A Middle Eastern “Rubik’s Cube”: Solution Problems
No. 4 2013 October/December
Pyotr Stegny

Ph.D. in History. He is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, and a member of the Russian International Affairs Council.

Reflections on the First Stage of the Arab Spring

In mid-May 2013, the Middle East Dialogue of the Valdai Discussion Club held a conference in Marrakech, the tourist capital of Morocco. In addition to the usual participants – errant political scientists – the conference was attended by representatives of Islamic parties and groups, among them Al-Nour and al Jamaat al Islamiya of Egypt, Hezbollah of Lebanon, Hamas of Palestine, the Ennahda Movement of Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The conference’s agenda – “Islam in Politics: Ideology or Pragmatism” – aroused great interest.

As it soon became clear, the meeting in Marrakech coincided in time with the completion of the first phase of the Arab Spring, which proved to be a disaster: instead of moving over from authoritarianism to democracy, the region swung towards new forms of authoritarianism, which were only slightly covered with a fig leaf of the expression of people’s will. A month and a half before the events in Egypt, these tendencies were only beginning to take shape in Marrakech. But the unconventionality of the algorithm of the region’s democratic reformatting became more or less obvious. The Secretary General of the National Dialogue Party of Lebanon, Fouad Makhzoumi, who took part in the conference, compared it to solving a Middle Eastern “Rubik’s Cube.”

Attempts to solve the Middle Eastern “cube” have continued for decades. Sometimes it seemed that just one final move was needed to achieve the desired harmony of colors and proportions, but no. It is hard to expect a result when several people manipulate the cube simultaneously.


This became particularly evident in the spring of 2013, when the Middle Eastern “Rubik’s Cube” suddenly twitched and its faces began to rotate with a clicking sound, like a Geiger counter reconfigured to detect chemical weapons. The events over Syria developed in breadth and began to overlap. Apparently, two unobviously but closely interlinked factors set the “cube” in motion – these were the Russian-U.S. initiative to convene a Geneva II Middle East peace conference and recent military successes of Syrian government forces against rebels.

Let’s start with Geneva II, preparations for which were announced by Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry on May 7 during the U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to Russia. It was meant that the conference would be held under UN auspices on the basis of the final communiqué adopted by the “Action Group” on Syria at the previous Geneva meeting in June 2012. This document provided for the establishment of a transitional government in Syria but it did not demand an immediate resignation of Bashar al-Assad as president.

This factor caused serious concern, if not panic, among the Syrian opposition and its regional sponsors. One of the reasons for it was that, by the time the Russian-U.S. initiative was announced, no one had any doubt that the U-turn towards a political and diplomatic settlement was due to changes in the military situation in Syria which were unfavorable to Assad’s opponents. Starting in March and April, government forces slowly but steadily took over the initiative. They captured the city of Idlib which had controlled rebel communications with Lebanon. In areas near the Turkish border, previously neutral Kurds began to respond to increasingly frequent provocations from the opposition’s jihadist groups, which received reinforcements from Saudi Arabia and Qatar via Turkey. Tensions also grew in Druze-populated areas along the Syrian-Israeli border.

Another factor that changed the military-strategic situation in favor of the government forces was a division between the opposition’s secular pro-Western groups, which relied on the Free Syrian Army, and radical Islamist groups. In mid-May, rebels made an attempt to merge their two main groups – the Iraq-based and al-Qaeda controlled Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which began to operate in Syria, and local Jabhat al-Nusra. The merger never happened, and the rebels changed their tactics: proponents of establishing an Islamic caliphate in Syria started to create “emirates,” ruled by sharia (Islamic law), in “liberated areas” near the borders with Turkey and Iraq.

In these conditions, on May 3 and 5, just as Kerry and Lavrov were preparing in Moscow to announce the convening of Geneva II, Israel carried out air strikes against Syrian military targets in Damascus. Tel Aviv said the attacks were intended to prevent chemical weapons from falling into jihadists’ hands.

The issue of uncontrolled proliferation of Syrian chemical weapons also featured in the scenario of a military exercise held by 19 countries in early June in Jordan. Immediately after it, 41 countries participated in a major naval exercise in the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Iran. Shortly before, on May 22, the Friends of Syria group met in Amman. The group was set up in February 2012 in Tunisia to coordinate international aid to the Syrian opposition (it is indicative that there were only 13 “Friends” at the Amman conference, whereas the previous meeting in Marrakech was attended by delegates of 144 countries). The discussions focused on the delivery of military aid to the opposition, which linked its setbacks to not having modern weapons. Participants in the Amman meeting proposed establishing a buffer zone in Syria, with the center in Aleppo, or a no-fly zone, as it was done in Libya. At about the same time, U.S. Senator John McCain (and later Secretary of State Kerry) called for delivering air strikes against the Syrian military infrastructure.

