The Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati roles overlap on many fast-developing issues, including Palestine, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. This tripartite partnership constitutes an important strategic choice with many regional and international dimensions. First of all, there seems to be a determination to restore an Arab position in the regional balance of power, and it is clear that the two Gulf partners see Egypt as naturally qualified for this role that they both support.
The second dimension is that the integration between the two Gulf states and Egypt has a direct impact on decision-making concerned with the Arab future itself, and not only as concerns the Arab weight in the regional balance of power. This dimension has two parts: One that has to do with the confrontation with multilateral and multilayered projects, such as the politically ambitious Muslim Brotherhood project, and the project led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is coming down with devastating force on the Arab region with nihilistic goals that spare no one. The other part has to do with the hot issues and conflicts that both Iran and Turkey play a role in, in varying degrees and for varying purposes, and also the Palestinian issue, where Israel is proving that it is not interested in the two-state solution but is instead resolved to find alternatives such as the demographic solution to establish a purely Jewish state.
In Palestine, it is clear that Egypt played a key role in brokering a truce, and that Hamas and its regional partners had to accept the Egyptian initiative in the end, after initially rejecting it stubbornly. Egypt, then, has restored its leading role in Palestine, and was keen for the Palestinian Authority to restore its main role in Palestinian decision-making, the goal: to prevent such powers from being left in the hands of others at a high cost paid by the Palestinians, rather than by the polarizers or the exploiters of the Palestinian cause.
At best, it is possible to say that Hamas’ strategy implicated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and lured him into making mistakes, precipitated by his arrogance, which grew stronger thanks to Israeli popular support for the recent decisive military action against Hamas. It is also possible to say that Hamas’ rockets, which hit an Israeli airport and forced airlines to cancel their trips to Israel, were a new qualitative achievement in the Palestinian-Israeli arena. This is in addition to the military cost for Israel, including the killing of a large number of Israeli soldiers who carried out the incursion into Gaza, and this is considered a military victory especially since the war took place between a militarily superior state and a non-state actor.
In Palestine, it is clear that Egypt played a key role in brokering a truceRaghida Dergham
The Palestinian Authority has benefited from the fait accompli, and is on the cusp of making new decisions in the aftermath of the third Gaza war. Hamas had no intention of giving the Palestinian Authority regional and international momentum, and what Hamas did in the Gaza war was not part of a ploy with Fatah or the Palestinian Authority to play different but coordinated roles.
Losers claiming to be victors
Hamas did not achieve what it had in mind when it entered the war, and Israel did not win what it had mobilized itself to achieve. Both sides are losers who are claiming to be the victors. This is what happened in all of Israel’s wars with the organizations that challenged it, using excessive barbaric power against civilians and infrastructure, and leaving behind thousands of victims and tremendous devastation. Israel has lost traditional Western sympathy, especially after the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) exposed it for committing crimes against humanity. Hamas for its part lost what it sought politically, and also lost leaders while its tunnels were destroyed. But the biggest lost is the loss of the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and the destruction of thousands of homes.
Yet both sides claim to have won, and there is some ground for their claims. However, victory is far from the real equation. Today’s truce will be followed by extensive negotiations that require serious concessions. When the time comes for that, seasoned Egyptian diplomacy will play a role that boosts its efforts to restore its leading Arab role in the Palestinian issue, supported by its Saudi and Emirati partners. Egypt has taken the reins of this leadership with a Palestinian decision that Hamas was forced to consent to, and that the Palestinian Authority welcomed, though now it has to prove its political merit.
Manipulating the Palestinian cause
Regionally, the Palestinian cause has been pulled away from Syria’s hands. For years, Damascus manipulated the Palestinian cause as it pleased and when it pleased. Today, Egypt has regained control of it with its regional leadership. This development has implications for more than one country, including Lebanon, where the Syrian management of the Palestinian cause led to using Lebanon as a military platform for many goals that had nothing to do with the Palestinians.
