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Analysts: Absent strong U.S. policy on Mideast, nations compete for influence

Some of America’s closest Middle East allies, viewing U.S. policy as adrift, are competing for influence in the region’s trouble spots, producing discord that might get in the way of stable outcomes and take decades to put right, experts in the region say.

Analysts blame the Obama administration, which they say still doesn’t have a strategy to deal with the aftershocks of the 2011 Arab Spring – in particular the war in Syria and Egypt’s latest political upheaval. Instead, the U.S. aim appears to be to “contain” the crises and manage them at the margins, they say.

“We are in a situation where the United States doesn’t want to lead. It has quite an effect on the region,” said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar. In its place, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are devising their own policies, but without coordination and often with different aims, he said.

“The Gulf states and the Turks thought they would own the Syrian problem in the early period of the uprising,” said Emile Hokayem, a Bahrain-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who’s just written a book about the Syrian war. “Then they realized the limits of their power and begged for U.S. leadership, figuring the U.S. could harmonize the various approaches toward Syria and de-conflict them.” But the United States wants only to manage the Middle East crises “at the margins,” he said. Both men spoke in telephone interviews.

The discord is on display in both Syria and Egypt. Saudi Arabia recently upstaged Qatar and helped force a shakeup in the leadership of the internationally recognized Syrian Opposition Coalition, displacing the power of delegates from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood by adding liberal secular Syrians. The coalition was created last year at the behest of the United States to become a government in exile, prepared to step in should President Bashar Assad fall. But the U.S. has provided no funds to the group – State Department officials have told McClatchy they think the coalition is too unstable to be counted on to spend the money wisely – and senior members of the coalition say the United States gives widely inconsistent advice and doesn’t follow through on its pledges of support.

Saudi Arabia is trying to step in with arms and funds to make up for the lack of U.S. military and civilian aid. But the oil-rich kingdom isn’t able to deliver all the necessary arms at a time rebel forces have sustained major setbacks at the hands of forces loyal to Assad, aided by arms deliveries, training and financial aid from Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

The Saudis have promised the aid, to be sent via Gen. Salim Idriss, the commander of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, with the intention that no weapons or ammunition go to the al Qaida-affiliated rebel groups that have proved to be the most effective anti-Assad force. “But they have a problem with delivering,” said Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, an initiative of the Washington-based nonpartisan think tank.

And it’s still a question whether Qatar will defer to the Saudis or go its own way, as it has in the past, including allowing military supplies to flow to al Qaida-affiliated groups that the United States has designated as international terrorist organizations.

Qatar has a new ruler, after Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani handed over power last month to his son Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, and it’s undergoing a review of the effectiveness of its enormous foreign-policy investment over the past decade, which included taking a major role in the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011.

The Saudis and the Qataris have pursued distinctly different approaches to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt; the Saudis fear the Brotherhood as a pan-Arab movement determined to undermine the region’s monarchies, whereas Qatar sees the Brotherhood more opportunistically as a force that will bring results, Hokayem said.

The clearest example may be in Egypt. The Saudis refused to send financial support to the government of former President Mohammed Morsi, who rose to prominence through the Brotherhood. But Qatar committed $8 billion in aid and material support, and Turkey, governed by the Justice and Development Party, the Turkish equivalent of the Brotherhood, pledged $2 billion.

Days after the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi early this month, the Saudis stepped in with $5 billion in various forms of aid for the military-backed interim government, and the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait added another $7 billion.

The Persian Gulf countries can provide “some legitimacy, some regional cover” to the military for overthrowing Morsi, “but they don’t have the strategic vision, the expertise . . . the democratic vision that would lead to an inclusive political scene in Egypt,“ Hokayem said, “preferring one side over the other.”

“In their competition and their machinations, the regional players are making a mess of it,” Shaikh said. “They should have come together with a series of actions to stabilize the country. But we’re not in that situation. The simple fact is that the Emiratis, the Kuwaitis . . . jumped on the chance to do one over on the guys that the Turks and the Qataris were supporting.”

Since Morsi was toppled July 3, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his senior aides have called almost daily for Morsi’s reinstatement, leading Egypt’s new rulers to issue a diplomatic protest.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the United Arab Emirates and Turkey “are huge,” Hokayem said.

Shaikh predicted that the competition “in the end of the day will come back to haunt them,” for an unstable Egypt “is not good for any of them.”

But the country that’s suffering the most from what Shaikh calls a policy “that is adrift” is Syria, where the country’s civil war has claimed more than 100,000 lives on both sides. A leading figure in the opposition coalition’s new Saudi-backed civilian leadership says the U.S. has “a policy of vagueness.”

In principle, the United States backs the coalition, said Fayez Sara, a writer and journalist who’s now a member of the coalition’s political committee. However, he said, “until now, no money has been received from the U.S.”

When the U.S. offers advice, “it is inconsistent,” he said in an interview.

“In the morning, they say, ‘Unite.’ In the afternoon, it’s ‘Fight terror groups.’ In the evening, they say, ‘Work for a political settlement with the regime.’ ”

He said there was a contradiction in the U.S. message, which declared on one hand that “Assad must go” and on the other demands of Assad’s opponents that “You have to arrive at some sort of agreement with him.” Sara says that when he points this out to U.S. officials, he receives different responses. Some say, “You’re right,” and others “just walk away,” he said.

The Americans have, “for now, abandoned the Syrian situation to its fate,” he said. “They will not take on the political or moral responsibility. They may come back to it. But it will be much more difficult when they do.”

Hokayem, whose book, “Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant,” describes the 2011 uprising as coming as a complete surprise to outside observers, said the Obama administration had defined its policies in the region in terms of avoiding another Iraq. But Syria “has already overtaken Iraq” in terms of its humanitarian, regional and strategic significance, he said. “Syria is going to be the defining issue of the decade” in the region, he said, and the Obama administration may soon get the “worst of both worlds.”

“We’re going to see an Assad surviving in a weakened fashion, more dependent on Iran and Hezbollah, with no strategic gain,” Hokayem said. There will be “a range of radical groups, whose identity we don’t know, which will be very difficult to contain.”

Shaikh agreed. “I don’t think we’ve got a grip on this,” he said. “The legacy of that is quite, quite devastating in the future.”

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