and those of the mid-twentieth century, there are also important differences. The Middle East, he said, has always been subject to great power politics. In addition, regional states have regularly harnessed ideology as part of their foreign policies, often seeking to remove neighboring regimes. Unlike in the 1950s, however, these countries are today also witnessing change from within as “citizens are reimagining their relationships with the state.”
Panelists agreed that these internal transformations should contribute to resolving the conflicts and divisions afflicting countries across the region, and Syria in particular. External powers, though, also have a role to play, Salloukh said. The “penetration of geopolitical interests,” he said, complicates citizens’ struggles for freedom. Salloukh added that when the United States, Russia, and others do concentrate on arriving at a settlement, peace will be more attainable. But ultimately, Gause said, these struggles are not foisted on states like Syria from outside. “As long as Syrian actors are unable to agree and continue to be in conflict with each other,” he said, external powers will take advantage of and exploit that situation. Great powers can help create the conditions for resolution, but citizens must themselves “redefine systems in which [they] can live together with equal obligations and equal rights.”
Asked about future prospects for broader regional collaboration between Iran and the Gulf states, Maleki said that there was a clear logic to cooperation on regional security. The Iranian constitution itself, he said, urges strong relations with Iran’s neighbors, with Muslim states, and with states of the Third World – all of which, Maleki said, are categories that the countries of the Gulf fall into. Indeed, the Shah of Iran had proposed a collective security arrangement in 1972. He said that the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf, however, would remain an obstacle to such cooperation for the foreseeable future.
From the perspective of the Gulf states, Eshki was equally downbeat about the possibility of a near-term rapprochement. He cited several obstacles, including continuing disputes over islands in the Gulf, Iranian “interference in Muslim countries,” and Tehran’s failure to denounce some clerics’ calls for an invasion of Mecca. He said that if Iran changed its policies on issues such as this, the Gulf states would be willing to follow: “it doesn’t matter who leads, only that they are leading to build peace.” Salloukh added that the calculations of actors such as Hizballah make reconciliation even less likely. The “resistance axis,” he said is now “in its own existential battle.”
During a Q&A session that followed the discussion, one audience member asked about the role of religious scholars in either preventing or supporting the tide of sectarianism. Maleki expressed his surprise at a recent statement from influential cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi (in which he called on Sunni Muslims to join a jihad in Syria). Eshki, for his part, called it “unfortunate” that clerics “often do not have political knowledge.” He continued to emphasize the importance of public efforts to avoid the paradigm of “sectarian war,” saying that the presence of Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia was positive in that regard. “If we don’t have diversity, we’ll only create extremism,” he said.