The complexity of the crises that unfolded in the Middle East with the advent of the Arab Spring created an environment in which stakeholders had to adjust their allegiances according to continuously changing circumstances.
The defeat that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) suffered recently in its military confrontation with the central authorities in Baghdad and the sweeping changes that the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman is planning on introducing may have complicated the situation, but may also have clarified it.
This article will focus on the recent developments that shaped the present Middle East – up until the end of November 2017 – and the changes which are likely to take place in Syria, Iraq, and the immediate neighbourhood after the crisis. Important developments are continuing in Tunisia and Yemen, but they are likely to be subject to dynamics different from those in Syria and Iraq.
When the situation eventually stabilises, MENA states will find themselves re-aligned according to the requirements of international relations and the new opportunities which will arise at that time.
Iran has always been active in the region, but this drive increased with the 1979 revolution, after which it took more concrete initiatives in Lebanon, including supporting the Shiite military organisation, Hezbollah. Tehran may increase its presence in the future in four countries: Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, primarily, as well as in Yemen, where it has a lighter footprint.
Iranian presence in Iraq
In Iraq, the 2003 invasion, lead by the United States, provided Iran with a new opportunity. Although the majority of Iraq’s population is Shia, the country was governed by Sunnis for centuries. During the Ottoman era (1533-1918), three provinces (eyalet), Al Jazeera, Kurdistan, and Iraq, which correspond to a little more than present-day Iraq, were governed by Sunni Ottoman administrators. This practice continued when Iraq became independent and Faisal I, the son of the former Sharif of Mecca, became its first king in 1932. During the reign of subsequent kings and governments, Iraq was also ruled by Sunnis.
The invasion was mainly a war against Saddam Hussein’s rule. Therefore, the fall of his regime came as a relief for the Shia majority of the country. This constituted an opportunity for Iran to gain the upper hand in Iraq. When Nouri al-Maliki, who served as the country’s prime minister between 2006 and 2014, went too far in taking revenge against the Sunnis, he was replaced by the more moderate current premier, Haider al-Abadi.
The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also called ISIS, IS or Daesh) ushered in the intervention, in 2014, of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of Iran’s armed forces. Another militia, the People’s Mobilization Units (also called Hashd al-Shaabi), created following a fatwa by the top Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, also played an important role in the fight against ISIS. Hashd al-Shaabi was also effective in the fight to take back the northern Iraqi cities that were illegally incorporated by the Kurds in their territories. Both of these forces contributed to further consolidating Iranian influence in Iraq.
Iran played an important role in defusing the tension between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq when clashes were imminent between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga. The Iraqi army was forcing Kurds out of the provinces described as ‘disputed territories’ by article 140 of the Iraqi constitution and Iran persuaded the Kurds not to clash with the army. This and other similar moves helped Iran to further establish itself in Iraq.
Iran’s presence in Syria
Iran has maintained a long-term presence in Syria, enhancing its presence with the deployment of the Revolutionary Guards in 2012. Before the Syrian crisis broke out, the number of IRGC officers in the country was estimated to be as high as 3,000. They were stationed in Syria to help train Syrian soldiers and supervise the supply of arms to Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
Since Iran was invited to Syria by the government, it has international legitimacy, unlike other stakeholders. Russia enjoys similar legitimacy, as it too was invited by the Assad government. Moscow, the main powerbroker in Syria, acknowledges the legitimacy of the Iranian military presence in Syria and conducts its dialogue with Israel with this in mind. This presence, close to the Israeli border, may trigger new military clashes in the future between Israel and Iran.
Iranians in Lebanon
In Lebanon, Iran has a strong presence through Hezbollah, which was created in the early 1980s by Tehran in order to bring together various Shia militants. Hezbollah played a critical role against the Syrian opposition along the Lebanese border as part of its support for the Syrian regime. Iran will expect a reward commensurate with the role it played in preventing the collapse of the Syrian regime.
This is the first important parameter that will inspire political realignment in the Middle East.
Russia was waiting for an opportunity to come back to the Levant, especially after Washington’s image was tarnished due to its failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab Spring and its expansion to Syria provided a golden opportunity for Russia to take the next step. Moscow’s strongest military presence in the Middle East was in Syria. The only naval base that Russia had outside its own territory during the Soviet era was in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tartus.
