Earthquakes of the Middle East
By Dr. Jacques Neriah
Almost five years after the outburst of the so-called Arab Spring, the Middle East is still experiencing tectonic and dramatic changes that are shaping its landscape into unexpected realities. The more the Middle East is engulfed in crisis the more it is transforming into a different political layout far beyond anything in its history. As an allegory, one could imagine the Middle East as boiling magma erupting from the depths of the earth, transforming in its burning path each and every meter it passes before it stabilizes into a new landscape after it has destroyed everything in its way.
Those five years have witnessed every unimaginable drama that no analyst could have ever dreamt about: Arabs fighting Arabs; Sunni Arabs fighting Iran and Iranian-backed troops and political forces; Sunnis fighting against Shiites; disintegration of nation-states; shifting alliances with the super powers; Western and Russian military intervention; Arab (Saudi Arabia, Qatar), Turkish, and Western intervention in local conflicts; the dominance of Russia and the slow shrinking of U.S. influence; Arab military intervention to assist failing fellow states unsuccessful in quelling internal rebellions; the elimination and persecution of Muslim sects; the disappearance of Christian communities; almost war between Russia and Turkey; and the rise of political Islam camouflaged as Jihadism on the ruins of former nation-states such as Syria and Iraq. Extreme fundamentalism together with the brutal and outrageous reality of the civil wars raging in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Lebanon have produced hundreds of thousands of victims, phantom cities, millions displaced and hundreds of thousands of refugees in foreign lands.
Where Do We Stand Today?
Syria and the Assad regime. By late September 2015, Bashar Assad was losing the war against the rebels assisted in their fight by the Saudi-Qatari Turkish-Western coalition. The rebels were on the outskirts of Assad hinterland in Latakia after defeating his forces in the northern part of the country facing Turkey. Assad was also losing the Golan to the Free Syrian Army and to the storming units of the jihadists. Even in Damascus it seemed that the suffocating siege carried out by the rebels was having a serious impact on Assad’s grip on his capital.
Then, as if by “magic,” Russia engaged its forces to defend the crumbling Alawite regime. Since the beginning of the Russian military intervention in late September, the Assad regime together with his strategic allies (Afghani forces brought by Iran, Hizbullah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces) have succeeded not only to stabilize the regime but to regain lost the strategic positions in the Latakia province lost in 2012 which secured the borders with Turkey. The next targets appear to be the re-capture of the whole city of Aleppo, thus assuring the Assad regime a large enough “lebensraum” to enable Assad to negotiate from a strong position rather than as a defeated regime. The forces of the regime flanked by pro-Iranian proxies (Afghanis and Uzbeks) have also recaptured Sheikh Meskin, a strategic stronghold near Daraa in the south thus recovering almost the majority of the ground lost in the Golan. In greater Damascus, Assad’s forces have regained control of some of the suburbs which fell to the hands of the rebels.
However, even with this reverse of fortune, the Assad regime controls barely 30 to 40 percent of the previous Syrian Republic. Assad is at the mercy of his saviors, and his regime is totally dependent on the decision-makers in Moscow and Teheran. His freedom to maneuver is almost nonexistent. Whatever scenario unfolds, Syria will not return to be the former spearhead of Arabism in the Middle East.
Moscow’s intervention in Syria and its strained relations with Turkey following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane which purportedly trespassed over the Turkish border have probably headed off a Turkish military incursion into Syria. Moscow and Teheran have become the guarantors of Syria’s Alawite regime. It remains to be seen what sort of partnership will emerge between the two allies when they will have to confront one another on different political agendas.
The Russian military intervention has spared Lebanon another civil war. Indeed, the Assad regime’s success (assisted by Russian air raids and Hizbullah fighters) in blocking the jihadists from reaching the Mediterranean Sea through the port of Tripoli has defused a fragile situation that could have developed into an all-out war between Sunnites and Shiites in Lebanon. But this has not solved the constitutional and political deadlock in Lebanon.
Lebanon is without a president since 2014; the whole political body is paralyzed and no compromise appears on the horizon. Hizbullah, blocking the issue of presidential elections by preventing the meeting of a quorum in parliament, has chosen a candidate (Michel Aoun) and is adamantly opposed to any alternative. The opponents rallied around the former Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Christian Maronite candidate Suleiman Frangieh, Jr. and have also decided not to compromise. In the meantime the country is run by a caretaker government which could in fact last for a long time if there is no dramatic change in the equation of forces.
Iraq today is struggling in its quest for self-identity. A year and a half after the Islamic State (IS) stormed Mosul and almost cut Iraq in half, Iraq is trying to recover and retake territory lost to Abu Bakr el Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph and leader of the Islamic State. With the help of the United States, Russia, and Iran, Iraq has recaptured almost in their entirety two key cities lost a year earlier to the IS: Tikrit and Ramadi. However, Iraq finds itself partly invaded by Turkish forces in the north and de facto partitioned between an autonomous Kurdish Government in the north, a Sunni territorial entity led by the IS whose capital is in Rakka, Syria, and a Shiite state which extends north of Baghdad until the borders with Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the south.
