Who Will Dominate the Middle East?

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Who Will Dominate the Middle East?

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With the shifting sands of the Middle East and North Africa, the United States appears to be losing its ability to shape events in the region. Things are certainly looking bad for the state of Israel. In fact, with so many contending over this region, things are looking bleaker and more dangerous for everyone.

Last year's so-called "Arab Spring" saw dissident groups of vastly different overall aims coming together to remove dictatorial regimes. But that temporary unity based on sharing a common enemy is already beginning to unravel.

Where are the geopolitical changes in the region headed? Let's consider five factors underlying the major power shifts underway.

Islamists dominate newly elected parliaments

Post-uprising elections have swept political Islamists into office. These have garnered the vast majority of seats in parliaments in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Kuwait.

The same will likely occur in the up-coming Libyan elections, where Islamist strains run through almost all parties. And Yemen's new Muslim president will likely be joined by Islamists coming to power in parliamentary elections.

Egypt's presidential elections scheduled for May 23 and 24 may see the Islamists' newfound political power in parliament at work as kingmakers push for their selected candidate. Furthermore, Islamists in parliament are determined to curtail the president's powers in the next constitution, giving more say in the running of the country to the legislature they now dominate.

(The interim caretaker prime minister and cabinet the military rulers installed are expected to relinquish power this summer. But the diminishing of the military's power in dominating the government is expected to be a gradual process.)

In Egypt and elsewhere Islamists are winning because they have the most organized networks to mobilize voters, are the most trusted public or political groups, and have a track record of challenging oppressive or autocratic regimes.

Muslim Brotherhood offshoots in Libya and Syria, where they have suffered persecution from the government for decades, recently established political parties in anticipation of future elections.

Cairo-based journalist John Bradley, authorof After the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolutions (2012), argues that the Islamist groups that have taken power in the Middle East are here to stay—with dire prospects for liberal democracy anywhere in the region. Asked in Zócalo Public Square online magazine whether some Islamist groups have already peaked, giving room for secular agendas to grow in the future, he responded:

"The opposite is true. It's secularism and liberalism that have peaked in the Arab world. Remember, [Iraq's] Saddam Hussein was a secularist, as was [Yemen's] Ali Abdullah Saleh, [Egypt's] Hosni Mubarak, [Libya's] Colonel Gaddafi, and [Tunisia's] Ben Ali. It's therefore not difficult to understand why most Arabs now associate secularism and liberalism with corruption, torture, tyranny, poverty, and a lack of dignity . . . That's the vacuum now being filled by political Islam. What will happen in the long-term nobody can predict. But the medium-term belongs to the Islamists" ("What Moderate Islamism?" March 4, 2012).

This does not bode well for the West in general and Israel in particular. Islamists in general are more hostile than secularists to peace with Israel and are supportive of Hamas, the terror organization now governing the Gaza Strip.

Sunni Crescent vs. Shiite Crescent

Regional geopolitics pit the powerful "Sunni Crescent" led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates against the beleaguered "Shiite Crescent" states—Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.

Barry Rubin, director of global research in the International Affairs Center in Israel, sizes up the strategic battle for influence in The Jerusalem Post: "The new Middle East strategic battle is heating up, and this is only the start. It has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with two more serious lines of battle: Arabs versus Persians [of Iran] and Sunni versus Shia Muslims . . .

"The real struggle is over who will control each Muslim majority country and who is going to lead the Middle East . . . The Sunni Arab position was stated very clearly by Amr Moussa, a veteran Arab nationalist and candidate for Egypt's presidency: '(The) Arab Middle East will not be run by Iran or Turkey'" ("The Region: The New Middle East's Internal Divisions," March 4, 2012).

Rubin later clarifies what is emerging: "What we are seeing again, for the first time in three decades . . . is an Egyptian bid to lead the Arabic-speaking world and even the whole region. On this point, Egyptian leftists, nationalists and Islamists are united.

"And in the first round, the battle over control of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, Egypt won and Iran lost." (See "Hamas' Shifting Allegiance Reflects New Mideast Dynamics")

Egypt is the largest Arab country, with a population of 83 million, and has long had a major influence on the region. Now that Islamists have won 72 percent of the seats in the lower house and nearly as many in the upper, this fundamentalist orientation will likely be a major influence on the growing number of Islamic governments in the region.

Regional geopolitical jockeying

As Hamas and Egypt push for regional influence, other regional players are doing the same. In its annual forecast, the global intelligence service Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting) pointed out that Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are involved in a dance for dominance in the shifting political sands of the region:

"Iran's efforts to expand its influence will be the primary issue for the Middle East in 2012. The U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq has rendered Iran the pre-eminent military power in the Persian Gulf . . . Turkey, Iran's natural regional counterweight, is rising steadily, albeit slowly" ("Annual Forecast 2012," Jan. 20, 2012).