The US and Russia tried to find a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis. They initiated the Geneva process, which led to the adoption of the United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2254, but they disagreed in interpreting it. Paragraph 1 reads as follows:
“(The UN Security Council) Reconfirms its endorsement of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, endorses the ‘Vienna Statements’ in pursuit of the full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué, as the basis for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition in order to end the conflict in Syria, and stresses that the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria”.
For a long time, the US maintained its position that Bashar al-Assad had no place in the future of Syria.
In light of the foregoing provisions of the resolution, it is hardly consistent to claim that Bashar al-Assad has no role in the future of Syria while this choice is left to the Syrian people.
The resolution also introduces a transition process to democracy in Syria. Russia and the US disagree on whether Assad will have a role during this transition period.
Some of the opposition factions refused to participate in the Geneva conference because of the presence of the representatives of the Syrian government.
When the regime came to the brink of the worst-case scenario, it invited Russian forces into the country. Russia revitalised its Tartus base, which it held onto after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, and established a sizeable air base in Hmeimim, south of Latakia, and many other smaller bases elsewhere in Syria.
When the White House, the Pentagon, and the Department of State made conflicting statements on their Syria policy, Russia used this environment to impact developments in Syria. It tried to persuade many opposition factions to participate in peace talks and these initiatives led, in later years, to the Astana process.
Through Astana, Syria’s warring factions agreed to establish ‘de-confliction’ zones in four critical areas: 1) Idlib Province in north-west Syria; 2) Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in the northern Homs province; 3) Eastern Ghouta in the northern Damascus countryside; and 4) Deraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria.
Russia, Turkey, and Iran became the guarantors of the de-confliction process. Concrete results have been obtained in three zones. In Idlib, the situation is slightly different: When the Salafi-Jihadi factions were surrounded by regime forces, they agreed to be evacuated and were provided with a safe passage to Idlib. Therefore, Idlib looks like a potpourri filled with various opposition factions, small or big, extremist or more extremist.
Russia has deployed forces outside Idlib. Turkey deployed troops in the province, close to the border with Afrin, a province declared by Kurds as the third autonomous canton.
The de-confliction practice is one of the most concrete steps to defuse tension in the Syrian crisis. It is difficult to tell whether this strategy will succeed, but for the moment it has a chance of success.
Russia became a power broker in Syria thanks to these initiatives.
This is the second parameter that will affect political realignment in the Middle East.
When the Arab Spring broke out in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood-linked political party Annahdha emerged as the most likely candidate to win the election, its leader Rashid Ghannoushi, with a view to dispelling the scepticism that prevailed at that time in international public opinion, said that when they came to power they would not impose sharia; that they would not force women to wear scarfs and that they would not ban serving alcohol in restaurants.
Ghannoushi also said that Annahdha would be inspired by moderate Islam as practised by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. When the Arab Spring spread to Egypt, then to Libya and finally to Syria, the core decision makers in the AKP thought that an opportunity may arise for Turkey (the AKP was itself inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood).
If all of these Arab Spring countries had completed their transition to democracy, a belt of countries governed by Muslim Brotherhood-type parties would have emerged, and the hope was that the unchallenged leader of these countries would have been Turkey, with its long experience of multi-party democracy.
Turkey’s expectations did not materialise because Annahdha had to cede its place to Nidaa Tounes in Tunisia after two years of government. Political Islam failed in Egypt and President Morsi was ousted by a military coup. Libya fell into chaos and the Syrian insurrection faced trouble.
Before the Syrian crisis broke out, Ankara had maintained good relations with Damascus, but this attitude changed because Turkey thought that Bashar Assad’s fall was imminent and it did not want to be left on the wrong side of history.
Press reports claimed that weapons supplied by the international community to various opposition factions were shipped through Turkey. There were also interviews given by opposition fighters about how they crossed Turkish territory to join the ranks of opposition fighters in Syria. The Turkish government has persistently denied such reports.
At a later stage, the supporters of the Syrian opposition understood that the weapons they supplied to the fighters were ending up in the hands of the extremists. So they stopped the supply. Then they began to think that the fragmented opposition in Syria could not easily overthrow the regime. Even if Bashar al-Assad were to be ousted, there was no available and superior substitute for him. Turkey was slow to adjust its policy to this reality.
The turning point in Turkey’s Syria policy came with the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet for having violated Turkey’s airspace for seventeen seconds. Russia took strict economic measures against Turkey and the latter had to apologise for this act. Relations improved but scars were left. It is only with the Astana process that Turkey joined Russia and Iran, and took steps to positively contribute to the stabilisation of Syria. Turkey and Russia are now (November 2017) cooperating in Syria in the de-escalation zone in Idlib.
