Paste’s Jacob Weindling wrote a piece last week on the shocking decision by Donald Trump to essentially abdicate his authority on the war in Afghanistan to the Pentagon. That means the recent troop escalation was approved with very little oversight from the president, which presents a clear conflict of interest—the military will have a natural compulsion to escalate conflict, whether it stems from a prideful disdain for retreat, an economic attempt to justify its existence, or a subconscious urge to fulfill its purpose. That’s why we have checks and balances, and it’s also why, at least in theory, we don’t live in a military junta where the Pentagon can unilaterally start or escalate wars.
But Weindling’s secondary point is why I’m writing today: Most Americans simply don’t have a concrete understanding of international affairs, and, aside from outright war, seem disinterested. This is why a significant troop escalation in a conflict that has lasted twice as long as Vietnam has barely raised eyebrows domestically.
This post is not about Afghanistan, but it is about increasing knowledge. The Middle East of 2017 is a violent imbroglio in which the U.S. is hopelessly mired. What follows is an attempt to explain the relationships at play between the major powers of the region, and how the U.S. fits into the puzzle. Since this is a beginner’s guide, it will necessarily be a simplification—the hope is that it will spur a reader on to further research, or at least paint a broad historical and contemporary picture of what’s happening, and what’s likely to happen next.
The text that follows will be divided into separate sections for each major relationship, with the American role clarified where necessary. Note that due to the ongoing Libyan Civil War, in which various elements control sections of the country, Libya has not been included here. Finally, it will help to consult a map like this one.
Saudi Arabia—Iran: Biggest, Baddest Enemies
(Fair warning, this will be the longest section…make it through this one, and it’s all downhill.)
Here’s the best framework with which to view Middle Eastern politics: It’s a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two major denominations of Islam are Sunni and Shia—the theological schism began after the death of Muhammed in 632, and stemmed from a dispute over the prophet’s true successor as caliph—and in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the split is made manifest. In short, Saudi Arabia is the major Sunni power in the region, Iran is the major Shia power, and both represent a fairly extreme version of their respective sects—the ultraconservative monarchical Wahhabism espoused by the Saudi royal family, and the Iranian theocratic near-autocracy led by “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khameini. Between the two nations, there is total enmity—no diplomatic relations, no cooperation, nothing except a state of affairs stopping just short of outright war.
But even if they don’t engage in direct conflict, they fight elsewhere, through third parties, in places like Yemen and Syria. In places like Qatar and Egypt, where there’s no overt violence, still the two countries vie for influence. And the battle for energy resources exacerbates the situation—Saudi Arabia has the largest oil reserves of any nation, and advocates for moderate prices, while Iran’s economic situation dictates that they pursue higher prices worldwide for more immediate gain.
The hostility between the two nations began in 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution transformed Iran into a theocratic Islamic Republic. Sensing a threat to regional stability, Saudi Arabia supported Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi invasion of Iran, to the tune of billions of dollars. Relations began to improve after the war—as much as they could, anyway, considering the Saudi alliance with America—but Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, where a group of Shia rebels called the Houthis were attempting to overthrow the Sunni government, soured things again in the 2000s. The situation grew worse over the ensuing decade, and after Iranian protesters ransacked the Saudi embassy in Teheran (Iran’s capital) in 2016, diplomatic ties were suspended.
How America fits in: Iran was a major ally of the U.S. before the revolution, but Khomeini’s victory transformed his country, almost overnight, into one of America’s foremost enemies. Diplomatic relations are not exactly nonexistent, but they are strained, and one of the U.S.’s main areas of geopolitical concern is Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, aside from Israel, Saudi Arabia is the America’s chief strategic ally in the region, and has been for decades. The U.S. provides billions of dollars of weaponry, financial support, and even joint military support—as in recent engagements in Yemen—to Saudi Arabia, while the two work together to control international oil prices. The U.S. also has several military bases in the country, which have come in handy in various conflicts in the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War.
This alliance began with the Iraq-Iran War shortly after the Iranian revolution, when Syria, ruled by the Ba’ath party and Hafez al-Assad (father of current president Bashar al-Assad), risked the ire of Saudi Arabia by supporting Iran, even though Saddam Hussein was also a Ba’athist. The Ba’ath party of Syria, while nominally secular, is run by Alawite Shiites like Assad, who rely on their Shiite base to keep the majority Sunnis from establishing dominance in the country. In the current Syrian Civil War, Iran has supported Assad’s government with billions of dollars, troops, and even missile launches. As Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini said, “Wherever a movement is Islamic, populist, and anti-American, we support it.”
