Making sense of the Middle East

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By Dr. Bren Carlill

Although it presents as a mostly arid, frequently bloody chaos of hatred and religion, the Middle East actually makes sense if you look at the big picture.


Over the last few decades, three broad groupings have coalesced in the region; the Status Quo Bloc, the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum. Understanding these groupings is vital if you want to understand the what and why (and what next) of the region.


These aren’t formal alliances by any means, just a series of shared worldviews. Think of them as the vertices of a strategic triangle; each fears the other two, and violence occurs where the activities of these groupings overlap.


The Status Quo Bloc consists of most of the Arab Persian Gulf countries, plus Egypt and Jordan, with a few hangers-on. These countries are Sunni and Arab. They look to the US to guarantee their security. They are not democracies. They might be the Status Quo Bloc, but a better name might be ‘Status Quo Ante Bloc’, because the Middle East is changing under their feet, and they wish it wouldn’t. They would prefer the region to look like it did 30 years ago. Israel is a proxy member.


The Resistance Bloc wants to shake things up. Its members are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Iran, which is neither Sunni nor Arab, the Resistance Bloc includes Syria, Hezbollah and, to a certain extent, Hamas.


The third grouping is that of Sunni Islamists, which don’t feel represented by Iran (which is Shi’i) or the leaders of the Status Quo Bloc, who generally pursue secular policies, despite professing religiosity.


An Islamist is someone who wants their society and country run according to their interpretation of Islam. Islamists can be moderates or extremists. Some Islamists support violence, others reject it.


Islamist movements form a continuum, from the moderate and peaceful all the way through to the terrifyingly violent, like Islamic State. There is no clear line of distinction. We have seen time and again individual Islamists slide on this continuum between moderate and extremist outlooks. The Islamist Continuum mostly consists of sub-state movements, but there are two countries in it; Turkey and Qatar.


Over the decades, Islamist movements in Arab states have been tolerated, with one important proviso; the religious leadership (or anyone else) are to make no complaints about – or attempts to usurp – the ruling elite. Bloody bouts of repression, with thousands of people imprisoned or killed have occurred when a religious movement overstepped this mark or the ruling elite feared their popularity.


Thus, over time, political Islamist movements (like the Muslim Brotherhood) went underground and bided their time, and the Islamists that justified violence formed various terrorist organisations, which have attacked Muslim and non-Muslim targets.


Social media and the 2011 Arab Spring offered the underground political Islamist groups an invaluable opportunity. The Arab Spring was originally a genuinely popular movement of people wanting more rights than they had. But in every case where elections were held, Islamists won. This was because Islamists had been highly, if secretly, organised for many years, and could wield charismatic leaders. The liberal democratic groups that we in the West hoped would have won were newly created, unorganised and factional, preventing unity.


The stunning ascendance of Sunni Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring saw the Status Quo countries enact all sorts of policies, from buying off their restless citizenship, to brutally cracking down on Islamist movements.


It’s worth looking at conflict zones in the Middle East, to see where and how the Status Quo Bloc, Resistance Bloc and Islamist Continuum overlap. Although they aren’t friends, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are in the same grouping, and aren’t fighting each other. However, there is frequent violence between Israel and Hamas (and Islamic Jihad – also in the Resistance Bloc).


Hamas has been on an interesting journey. It long straddled the Islamist Continuum and Resistance Bloc. However, in 2012, massive Syrian violence against Sunni Arabs in the context of the Syrian civil war, plus the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the overthrow of (the Status Quo) Hosni Mubarak, saw Hamas leave Syria (and the Resistance Bloc) and set up camp in Turkey and Qatar. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was replaced by a counter coup (the Status Quo back in power), and Hamas was left financially stranded. In the decade since, it has been doing teshuva with Iran, and now once again has a foot in both the Islamist and Resistance camps.


In Lebanon, internal conflict is between sides backed by the Resistance and Status Quo Blocs. The Syrian civil war saw a key Resistance Bloc member threatened. Fighters supported by both the Islamist Continuum and Status Quo Bloc got involved, but the Resistance Bloc has all but regained full control.


The US-led invasion of Iraq led to a vacuum in that country filled by all three groupings. The fight for ascendancy continues. This is probably the most important fight for the future of the Middle East. Given the amount of blood and treasure the US spent in Iraq, that the Resistance Bloc might prevail there is an astounding strategic defeat for the West.


In Yemen, it’s Resistance vs Status Quo. In Sinai, it’s Status Quo vs Islamist. And so it goes.


The Status Quo Bloc has long looked to the US to guarantee its safety, but the last decade has shown that the US cannot be trusted on this front. This is one of the key reasons for the public rapprochement between Israel and the Status Quo countries. The Abraham Accords might have been marketed as peace, brotherhood and trade, but they were founded in the bedrock of mutual fear and loathing of Islamists and, especially, Iran.


Dr Bren Carlill is Director of Public Affairs at the Zionist Federation of Australia. He will be expanding on this topic at Limmud Oz this weekend. For more details: 

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