Emmanuel Seitelbach, a technologist and an analyst of international issues, offers his analysis on the dynamic and changing relationships in the Middle East.
On June 18, 2010, an Iranian news agency stated that travellers departing from the Saudi airport of Tabuk were announced that all commercial flights were cancelled, without further explanation. Apparently, the airport was being requisitioned for the Israeli Air Force to set up an aerial bridge between Israeli military bases and Tabuk, to unload military equipment for an imminent strike on Iranian nuclear installations. Although the news could not be verified and the strike never occurred, the media announcement revealed a reorganization of relationships in the Middle-East, bringing closer together Israel with a number of Arab states which was unthinkable thirty years ago.
Israel only ever signed peace treaties with two Arab states, Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, and established low key economic trades with Gulf States like Oman, Qatar, and the UAE, starting around the 1990s. But the consistent support for the Palestinian cause by the public opinion in the Arab World has prevented the establishment of open diplomatic relations with Israel. An official rapprochement came forth when the Saudi proposed the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, offering to Israel full diplomatic and trades relations in exchange for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Arab States reassessment of their systematic hostility towards Israel has been prompted by a convergence of interests driven by external threats. More specifically, the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saud, the UAE, and the Jewish State have identified a common enemy in the Mullah Regime of Iran, and share a number of concerns to that regards. Firstly, the thawing of relations between their traditional American ally and Iran, through the nuclear negotiations under the Obama administration, signaled a departure from a neutral US position in the Sunni-Shia confrontation. Secondly, Iranian influence in the Middle East has been gaining ground as a result of recent unrest.
The Obama administration, along with the P5+1 western leaders, has brought about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding the Iranian nuclear program. The plan, and in particular the sunset clause by which nuclear restrictions end in 2030, is perceived by Israel and the Saudi as a weak agreement that could turn Iran into a nuclear threshold state, empowered by the release of large financial assets already used to assert a more aggressive foreign policy throughout the region. As of today, a zone of Iranian influence has been taking shape, connecting Shia regions across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea, benefiting from the Russian intervention in Syria in favour of the Syrian government and its Iranian backer. This development is enhancing the strategic importance of Israel and the Kurdistan to contain the Shia expansion, in the eyes of the Sunni Arab world. As for the Iranian nuclear program, the window of opportunity for Israel to strike nuclear plants in Iran has closed with the implementation of the JCPOA. A strike would be interpreted as a unilateral aggression by the world community today.
Still, the Syrian conflict entering its sixth year has created even more complex, sometimes volatile or unlikely partnerships. Regional destabilization from Syria was met with confusion by the erratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish NATO membership demanded that Turkey should fight alongside western allies against the Islamic State in Syria (known as DAESH). But Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s sympathy for the Islamic insurgency and Erdoğan’s concern with a growing Kurdistan along the northern Syrian border led the Turkish president to turn a blind eye to the DAESH expansion and fight his own war against Syrian Kurds, preventing the connection between two Kurdish held territories in northern Syria. For these decisions, Erdoğan got off on the wrong foot with Putin who was attempting to contain DAESH with its Syrian ally, when, in November 2015, Russian jets were downed by Turkish F-16s inside Turkish airspace. But through a combination of strategic and commercial incentives, Putin was able to convince Erdoğan to join the fight against DAESH, and hold off striking Syrian Kurds, the most efficient fighters against DAESH on the ground.Furthermore, Erdoğan, who shares with Donald Trump an unpredictable personality, made another about face when he reconsidered diplomatic relations with Israel. After Turkish nationals were killed on board the Gaza Flotilla of 2010, Turkish-Israeli ties were broken; but in 2016, Erdoğan renewed contacts with Israel, motivated by the need to restart military cooperation and the prospect of a gas pipeline deal, despite an old love affair between Israel and Iraqi Kurds that Erdoğan was shelling earlier.
As if all this was not complicated enough, the tacit non-aggression between Russian military in Syria and Israel is, to say the least, intriguing. As Russian forces have been fighting alongside Israel’s nemesis (Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah), Israeli jets have been permitted by Putin to strike—near Damascus and in all impunity—advanced weapons convoys destined to Hezbollah in Lebanon, despite the presence of the most advanced Russian S-300 radar stations, capable of detecting aircrafts as soon as they take off. In return, Russian pilots who, on occasion, enter Israeli airspace, while striking Syrian rebels in the Syrian Golan Heights, are politely instructed to turn around beyond the Golan cease fire line of 1973, without any incident of the kind experienced by Turkey and Russia.
Overall, both the Syrian conflict and the change in American foreign policy towards Iran initiated by Obama ended the isolation of Israel in the Middle East, paving the way for pragmatic and strategic partnerships with a number of Sunni regimes, beyond the initial economic ties with a handful of Gulf States. While Israel has been fighting Iranian proxies in Gaza (Hamas) and in Lebanon (Hezbollah), they have also assisted the Saudi in Yemen and the Egyptians in the Sinai. Specifically, the Saudi and the Yemen government are fighting a Houthi insurgency backed by Iran; and with certain discretion, Israeli military advisors are presumed to be instructing Saudi military in this conflict. Similarly, the Egyptian government is containing an insurgency driven by the emergence of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula (ISSP) that is having a devastating impact on Egyptian tourism; and Israeli pilots occasionally launch drone strikes against ISSP targets in the Sinai, with the agreement of the Egyptian military. This latest Israeli-Egyptian cooperation has fostered a counteractive partnership between ISSP and Hamas, in which the ISSP insurgents find shelter inside the Gaza Strip from Egyptian military raids.
These new partnerships, some of which could be short lived, are reshaping the Middle-East as we know it, and creating a clearer Sunni-Shia divide, with Israel on the Sunni side. One unintended consequence is the loss of interest for the Palestinian struggle, despite attempts by European governments to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In this confusing maze of national interests, if Donald Trump is serious about fighting DAESH in Syria and Iraq, he might have to get in bed with Russia, Turkey, the Syrian government…and Iran that he has already castigated.
Emmanuel Seitelbach is a technologist and an analyst of international issues.
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