While the media hype may have lessened somewhat over the Arab Spring revolutions, the region is no less in turmoil than when the Jasmine Revolution first began in Tunisia.
The nexus of tension has shifted somewhat to focus on the Gulf States, Syria and the looming threat of conflict between Iran, the US and her allies. This analysis looks at the evolving role of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the Middle East as the NATO summit gets underway in Chicago.
Bahrain is fast becoming the center of tensions between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi influence in the island kingdom increasing at the government level, and the Iranian influence increasing with the majority-Shiite population.
To this end, Saudi Arabia has proposed that the decades old GCC should evolve from its ineffectual ‘council’ status, to a union of the six principle Gulf countries, in a similar vein to the European Union. The proposal has been met with wariness and close to outright rejection in all of the Gulf States save Bahrain, who sees the closer ties with powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia as a way to sure up its tenuous grasp on power.
The likelihood of a Gulf Union functioning in reality is very slim, given that the GCC as it stands has been unable to agree on a number of initiatives, such as a joint security force, a common currency or monetary policy.
From a distance it may appear that the Gulf nations have enough in common to facilitate the creation of such a union; however there are vast difference in politics, cultural and societal norms in these nations that would inhibit such a union. The proposal, with its main force coming from Riyadh, makes most of the Gulf States afraid that they would lose out on their national identities and independence and come under the thumb of the largest and most powerful GCC member, Saudi Arabia.
Iran Under Pressure
Iran has reacted to the call from Riyadh for a unified Gulf region by terming the move a façade for annexing Bahrain, and has called the US the main instigator, as Bahrain is the host of the powerful US fifth fleet in the Gulf.
Iran itself is facing increasing hostility among its neighbors, with most of the GCC choosing to take an unsympathetic stance toward the country. Qatar and Oman remain outside the GCC fold on Iran, and have chosen to foster good relations with Tehran despite their immediate neighbors fearing the influence of the country in the region.
The main regional alliance against Iran is loosely based around the shared fear of Iranian influence by Israel the GCC and NATO, and now the US has declared it has a war plan ready in case of conflict with Iran, which has ratcheted up the speculation of action against Iran that has been simmering for months.
US Congress passed the controversial resolution H.Res.568, which states that Congress “strongly supports the United States policy to prevent the government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.”
The rejection of containment is being interpreted as an about-turn for US policy over Iran, which has strongly relied on containing and coercion methods such as sanctions to urge Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell Lawrence Wilkerson warned that, “This resolution reads like the same sheet of music that got us into the Iraq war, and could be the precursor for a war with Iran. It’s effectively a thinly-disguised effort to bless war.”
The bill comes on the eve of the new round of 5+1 negotiations with Iran, which the US is participating in, and it is widely anticipated that the strong message of the bill will undermine the negotiation efforts with Iran. This comes on the back of revelations from Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel, that the US has a war plan for Iran, and that the Pentagon is ready for a military strike.
Syria Still Burning
While pressure is mounting in the Gulf, the other regional fire still burning is the Syrian uprising. The picture is developing more and more into an entrenched civil war scenario, and for the most part, the region has sided with the rebels. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are now actively supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition, with reports of US coordination in the background.
However, Russia has stated that it will continue to support the Syrian government with the supply of weapons. Both Russia and China have been adamant in their refusal to back UN proposals that specifically call for the ousting of President Assad, although they both support the current UN peace plan developed by UN envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan. Interestingly, President Assad recently spoke out about China and Russia’s position on Syria, and their importance in the region:
“They (Russia and China) do not support me as president. They promote stability in the region and have a very good understanding of Syria’s role and importance (in the Middle East),” he said. He further claimed that without them, the region, and Syria would be “swept by chaos.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned western powers last week on launching hasty wars and infringing the sovereignty of other states through military operations. Medvedev raised the alarm by stating such tactics could lead to the rise of radical Islamist factions and even result in regional nuclear wars. Speaking ahead of his visit to Camp David, Medvedev’s comments were referring to Russia’s standoff with the West over military action in Syria and its earlier criticism of NATO’s airstrikes in Libya.
On the other hand, the GCC has become more vocal in its opposition to Assad, with the regime’s Iranian ties thought to be at the center of the Council’s readiness to see him ousted. Turkey, once a solid friend and ally of Syria has become one of the most vocal in calling for Assad to step down, and the NATO alliance are also in agreement that the Assad regime should rescind its claim power in the country.
There still remains, however, the very real concern as to what or who would replace the Assad regime if it were to fall. There is no real unified opposition, and reports that Al Qaeda are active in the country, exploiting the societal upheaval, creates even more concern in neighbors and observers as to how the Syrian situation can be resolved without creating a huge power vacuum in the region.
In a spillover effect, sectarian clashes also erupted between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon last week. Fighting broke out after security forces arrested Shadi al-Mawalawi, a Sunni Islamist, on charges of having links with terrorist organization. Mawalawi’s supporters say he was targeted for providing aid to Syrian refugees.
On the other hand, Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has emerged at the forefront in opposing President Bashar al-Assad. Brotherhood also has majority presence in the Syrian National Council and controls its relief committee and independently sends funding and weapons to the rebels.
Brotherhood in Syria does not expect victory of the kind Brotherhood experienced in Egypt and Tunisia, mainly due to the country’s long history of secularism and its substantial minority population. However, many speculate the support for Brotherhood will grow as the uprising drags on and it may become the biggest party after the departure of Assad regime. Meanwhile, Brotherhood in Syria is distancing itself from Al Qaeda, suspected of double suicide bombing in Damascus last week.
The movement’s deputy head stated recently that Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood would support NATO intervention to help the opposition topple Assad. The group has published a manifesto outlining its vision of a future democratic state that has no mention of Islam and enshrines individual liberties.