All these demonstrations were prompted by a desire of regional opponents of the Assad regime, above all Saudi Arabia, to force a military solution to the Syrian problem before the Russian-U.S. initiative to convene Geneva II took effect. In parallel with attempts to revive the Friends of Syria format, Saudis focused on the consolidation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, where a tactical alliance began to take shape between secular groups and Muslim Brothers patronized by Qatar. At a National Coalition conference in Istanbul, Saudis masterminded the resignation of its president Moaz al-Khatib, who was close to Muslim Brothers and who was the only person in the Coalition leadership to express willingness for dialogue with Assad during preparations for Geneva II. Later, in July, they secured the election of their candidate, Ahmad Jarba, to this post.

However, Saudis failed to change the balance of power in the National Coalition in their favor: only six people of their 25 preferred candidates were elected to the Coalition leadership. As a result, behind-the-scene struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar for influence on the Syrian opposition escalated. Regional sponsors of Syrian rebels divided into two rival groups – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan, on the one hand, and Qatar and Turkey, on the other.

On May 27, Lavrov and Kerry discussed in Paris preparations for Geneva II. Damascus agreed to participate in the conference, whereas the Syrian opposition did not, despite pressure from the U.S. The commander of the Free Syrian Army, Brigadier General Salim Idris, flatly refused to participate in the conference, while the National Coalition said it was ready only to discuss Assad’s resignation in Geneva. Later, as the military-strategic situation began to change in favor of Damascus, the opposition tightened its position. By July, the Coalition demanded (unofficially, of course) the restoration of “military parity” with the government forces as a condition for its participation in the Geneva conference.

However, on June 5, the Syrian army, reinforced by Hezbollah fighters, captured the strategic city of al-Qusayr. This factor was crucial for subsequent events – not only because it gave Damascus access to Alawite coastal areas, including the ports of Tartus and Latakia through which military supplies were made to the ruling regime. The price of the victory was higher: it marked the beginning of a moral and political turning point in the 30-month-long civil war. There was the impression that the regime, which relied on the support of broad sections of the population, won the hard confrontation with the opposition, whose political part looked helpless in comparison with Muslim extremists, mercenaries and jihadists who fought on its side. It is time to recall that Jabhat al-Nusra was designated by the United States as a terrorist organization back in December 2012.

After the fall of al-Qusayr, the Syrian opposition and its regional sponsors launched a massive anti-Shia campaign, accusing Hezbollah and Iran of interfering in Syrian affairs. Saudi Arabia and Gulf states severed relations with Hezbollah. Shortly after (following the change of power in Qatar), Muslim Brothers in Egypt followed suit. The regional media was fed the issue of Syria’s possible division into three enclaves – Alawite (Shia), Sunni and Kurdish.

The changing regional context of developments in Syria and the Arab Spring in general was further made obvious by mass protests in Turkey in June 2013, which evolved into a bitter conflict between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the secular middle class. In particular, people protested against the growing involvement of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s government in the Syrian crisis on the side of Assad’s opponents. Turkish nationalists linked this involvement to the AKP’s initiative for reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds, which was highly unpopular among nationalist Turks. The protests in Istanbul showed that something was wrong with the “Turkish model” of reformatting the region democratically. In addition, the Turkey-Qatar link in the outer circle of regional sponsors of the civil war in Syria turned out to be significantly weakened. This factor seemed to add confidence to the Saudis ahead of the change of power in Qatar and Egypt.

On June 14, 2013, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate reformer, was elected President of Iran. Right after that, he expressed readiness to move away from his predecessor’s policy of head-on confrontation with the West. His statement drew a positive response in the world. Of regional powers, only Saudi Arabia and Israel took the changes in Iran as tactical maneuvering without changing the strategic goal of creating its own nuclear weapons and expansion. The projection of this approach onto the Syrian crisis inevitably resulted in that the Syrian issue was ever closer linked with to the task of isolating and weakening the ayatollahs’ regime.