Turkey, the report states, will continue to face significant challenges to its regional ascendency due to instability near its borders. It continues its efforts to mold an opposition in Syria, counterbalance Iranian sway in Iraq and influence the rise of political Islamists, particularly in Egypt and Syria. But analysts don't see it making much headway.

Stratfor also explains how Iran affects Saudi Arabia's push for regional dominance: "Iran's regional expansion will be felt most deeply by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royals now doubt that the United States has the ability or the willingness to fully guarantee Riyadh's interests. Adding to Saudi Arabia's vulnerabilities, the Gulf Cooperation Council states fear that if Iran is not contained within Iraq, it will exploit continued Shiite unrest in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia's Shia-concentrated, oil-rich Eastern Province."

Saudi Arabia is leading efforts to shore up and consolidate the defenses of Gulf Cooperation Council members to try to ward off the threat posed by Iran. But those efforts will not be a sufficient replacement for America's role as a security guarantor.

Stratfor goes on to examine the tug-of-war underway in Iraq and Syria: "The effects of Iran's expansion efforts will be most visible in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, Iran's main challenge is to consolidate Shiite power among several competing groups.

"As Iraq's fractured Shiite leadership tries to solidify its influence with Iranian support, Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish factions increasingly will be put on the defensive. This ethno-sectarian struggle and the security vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal will degrade Iraq's overall security conditions.

"Meanwhile, Turkey will attempt to contain the spread of Iranian influence in northern Iraq by building up political, economic, military and intelligence assets."

The fight in Syria is really two contests in one. It's a struggle between Syrians over the nature of their government and society, but it's also a regional rivalry between Iran and its adversaries, as Stratfor explains:

"In Syria, the ultimate goal of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States will be to disrupt Iran's Shiite arc of influence by trying to crack Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. However, without direct foreign military intervention, the Syrian regime is unlikely to collapse."

Even the normally feeble 22 nations of the Arab League took unprecedented actions in calling for the Assad regime to leave and hosted a "Friends of Syria" meeting to try to gain support for boycotts and possible military assistance.

The League pushed hard for a resolution from the United Nations Security Council calling on Assad to step aside, but even a watered-down version calling for a cease-fire and talks was blocked by Russia and China.

Also, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are all calling on Assad to go. But as of this writing they remain ambivalent about direct military action, although Saudi Arabia is providing some arms to the rebels.

Syria's ties to Iran complicate its status in the Middle East's power balance. The two countries are commercial partners, have signed a mutual defense agreement and in the past have supported the terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which act against Israel. As pointed to above, the tie to Iran is undoubtedly a major factor in the Arab states calling for Assad's departure.

Unlike the other Arab Spring uprisings, Syria's rebels do not reflect a sweeping cross-culture movement. There is still a large segment of the populace remaining loyal to Assad, so the fighting is likely to be protracted.

Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist Nir Rosen explains the Islamic base of the revolt in Syria: "Syria's uprising is not a secular one. Most participants are devout Muslims inspired by Islam. By virtue of Syria's demography most of the opposition is Sunni Muslim and often come from conservative areas. The death of the Arab left means religion has assumed a greater role in daily life throughout the Middle East" ("Islamism and the Syrian Uprising," March 8, 2012).

Big stakes for the big powers

In addition to the regional forces vying for dominance in the Middle East, the Arab Spring has sparked a global tussle as well. It has become a springboard for big-power geopolitics among the world's greatest military powers—America, Russia and China.

Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has yet to adjust to the post-Soviet reality, and Russia has not settled on its relationship with the rest of the world. And China's growing economic and military prowess means it has a greater need for vital Middle East oil but also the means to secure what it needs.

Syria has emerged as a key battleground for a Cold War–style tug-of-war between these powers. Russia sent warships to discourage foreign intervention in Syria. China has sent emissaries to Syria to try to broker a cease-fire deal and is being drawn more deeply into Iran's confrontation with the West. And America has less and less influence in the region.

Syria is often called Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East. The relationship between them goes back four decades. It formed the centerpiece of the Soviet position in the region during the Cold War, the Soviets then equipping and training the Syrian military.

Moscow today continues to arm and politically shield the Assad regime. The Russians are intent on keeping their only military base outside the old Soviet Union in Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus. In addition, Russia is thought to have major economic interests in Syria, including arms contracts and plans for nuclear energy cooperation.

But America seems equally determined to see a pro-Western regime in Damascus. This has created diplomatic tensions with Russia and China who oppose measures that could lead to military intervention or forced regime change in Syria.

Russia sent at least three guided missile frigates—reportedly loaded with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles—to Syria. Russia's main interest in blocking UN sanctions against the Assad regime is to prevent NATO intervention in Syria and to keep the country in its sphere of influence.

