How the Arab Spring Altered the Region and the World

Recent events of the Arab Spring have had major geopolitical ramifications, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world, writes Mohammad Sayed Rassas, who contends that the “struggle for Syria” will determine the future of international affairs.

al-monitor Flags are displayed at the meeting of "The Friends of Syria" diplomatic group in Paris, April 19, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Benoit Tessier.

Topics covered

pan-arabism, arab nationalism, arab

Oct 5, 2012

There are major internal events that are leading to radical changes [in the Arab world], as was the case in the "Eastern bloc" countries in 1989. Now, and since the beginning of the so-called "Arab Spring" in early 2011, there are internal changes occurring in Arab countries that are leading to transformations at the international and local — i.e., Middle Eastern — levels. In fact, this is the first time that internal changes in the Arab world have led to [international changes], while the opposite occurred in both the post-Ottoman (1918) period and the period following the end of London and Paris’ glory days (1945-1956). In the latter period, international changes caused by the two world wars led to wide changes within the Middle East, and later to internal changes within various Arab countries.

Nine months into the Arab Spring, the United States had regained the regional influence that it had enjoyed between the fall of Baghdad (April 9, 2003) and the end of the summer 2006 war [on Lebanon] (Aug. 14, 2006). Following this period, it had lost its influence to that of the regional quartet, consisting of Tehran, Damascus, Hezbollah and Hamas. This group made significant regional gains in Gaza (June 2007), Beirut (May 2008) and Baghdad (October 2010 — in the battle in which Nouri al-Maliki, supported by Syria and Iran, became prime minister, as opposed to Allawi, who was supported by the Saudi-Syrian-Turkish trio in the March 7, 2010 parliamentary elections). They then made further gains in Beirut in January 2011, in a battle which saw the fall of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's government driven by Iranian-Syrian cooperation. This practically meant the end of the Saudi-Syrian partnership, and put the final nail in the coffin of Syrian-Turkish rapprochement, which had been ongoing since 2004.

During those first nine months of 2011, Washington was able to make regional gains by riding the winds of these internal changes. Americans emerged in a position to reclaim the status they enjoyed the day the Berlin Wall fell. This is despite the fact that the internal developments in 2011 were against Washington's old allies in Tunis, Cairo and Sanaa, as well as against a regime that had made every attempt to engage with the US and Europe, as [Libya's Moammar] Gadhafi had done since the last month of 2003. Many found it strange that [US President Barack] Obama referenced the Berlin Wall shortly after the fall of [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, however, this mention reflected the US desire to ride the wave of internal Arab changes, and to reconcile with Islamic movements, following a divorce than had lasted two decades. It became clear that these were the strongest movements in the Arab body politic in countries affected by the Arab Spring. This policy move by Obama was designed to avoid what happened in Tehran on Feb. 11, 1979, from repeating itself in Cairo on Feb. 11, 2011. This is especially true given that [the Supreme Leader of Iran], Ali Khamenei — in a speech given on Friday, Feb. 4, 2011 — compared the revolution against President Mubarak that was happening in Cairo to what had occurred 30 years ago when there was a revolution against the Shah in Tehran.

Obama stayed ahead of the changes resulting from the Arab Spring, unlike [former President Jimmy] Carter who was taken aback by the Iranian developments of 1979-1980. This led to Washington beginning to take hold of the reins of initiative in the Middle East and to a decline in Iran's regional influence. Signs of this decline first appeared in Bahrain, and then in Yemen — where change came at the expense of the Houthis, who had been backed by Iran since the beginning of their rebellion in 2004. These changes also came at the expense of the [Yemeni] Southern Mobility Movement, which wove ties with Iran in 2010. However, the "Syrian crisis" came — beginning on March 18, 2011 — and put Syria's main ally Tehran in a difficult and decisive position. Subsequently, the implications of what is happening in Damascus caused the Hamas Movement to distance itself from this regional quartet, which over the past four years had caused a decline in US power in the region between Kabul and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

The success of the US in dealing with changes in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli and Sanaa — along with its role in preventing change in Bahrain — indicates the new status of the US in the Middle East. Perhaps the first visible result of this new position was when Obama announced a missile defense shield in Turkey and Georgia in September 2011. This is after freezing — in August 2009 — plans made by George W. Bush for a similar shield to be located in the Czech Republic and Poland. A week later, on October 4, Moscow reacted by using its veto in the United Nations Security Council [on a European-drafted resolution condemning Syria]. Thus, through this action it was using the Syrian issue a platform to create the first international crisis between Moscow and Washington in the post-Cold War era. This is something that did not happen in Yugoslavia in 1999 nor in Iraq in 2003. Thus, Russia was sending messages — backed by China and the BRICS states — saying that the era of American hegemony was nearing its end and that the US had entered a difficult period as a result of its inability to achieve anything in Damascus — a key player in the region. These same messages were reiterated by Russia and China when they used two more vetoes in New York on issues relating to Syria, on February 4, and July 19, 2012.