At this point, Iraqi leaders are worried about the possible devastation Iraq would endure by the destruction of the Mosul Dam (formerly known as Saddam Hussein’s Dam) if it is not properly maintained. This problematic dam was built on soluble gypsum, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers warned already in the first years of the American presence in Iraq that the dam – “the most dangerous dam in the world” – could be a source of danger if it is not constantly reinforced with grout injections. Another scheme under discussion is the construction of a colossal wall to surround Baghdad to facilitate law enforcement in the area and to reduce if not to eradicate terrorist attacks originating in areas adjacent to Baghdad.
The Kurdish issue is also a thorny issue for Baghdad. Following unsuccessful negotiations, the Iraqi government allowed the Kurds to run the oil industry in the Kirkuk area and to monetize the oil produced to finance the Kurdish economy. However, the Kurds, aware of the weakness of the central government in Baghdad, courted and armed by the United States and the West, and encouraged by their victories against the IS in Iraq and Syria, are now considering a referendum on whether to declare an independent state. Although the Kurds say that it is only meant to take the pulse of the people and not to be implemented immediately, these noises are not welcome in Baghdad which sees the specter of secession becoming a reality in its northern provinces. It is clear that such a declaration would draw the ire of Turkey and Iran as much as Baghdad’s, and its consequences could carry a dire predicament to a potential Kurdish self-proclaimed independence.
The Islamic State, under attack by the Russians and the Western military coalition led by the United States, is feeling the crunch. Thousands of its fighters have been killed or incapacitated by the air raids. The French Defense Minister mentioned the number of 20,000 casualties which could mean a very heavy toll on the military structure of the IS. However, even after losing Ramadi and Tikrit, the IS has enough energy to continue to fight in Syria and Iraq. During the year and a half since the declaration of the caliphate, the IS has succeeded to gain new territories in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, India, Afghanistan and the North Caucasian region. Its franchises in Egypt, the Gulf States, and North Africa are expanding and are still very active. Of late, indications suggest that the IS is looking for a possible alternative to Rakka in the failed state of Libya. The vacuum created in Libya since the ousting of Qaddafi by the West which contributed to the disintegration of Libya offers now a safe haven for jihadists in North Africa, destabilizing North Africa and the African Sahel states. The number of IS fighters in Libya has doubled in a year (5,000 fighters as of today), and their main goal is to capture the oil installations in the area of Sirte after having made inroads in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The growing IS presence in Libya has lit red lights in Europe and the United States. The possibility of a military Western and Russian military intervention in Libya is now closer to reality than before. Unlike Rakka, Sirte in Libya is less than an hour flight from the coast of Italy. Moreover, the IS has taken advantage of the enormous influx of refugees to Europe by introducing IS agents and operatives disguised as refugees, part of its strategy to wage terrorist attacks in the very heart of Europe.
The Changing Saudi Arabia. Far under the radar, and for almost a year, another conflict between Sunni Arabs and Arab Shiites backed by Iran has been unraveling. Saudi Arabia is leading an Arab military coalition against the Houthis in Yemen with little success. The military intervention by Saudi Arabia in Yemen was accompanied by a much-publicized campaign promising a swift end to the rebellion initiated by the Houthis against the elected government. However, even with the participation of allied Arab armies, including Egypt, Sudan and the Emirates, the Saudi campaign achieved very little in military accomplishments. At this point it appears that the war in Yemen will persist with no clear ending in the near future.
Pursuant to the Saudis’ confrontational policy carried out since the death of King Abdullah, the ascension of King Salman, and the nomination of his young son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman al-Saud, as minister of Defense of the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has join with Qatar to spearhead the effort to bring down the Alawite regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia has made no secret of its policy to arm and finance the Sunni rebels fighting against the Alawite-Iranian-Hizbullah coalition in Syria. Saudi Arabia has been active in trying to promote a “Pax Saudiana” by gathering in Riyadh and Geneva the main opposition factions to the Assad regime, but to no avail for the time being. Saudi Arabia went as far as declaring its readiness to send troops to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq which considers the ruling Wahhabi family and regime in Saudi Arabia to be heretical.
In fact Saudi Arabia is facing a double threat to its regime – both initiated by outside factors. The first one is directed by Iran using the Shiite population in Saudi Arabia as a means to destabilize the kingdom, and the second one is inspired by the Sunni radicals in Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Saudi Arabia has openly accused Iran of meddling in its internal affairs and pointed at Iran as a terrorist state undermining the stability of the Gulf region. The disaster that occurred during the 2015 Hajj, with the death of scores of Iranian pilgrims and the disappearance of several high-ranking Iranian officials who took part in the pilgrimage, poisoned even more the already strained relations between the two countries. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Saudi Arabia’s execution on 47 Shiites accused of terrorism including the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr who was considered to be the spiritual leader of the Shiite opposition to the Wahhabi policy of persecution. Iranian mobs attacked and ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, and Saudi Arabia answered by severing its diplomatic relations with Teheran. However, with the two countries understanding they were sliding towards confrontation, they chose to lower the flames for the time being and not to engage in an open conflict. Rather, both Iran and Saudi Arabia chose to continue their fight through their respective proxies. Saudi Arabia announces from time to time the uncovering of subversive schemes inspired by Iran. There has not been a month without the Saudis announcing the discovering of clandestine terrorist cells and without suicide attacks being carried out by jihadists associated either with Al-Qaeda or ISIS against “cult” Shiite mosques and military installations. Saudi Arabia is experiencing an unprecedented period of domestic instability due to terrorist activities carried out by Saudi recruits who joined the jihadist effort to destabilize the Kingdom. The Saudi “Patriot Act” (similar to the one enacted in the United States) meant to deter Saudis from joining the ranks of the Jihadists did not meet with great success. The Saudi volunteers in ISIS and Al-Qaeda remain one of the biggest contingents of fighters and carry the dubious title of being the highest number of volunteer suicide bombers. The Arab press today is full of innuendos relating to the possible abdication of the Saudi king to be replaced by his young and energetic son, Salman, the architect of the war in Yemen and of Saudi intervention in Syria.