Saudi Arabia—Syria: Enemies
Hopefully this is starting to make some basic sense. Since Syria and Iran are allies, it’s an easy jump from there to guess that Saudi Arabia and Syria should be enemies. They are—diplomatic ties were cut off in 2012, and there is no longer a Saudi Arabian embassy in Damascus, Syria’s capital. In the current Civil War, the Saudis have supported anti-Assad rebels with massive shipments of weapons and ammunition. There have also been reports that the Saudis sent death-row inmates to fight for the Syrian rebels. Inevitably, some of the arms meant for the rebels have—accidentally or otherwise—fallen into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda. (In a leaked 2014 memo, Hillary Clinton, for one, thought otherwise.)
How America fits in: Needless to say, some of the Saudi Arabian arms that have ended up in the hands of Syrian rebels, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, were supplied by the U.S or bought with U.S. money—even as Obama administration has directly funded anti-ISIS groups since 2014, attacked ISIS with airstrikes, and sent hundreds of special operations forces to the country beginning in 2015. Since Trump became president, the U.S. has engaged in airstrikes against the Syrian government, and recently decided to arm Kurdish fighters opposed to Assad.
Saudi Arabia—Bahrain: Allies
Bahrain is a small country on the Persian Gulf, and shares a national border only with Saudi Arabia. Like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is ruled by Sunni monarchs, but unlike their neighbors, Bahrain is unique in that its population is majority-Shia. In 2011, amid the wave of Arab Spring movements, Shia protesters in Bahrain antagonized for greater freedom for the majority population. Eventually, Bahrain’s King Hamad called on Saudi Arabia for help, and more than 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops came to his aid, concerned that a Shia revolution might bolster Iran’s influence and create further instability. Notably, the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy is based in Bahrain—there was no opposition to Saudi intercession from the Americans. A crackdown by the government ensued, which included thousands of arrests and the destruction of 35 Shia mosques.
You get it: Bahrain, essentially a Saudi puppet at this point, severed diplomatic ties with Iran in conjunction with Saudi Arabia in 2016, and joined the Saudis in severing diplomatic ties with Qatar earlier this month. Speaking of which…
Saudia Arabia—Qatar: Rising Tensions
This might be one of the most interesting emerging conflicts in the whole region. I recently wrote a longer primer on this situation, but the short version is that Qatar, a Sunni-led and Sunni majority nation, small and extremely wealthy, has been antagonizing Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years since a bloodless coup that installed Sheikh Hamad bin al-Thani as emir (note: the coup was against his own father). Among the alleged improprieties committed by Qatar are the establishment of diplomatic relations with Iran (they share an offshore natural gas field, the world’s largest) and Israel, the foundation and funding of the Al-Jazeera television network, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood organization, whose brand of Arab-Spring Islamist populism threatens the continued rule of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. Essentially, Qatar has sought to expand its regional influence, somewhat successfully, and it all culminated earlier this month when Saudi Arabia and four other countries severed all diplomatic ties with Qatar, and even imposed sanctions.
How America fits in: The U.S. has an air base in Qatar, but it appears that Saudi Arabia felt at least tacitly supported in its sanctions following Donald Trump’s recent visit. But even as Trump accused Qatar of terrorist activity, the U.S. military took pains to “laud” Qatar for its “enduring commitment to regional security,” and made it known that the air base was still functional. It would appear that the military is opposed to its own president on this front. Just this week, the U.S. and Qatar are finalizing a $12 billion arms deal.
Iran—Qatar: Tense Allies
Since Qatar is located on the Persian Gulf and borders Saudi Arabia, and is a Sunni-led nation, things can only be so friendly between these two countries. That said, Qatar’s emir called to congratulate the newly elected Iranian president Hasan Rouhani, and in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia’s economic divestment, Iran sent 600 tons of fresh produce to Qatar to help prevent starvation. The shared South Pars/North Dome gas field also ensures, at least to some degree, continued cooperation between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia—Yemen: Allies
This one deserves an immediate caveat—there’s an ongoing war in Yemen between the Houthi rebels, a Shia group supported by Iran, and the government forces of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, supported by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis actually launched a military intervention in 2015 that included a bombing campaign and a naval blockade against the Houthis, after the Houthis had captured the capital city Sana’a, dissolved the parliament, and placed Hadi under house arrest. Hadi escaped, the Saudis attacked and restored Hadi, and a devastating military campaign has wracked the country ever since. When I speak of “Yemen” in terms of alliances and enemies, I’m speaking of the Hadi regime, and not the Houthi rebels, even though the balance of trure power is constantly shifting.