This is the third parameter that will affect the political re-alignment in the Middle East.
4. United States
The US was and still is one of the most important forces in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein could not have been overthrown and Iraq’s present government could not have established its authority without the direct involvement of the US. But there is still widespread resentment in Iraq for what Washington has done.
In Syria, denigrating the United States is part and parcel of official propaganda. When the US assumed the leading role in overthrowing the Assad regime, it added insult to injury.
Confusing statements came out of Washington on the chemical attack 19 March 2013. Russia stepped in to propose an agreement providing that Syria would declare and surrender its chemical weapons to be destroyed under international supervision. This agreement was endorsed by Syria and implemented.
The US involvement became more tangible when it decided to lead the fight against ISIS. It led a coalition of dozens of states. The United States cooperated with Turkey in a programme called ‘Train and Equip’. It aimed to create ‘vetted’ moderate opposition fighters and to send them to Syria to fight the regime, but it failed because the ‘vetted’ fighters joined extremist groups after they crossed the border into Syria and handed over the equipment that was given to them to the extremist factions.
The US admission at a later stage, that there is no substitute for Assad, did not ease the many grudges held against Washington within the Syrian government. The United States may have shifted away from the policy of ‘no place for Assad in Syria’s future’ because of its inconsistency. The present policy is that Bashar al-Assad, while not ideal, is the least worst option.
A new parameter in the US policy in Syria is President Donald Trump’s attitude towards keeping the door open for cooperation with Russia. However, because of the conflicting statements made to this effect in various quarters in the US, it will be more prudent to wait and see how Washington’s Syria policy will ultimately take shape.
Another aspect that has to be taken into consideration is that for several years, the United States has planned to shift its focus from the Middle East to Asia. It is not easy to tell if and when this will happen.
This is the fourth parameter that will impact political realignment in the Middle East.
The Middle East crisis brought the Kurdish issue a few notches up on the international agenda. Estimated to be 30 million strong, the Kurds are the biggest community in the world without their own independent state. Two developments have brought the Kurdish issue to the forefront.
One of them is the performance that the Syrian Kurds, specifically the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have demonstrated in cooperating with the US in its fight against ISIS. Washington spoke with pride of the contribution the Kurds made to defeating ISIS in its de facto capital, Raqqa. Turkey insistently offered its cooperation to the US to re-take Raqqa, but the US preferred to work with the YPG. The US is not unaware of the power of the Turkish army, but the material support that the US provides to the Kurds must have played an important role in shaping its attitude.
Furthermore, Washington can manipulate the YPG more easily. Turkey protested, saying most of the weapons and ammunition will end up in the hands of the fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with whom it has been fighting for more than 30 years. The US responded that these weapons will only be used to fight ISIS and will be taken back after it is defeated. Few in Turkey believe that this is feasible.
The other development that brought the Kurdish issue more to the forefront is the independence referendum that President Masoud Barzani of the KRG held on 25 September. All major stakeholders did their best to persuade Barzani not to hold it, but he remained unmoved. Five countries were more closely involved in these efforts: Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the US, and to a lesser extent Russia.
Iraq was opposed to the referendum because it would ultimately lead to the partition of the country. In August 2016, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that he considered self-determination an “undisputed right”, but in 2017 he said that he would use military force if the situation escalated to violence. Eventually, he used force, but, partly thanks to efforts by Kassem Suleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the clashes between the Iraqi government forces and Peshmerga lasted only one day and ended with relatively low casualties and the easy victory of the government forces.
Iran was opposed to the referendum because it feared that Kurds in Iran would be inspired by the Iraqi Kurds to demand their independence. When the referendum was held, Iran immediately closed the border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan to demonstrate its opposition.
Turkey used to entertain close relations with Barzani. It even signed agreements for pumping Kurdish oil to the Turkish terminal in Iskenderun, despite strong opposition from Baghdad. It was unclear whether Turkey was opposed to the substance of the referendum or to the timing.
The US opposed the referendum but it was not very clear how genuine this opposition was. There is a general feeling that if the US had opposed it more strongly, it could have persuaded Barzani to postpone it.
Russia’s opposition was much milder than that of other states.
There was a mutual lack of confidence among the major actors most interested in the Kurdish referendum: Turkey, Iran, the US, and Iraq. Each and every one of these actors suspected that the others would find a way to come to an agreement with the Kurds and leave it out in the cold.
