The battle lines of the Middle East are changing. The chaotic force of the Islamic State has pushed the region's major powers — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran — to rethink decades-old relationships and regional strategies. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Syrian-Iraqi battleground, where a sectarian proxy battle has been the incubator for an emerging balance of power. Though it may look messy on the surface, this dynamic falls in line with the United States' long-term strategy for the region.
Many have criticized Washington's decision not to take a more direct role in containing the violence in Syria or to rely on local forces to combat the Islamic State in Iraq. But the United States' global geopolitical imperatives necessitate a balance of power in the Middle East in which regional actors shoulder more of the burden of managing their problems. Washington's refusal to be dragged back into another ground war in the Middle East is slowly bearing fruit, as Turkey is cautiously re-entering its former sphere of influence along its southern flank, counterbalancing the Saudi-Iranian competition that has fueled much of the violence destabilizing the Middle East.
We wrote last week about Egypt's attempts to craft an Arab response to regional pressures, focused specifically against the Islamic State and other regional militant groups threatening Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's administration. Cairo lacks the geopolitical heft to shape outcomes in Syria or Iraq, let alone region-wide change. Egypt nevertheless is a crucial part of a broader attempt by Saudi Arabia, using its role in both the Arab and Sunni worlds, to reach out to Turkey in combatting both the Islamic State and an emergent Iran. The challenges are plenty, and regional Sunni cohesion may well prove as elusive as a stable Pan-Arab military alliance. If nothing else Saudi outreach has helped finish what the United States began: pushing Ankara to take a stronger role in the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a delegation of Turkish politicians arrived in Riyadh this past Monday to meet with their Saudi counterparts, including new Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Few details of the discussions were announced, but both sides agreed to work together on Syria. The meetings, as well as the agreement, represent a marked shift in the relations between the Middle East's two main Sunni powers. Turkish foreign policy (especially under the leadership of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party) has favored mainstream Islamists, to the consternation of the Saudi government under former King Abdullah. Saudi Arabia still views the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamist democratization movements as threat to its long-term national stability, but the concurrent threats of the Islamic State and Iran call for a shift in tactics.
Saudi Arabia has also re-engaged Qatar — a state that, like Turkey, supports mainstream Islamists. This support has put them at odds with Riyadh and, at times, broadly in line with Iran (such as the three countries' opposition to the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in 2013). There are growing indications that Riyadh, Ankara and Doha now working together and supporting similar groups of rebels in Syria, in contrast to backing (sometimes violently) competing rebel forces. Especially in northern Syria, along the border with Turkey, groups like Jabhat al-Shamiya are beginning to enjoy a wider base of regional support, as Gulf actors are continuing to scale back support for more right-wing Salafist-jihadist rebel actors such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
In neighboring Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are working with disaffected Sunni Arab tribesmen to expand the Iraqi coalition battling the Islamic State, even as Turkey works with both Kurdish forces and Baghdad to strengthen Iraq's anti-Islamic State positions. This Sunni cooperation is not without its challenges, however. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia would like to shape the futures of Syria and Iraq according to their own strategic interests, and Riyadh and Ankara are ultimately competitors for influence in the region. Both also have to deal with Iran.
Iran's influence over its western periphery has ebbed and flowed for some 2,500 years. However, since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has been able to consolidate relationships in Iraq to create a Shiite arc of influence from its borders to the eastern Mediterranean. Iraq is the crux to Iran's Middle East strategy; it can serve as the launch pad for Iranian influence into the Arab world or, as it has so many times in history, serve as the staging grounds for a foreign invasion of Iran. It makes sense then that Iran has stepped up its direct military involvement in Iraq over the past week, with Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps forces participating with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, Iraqi army forces and a limited number of Sunni tribal elements in the battle for Tikrit.
Along with long-standing Iranian and Shiite backing of Syrian President Bashar al Assad government (Syria historically served as a critical route for Iranian material support to Hezbollah), Iran has increased its military presence across both Syria and Iraq in fighting the Islamic State. Whereas Turkey and Saudi Arabia are attempting to expand their influence into both states, Iran has been forced into a defensive position, seeking to retain elements of the influence it enjoyed in the period between the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the unrest of 2011's Arab Spring. This strategic reversal is one of the factors pushing Tehran to negotiate with the United States to help gain recognition of its footholds in the Arab world and safeguard its status as a regional power, albeit a weak one.
As the threat posed by the Islamic State gives rise to a tenuous working relationship between Ankara and Riyadh, the U.S. plan for a regional balance of power involves changing more than three decades of strained relations with its former ally, Iran. Iran's direct involvement in the battle for Tikrit raises questions over the eventual battle for Mosul, where Shiite militias are slowly increasing their presence and the United States plans to assist Kurdish and Iraqi forces in the fight against the Islamic State.
Coordinating with Iran is an incentive for the United States. Still, Washington cannot see Iran too weakened (or assertive), and direct competition between Tehran and Riyadh poses too great a risk of regional destabilization — necessitating a greater Turkish role in the region. And so we see the battle lines converging, overlapping and blending into an emerging balance of power.