By William Tucker
When analyzing the current wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East it is necessary to study the impacted nations from both a local and regional standpoint. For instance, the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt both resulted in military coups to remove a long time autocratic leader, but they moved in this direction for different reasons. For Tunisia, it was high unemployment among a well educated population, while in Egypt it stemmed from a variety of political and economic factors. The same goes for Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Each of these nations has experienced mass protests, and although they may have been inspired by the events in Tunisia, these people are taking to the streets for a whole host of different reasons. What this all means is that the events began as organic uprisings and were not necessarily organized by a meddling power, but because of the importance of the Middle East this hands off approach certainly will not last.
The most apparent example of this is the overt military campaign to institute a no fly zone over Libya, but there are plenty of signs pointing to covert operations, or a hidden hand, in the region designed to use the unrest for another nation’s interests. Libya can be considered in this context as well. For several weeks prior to beginning of air operations over Libya, British Special Forces were present in the country making contact with opposition forces. More recent media reports state that Egyptian Special Forces are also in the country arming and training opposition forces as a means of stopping Gaddafi’s recent counteroffensive. For Egypt the reason for doing this is apparent – Libya borders Egypt and Cairo doesn’t want to deal with an influx of refugees while trying to manage a government transition. This may not be the only incentive for the Egyptian military led government to intervene in Libya, but it is the most pressing reason in the short term.
While Egyptian moves in Libya are done for both domestic and strategic reasons, other players in the region are engaged in a more complex game. Saudi Arabia and Iran, while both experiencing their own domestic unrest, have been locked in a struggle for wider regional dominance and are using this wave of unrest as yet another battleground. Evidence of this ongoing fight via the streets first manifested in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, which are heavily Shia, and shortly thereafter in Bahrain. The Bahraini opposition is largely comprised of the Shia majority in the island nation and some among the protesters sought support from Iran should a crackdown commence. Iran is by and large a Shiite nation, so it is natural that some Shia in Bahrain would look to Iran for protection. When the Gulf Cooperation Council sent in troops, led by Saudi Arabia, Iran did not intervene directly, but it did provide rhetorical support. The same approach was used in the recent crackdown on Shia protesters in al-Qatif. Although Iran is known to have intelligence assets in place in these majority Shiite areas they cannot always carry out direct overt operations.
Saudi Arabia understands Iranian prowess in covert matters all too well and appears to have taken to stirring the pot in Syria – Tehran’s primary regional ally. The Saudi’s have been engaged in negotiations with Syria’s president Bashir al-Assad and have offered aid, which Syria desperately needs, as a means of checking Iranian influence in the Levant. Syria may be formally allied with Iran, but al-Assad has been in talks with everyone from the U.S., several European nations, and the Saudi’s looking for the best deal. With protests finally taking root in Syria, it now appears that al-Assad has taken too long in making a deal. The double dealing in Damascus along with Iranian influence spreading in the Middle East provided the Saudi’s with an opening in Syria. For the past two months dissidents in Syria have been unable to initiate the same type of turnout in the streets that has appeared in other Arab nations until this week. The groups that took to the streets did so without any prior organization by social media as has occurred in other countries. Riyadh has been working with opposition groups in Syria – along with the Egyptians and Jordanians – as a means of gaining leverage over al-Assad, and by extension, Iran. This alone could serve to explain why these protests have finally taken place.
The prospect of losing al-Assad to an uprising, whether the Syrian people have outside help or not, have made the powers that be in Tehran very nervous. Were Iran to lose its closest regional ally its designs on the region would take a serious hit not only in Syria, but in Lebanon as well. As a result Iran is likely to make a play that is presumed to have a unifying effect on the Arab street, and at the very least, postpone the popular unrest. This play would require starting a war with Israel. In the last 24 hours Israel has been the subject of a bus bombing in Jerusalem and a significant uptick in rocket and mortar fire. For now Israel has been avoiding the obvious provocation, but that is a position that cannot last indefinitely. For those that have been watching this uptick in terrorist violence it should be noted that it is not being carried out by the armed wings of Hamas or Fatah. Some of the attacks have been perpetrated by a group using the name al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade-Imad Mughniyah, while the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has close ties to Iran, has claimed responsibility for some of the rocket and mortar attacks.
The move to provoke the Israelis is by no means guaranteed, nor is it guaranteed that the Arab street will unify in the face of another operation in the style of Cast Lead, but we can expect that Iran will try. Both the Saudi’s and the Iranian’s have far too much to lose in this battle for influence. With Yemen teetering on Saudi Arabia’s southern border and Syria moving closer to disaster neither nation can really afford to refrain from some sort of action. Right now the popular uprisings in the Middle East have gone from average, disaffected citizens taking to the streets to being used as a means of fighting for regional hegemony. War in the region is not inevitable, but that could certainly change in short order.