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Eye on the Middle East: Political Alliances Shifting Like Sand

New America Media, News Analysis, Shane Bauer Posted: Aug 30, 2008

Editors Note: In the Middle East, new alliances are being formed as quickly as the sand is shifting, reports NAM contributing writer, Shane Bauer. Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East and Africa.

SANA'A, Yemen--The complicated web of political alliances in the Middle East is shifting.

An unlikely coalition between Shiites and hard line Sunnis has sprung up in Lebanon in the interest of confronting the United States and Israel. Jordan is renewing its relationship with Hamas, while Syria is flirting with Russia and still toying with the idea of peace with Israel. Meanwhile, Iran's relationship toward Iraq's Shiites might be swinging in a new direction.

The possibility of an Iraqi-U.S. security pact that would keep American forces in Iraq until 2011 has been making Iran nervous. To the chagrin of the United States, Al-Maliki's Dawa party as well as other Shiite parties in the ruling coalition have longstanding close relations with Iran, but some in the Arab press are predicting this might change. A recent article by Ahmad al-Barsan in the Saudi weekly al-Majalla said that Iran is distancing itself from al-Malaki and instigating the supporters of the anti-occupation Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr against his government. Al-Sadr, who in the early years of the Iraq war opposed any Iranian involvement in Iraq, has announced that he has decided to make Iran his home base for years to come, signaling a more amicable relationship with Tehran.

In Lebanon, unlikely forces have come together to bridge the Sunni-Shia divide. On August 19th, Hezbollah signed a memorandum of understanding" with Salafist organizations in the country. This first step towards a full-fledged alliance came as a surprise to everyone: The Salafi movement typically declares Shiites heretics and the governments that support Hezbollah and the Salafists, Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively, are its sworn enemies.

The memorandum of the two groups stated that they would denounce Muslim-on-Muslim violence, reasoning that it serves as a pretext for American military action in the region. The pact was quickly criticized by other Salafist groups, but a member of Hezbollah's political office, Sheikh Abdul Almajid, was quoted in the Arabic language news site as saying, the memorandum "put another nail in the coffin of (Sunni-Shia) strife that feeds the American project in the region."

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has made other alliances in the Middle East. The Independent recently reported that Hezbollah, who proved its skill in guerilla warfare by holding up against the American equipped Israeli Defense Forces in July 2006, has been training members of Iraq's more amateurish Mahdi Army in Lebanon.

A recent article in al-Majalla argued that by supporting the Mahdi Army, Hezbollah is trying to increase its popularity among the Sunni, who typically support the resistance in Iraq. It also suggested that it might be trying to recover its image within Lebanon, which was damaged after its takeover of Beirut in May. Or maybe its reasons are more practical: to ensure that it has a lever to pull in Iraq when the Americans try to exert pressure in Lebanon.

In Palestine, Hamas may be renewing relations with Jordan, its long estranged eastern neighbor. Jordan expelled Hamas and ended all ties with the Palestinian political party when King Abdullah II took office a few years ago, but last Wednesday, Jordan's intelligence chief announced that it held secret talks with a senior member of Hamas in July.

What does this mean? For years, Jordan has stood firmly by Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president and leader of Fatah, in his showdown with Hamas. Among other things, the Fatah-Jordanian alliance reflects Jordan's heavy reliance on the West, which holds Abbas as the shining Palestinian example of moderation. Rami Khouri, editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star says the new talks suggest that Jordan is waking up to the changing circumstances in the region, i.e. the growing clout of Islamic forces, as well as the likelihood that Hamas will fare well in the upcoming elections in Palestine, coming out on top of Fatah.

While Jordan gets reacquainted with its old friend, Syria is also reconnecting with an old partner: Russia. Less than two weeks after the war in Georgia started, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow, where he was asked if he would accept an offer of air defense from Russia. "In principal, yes," Assad replied, adding, "We have not yet thought about it." Asia Times analyst Sami Moubayed says Russia's offer might be intended as a threat to Israel, who gave considerable military support to Georgian troops. And by threatening Israel, Russia is threatening the United States by extension, making a tit-for-tat exchange after the it announced that it will be placing a missile defense system in Poland. For Syria, flirting with Russian military support gives Israel an added incentive to make concessions in the indirect peace negotiations the two countries are engaged in through Turkey.

"Changes in strategic relationships tend to occur gradually in the Middle East, as actors sense that regional ties may be changing and adjust accordingly to ensure that they are not left dangling in the air without friends or allies," notes Rami Khouri. But sometimes an entirely new political landscape can also emerge overnight.

Eye on Middle East Column

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