The U.S. Finds Odd Bedfellows in the Arab Spring

In the fight against Syria's Bashar al-Assad, the United States finds itself on the same side as al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

By SHARE
FE_121015_assad.jpg
Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, reviews an honor guard as he is accompanied by his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ight, during an official welcoming ceremony at the presidency in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. Syrian President Bashar Assad opened talks with Iranian officials Wednesday in a visit expected to include an appeal to free a French academic accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamic regime. Assad is a close Iranian ally and also is using the trip to personally congratulate Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on his re-election, which touched off massive unrest after opponents claimed the results were rigged.

Andrew S. Natsios is an executive professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A and M University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the author of Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Natsios served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and as President George W. Bush's Special Envoy to Sudan.

The uprisings that swept the Arab world have challenged traditional alliances in the region including the one between Egypt and the United States. But they have also forced some of the most unsavory characters in the world into unintended tactical alliances with the United States. During the Libyan uprising against Muammar Qadhafi the United States, Britain, and France became unwanted allies of Omar al-Bashir—the president of Sudan who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his government's atrocities in Darfur—when he sent Sudanese troops and weapons to support the Libyan rebels, the same rebels the western democracies were supporting. For a decade Qadhafi armed rebel groups fighting against Bashir's government in Darfur, and so Sudan's support for Qadhafi's enemies certainly made strategic sense. After Qadhafi's execution by the rebels, Bashir boasted publicly that Sudan had helped take him down. This is not the only instance of strange U.S. bedfellows. 

In Syria the U.S. support—however anemic—for the rebels seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad has made the United States unwanted allies of two other movements: al Qaeda and of the Muslim Brotherhood (which in its charter calls for the destruction of the State of Israel). Both groups also support the anti-Assad rebels. Both groups presumably see their interests being served by the removal of Assad. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

In what possible way could the United States conceivably share any interests with either the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda? The answer is mutual opposition to Assad's bloody reign (both Assad and his father brutally suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist movements for several decades). Since Assad has been a traditional ally of Iran—which is now providing weapons to shore up his fragile hold on power—both U.S. and Islamist opposition to Assad has also contained Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. Sunnis have traditionally regarded Shia Iran as the center of a heretical form of Islam over a dispute on the line of succession after the Prophet Muhammad's death. Al Qaeda has periodically slaughtered hundreds of Shia in Afghanistan in the 1990s—and now thousands in Syria and bombed their mosques—and yet it has also endorsed Iran's Islamist revulsion at modernity. At times Iran has tried to reach out to al Qaeda to end the bloodshed and to join them in an alliance against the hated West, and particularly the United States.

But there is another country that approached Iran two decades ago to form a Sunni-Shia alliance and that is Sudan. In June 1989 Brigadier Gen. Omar al-Bashir took power in a coup masterminded by the greatest Sudanese Islamist theologian in the past half century, Dr. Hasan al-Turabi. Both Bashir and Turabi (though they had a falling out in 1999) and their political party, the National Islamic Front, were the Sudanese arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was Turabi who orchestrated the radical Islamist reconstruction of Sudanese society and institutions. It was Turabi who invited Osama bin Laden to live and invest in Sudan in the 1990s. It was Turabi who arranged for his niece to marry bin Laden. And it was Turabi who orchestrated bin Laden's sanctuary in Afghanistan after his presence in Sudan caused diplomatic problems with the United States and Egypt.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

According to scholars J. Millard Burr and Robert Collins in their book Sudan in Turmoil, Turabi negotiated a grand strategic alliance which remains in place today between the Shia Ayatollahs of Iran and the Sunni Islamists of Sudan. Iran's closest ideological ally in the world is Bashir's Sudan, not Assad's Syria. Iran's alliance with Syria is a marriage of strategic, not ideological, convenience that has allowed Iran an operational base in Syria to support Hamas and Hezbollah—but Syria and Iran have no theological affinity. Sudan is another matter because its leaders share a common view with Iran of the democratic West's moral bankruptcy and abhor the secular forces driving modernization. A central principle of Turabi's vision is the restoration of the moral authority of the ancient Islamic Caliphate (which Kemal Ataturk abolished when he secularized Turkey in 1924), and the Arabization and radical Islamization of Africa. He once said that no laws will be necessary in an Islamic state as the Koran contains all the guidance needed to govern society.

Two decades ago Sudan and Iran signed an agreement that granted the Iranian navy unlimited and unrestricted access to Port Sudan (Sudan's major port), which lies strategically positioned across the Red Sea from Mecca and south of the Suez Canal. Sudan serves as the platform for Iranian intelligence operations in Africa based on a secret agreement between the Iranian and Sudanese intelligence services. Iranian weapons manufacturing plants have been reportedly built around Khartoum to ensure a regular supply of weapons for the Sudanese military to crush rebels groups in rebellion against Bashir's brutal government. Last year an Iranian drone was shot down by anti-Bashir rebels over the Nuba Mountains, an area which has been subject to a massive bombing campaign against the civilian population by Khartoum. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Sudan is the only country which has formed an enduring alliance with Iran based on a shared Islamist ideology. That could change as the Muslim Brotherhood sweeps into power across the Arab world and then we could see the Sudanese Iranian model repeated elsewhere. The moderate Islamic government of Turkey has been rushing to fill the void left by the retreating U.S. presence in the Middle East by allying itself with the new governments dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood—before Iran does. It remains to be seen whether they will succeed, and whether Turkey's Islamism will remain moderate.

This analysis suggests three key observations. First, in the byzantine politics of the Arab world al Qaeda's continuing attacks on Iranian allies and interests across the Muslim world has prevented such an enduring alliance uniting historic theological enemies—the Sunni and Shia—in a grand alliance against the United States and its allies. Second, although al Qaeda has been unintentionally protecting the interests of America and its allies by ensuring such a grand alliance has not formed—at least thus far—U.S. leaders must be vigilant and watch for signs of a broader alliance. For example, new Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi and a leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, made a recent trip to Iran and participated alongside Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a "nonaligned nation conference." Third, if the radical Islamists in the Sunni world form a lasting alliance with Iran's Shia Ayatollahs they will become much more formidable adversaries, putting the United States and its allies at risk. In this respect Lord Palmerston, the great British statesman, was right when he once remarked that "nations have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests." Given the Muslim Brotherhood's blood-drenched history in Sudan, the Ayatollah's brutal repression in Iran, and their maniacal hostility to the modern world, the interests of the United States and its allies should be clear. 

  • Read Stephen Hayes: The U.S. Must Strengthen Ties With Rising African Star Nigeria
  • Read Robert Nolan: The Lessons of the Afghanistan War, 12 Years Later
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy