The Geo-Politics of the Middle East
Last night we went to see two plays by Hannah Moscovitch – Little One and Other People’s Children – at the Tarragon Theatre. One was about pathological family geo-politics and the other about neurotic family geo-politics. They are magnificently written and were wonderfully acted and directed. Showing them back to back suggested that madness and neurosis are not that far apart after all. In some sense, that can be said about the Middle East.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is an Arabist and senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre (GLORIA) at IDC Herzliya in Israel. He is also a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. British-born, Spyer has a PhD in Middle East politics from the London School of Economics. He also served as a press officer in the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel. His expertise covers Iran, radical Islam and the Arab Spring. However, his greatest in-depth knowledge is on Syria and Lebanon and he recently snuck into Syria in order to interview the Syrian rebel fighters. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict published in 2010. Barry Rubin called it "probably the best book in Israel to be published in thirty years" because, in part, it focuses on the rise of revolutionary Islamism and the struggle against it as the most important issue in the Middle East.
We had lunch yesterday afternoon with about a dozen others. After a brief introductory remark, he was pummelled with questions. This account represents my distillation and organization of his comments that, because of the nature of the dialogue, veered quite widely. I have added some of my own illustrations taken from my files because I did not take notes. I will cover the one area where I disagreed with him – the role of America in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – tomorrow.
Spyer began with the theme that was central to his book – the shift in the politics of the Middle East from an Arab-Israeli conflict to an Islamist-Israeli conflict. It has resulted in the demise of all the secular military regimes beginning with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq to the mis-named Arab Spring revolts and replacements of military dictators – President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, Col. Muammar Qadhafi in Libya. The last remaining holdout from his father’s military regime is Bashar Assad in Syria; he has been facing a civil war for two years and now only controls 40% of the country.
Thus far, of the completed revolutions, all of the secular nationalist regimes have been replaced by Sunni Muslim revolutionary governments. As Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the Transitional National Council in Libya, announced when the Council assumed the reins of power, “We are an Islamic country. We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.”
Thus, Israel faces a new Sunni Islamic Arab axis to its west that dislikes Israel far more than the military secular nationalist regimes that were replaced and with which Israel had learned to live. However, each of them is too weak economically and militarily and too caught up with trying to stabilize their own internal affairs to cause any direct threat in the immediate future to Israel.
There is a second grouping that survived the Arab Spring made up of the surviving Arab monarchies. They include the members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) that is made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Jordan and Morocco which have been invited to become members. Only Bahrain seemed to teeter on the edge of a successful revolt for at least two possible reasons. King Hamad is a Sunni and the majority of Bahrain’s population is Shi’ite. Secondly, Bahain had run out of oil and most of its citizens lived in poverty. The revolt started on 14 February 2011. It was effectively quashed thirteen months later when, on 14 March 2012, in response to a formal request from King Hamad, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deployed the Peninsula Shield Force to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia contributed 1,000 troops, including an armoured battalion. The United Arab Emirates supplied 500 police officers.
Of these, only Oman stands out for its independent foreign policy, its pragmatism and domestic efforts at real reform, most notable in rejecting the subservience of women who are invited to play a serious role in Oman’s social and political evolution and informed by an enlightened Ibadhi interpretation of Islam. (Ibadhis differ from both the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam in both key attitudes and some core Islamic theological beliefs.) Oman, with a population of three million located on the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, is known for having the world’s largest sand desert – the 250,000-square-mile region that is known as the Empty Quarter.
Spyer referred to Oman’s foreign policy in passing but did not go into detail because it is generally well known among those who follow the Middle East and its historical development was well documented in Joseph A. Kechichian (1995) Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy. Oman is the only state in the region that does not have a foreign policy driven by ideology and that tries to protect its security and prosperity through peaceful negotiations. Though an absolute monarchy like the others, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Sa`id Al Bu Sa`id (Qaboos) has largely overcome both internal civil strife and alien forces like Iran since he overthrew his father in a palace coup in 1970. On the one hand, Oman supports regional security and stability in the Gulf based on dialogue, mutual interests and what it calls self-reliant defence. At the same time, Oman cooperates with allies through mutual trust and a balance of power and interests between the Gulf states and regional powers.
Oman supported President Sadat’s peace initiative with Israel in 1977 and Sadat’s role in the U.S.-sponsored Camp David peace talks in 1978. Oman did not break diplomatic relations with Cairo for recognizing Israel and did not attend the 1978 Baghdad Rejectionist summit condemning Egypt. In 1994, Qaboos invited official Israeli government representatives to a conference on water desalinization and subsequently welcomed Prime Minister Rabin to Oman, an unprecedented public visit by an Israeli leader to an Arab Gulf state. From 1996-2000, Oman and Israel exchanged trade offices. Though now closed, there is an Omani Embassy in Israel and formal diplomatic representation for Israel in Muscat and the resumption of relations always seem pending but get set back by events. For example, when Israel bombed the truck supply carrying arms from Syria to Hezbollah in February, Omani Parliament Speaker Sheikh Khalid bin Hilal condemned the Israeli attack on 6 February 2013 and called it shameful and in line with the Tel Aviv regime’s aggressive policies against Muslim and Arab countries, but did not, as Iran’s Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani did, describe Israel as the Zionist enemy of the Islamic world responsible, along with the U.S., for destabilizing Syria.