June ended with a silent revolution in Qatar. On June 25, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani handed over power to his son Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. The underlying reason for this move was more or less clear. Under the former emir, Qatar became a major financial and media (the Al Jazeera TV channel) sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and the Islamic opposition in Syria. This policy came into sharp conflict with the interests of Gulf monarchies, above all Saudi Arabia, which viewed political Islam as a serious threat to the survival of semi-feudal regimes in the southern periphery of the Greater Middle East. This is why many analysts believed there was the figure of Bandar bin Sultan, the chief of the Saudi intelligence service, behind the power takeover in Qatar. Just a few days later, the Saudis stepped out from behind the scenes of regional politics.EGYPT: A FLAW IN SOLVING THE CUBE?

The military coup in Egypt, which happened on July 3, was one of “expected surprises” integrated in the algorithm of the Arab Spring. The U.S.-supported experiment in democracy, with reliance on the Muslim Brotherhood, looked questionable from the very beginning. However, it took a year to understand that the road to democracy in the Middle East would not follow routes offered by Stanford University but would go across pits and bumps of centuries-old traditions, social and religious prejudices, a mixed economy, and a divided society, in which the army is a more powerful consolidating factor than Islam.

Of course, during his year in power, Mohamed Morsi made many mistakes, for which he bears personal responsibility. The main one was that he did not realize that his task was to find a national consensus and unite forces that could help to solve problems facing the country. Instead, he focused on issues that best met the interests of Islamists. He pushed through a constitution that actually legalized sharia and that caused a sharp conflict with the judiciary and the secular opposition, which decided that the Brothers “robbed the people of their revolution.” Morsi also adopted a constitutional declaration that essentially broadened his powers and drew accusations that he had usurped power. And then, on a wave of euphoria from these “victories,” he began to promote his protégés to key positions in the executive branch. Ordinary people dubbed this policy “Ikhwanization” of the country (Ikhwan – Arabic for “brothers”).

After he became president, Morsi formally quit the Muslim Brotherhood. It was generally believed, however, that the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brothers played a serious, and possibly the main, role in policies pursued under Morsi. As a result, there was the impression that a system had taken shape in Egypt that could evolve into a symbiosis, unacceptable to the Gulf States, of the Sunni (Turkish) and Shia (Iranian) models of Islamic democracy. From the Iranian model it borrowed shadow Islamist leadership orchestrating political events from behind the scenes.

Morsi seriously underestimated the military. He did not realize that the army needed Islamists to preserve a kind of “immunity to democracy,” which safeguarded their corporate political and economic privileges. Morsi also overlooked changes in the secular opposition’s attitude to the army, which it saw as the guarantor of irreversibility of democratic change. This factor came as the main prerequisite for the July 3 events. And to all appearances, coordination between the two forces had been maintained since the early stages of the developments.

However, the main cause of the early and inglorious end to Morsi’s political career was his difficult relations with the Gulf States. As a representative of the Muslim Brothers, Morsi advocated pan-Islamism and thus reflected the philosophy and political program of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is widely represented throughout the Islamic world. During his presidency, especially in the early period, he tried to rise above Sunni-Shia differences. Morsi made his first visit to Saudi Arabia and the second, to Iran. He proposed setting up a quadripartite commission (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran) to discuss Syrian problems. The inclusion of Iran in the proposed commission irritated Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, which traditionally are very wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was banned in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the organization strongly denounced the invitation of foreign troops for changing the regime in the “brotherly Arab country.”

Another round of differences was sparked by the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia is negative about the very idea of combining Islam and democracy as a bottom-up movement, which poses a potential threat to monarchical regimes. The Muslim Brothers, who have a wide network throughout the Islamic world, present a serious danger to traditionalists in the Gulf States, primarily because they can appeal directly to the masses. This was the main, although unofficial, reason for their being banned. The peculiarity of the situation only underlined the fact that the social concept of the Brotherhood turned out to be more compatible with Western standards of democracy, as opposed to Salafis and Wahhabis who are supported by the Gulf States, because they do not encroach on the authority and power of an absolute monarch.

It seems that Morsi overlooked this potential conflict, as well. Already on the second day after the coup, on July 4, the Israeli Internet portal DEBKAfile reported that the Egyptian military had coordinated their actions with Saudi Arabia (General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had formerly served there as an Egyptian military attaché) and the United Arab Emirates during the preparations for the coup. This information was further confirmed as several Arab sources revealed that Egyptian ex-prime minister Ahmed Shafik, now living in the UAE, had played a key role in coordinating efforts to overthrow Morsi. The involvement of Gulf countries in the events in Egypt is also proved by the fact that they provided substantial financial aid to the new regime during the first week after the coup.