On the other bank of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia’s ally, President of Egypt Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi, is also fighting in order to survive the jihadist tide. Five years after the ousting of President Mubarak, and following the Islamist Mohamed Morsi’s short presidency, Egypt under Field-Marshall Sisi is fighting to regain stability. Never in its modern history did Egypt have such tumultuous and unraveling events. The domestic scene is the main issue for the Sisi government to tackle. The Muslim Brotherhood, far from conceding defeat to the army, is still trying to topple the regime. Thousands of them are in jail with several of them being tried before exceptional tribunals; hundreds are awaiting execution. In the meantime, they have managed together with ultra-extreme jihadists to create an atmosphere of uncertainty in Egypt, striking from time to time at institutional targets, high-ranking officials, and military and police installations. President Sisi himself said in an interview he had uncovered two assassination attempts against his life. However, unlike the past regimes, Sisi has engaged his army to fight and restore Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai where the local jihadists (Ansar Bayt el Makdess) have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and changed their name accordingly to IS-Wilayat Sina (IS-Sinai Province). The events in Libya and the emergence of ISIS in that failed state are also a cause to worry. The Egyptian air force has struck several times at ISIS camps in Libya, and there is constant talk about a ground military operation in order to stabilize Egypt’s western borders with Libya.
Sisi must also focus his attention on events in Ethiopia where the government has decided to build a mammoth dam on the Nile called the “Renaissance Dam” whose basin when finished will create a serious problem for the Nile flow to Egypt. Negotiations are being held between Egypt and the countries to be affected by the dam with the Ethiopian government in order to try to minimize the impact of the dam on the daily life of the Nile basin countries. Under the Morsi presidency, leaks to the press reported a debate in parliament during which the bombing of the dam by Egypt was one of the options considered by some of the parliament members.
Sisi had to fight for the legitimacy of his presidency especially vis-a-vis Washington which considered a freeze on all military and economic aid to Egypt following what it perceived as a military coup against the “democratically elected President [Morsi].” The United States delayed the delivery of weapon systems, some of which were essential in the battle against the jihadists in Sinai, such as Apache gunships and F-16 aircraft. Sisi’s answer was to open up towards Russia and to sign with Moscow huge deals for weapons and nuclear electricity generation plants financed by Saudi funds. France also became a partner by selling Rafale aircraft and Navy frigates. Finally, Egypt struck deals with Europeans entities relating to its gas exploration program leaving American companies out of the room.
The more the Egyptian regime encountered bumps on its way, the more the regime became nervous and retaliated by limiting the freedom of expression. Draconian laws were enacted relating to the freedom of the press and the government made no secret of its zero tolerance to criticism, thus transforming what had been promised as a road map to democracy into a road map to military dictatorship. Egypt under Sisi reverted to the early days of the Nasser’s regime following the resignation of General Negi in 1954.
Where Will the Middle East Be in Five Years?
Five years after the outburst of the so-called Arab Spring, the Middle East has changed radically. Not only have nation-states crumbled, transformed or become failed-states, the moderating forces which used to hold the structures together are no longer present, have switched their allegiance allowing new factors to appear and dominate the scene. Such is the situation with the United States which is accused by almost all Arabs to be the source of the creation of ISIS, to have abandoned its traditional allies for the benefit of Iran, to have failed to assist friends in need and to have looked at the Muslim Brothers as an alternative to secular nation-states. As a result, Arab states are questioning U.S. policy and raising questions about its resolve to lead the military coalition against the Islamic State. Russia found the cracks in the geopolitical wall and easily replaced the United States with its traditional clients. Russia’s success in Syria is but another sign of the weakness of the United States in these dire times.
Five years from now, what Middle East can we expect? It would be foolish to prophesize. But it would not be adventurous to say that we will be confronted with a new map with new entities born or re-born. However, the future of the Middle East will remain conditional on the events and transformations that will affect the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. In this equation there is no room for the IS: sooner or later, the traditional forces will destroy the entity. This does not mean that the jihadist, Salafist ideology will be eradicated and that jihadist cells will stop from being established. Unless the roots of the problem are dealt with – meaning the financing of religious institutions – the jihadist movement will continue its interaction with the financial institutions receiving their funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and even Morocco.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.