The Middle East Proxy War You Didn’t Know About

In August, The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt carried out a series of secret airstrikes within Libya with the purpose of slowing down the advance of Islamist militias in Tripoli, specifically seeking to prevent them from taking over the international airport. The attacks caught the rest of the world by surprise, particularly the United States, who claimed that the countries had not informed it of the coming strikes. This act was one of the more overt actions in a proxy war that has been on-going in recent years, especially since the Arab Spring, between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt on one side, and Qatar and Turkey on the other.

While there are multiple dynamics and various motivations for each state within this proxy war, the lines could most simply be drawn between states who fear that Islamist groups operating throughout the Middle East and North Africa threaten their regimes, a bloc represented by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, versus the supporters of these same Islamist groups, a bloc composed of Qatar and Turkey, two states that are attempting to use these groups as a means to achieve their own political ends.

The roots of this regional kerfuffle go back to the 1950s and 1960s where it was actually Saudi Arabia who lent support to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group who was being pushed out of nationalist-run states like Egypt. The Saudi Kingdom used the Brotherhood to conduct a proxy war against leftist and nationalist Arab states, particularly Nasser’s Egypt. Furthermore, the country used the Brotherhood’s network to send mujahedeen and weapons into Afghanistan during the Afghan Soviet War. It should be noted that in spite of this collaboration, Saudi Arabia did not allow for a Muslim Brotherhood chapter to form within the country, as there were fears that it would undermine the country’s Salafist order. The partnership between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood deteriorated following the Saudi support of the United States during the first Gulf War. In the wake of the now defunct partnership, Qatar began sponsoring intellectual forums of the Brotherhood and has since acted as a haven for some of its members.

Fast-forward to the Arab Spring. The political machinations of these two blocs have kicked into high gear, particularly in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, as each side seeks to support organizations and governments that benefit, or at least do not threaten, their own regimes. According to Máté Szalai, “many pieces of evidence indicate that the Gulf countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, have fought a proxy cold war with each other in Egypt between 2011 and 2013.” The relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia deteriorated following the removal of Egyptian ruler Mubarak, while Qatar expressed support for the newly elected Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party by pouring 8 billion dollars into Egypt during his presidency. Following the military takeover resulting in Morsi’s deposal, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait provided an aid package of 12 billion dollars. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia was accused of providing 1 billion dollars to the Egyptian military to depose Morsi. Turkey has been likewise vocal, albeit for the opposite side, speaking out against the coup by Egypt’s military and extending support to the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly through the establishment of Rabaa TV, a Muslim Brotherhood TV station that has sought to delegitimize Egypt’s post-coup political process, in Istanbul.

As already mentioned, this proxy war is also being fought in Libya, a country currently in complete chaos following the removal of its despot Muammar Gaddafi by an international coalition and Libyan rebel forces during the Arab Spring in 2011. The airstrikes, conducted by UAE planes from Egyptian bases on August 17th and 23rd struck dozens of sites in Tripoli affiliated with Islamist militias and their allies. The objective of the recent airstrikes was said to be preventing the capture of the strategic main airport of Tripoli by extremist forces that had been gaining significant amounts of territory recently, an objective that failed. Qatar is said to be supporting Islamist forces within Libya while the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are backing the more secular/nationalist side. According to US officials, this is not the first time that the UAE and Egypt have teamed up to fight Islamist militias within Libya. Teams of “special forces” operating out of Egypt are said to have deployed at least once into Libya, destroying an Islamist camp near the city of Derna in Eastern Libya.

The proxy war has also been carried out in Syria, where the two blocs once again found themselves pitted against each other. Qatar has faced accusations from its neighbors of supporting Islamist groups operating within Syria, offering official funding as well as allowing private donations to groups like Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. One Israeli diplomat went so far as to call Qatar the “Club Med for terrorists.” Qatar also sought to influence the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) election, backing businessman Mustafa al-Sabbagh for the position. Saudi Arabia backed the other candidate Ahmad Assi Jarba who was ultimately victorious in the election. Turkey has also played a major role in this regional struggle within Syria: the country has been accused of helping questionable armed groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra. Aid, weapons, and fighters are said to cross the Turkish-Syrian border at will. Furthermore, the illegal sale of oil in Turkey by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) has created a black market in the southern corridor of Turkey that continues to fund ISIS’s activities in those two countries.

Qatar’s continued support of Islamist groups came to a head in March when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, citing that the country had failed to implement a November 2013 accord that sought to prevent Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states from aiding or abetting “anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC whether as groups or individuals—via direct security work or through political influence, and not to support hostile media.” The diplomatic tensions that resulted have begun to wane, however, following a visit by the Emir of Qatar to Saudi Arabia in July and a high-level Saudi delegation visit to Qatar in August.

Perhaps as a result of diplomatic pressure from its regional neighbors and other allies like the United States, Qatar appears to be trying to change its reputation as a supporter of terrorism. This month, the government asked members of the Muslim Brotherhood to leave the country. While a few members have left, it is unclear if larger numbers will follow. Furthermore, in his first ever interview as Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani defended his country against accusations that it supported terrorism and pledged support in fighting ISIS.

In an interesting twist this past week, several Arab nations joined the United States in military airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. Among them were Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar. While Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain fully participated in the airstrikes, Qatar sent military aircraft in a supporting role but did not carry out any strikes. Egypt expressed support for the operation but was not directly involved. Turkey, by contrast, has made clear that it will not participate in military operations against the Islamic State but is willing to provide humanitarian support and may even provide some clandestine support to the operation.

This coalition has certainly brought together strange bedfellows given the maneuverings of these Middle Eastern neighbors in recent years. Given the history of this recent and on-going proxy war in the Middle East, it remains to be seen whether or not this coalition to defeat ISIS will bring the neighbors closer together or drive them further apart.

Photo by S. Behn/Voice of America (public domain)



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