The Egyptian-Syrian equation is remarkable on several levels. The comparison between the two countries since the outbreak of the wave of change in the Arab region is also remarkable. Egypt today is on the rise, after having deposed two presidents. By contrast, Syria is in decline, it is paying the price of its recalcitrance with the terrible destruction of the country; is facing fragmentation and disintegration; and has lost its regional leadership. Now, Syria is the focus of “counter-terrorism,” with terrorism being perpetrated by both the regime and the imported opposition equally.
Damascus is calling for internationalization as an opportunity for its rehabilitation. It wants to lure President Barack Obama to Syria as part of the war on terror, while ISIS is seeking to lure the American president to the Syrian and Iraqi arenas at the same time.
Covert and overt operations
Barack Obama is in a predicament. He cannot cooperate openly with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who he once said had lost legitimacy and called for his resignation. But intelligence cooperation is a different issue, and this kind of cooperation has existed between Damascus and Western intelligence services for some time. There is a big difference between covert and overt cooperation. The former is something that the West wants, while the second is something that Syria wants, as a prelude to internationalization and rehabilitation. No matter what happens, the American president’s actions against ISIS in Syria will most likely be different from those against ISIS in Iraq. To be sure, there are no indications that the U.S. policy has deviated from the goal of turning Syria into a graveyard for everyone in it – i.e. all those who are participating in, supporting, and adopting the fight.
There is also no sign of a radical U.S. intervention in Syria, beyond deploying drones and reconnaissance planes. Certainly, this limited intervention remains of extreme importance, but it will not amount to the formal public partnership that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has called for. Most probably, Barack Obama will avoid anything that could drag him deeper and further, by establishing a relationship of appeasement with Damascus, because this is something that he would be held accountable for internally. As he has said, the battle with ISIS and its ilk is complex and protracted, as long as there are policies that fuel such groups and create nurturing environments for them.
Two cardinal errors
President Barack Obama has committed two cardinal errors in his policies towards the Middle East: Distancing himself from the Syrian event, which has helped terrorism grow and Syria to be fragmented; and his overwhelming eagerness to endorse the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and to assume that the people of Egypt would accept imposing religion on the state and the Muslim Brotherhood project, and that other influential countries would cave in to his erroneous and failed strategic choice.
Saudi diplomacy has relayed to Barack Obama very clearly that Egypt was a red line. Saudi Arabia and the UAE thus moved immediately to support Egypt in the wake of the popular trial of President Mohamed Mursi, whose party had assumed that the elections that brought it to power gave it the right to seize all levers of power in Egypt.
The Saudi move to dispatch a high-level delegation headed by Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal to the Gulf states, starting with Qatar, is important especially in light of rapid escalation in many issues, especially in Libya and Yemen, along with Iraq and Syria.
Libya needs rescuing before it turns into an inferno whose fires could spread to neighboring countries. But this appears to be impossible without Egyptian and Algerian intervention of one kind or another. Indeed, both of these countries are directly concerned because of the border they share with Libya, and they are the most important Arab-African nations. Though they always competed in the past, what brings them together now is the threat of radical Islamist groups in Libya, which are their common enemy.
Libya today has become an Arab and African problem. Libya will not recover without Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati partnership, or away from Egyptian-Algerian cooperation, and in the absence of this, Libya is likely to suffer further fragmentation, disintegration, and collapse.
Yemen is another issue where Obama’s war on terror through drones overlaps with the Iranian support for the Houthis, amid insistence by the Muslim Brotherhood on imposing themselves; amid tribal conflicts; and amid rampant corruption.
The signs of Saudi-Iranian understandings had come through the Iraqi gateway, with the removal of the obstacle represented by Nouri al-Maliki, who was removed from power, followed by the visit of a senior Iranian delegation to Riyadh. The signs of confrontations came from the Yemeni gateway, when the Houthis began a major escalation that threatens the country.
What is a constant here is that there is a Saudi-Egyptian-Emirati strategic relationship has important regional dimensions, and this deserves appreciation, at least for what it represents in the regional balance of power and as a bulwark against the projects led by radical Islamist groups.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 28, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham