Shifting Alliances in the Middle East

by Ofir Haivry
October 1, 2014

The old Middle-Eastern border has collapsed. Like a glacier that has been undermined gradually by hidden trickles from within and then subjected to a final spring thaw, it has come crashing down. The ongoing Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 have unseated or threaten to unseat every Muslim government in the region. Swirling conflicts have replaced former arrangements, and, from afar, these conflicts look like a shapeless free-for-all. But beneath the chaos, patterns are forming among regional players who are working to come out on top once things settle down.

The new Middle East is being built on the rubble of the old dispensation, but it is vastly different from it. For generations, there was an “Arab World” stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Regardless of its internal rivalries and rifts, it shared a consensus about the identity of the region as Arab (and mostly Sunni Muslim) and tended toward autocratic and dynastic government. Non-Arab countries in the region, such as Turkey, Iran, and Israel, were deemed alien to this identity and for the most part were sidelined politically.

But in the nearly four years since the Arab uprisings, the non-Arab powers have been drawn deeper into regional power politics. The resulting realignment consists of five broad, cross-regional, and loosely ideological confederations. Each has a clear leader and is pursuing a new set of defined interests, often at the expense of the others. For Western observers, formerly useful distinctions are fast losing their analytical value in this remade universe. These are not explicit coalitions, with treaty arrangements and the like; they have come together strategically in pursuit of common interests and against common foes. If Western policymakers hope to engage the new Middle East, they must come to terms with these five coalitions and their significance in the region……


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