Monday, March 31, 2014

In the eye of the storm

In an incisive and coherent analysis Jonathan Spyer, a member of the IDC in Herzliya and currently acting head of the Gloria Center there, spoke at Netanya AACI on "Israel in the changing Middle East: threats and opportunities."  Here is my summary of his excellent talk.
He described the Middle East prior to what was misnamed "The Arab Spring," mainly by the media, as being composed of two major blocks, on the one hand Iran and its proxies, Assad in Syria, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and on the other hand the pro-American block, with Saudi Arabia, Israel and the linch-pin of Mubarak in Egypt. Then the wave of popular uprisings swept Mubarak away in 2011, without any overt support from the US Obama Administration, which promptly supported the right to a democratic election that produced the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Pres. Morsi.  The US decided it could live with that, just as it accepted the democratically elected Hamas regime in Gaza.  So initially it looked as if the Iranian block had made some gains, and because Iran has chosen the Palestinian problem as a means to make headway in the Sunni Arab world, they were very happy with Mubarak's fall.
At this point it looked as if a new block of Islamist-controlled Arab States would emerge, including Tunisia, Libya, and particularly Egypt.  But, very quickly and unpredictably the tables were turned, with a military coup in Egypt, and the reigning in of the Islamist forces in Tunisia and Libya.  Furthermore, the prediction by none other than Bashar Assad that Syria would be immune from these uprisings was quickly disproven.  Not only were there popular uprisings, but in the past three years the civil war in Syria has caused 140,000 deaths and 5 million refugees.  But, strikingly Assad is still in power in Damascus.  What was the crucial difference between Mubarak and Assad? It was that Iran went to bat for its proxy, pouring money and materiel in to support Assad, also with Russian support, while the US immediately backed away from Mubarak as soon as trouble threatened (shades of the Shah of Iran).  This is the key difference, this is why the Iranian block is still actively functioning, while the pro-American block is essentially defunct.   Assad is standing his ground with solid support from his patron Iran, while Mubarak is no more.  This explains a lot, now that the Egyptian military has ensured the continuity of their rule, with Gen al-Sisi governing Egypt and MB leaders sentenced to death, they no longer trust the US, and why should they.  They know that at the first sign of trouble the US will abandon them, while in Syria they see that Russia is a proven ally of Assad.  Obama will go down in history as the President that lost Egypt and ensured the decline of US power in the Middle East.
Of course, other US allies have taken note of this situation, particularly Saudi Arabia has taken steps to ensure its own continuity, not depending on the unreliable US.  They have increased support for the insurgents in Syria and have cut ties with Qatar that has been bankrolling the MB and other Islamist extremist groups.  In essence the game has changed from a clash between the pro-Iranian and pro-American blocks to a clash between the Sunni and Shia blocks.  In the Shia block there is of course Iran, Hizbollah and Assad as before, but now there is also Pres. al-Maliki of Iraq.  But in effect, Iraq has ceased to exist, not very long after the US withdrew.  Maliki, head of a Shia regime, is now an ally of Iran, and the country is split into three regions, the Kurds in the north, the Shia in the south and the Sunni in the west.  Anbar province has reverted to Sunni Islamist control, essentially an al Qaeda-controlled region, just what the US fought futiley against.  Also, Lebanon has been drawn ever closer into the Syria conflict, so that now it is almost impossible to talk of the sovereign states of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, but rather of a large region of the Arab world stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iranian border that is engulfed in the Shia-Sunni conflict.
Where is Israel in all of this?  Israel is like the eye of the storm, not directly involved but sitting ready for any eventuality.  One may ask, why at this particular juncture did the US under Obama decide to take the initiative to re-start the so-called peace-process?  There is no rational answer to this question, except perhaps they had no other idea what to do in the Middle East.  Certainly there was no indicator of any kind to presage success, and in fact there has been abject failure. If Secty Kerry criticizes Israel for requiring the Palestinians to acknowlege that Israel is the Jewish State, and then claimed that they had already done so, why is it that at the current Arab League meeting in Kuwait the Arab world resoundingly rejected this possibility.  So the Palestinian problem turns out to be a very marginal problem in the current maelstrom of the Middle East, not worthy of so much US commitment.
Israel seems to be holding its own.  We cannot be sure what will happen regarding Iran's nuclear weapons program, but meanwhile the West is engaging Iran in talks and Israel is watching very closely to see if Iran achieves breakout potential.  The Sunni Arab States are also watching as closely and a very loose alliance is being forged between Israel and the Saudi-led Sunni States.  This is along the lines that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Saudi Arabia may take the lead in bashing Israel in the Arab League and the UN, but on the ground they fear much more the Shia Iranian-led forces than they fear Israel.  Also, the IDF has effectively silenced the military capability of Hizbollah and Hamas.  They know what it feels like to provoke Israel into a major reaction and they are very wary of that.  So Israel must sit tight until the dust on the other side of the border settles, and that may not be for a very long time.


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