The third and most intractable and venemous axis is the Shi’ite religious axis that now includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and a quasi-loyal Sunni Hamas outpost in Gaza. Ironically, Iran’s most solid ally has become Shi’ite dominated Iraq, especially because of the powerful influence of Muqtada al-Sadr, Iran’s cat’s paw, on the Shia coalition in Baghdad. Instead of a strong ally and a model for Arab democracy, at great cost to America, the US helped establish an enemy regime. However, the downfall of Saddam Hussein did set the precedent for the tumbling down of Arab secular military nationalist regimes. It also re-established Iraq as a major oil producer. After a cost of almost a trillion dollars ($800 billion for the war and $50 billion for reconstruction) and 4,486 American soldiers killed between 2003 and 2012, the result has been Iran’s strongest ally diplomatically opposing American efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and permitting extensive smuggling to undermine the economic sanctions regime. When American troops were withdrawn in 2011, America had to turn over to Iraq the one dozen multi-billion dollar air bases originally intended for a long term presence.
Both Iraq and Iran are supporters of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Iraq permits Iran to use its air space to ship arms to Assad. Though the Shiite Iran-Iraq-Syria axis challenges the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) for dominance in the region, Spyer pointed out that Iran has been the biggest loser from the Syrian war and the demise of the Syrian regime, especially if the Assad regime fails to keep control of Damascus and the western ports. After all, Iran funded the new multi-million dollar base on the Syrian coast in Latakia to allow it to ship weapons to Syria directly. The Syrian port city of Tartus hosts the Russian naval supply and maintenance base for its Baltic fleet which Russia has been renovating and dredging to accommodate its largest naval vessels. In 2011, Syria’s arms contracts with Russia were worth $4billion. Russia has steadfastly prevented UN Security Council condemnations of Syria or imposing any sanctions or intervention of any kind. Nevertheless, Assad has lost control of half his country and the Islamist Sunni militias now sit in control on the other side of the Golan Heights.
In Spyer’s book, he described the second 2006 Lebanon War in which he participated directly (and was blown out of his tank in the process) as the first major engagement of the Shiite Islamist war against Israel in which Hezbollah established itself as a credible military force in confronting the much more powerful Israeli forces. (I was mot able to ask him, but I heard that Spyer is preparing a new book on the efficacy and morale of the Shi’ite Islamist forces.) If it were not enough that Israel now faces a more belligerent Sunni Islamist axis to its west, a virulent but noticeably weakening Iran-Iraq-Syrian Shiite axis to its east and a not exactly friendly Arab monarchical alliance in the Gulf, Israel now faces a fourth hostile outpost in the Middle East with the militant Islamic regime in Turkey where it once had an ally but which under its Islamic government has used its demonization of Israel to pursue a rival centre of leadership for the Islamic-Arab world, a futile effort in Spyer’s eyes, but nevertheless one that poses a continuing challenge to Israel. That shift has been accompanied by the creation of what Spyer in his book called the “mythical Israel” that has become a dominant image in both Sunni and Shiite Islamist circles where Israel is portrayed as “a place of uninterrupted darkness and horror, in which every human interaction is ugly, crude, racist, brutal." Each of the various axes uses Israel in different ways as a demonic wedge to advance its own hegemonic interests in the region. One positive outcome of this shift has been reconciliation with Greece, traditionally a source for the strongest support for the Palestinians.
None of this is helped by the US withdrawal from its former predominance in the Middle East and Europe’s growing political critique of Israel as Europe concentrates on its economic interests in the Middle East and allows the caricature of the demonic Israel to grow domestically, especially in Britain. That Israel is thriving economically and technologically, that the IDF is once again a disciplined and commendable military force that in addition to its commendable virtues of the flexibility, willingness to improvise and independence of thought of its soldiers and officers has also recovered its ability to plan carefully and in detail, has helped restore Spyer’s confidence in Israel’s future in spite of these challenges. The fact that Israel is on the verge of energy self-sufficiency with the development of its two huge gas deposits discovered on its Mediterranean coast, makes Israel stronger than ever in dealing with these radically changed external circumstances. Further, whatever the differences over increased economic income spreads domestically and over Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian borders, the reality is that in terms of domestic politics, Israel had fewer political differences than in the last sixty years. Just as the whole region has evolved to make religious ideology more central, this has also happened in Israel and even with the reconciliation of secularists with the religious stream. Though Spyer did not mention this, the new coalition without the religious parties is, ironically, likely to consolidate this reconciliation as the ultra-orthodox are forced to join in, accept and share the major political, economic and military responsibilities of the rest of the Israelis.
In addition to Shiite and Sunni religious ideologies replacing earlier regional pan-Arabic and secular nationalist military ideologies as the leading ideologies in the region, at the end of Spyer’s talk he articulated another long term trend, the religious cleansing of Christians from the Middle East. The former two million Christians in Iraq have almost all gone. Those who became refugees in Syria are now in flight again and he mentioned meeting many in Turkey seeking a haven in the west. These have been supplemented by Syria’s own Christian population in fear of what awaits them if the Assad regime falls. For whatever the Assad regime did negatively, Christians were largely protected by the Alawites. Further, the five million Coptic Christians in Egypt are now under threat. The elite have already developed tracks for safe havens elsewhere and many more are making plans to leave. This transformation possibly represents the greatest demographic change in the Middle East in two millennia.
Tomorrow: Revisiting the Two State Solution
[Tags Spyer, Middle East, Sunni. Shi'ite, Gulf States, Israel, Iran,