At the regional level, changes caused by the Arab Spring have led to the end of the Iranian tide, and have put Tehran on the defensive. This is in direct contrast to the dynamic offensive it gained between September 2006 and January 2011. This has made Iran unable to make a significant investment in Iraq following the withdrawal of US military forces on December 31, 2011. Moreover, the process of collecting signatures to withdraw confidence from Maliki's government was the first indication of disruption in Iraq's local political hierarchy, which Tehran had focused on to build its influence in the country. Conversely, the events in Bahrain and Yemen granted regional countries — specifically Gulf Cooperation Council countries, with the support of the US — a growing role in these two nations, in which Iranian arms had once had a deep influence.

Furthermore, the mechanisms and merits of the Arab League's role in solving the Syrian crisis has shown the extent and size of the Gulf's role in unified Arab efforts, a role that they have not had since the period from 1973-1990. This [increased Gulf role] has come at the expense of Tehran, and the Syrian crisis has also led to the breakdown of the latter's rapprochement efforts with Ankara. Turkey, in an agreement signed on May 17, 2010 regarding Iran's nuclear program, insinuated that Tehran and Ankara share a strategic view to form a regional leadership in which they share influence in the region, in light of weakness on the part of Arab states. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hinted at this vision during a visit to Istanbul in 2009, to "fill the vacuum left by US withdrawals from Iraq." Here, Ankara distancing itself from Iran as a result of what is going on in Syria led to a Gulf-Turkish rapprochement and to the end of US-Turkish friction. It also ended any strife that existed between Washington and Riyadh, in the period following 9/11 — when the twin towers were attacked — and following the occupation of Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

On the other hand, internal Egyptian developments have led to the beginning of the reawakening of Egypt's regional role, which has been dormant since the Camp David Accords were signed in September 1978. President Morsi's initiative to form the Contact Group Quartet to deal with the Syrian crisis — along with his visits to Riyadh, Tehran and Ankara — suggest a return to Egypt's old ideology. This ideology, which has been around since the time of the Pharaohs, is based on the idea that Egyptian national security is not limited to the African continent. Moreover, Egypt's recent reconciliation with Khartoum indicates a complete shift in Egypt's policy from the time of Mubarak, when Cairo was absent from the crises in southern Sudan and the state of Darfur. Conversely, the explosion of the Syrian crisis spelled the end of Damascus' regional role, which it had enjoyed since 1976. Using this position, Syria was able to make itself a major player in the Lebanese conflict, in Iraq (from 1991-2010) and in the Turkish-Kurdish issue (1984-1998). Damascus was also a regional key to the south for Turkey (from 2004-2010), after Ataturk's failure to orient itself with the West for over 80 years. And prior to this Damascus was a regional key for Tehran in the Middle East, both during the era of Saddam Hussein and after it. This position is what allowed Damascus to bargain with both Iran and the Gulf states during the Iraq-Iran war.

Concerning Tel Aviv, these developments in Cairo have caused strategic worries for Israel that have not existed since the eras of [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat and Mubarak. It appears that signs of weakness — caused by geopolitical changes resulting from the Arab Spring — in Tehran, Damascus and Beirut's southern suburbs, have put Israel in a stronger position in terms of these three countries in 2012, compared with its status between 2007 and 2010.

In summary, there is a regional transformation occurring in the map of the Middle East and its components, as a result of internal changes that came about because of the Arab Spring. There are strong indications that a transformation of the international situation — currently based on a unipolar world — is imminent as a result of these changes and happenings. Perhaps the "struggle for Syria," which is occurring between two opposing international and regional alliances (Washington, the European Union, Ankara and the Gulf states versus Moscow, BRICS and Tehran), is what will determine the fate of the international map in the future and its outcomes. It will also determine the future map of the Middle East region. 

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Mohammad Sayed Rassas