The threat of nuclear attack and proliferation

Just as Russia's approach to the Middle East is at a turning point, Iran seems as determined as ever to move ahead with its nuclear program in defiance of America, Israel and the rest of the West—and the broader world. Even Russia and China oppose Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

Iranian society 33 years ago was steeped in revolutionary fervor. Today it suffers from revolutionary fatigue. This is one reason Iran's 2009 uprising did not have the same durability as the popular uprisings that have unsettled and unseated numerous Arab dictatorships. People may aspire for revolutionary ends, but there's no romanticism about it and a limited appetite for it.

Iran has been a quasi-theocracy since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It has been at odds with America and the West for much of that time.

Israel sees the prospect of a nuclear Iran that calls for its annihilation as an existential threat. Israeli leaders maintain that a decision to strike Iranian nuclear facilities will have to occur by the time Iran is on the verge of shielding these facilities from attack—what they call the "zone of immunity."

Some experts oppose an attack because they claim that even a successful strike would, at best, delay Iran's nuclear program for only a few years.

Many experts believe the greatest threat associated with the Iranian nuclear program is that it might trigger a regional nuclear arms race that would be deeply destabilizing and would dramatically increase the risk of a weapon falling into irresponsible or fanatical hands.

The president of the United States, Barack Obama, has said that nothing is off the table when it comes to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting with Obama, acknowledged that differences still exist in the Israeli and American timetables for contending with the Iranian nuclear program, as reported by The New York Times:

"Mr. Netanyahu reiterated the point he had sought to make forcefully in Washington: that if Iran did not change course, Israel, which considers a nuclear Iran a threat to its existence, would not allow itself to be in a position where its fate was left in others' hands" ("Netanyahu Says U.S. and Israeli 'Clocks' Differ on Iran's Threat," March 9, 2012).

Negotiation efforts are underway to try to come to a diplomatic solution. The six-power talks with Iran include the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany. Obama was hoping talks would help quiet the "drums of war." But others think the Iranians' agreement to these talks is just a false show of cooperation while their nuclear development still goes on.

Reuters news agency reports on the U.S. stance: "'Military action is the last alternative when all else fails,' [U.S. Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta told the annual policy conference of the biggest U.S. pro-Israel lobbying group, AIPAC. 'But make no mistake, when all else fails, we will act'" ("Obama Says New Iran Talks Should Calm 'Drums of War,'" March 6, 2012).

Regional transformation will lead to what is foretold

What all this adds up to is that these multilayered shifting sands of domestic, regional and global forces blowing through the Middle East and North Africa are changing the region more dramatically than at any time in the last half century.

The factors underlying the major power shifts carry long-term effects, creating a dramatically different Middle East than what this generation has known.

And there's another source to help us see what's happening. Bible prophecy reveals how all these shifting forces will eventually play out.

The Arab Spring uprisings, in the short term, have focused the Arab world's attention on the changes swirling around them and away from their longtime nemesis—Israel. But, as prophecy lays out, the persistent hatred of Israel will in the long run grow exponentially as Islamic influence grows. Prophecies indicate that a more united group of Arab nations, perhaps sparked by religious zeal, will focus their rekindled hostility toward Israel.

This hostility will grow to a major crescendo leading to all-out war as we approach the end of this age. Psalm 83 contains an intriguing prophecy that shows a number of Middle Eastern countries forming a confederation of nations determined to cut off Israel from being a nation (verses 3-8).

Out of this region will arise a strong end-time leader Daniel the prophet calls "the king of the South"—successor to the ancient Greek rulers of Egypt (Daniel 11:40). This ruler, probably backed by other Islamic nations joined in confederacy with him, will start the cascade of terrifying events leading to a massive war with the power and ruler the Bible refers to as "the king of the North"—successor to the ancient Greek rulers of Syria.

This power is synonymous with the final revival of the Roman Empire referred to in Scripture as the Beast—which will consist of a brief union of 10 nations (Revelation 17:12-14).

The forces of the North, Europe at this time, will sweep down through the Middle East in a major military counterattack that will overthrow the southern power and occupy key portions of the Middle East (Daniel 11:40-41). (See also "The Middle East: Focus of End-Time Bible Prophecy")

Ultimately, however, this European power and other eastern forces arrayed against it will resist the return of Jesus Christ as coming King and will suffer utter defeat (Revelation 16:12-14; 17:14; 19:11-21). (Our free Bible study aid booklet The Middle East in Bible Prophecy gives more details.)

In the meantime, Jesus tells all of us to stay on the alert to events heralding His coming (Matthew 24:42; Luke 21:36). One major indicator we should be watching for is the rise of a unifying force and leader in the Middle East. Keep your eyes and interests fastened on significant developments in this critically important region.