In general, the events that followed the July coup in Egypt highlighted the new role that Gulf oil monarchies are beginning to play in the Arab Spring context. For the sake of their own political survival, the Gulf States use their financial influence to correct the course (and, possibly, the content) of the Arab Spring and to shift the focus of its slogans from “modernization of the socio-political doctrine of Islam” to “struggle against extremism (terrorism).” However, this policy is already torn by new basic contradictions. First, in the situation now taking shape in the Middle East, Wahhabis and Salafis, who are dear to the Saudis, have long had the reputation of extremists. How to reconcile the ensuing risks and the reality is still an open question. Secondly (and most importantly), the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, obviously do not have enough political, diplomatic and military tools to play leading roles in regional affairs. Indicative in this sense is General el-Sisi’s refusal to support a scenario of a U.S. “educational” strike against Syria, despite Riyadh’s pressure and attempts to patronize him. The Saudis will have to look for additional resources to implement their regional ambitions.A GLOBAL CUBE: SOLUTION GUIDE

The new stage of the Arab Spring, which began with the military coup in Egypt, will apparently be even more difficult. The situation in Iraq, Syria, Libya and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia and Yemen is not optimistic. These countries have common features, namely, the decay of statehood and the growth of economic difficulties against the background of increasing social polarization. The reasons for these developments are obvious: the absence of a national consensus on a “post-authoritarian” agenda, and the inability of all social forces – Islamists of all kinds, nationalists and pro-Western liberals – to fulfill the ambitious goal of democratic change on their own.

But the vector of the region’s movement is predetermined by the logic of global development. In the historical perspective, the Greater Middle East will have to adapt the principles of democracy to local conditions, above all, to the traditions and ideology of Islam. This is the only generally acceptable basis for forming national and regional consensus. The problem, however, is that tasks of the new stage will have to be addressed together with Gulf oil monarchies, which – by virtue of their huge financial resources – are in the limelight of Middle East politics and which do not conceal their allergy to democratic reforms. It seems that we all are to see, yet another time, that in the absence of ideas money can slow down the course of history but it cannot reverse it.

This is apparently the underlying reason for the passions over Syria. Interestingly, the patterns of the Saudis’ actions vis-à-vis Assad’s “dictatorship” and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt two month before were fundamentally similar. In both cases, they created pretexts for military interference by a third party: the army in Egypt, and Americans in Syria. In both cases, the tactical goals of the Saudis coincided with the interests of Turkey and Israel (the chaos in the Middle East, caused by the Arab Spring, posed growing security threats to the latter). As a result, the pressure on Barack Obama to launch a strike on Syria reached a critical level. In general, as the Syrian crisis developed, sometimes one had the impression that the world’s superpower itself had become an object of manipulation for its Middle Eastern clients.

This is an extremely dangerous development because Iran will be the main implication of the second stage in the Arab Spring both for Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Shia model of behavior poses an existential threat not only to the Jewish state, but also to semi-feudal Gulf monarchies. This is the main reason for their antagonism against the Syrian regime which is the main ally of Tehran in the region. It was due to this circumstance that the Syrian crisis drew global attention, as its subtext includes the explosive issues of Iran and Sunni- Shia confrontation.

In general, the region is obviously approaching a critical point. Processes born of the Arab Spring are going out of control, not least because the West has no adequate vision of a strategic perspective or side effects of the region’s democratization. The U.S. policy of assigning the leading role to the Muslim Brothers as pioneers of political Islam failed when faced with reality. Disintegration tendencies are growing stronger in Iraq, Libya and some other Middle Eastern countries. The problem of radical Islam which, admit it or not, has a strong anti-Western slant, is arising in all its magnitude. It is obvious that in these conditions the international community must coordinate its efforts to keep the regional situation under control.