How America fits in: The U.S. has supported Saudi Arabia in the usual ways, with money and weaponry, but has also engaged in joint planning and drone strikes, leading government lawyers to wonder if the U.S. is, in fact, a “co-belligerent” who would be subject to prosecution for war crimes committed by Saudi forces. Those alleged crimes seem to be manifold, including attacks on civilians that have left thousands dead, the use of white phosphorous, and attacks on aid organizations. Meanwhile, famine has spread, and medical care has been severely curtailed. U.S. attacks in Yemen have continued unabated since Trump took office, and in fact one of his first military actions as president was the disastrous February raid in the country.
Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Hadi’s Yemeni government have repeatedly accused Iran of supporting Yemen’s Houthi rebels with money and arms, and Saudi Arabia claimed to find an Iranian boat loaded with weapons meant for the Houthis. In Aden, two Iranian officers were reportedly captured in 2015, and accused of advising the Houthis. Both the Houthis and Iranians deny the alliance, and even U.S. reports are conflicting—in 2015, American officials reported that Iran actually discouraged the Houthis from capturing the capital. Later, John Kerry publicly accused the Iranians of providing arms to the Houthis.
Iran-Lebanon: Allies, with Complications
Hezbollah—considered a terrorist group by some and a political party by others, but which has definitely engaged in violence against Israel—is a major force in Lebanon, and currently holds the fourth-most seats in the country’s parliament. Its formation in the early ‘80s was a response to Israeli incursions into Lebanon, and Iran played a massive role in uniting different Shia militias into one umbrella organization. In a divided parliament, and a divided country, feelings toward Iran depend on one’s feeling toward Hezbollah. (It will be no surprise that there is a fairly even divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the country, and opinion on Iran splits pretty neatly down that divide.) That said, the two nations have a strong trade relationship, and the military relationship is only limited by Lebanon’s fear of incurring U.S. anger—and by the fact that unlike most other nations on this list, Lebanon has a large Christian population. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon in 2010 stirred up a great deal of partisan rage inside the country, and triggered negative responses from Israel and the U.S.
Saudi Arabia—Lebanon: Friendly, With an Asterisk
Saudi Arabia and Lebanon enjoy a friendly relationship, with the predictable caveat that Saudi Arabia is perpetually concerned about Hezbollah taking over the country and transforming it into an Iranian proxy state. However, certain Saudi princes appear to have been involved in for-profit enterprises with Hezbollah, which came as a serious embarrassment to the royal family.
Egypt—Saudi Arabia: Wavering Allies
After the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, and a period of military rule, the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt via Democratic elections. This was an enormous problem for Saudi Arabia, who feared that Islamist populist uprisings could lead to instability in their own country (as we’ve seen, Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood also exacerbated that relationship). As such, they supported the 2013 coup which took the Brotherhood out of power, and have given around $25 billion in aid to the new government in the ensuing years. Since the coup, the two nations have resumed their previous relations, which are amicable without being overly positive—as the Middle East’s most populous country, Egypt is always at least a minor threat to the Saudis’ regional influence. Nor was Saudi Arabia thrilled that the new Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, openly supported Assad in the Syrian Civil War, on the grounds that national armies are best suited to fight terror, and that a victory by Syrian rebels could have the negative effect of inspiring renewed support for the Muslim Brotherhood in his own country. Nevertheless, Egypt joined Saudi Arabia in severing diplomatic ties with Qatar this year.
Historically, these two nations have been opposed since the Iranian Revolution in ‘79. Egypt has closer ties with Israel than Iran likes, and supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Things improved dramatically with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and direct flights between the countries were reinstated. Since the military coup, the situation has remained relatively stable, though Egyptian president al-Sisi must take pains to make it clear to Saudi Arabia that his support for the Syrian army, and his relations with Russia, are not the same as support for Iran. It’s a delicate balancing act that likely rules out full diplomatic ties. Nevertheless, economic cooperation between the two nations has increased of late, especially in the arenas of oil shipments and tourism.
Saudi Arabia—Iraq: Thawing, Slowly
First, it’s important to note that Iraq’s Civil War is ongoing, and the situation there is only marginally better than the one in Libya. Control is shared between ISIS, the “recognized” government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Kurdish forces in the north. But with al-Abadi’s forces on the ascendancy against ISIS, and with a huge victory likely imminent in Mosul, I’ll be referring to this government when I speak of Iraq.
