Broad Alliances and the Unpredictable Middle East Realities- Part II

Spearhead Analysis – 23.11.2017

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Link to Part I

The ‘post conflict’ Middle Eastern order is yet to define its concrete contours. The disruption of old regional balances that has been on-going since 2002, created power vacuums and paved way for forces of terror to exploit political instability — all this has also exacerbated regional rivalries. A sense of collective regional responsibility appears to be slowly evaporating and instead virulent rhetoric often coupled with policies of blatant coercion of stable regimes is increasingly becoming a preferred tactic by almost all regional players.

Presently, the region is believed to be shaping up under two broad blocs. One that encapsulates Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt and Kuwait supposedly under US patronage; and the other which encapsulates Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar supposedly under Russian patronage. The current crisis is also often dubbed as the ‘Saudi-Iran rivalry’. Some broad interests of the various states might be aligning at the moment, but owing to Middle East’s complex, diverse and transnational socio-political, ethnic and religious linkages the current path is unlikely to resolve the crisis. Furthermore, each state in this tightly woven area is looking at its own national interests. Similarly, the patronage of the big powers is also diverse, thus only enhancing the unpredictability of outcomes.

Recently, new shockwaves were felt at the sudden resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in a televised speech from Saudi Arabia, under the pretext of life threats from ‘Iranian backed Hezbollah’. Lebanon largely denounced the resignation and identified the development as “Saudi Coercion”

Lebanon

The Lebanese President Michel Aoun – A Maronite Christian; and, Hasan Nasrullah – the leader of Hezbollah refused to accept the resignation till Hariri safely returned to Lebanon and explained his reasons.

On the 14th of November Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Beshara Al Rai in a historic visit to Saudi Arabia met the Crown Prince (Muhammad bin Salman) MBS and delivered a rather strong national message: “The Lebanese people have been waiting for Hariri to return. They will not rest until he returns so that life returns to normal”.

In parallel, French President Macron, made an unscheduled visit to the Kingdom on the 9th of November to mediate the crisis. Following Macron’s intervention, PM Hariri left for Paris and is currently back in Lebanon. The official status of his resignation remains unclear, it is said that he will be holding talks in Lebanon and soon leave for Egypt. The result of this mysterious development is so far not clear.

Lebanon houses people of various religions and ethnicities. The Christian-Muslim populations is almost evenly divided, each containing its own multiple sects. Of the approximately 54% Muslim population, the Sunni-Shia split is nearly even as well. Its diversity requires delicate care in political representations. At the same time this diversity resides in a difficult region, and has often been used as a tool for proxy conflicts. Thus Lebanon’s contemporary history is replete with civil unrest. Learning from their history, the Lebanese largely prefer to strive for political stability. Its constitution necessitates for a Christian President, Sunni Muslim PM, and a Shia speaker of Parliament. Similar efforts to ensure fair representation are also applied to the Lebanese Armed Forces. Currently,  Hezbollah serves as one aligning factor amongst the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and few others.

Hezbollah is essentially an indigenous Lebanese movement borne out of the 1982 Israeli occupation of Lebanon’s southern strip, and remains primarily dominant in the South of Lebanon. Over the years, it is believed that Hezbollah’s stronghold has increased both in the Lebanese politics and as a regional ‘militia force’.

Internally, Hezbollah is considered a legitimate stakeholder in the Lebanese political fabric and maintains a significant support base. Moreover, the recent daunting regional realities also compelled the Lebanese security establishment and Hezbollah to frequently coordinate in order to preserve their territorial integrity and deter spread of IS and al-Qaeda affiliates such as Al-Nusra to Lebanon. Regionally, due to the power vacuums, it is believed that Hezbollah’s authority, allegedly with Iranian backing, has increased in Iraq and Syria. The exact strength of Hezbollah forces is debatable. However, the inadvertent emergence of directly linked land routes from Iran-Iraq-Syria to Lebanon allegedly under the ‘Iranian Sphere of Influence’ pose a threat to US-Israel-Saudi interests. Thus, Lebanon faces an increasing pressure to sideline Hezbollah. Lebanon’s difficult political past has also catered to its economic fragility, and this lever is often pulled as a coercion tactic. Last year, Saudi Arabia suspended a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese army and cancelled the remainder of $1 billion in aid. Certain sources also discuss a possibility of Saudi divestments from Lebanese banks, enhancing the strains.

A few days prior to his ‘resignation trip’, Hariri first visited Saudi Arabia on the 31st of October to meet MBS. In the same timeframe Thamer Al Sabhan, the minister of state and Arab Gulf affairs, openly criticized Lebanon’s government for its “silence” regarding Hezbollah’s role. The US administration is also currently debating tougher financial sanctions against Hezbollah, but at the same time it continues with its support for the LAF due to their counter terror efforts. It even stepped in to fill the gap left by Saudi assistance to Lebanese Armed Forces – its most recent dispatch of equipment to LAF was on the 31st of October.

Israel, similar to Saudi Arabia prefers to see Hezbollah contained at all costs. Following its 2006 war with Hezbollah the IDF chief laid out the Israeli ‘Dahiya Doctrine’, which foresees use of disproportionate  power against all Lebanese civilian infrastructure as a means to restrain Hezbollah.
Lebanon appears to have been given two difficult choices for now – deal with Hezbollah or face economic coercion – both un-favored paths lead to internal and external chaos and would not solve regional concerns. What Lebanon ultimately strategizes is anybody’s guess.

Israel

Israeli insecurities are ‘shape shifting’ and in a sense constant until correct initiatives are undertaken. Recently, the IDF chief broke the ice on the long speculated Saudi-Israel cooperation to thwart Iranian influence. Currently, Israel’s core concerns are that Hezbollah forces withdraw from Syria, more specifically from Golan Heights, where it continues to buffer the zone by supporting ‘moderate rebel forces’ and ‘all Iranian backed’ militia forces withdraw from Syria and Iraq.

IDF chief also stated that Israel “does not have any intention of initiating any offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon and starting a war. But we will not accept a strategic threat against Israel”. There is hope in the declarations by U.S. President Donald Trump, who said that it was necessary to block the Iranian missile program and keep Iran from gaining a foothold in Syria and Iraq.

Some ‘optimistic ‘Israeli voices hope the upcoming US ‘Middle East Plan’ would rid Israel of its insecurities- this time. They also point out Hezbollah’s current structural restraints, ‘thinning of Hezbollah forces during the Syrian conflict and its current focus on consolidating gains in Syria, thus making it a ripe time to act against them in Lebanon and elsewhere and in turn also weaken the Iranian influence. Israel appears divided on its approach ahead, several pragmatic Israeli voices point out these realities. They fear that Israel is on a misguided path to the frontline and might walk into a situation it may not be able to contain. Daniel Shapiro very precisely summed up the situation in a recent statement, “The risk of escalation lies in the fact that everyone wants someone else to fight Iran for them.” Israel wants the US to do it, while the Saudis want Israel to attack Iran or proxies like Hezbollah. Some also remember the 2006 Israel stalemate with Hezbollah.

The Syrian regime has always been dubbed as a threat in Israeli calculations but its instability has not produced decisive favorable outcomes either. A similar situation emerged in Iraq post Saddam. Many point out to these shape shifting Israeli insecurities, the burgeoning regional rivalries, and the opposition from multiple indigenous groups. All this only exacerbates the bitterness stemming from unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestine

Naturally, the key curator Kushner and MBS have accounted for the Palestine issue in the Grand Middle East Peace Plan. However, recent developments have already begun revealing the plans fault lines. Egypt recently took the lead in reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas authority and the Palestinian population residing in the Gaza Strip faces acute economic challenges due to tensions with Israel on one side and stringent control from Egypt on the other and governance is becoming increasing challenging for Hamas. Supposedly the offer it received was in the shape of a security-economic tradeoff. The contentious Rafah Crossing was recently opened for a few days under the control of Palestinian Authority (Fatah dominated) guards on the Gaza side for the first time in a decade. In this same breath, MBS also called Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah to the Kingdom, allegedly to ensure Mahmood Abbas pushes Hamas to delink itself from Hezbollah and that his party Fatah fully supports the upcoming Middle East Peace Plan. Israel is seemingly hopeful that this time some plan would work, but several sources discuss the prevailing doubts in the Israeli security establishment. It is said that sections in Israel are skeptical of the efficacy of the upcoming solutions, which may fail to take into account the intricacy of the issue and the political pressures on both Israelis and Palestinians. One can’t be certain of the understanding between Mahmood Abbas and MBS, but the Fatah leader recently called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel for war crimes. Trump administration notified the Palestinian Authority that unless it enters ‘serious peace negotiations’ with Israel, the U.S. could shut down the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, thus worsening the plight of the Palestinians. Some expect Palestinian protests in the upcoming days. If economic and political coercion is the grand peace strategy, then some in Israel rightly maintain their doubts.

The Syrian political stability:

IS twistedly served as a unifying factor amongst various local groups. However, the liberation of Syria from IS once again shifts prime focus on proxy conflicts and indigenous political issues, even as the bigger powers now make some attempts to search for political solutions on their red lines. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel demand that Iranian military influence shall not be allowed in Syria. Russia, during the peak years of war reached an agreement with Israel allowing them to target Hezbollah’s arms shipments and Syrian regime forces when necessary; and in return, Israel would not challenge the Russian intervention or threaten Assad’s survival.

Hezbollah also agreed to some Russian demands by withdrawing fighters from southern Syria. However, Hezbollah has allegedly once again returned to the South zone, supposedly with Russian consent, flaring speculations of Tehran’s aim to seize the Damascus-Baghdad highway and establish a supply line between Iran and Beirut. 

Syria remains embroiled in socio-economic and political chaos. It would likely take years before it stabilizes and the proxies and indigenous conflicts subside.

With the Syrian regime in control of two-third of the territory, its top focus would be on stagnating further national deterioration. It is also speculated that Iran may be invited to set up military bases to help consolidate these gains. Russia on its end has certainly proven that the Syrian geography is of critical importance to it.

Iraqi factors:

Given the current outcome of the Syrian War, one could perhaps deduce why Lebanon and some other linking zones serve as fertile ground for proxy conflicts. Iraq is one such important link. Its invasion in 2002 critically destroyed the Iraqi security infrastructure, and since then the nation has been rampaged by innumerable external forces and various terror groups. In its ‘post invasion’ years Iraq is assumed to be under the Iranian influence. This is over-generalization finds its validation from the fact that Iraq houses a majority of Shia population, which is visible in its current political setup. However, the configuration of its security apparatus continues to pose a threat to others. Naturally, following the invasion the existing credible security forces couldn’t contain the assortment of conflicts. However, after the gruesome desecration of the nation by IS, the Iraqis largely managed to unite; the ‘infamous’ al-Hashd al-Shaabi or (Popular Mobilization Force) was also created in this period. Contrary to common perceptions it is not solely a Shia force, it contains Sunnis and even the Yazidis of Iraq. Owing to PMF’s strength, the former and the current Iraqi government have toyed with the idea of mainstreaming PMF as part of the Iraqi Armed Forces. This idea faces intense opposition from some external players.

Understanding the reality of Iraqi demographics, in July Saudi Arabia made attempts to apply its own version of Pan-Arabism on Iraq and initiated contacts with the popular Iraqi Shia Cleric Muqtada Sadr in hopes to pacify its insecurities from the Iraqi link. This was largely seen as Saudi Arabia trying to isolate Iran by forging ties with Shia groups that do not enjoy the most cordial ties with Iran.