But, as the development of the Syrian crisis has shown, the great powers involved in Middle Eastern affairs, speak different languages. Why this disunity? The answer is evident if we delve into the essence of the problem: the world order that is coming to replace the Cold War is being built chaotically, as a set of constructive and nonconstructive ambiguities. The West took (largely justly) the end of the bloc confrontation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the profound political changes in Eastern Europe and the Balkans as the starting point for a global transformation of international relations. However, the end of the Cold War was not accompanied by accords on the content and format of such a transformation. International security organizations, including the UN, were not adapted to the new balance of power in the world, either. This situation resulted in the creation of backup global stability mechanisms – the G8 and the G20, with a parallel enlargement of NATO’s zone of responsibility.

In these circumstances, values that won in the Cold War – democracy, human rights, and the market economy – began to be perceived as a prerequisite for sustainable development and, at the same time, as a regulator and criterion of progress. As a result, the West, primarily the United States, came to claim the leading (dominant) role in international affairs, based on the promotion of democracy as the main component of the new world order.

However, the real picture of the post-Cold War world has proved much more difficult. The imperatives of geopolitics and conflicts of individual and group interests still prevail over ideology. In these conditions, Russia acts in the only possible way – in the logic of the Yalta-Potsdam system based on unconditional recognition of the priority of the principle of state sovereignty and the central role of the UN. As for the United States and its allies, they have long existed in a different system of political and legal coordinates, where the promotion of democracy in the world is above sovereignty.

This basic, conceptual divergence has clearly manifested itself also during the Syrian crisis which, in effect, is only an individual manifestation of the imbalance in the world. At different stages of the crisis, Vladimir Putin emphasized the inadmissibility of the use of force against a sovereign state without UN Security Council approval. At the same time, Obama strongly defended the right of the president and the Congress of the United States to make a decision to launch a military strike against a country suspected of crimes against humanity.

The paradox is that this is obviously not the case of a traditional conflict of interests. Perhaps, some considerations of competition did take place, in particular those pertaining to routes for gas supplies from Qatar or Iran to Europe, which at a certain stage were cited as the main cause of the conflict over Syria. Yet this is not the point. The strategic objectives of the world’s major players – Russia, the United States and the European Union – in the Middle East coincide in the main: they all seek to preserve stability in this volatile region.

Fortunately, at a critical stage of the Syrian conflict, when force was about to be used against the ruling regime accused of using chemical weapons against civilians, the external players and Damascus displayed enough common sense to stop the sliding into a military scenario, which would have unpredictable consequences. The support given by the parliaments and the public of many countries to the Russian president’s policy was a very important lesson of the Syrian crisis. Yet this achievement is not a victory at all but only a tactical respite. A strategic breakthrough can only be achieved with a final political and diplomatic settlement of the Syrian crisis, which would be crucial for the overall improvement of the situation in the Middle East.

One can also draw a more far-reaching conclusion: to avoid recurrences of the sliding of local crises into a dangerous phase, countries must agree on basic concepts of the emerging global security system. This is a very difficult task requiring dual-track diplomacy, as it concerns things that practical politicians have always thought belong to the realm of idealistic philosophers. These are the moral basis of the globalizing world, self-restraint as a prerequisite for harmonious development, various models of democracy, religious and ethnic tolerance, civil rights, moral responsibilities, and the status of ethnic minorities. Other aspects include the East and the West, which in the 21st century have to converge, despite Rudyard Kipling’s maxim which is deeply rooted in our minds; the long overdue need to build international relations on the same principles of pluralism of views that underlie democratic systems at the national level; and many other things without which new local crises will be increasingly difficult to resolve.

This approach seems to be detached from reality only at first glance. The world is changing rapidly and chaotically. Threats of global upheavals move from the traditional sphere of geopolitics to the area of “soft power.” Today, it is difficult to imagine a war for territory. Future conflicts will have at their core only virtual, artificially distorted stereotypes of mass consciousness. The Syrian crisis, as the culmination of the Arab Spring, gives much food for thought in this regard.

This task is understandably very difficult. The world’s harmonization through the harmonization of our views of it is rather a process than a result. Apart from politicians and diplomats, this process should involve historians, philosophers, businessmen, students and housewives; representatives of developed democracies and Islamists, defenders of the rights of sexual minorities and their opponents; Saudis, Israelis, Iranians, Russians, Americans, Chinese, French, Poles – everyone. The UN could undertake to organize such a dialogue. Social media would be a natural place for it.

Today this may seem another manifestation of idealistic day-dreaming characteristic of Russians. But tomorrow – who knows? – this process may produce an algorithm for solving not only the Middle Eastern but also the global “Rubik’s Cube.” In the era of the Internet, people grow wiser than their rulers.