The only country that supported the referendum unconditionally was Israel.
Barzani had his own reasons for not postponing it: He thought that the turmoil both in Iraq and in the region at large offered a suitable basis for going ahead. Furthermore, his term as president was going to come to an end. He likely wanted to go down in history as a national hero who secured independence for Kurdistan.
Barzani made his task more difficult by including in the geographical scope of the referendum the regions that were referred to as ‘disputed territories’ in article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. Among these territories, Kirkuk occupies the most important place because of its oil wealth. The military operation launched by Baghdad took back all the disputed territories.
Baghdad and Erbil will now start negotiations, but the issue of independence is not expected to be on the agenda.
The Kurdish issue will follow its own course in the international agenda, but its evolution will not be simultaneous in the four countries with sizeable Kurdish minorities: Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Iraqi Kurds were closer to independence than their kin elsewhere, but their attempt to gain independence backfired because President Massoud Barzani tried to bite off more than he could chew. Despite this, Iraq’s Kurds will remain closer to independence, because they already have a federal status recognised by the central authorities in Baghdad; they have delineated borders and functioning institutions.
In Syria, the least that the Kurds will settle for will probably be enhanced municipal competences. One step further than this is the recognition by Damascus of the unilaterally declared establishment of three de facto cantons, Al Jazeera, Kobane, and Afrin. However, it cannot be taken for granted that Damascus will agree to it. Another step could be a federated Kurdish state in the north. The likelihood of this scenario depends on bargaining between the US and Russia on one side and Damascus on the other. Because Ankara and Damascus, the two biggest antagonists in the crisis, are both opposed to the establishment of a federated Kurdish state, they will, ironically, be on the same side against the two biggest supporters of the Kurdish cause, the US and Russia. The proclamation of an independent Kurdistan by Syria’s Kurds could only come about if the territorial integrity of Syria becomes impossible to maintain.
In Iran, it is unclear where the Kurdish cause stands, because the evolution of Kurdish nationalism in Iran is not as significant as developments in the three other countries with large Kurdish minorities.
In Turkey, the centre of the Kurdish political movement is the south-eastern province of Diyarbakir. However, the biggest Kurdish city in Turkey is Istanbul.
Istanbul is home to the biggest Kurdish community in the world. Nonetheless, the proportion of the Kurdish population in Istanbul does not exceed 5% of the city’s total population. The second biggest Kurdish community in Turkey does not live again in Diyarbakir, but in Izmir. The third may be Mersin or Antalya. This important demographic factor underlines the dispersed nature of the Kurdish minority all over Turkey. Kurdish businessmen own big factories in the country. They own holiday villages on the coasts of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, far from the regions considered to be the heartland of the Kurdish speaking communities.
The solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey could be achieved more smoothly by improving fundamental rights and freedoms and by increasing the standards of democracy whereby all citizens of Turkey, Kurds and non-Kurds alike, will benefit from improvements and will not complain about the recognition of their cultural identity.
Kurds enjoy the support of both the US and Russia. These two countries will probably continue to lend their support and may even compete for it between themselves.
The occupation of the oil and water resources of Syria by the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by Kurds, is also linked to the American support for the Kurdish cause in Syria. This will become one of the thorniest issues at the negotiation table in resolving the Syrian crisis.
This is the fifth paradigm that will affect political re-alignment in the post-crisis Middle East.
6. The Anti-Iran alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia
The emergence of Iran as an important power-broker in the region disturbed two countries more than the others: Saudi Arabia and Israel. Therefore, they formed an alliance that would counterbalance this new rising power.
For the Jewish state, and the Saudi kingdom, this was new territory. Historically, they’d been enemies. For example, the founding father of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz al Saud, sent letters in the late 1930s to then-US President Franklin D. Roosevelt strongly opposing the allocation of a homeland to Jews in Palestine. He reiterated this strong position during their meeting in 1945, on board the US Navy cruiser Quincy in the Suez Canal.
The origins of this antagonism go back to the strained relations between the Prophet Mohammed and the influential Jewish community in Medina (Yathrib) in the 7th Century. This background may give the impression that genuine cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia is likely to encounter insurmountable difficulties. Undoubtedly there are mutual misperceptions in both countries.
Nonetheless, the changing political landscape may induce the two countries to a rapprochement.