The kingdom, more or less confirmed this strategy when Muhammed Al Sulami, the head of the Arabian Gulf Center for Iranian Studies, said, “We put all the Shiites under one category and said that they follow Iran. We should re-examine the Shiites again and revive the Shiite Arab authority in Najaf and Karbala, not in Qom.” Whereas the State Minister for Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, tweeted “I believe we have to differentiate between original Shia Doctrine and the new extremist Khomeinist doctrine”. Supposedly Sadr objected to this message and the tweet was deleted. Following the trip Sadr also called for dismantling the militia.

The current focus of Abadi’s government is to position Iraq in a more neutral light and distance itself from the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. In particular, he has been initiating contacts with Saudis, Jordanians and Iranians. Iraq is also embroiled in deep socio-economic and political chaos, it too, has a long path ahead before credible stability emerges. It can no longer afford to get caught in the cross fire, but at the same time its reconstruction requires it to depend on support of many powers, while striving to retain its own feasible interests.

Other Factors:

Creating a Kurdish buffer especially in the North East areas of Iraq bordering Iran has been another option supported by the ‘US bloc’. The recent Kurdish referendum also highlighted significant local support for the cause – 93% supposedly favored splitting from the central government. In response, Iraqi courts stated that the country’s constitution did not allow any region or province to break away. Turkey and Tehran’s interests also align here due to their own Kurdish population. Turkey threatened use of military force against any such developments and Iran shut down its land borders.

Moreover, the Riyadh Summit that encouraged the build up to the Qatar blockade has not produced the most fruitful results either. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and UAE cut ties with Qatar. One of the key reasons is Qatar’s alleged support for groups such as Muslim Brotherhood. However, at the same time the trio avoided severing ties with Turkey by highlighting its alleged links to the group. This created tensions with the Egyptians who supported the blockade hoping for pressure against Turkey. Yet, this gesture from the trio did not deter Turkey from acting in its own security and economic interests. Instead of picking sides, it decided to play the role of a mediator. The Qatar blockade also once again inadvertently assisted in the growth of ‘Iranian influence’ – which stepped in to cover for Qatar’s food security. Qatar has not yet agreed to the demands of the GCC neighbors either.  Bahrain called for freezing Qatar’s GCC membership, and authorities in the island kingdom have announced that they will not allow Qatar’s nationals and residents to enter Bahrain without obtaining a visa.

It is also speculated that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are attempting to mobilize tribal opposition as well as little known members of one branch of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family in an effort to weaken or topple, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The situation in Yemen is equally dismal, the war is nowhere nearing its end – allegedly owing to Iranian backing for the Houthi rebels.

The Middle East is engaged in a tug of war, the US is likely to continue supporting the stability of its key allies in the region – especially Saudi Arabia and Israel and at the same time support other states and groups. Overt intervention of other bigger powers would only emanate if their critical interests are threatened – as in the case of Syria. However, even Russia and China maintain broad ties in the region. This reality creates greater pressures on all Middle Eastern states amidst this unpredictable environment, as the regional players oscillate in their alliances with the greater powers and with each other.

Middle East is trying to establish a flawed regional order- the lines of defense and offence are blurred; this enhances paranoias of all states. Currently, the region identifies itself with broad categories of conflicts for example: “Iran-Saudi”, ‘Israel-Iran’, ‘Shia-Sunni’ ‘Jewish-Muslim’ but these too present an incomplete picture as the conflicts are much deeper. The region is increasingly resembling a pit of snakes with each state trying to wrap itself around the next. The region is embroiled in long wars of attrition – to achieve what end state? There is no end to all this, because the realities that shape the region are complex.   

The contemporary nation-state history of the Middle East and its current conditions reveal that the regional conflicts rarely offer decisive victory to any one contender and end up with everyone feeling a little more insecure. This is partly due to the interconnectedness of geography and resources and even more due to the ethnicities and religions that blend across the region. The crisis would only worsen if it continues with this trajectory, as more lives, histories and cultures would be destroyed. The region requires a new order under which all states back off a little and solve their various conflicts with political solutions.

www.spearheadresearch.org