Al-Abadi is a member of the Islamic Dawa party, which is a Shiite organization that has ties to Iran that reach as far back as the ‘79 revolution. His predecessor was considered “divisive,” by Saudi standards, made overtures to Iran, and made comments to the effect that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were essentially fomenting Civil Wars and supporting ISIS by supplying them with money and weapons. But since Al-Abadi took office in 2014, he has reached out to Saudi Arabia and struck a more neutral tone with the U.S., which led to a $1.5 billion deal with the Americans for military training. Al-Abadi visited Saudi Arabia this week, and a Saudi ambassador made an official visit to Iraq in 2016 for the first time in more than 25 years. Though Al-Abadi has made comments to the effect that he doesn’t support the recent boycott in Qatar, he has bigger problems to worry about, such as the reconstruction of his own country and the defeat of ISIS, and therefore hasn’t taken a firm stance.
Al-Abadi’s trip will also take him to Iran, where the two nations stand to have closer ties than ever before, at least theoretically. The Dawa Party’s ties to the Revolution certainly make them better potential allies than the Ba’ath Party, or any of the Sunni elements that threatened to take over Iraq after the war. And the Dawa Party owes much to Iran, which currently backs the so-called “People’s Mobilization Forces”—a coalition of some 40 militias operating in Iraq, many of which receive direct funding and training from Iran. This union of militias was formalized in 2014 following the embarrassing defeat of the Iraqi army by ISIS at Mosul, and is now government-sanctioned. They have already proved themselves very useful in the Civil War, with a series of victories against ISIS forces. Iran is also providing tactical support, at Iraq’s request. More recently, when a vice president in Iraq made negative comments about Iran, al-Abadi came to its immediate defense, saying that Iraq would never be hostile toward Iran. At the moment, it appears his government cannot function without Iran’s military support as the battle against ISIS rages on.
How America fits in: In one of the many displays of the complexities inherent to geopolitics in the Middle East, the U.S. is obviously interested in the stability of the Iraqi government, and the defeat of ISIS, and as such must look the other way in terms of Iran’s influence over the Shiite Iraqi militias. This has led to the absurd situation wherein the billion-dollar military aid deal struck with Iraq is largely directed at fighting ISIS in that country, while a portion of the billion-dollar weapons deals with Saudi Arabia—and Qatar, for that matter—inevitably go toward supporting ISIS rebels in Syria.
What About Israel?
Even Americans who know very little about Middle Eastern politics are familiar with the fact that Israel is a Jewish state, and a huge American ally, in the midst of a Muslim region. Currently, Israel is not even recognized as a country by, and has no official diplomatic relations with, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the U.A.E.—a group, clearly, that cuts across all alliances, as well as the Sunni-Shia divide. The only Middle Eastern nations with relations that could be described as anything other than totally hostile, at least officially, are neighboring Egypt and Jordan.
As you might guess, though, the situation is not quite so simple. In reality, diplomatic ties run the gamut, from belligerent enemies like Iran—who actively support anti-Israeli groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, while Israel stands accused of running intelligence operations in Iran and supporting anti-Revolutionary groups—to quasi-enemies like Saudi Arabia, who have never participated in any of Israel’s wars, and whose shared ally in the United States has led to backdoor diplomatic relations and shared intelligence, especially as it pertains to Iran.
Fundamentally, Israel’s relations with any Arab country come down to the extent of the other country’s support for Palestinian independence movements. Israel has its strongest regional alliance with Egypt, they trade with Qatar (even though Qatar has been accused of supporting Hamas), they have a peace treaty and a $500 million natural gas supply deal with Jordan, and they maintain the aforementioned back-channel relationship with Saudi Arabia. On the flip side of that coin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently identified their other chief regional enemies as Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—though the fact that he failed to include Lebanon—labeled an “enemy state” by Israeli law enforcement, and with whom they fought a small war in 2006—is faintly ridiculous.
It must be said, however, that the majority of citizens in almost every Muslim country have negative views of Israel, though an increasing number seem to support a two-state solution. And, of course, Israel’s primary political enemies are groups like Hezbollah—which is an official political power in Lebanon—and Hamas, which resists Israeli occupation of the State of Palestine.
We’ll leave it there for the moment—it would certainly be possible to expand this list to countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey, and nations like Oman and Kuwait have been largely left out due to their limited influence. Nevertheless, I hope it serves as a helpful starting point to understanding the byzantine geopolitics of a volatile region.