Egypt may also act together with the anti-Iranian alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia, but not because it perceives a threat from Iran. A more important reason for Egypt is that it is not pleased to see a non-Arab country achieving prominence in Arab countries like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Some of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with the exception of Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Oman, may also join the Israeli-Saudi effort.
Muhammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, made an attempt to push Lebanon to join this group by forcing the Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign. The resignation was later put on hold at the request of Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
The two driving forces of this initiative, Israel and Saudi Arabia, have almost no convergent interests except their perceived threat from Iran. This will be a limiting factor in their cooperation.
The major change in the Middle East will be Iran and Russia taking a stronger role in the region.
Iran will gain a stronger position in Syria, whatever the outcome of the Syrian crisis. It will have a legitimate expectation to be rewarded for the military sacrifices it has made. The Syrian regime will trust Iran more than almost all other important stakeholders in the Syrian crisis. In any re-alignment after the situation is stabilised in the region, Iran and Syria will probably act together, because they have more convergent interests than with any other partner.
Iran’s political and military presence in Lebanon may also grow due to its increased presence in Iraq and Syria, especially if it can create a supply corridor to Lebanon through Iraqi and Syrian territories. This is the reason why Iran has a keen interest in controlling the corridor that goes from Baghdad to Deir ez-Zor and from there to the Syria-Lebanon border.
Russia will probably become the major force in the region, with or without the US. If the US decides to stay in the Middle East, Russia will have an upper hand in negotiating a deal for zones of influence in Syria as well as in neighbouring countries. A balance of power could be established between the US and Russia, if both countries act with restraint.
Russia is going to remain in Syria and may expand its influence from there to other Middle Eastern countries.
In the rivalry between Iran and the Israeli-Saudi alliance, Russia will not be a participant on either side. It will try to play the role of a balancing power. There are prospects for cooperation in economic fields between Russia and Saudi Arabia, especially in oil-related issues, but they are limited in other areas.
Turkey’s role in the Middle East is likely to suffer serious erosion. The normalisation of relations with Syria will take time. Turkey and Syria have several converging interests, especially in connection with the Kurdish issue, but the scars caused by Turkey’s Syria policy are so deep that, despite converging interests, returning to the pre-crisis level of friendly relations cannot be expected soon.
A similar assessment is valid for Turkey’s relations with Iraq, though to a much lesser degree.
Turkey’s relations with Iran are described by Shahram Akbarzadeh and Alfred Deakin as “not quite enemies, but less than friends”. This centuries-old pattern is likely to stay, with turbulence from time to time, to be followed by a modus vivendi.
Turkey may also have to pay a price for its policy towards Egypt. It meddled unnecessarily with domestic affairs by siding with Morsi because of their common Muslim Brotherhood sympathies.
The Syrian crisis and problems in Turkey’s relations with the West are pushing it towards Moscow. Nonetheless, if Turkey does not make a suicidal attempt to turn its back on NATO, it will remain part of the alliance, though with less confidence from other members.
Turkey’s relations with the EU have been hampered for reasons independent of the Middle East crisis. They may be revived if Turkey’s record on human rights and democracy improves.
Turkey is likely to face a difficult environment in the post-crisis era.
Washington will probably keep its military presence in the Middle East even if it shifts its focus to the Pacific, but its influence may suffer a certain degree of erosion. It will have to reconcile itself to Russia’s growing weight in the region. The US presence in Iraq may continue but may become problematic, because of the growing influence of Iran.
The scars in US-Syria relations will become deeper because of the costs of American policy in the country.
As a whole, the Middle East will remain a turbulent region for the foreseeable future.
Former Turkish Foreign Minister
 Ranj Alaaldin, The Kurdish Defeat in Iraq is Another Victory for Iran, Mosaic, Advancing Jewish Thought, October 18, 2017
 Iran Boosts Support to Syria, Telegraph, 21 February, 2014
 Hayom, Israeli daily newspaper, November 15, 2017
“Who are Hezbollah”, BBC News. 21 May 2008. Retrieved 15 August 2008.
 Al Jazeera, News, Middle East, July 4, 2017
 Aidan Lewis, Profile: Tunisia’s Annahdha Party, BBC News, 25 October 2011, from the Section Africa; and
Francesco Guidi, Behind the Scenes and Forecasts, About Oil, AbO, October 31, 2011.
 Associated Press, September 10, 2013.
 Adam Taylor, The First Time a US President met a Saudi King, The Washington Post, January 27, 2015.
 Third World Quarterly, Volume 38, 2017, Issue 4.
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