Donald Trump and the Sunni Axis

After years of chaos and disarray, the Sunni camp of states is, with the help of the Trump Administration, pulling itself back together, and this could have a positive effect for Israel’s interests.

A rejuvenated Sunni axis can help stop the Iranian-led takeover of southern Syria – a critical short-term Israeli security interest.

Prior to the 2011 ‘Arab spring’ era that created massive regional upheaval, a system of Sunni Arab states acting in league with one another existed, but subsequently, after 2011, it split off into individual states, each dealing with their own challenges and crises separately.

Egypt has spent the past six years fighting the Muslim Brotherhood domestically, as well as a jihadist insurgency in Sinai. Saudi Arabia has been preoccupied with Iran, and entered a war in Yemen due to tactical considerations. The Saudis, together with other Gulf states, have also been busy combating terrorism in general, and particularly, Salafi-inspired terrorism, which threatens their legitimacy and stability.

Now, a Sunni camp 2.0 appears to be rising, and the crisis with Qatar is one of the signs that it is taking shape.

The revived Sunni camp of states is made up of Saudi Arabia, the smaller Arab Gulf states (excluding Qatar), Egypt, and Jordan. Turkey is absent from this axis.

Saudi Arabia, which leads this camp, is opposed to the Assad regime in Syria (and seeks the overthrow of Basher Al-Assad). The entire Sunni axis is troubled by the rise of Iran in the region. The Sunni leaders are intent on combating ISIS, and are pleased with the policies of the new Trump Administration in Washington.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR ISRAEL

For Israel, this development represents new opportunities, since the Sunni camp and Israel have common interests.

The role of Washington in the reemergence of the Sunni bloc is key.

The Trump Administration has been a catalyst for the new Sunni camp, as the US has no interest in becoming too involved in the Middle East. An energized, active Sunni bloc can perform functions in the Middle East that the US does not want to do itself. The two core functions are: Preventing the Shi’ite axis from gaining further strength, and combating ISIS.

A NEW ERA IN WASHINGTON D.C.

The current US administration has thrown aside the Obama-era US goals of promoting democracy in the region, focusing on security and counter-terrorism instead.

Washington has recognized that the past administration has been too neglectful of the Sunni world, leaving an opening for the Russians.

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin met several times with Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and Jordan’s King Abdullah, is an indication of Russia’s efforts to exploit America’s absence in the region.

Trump is determined to reverse that trend. His first visit abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia, where he launched a campaign to reinstate American influence on the Sunni states. American weapons sales to these states is one way of doing that.

Meanwhile, the rival Shi’ite camp has been consolidating power. Under Iran’s leadership, the Shi’ite axis consists of the Alawite regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and other smaller members. The Iranian camp has been spreading its influence throughout the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, where it deployed militias and armed organizations under its command.

America has been busy telling the rejuvenated Sunni camp about its determination to confront Iran and its destabilizing activities.

These policies are what will recruit key members of the Sunni camp – Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – to join the US’s sphere of influence again, and not irrelevant rhetoric about democracy.

THE RUSSIAN STRATEGY

The Shi’ite axis has, in the meantime, been enjoying military assistance from Russia. Moscow is tightening its relations with Iran and Hezbollah. All are united around the interest of keeping the Assad regime alive.

These factors have conspired to create a threat to Israel’s northern border, in the form of an Iranian-led takeover of southern Syria.

The revived Sunni camp and Israel both have a common interest in preventing that from taking place.

This can form the basis of a dialogue between Moscow and Washington, which should center on creating areas that are free of Iranian-Shi’ite presence, and which are also free of Iranian-Shi’ite influence on the local population. Such a plan can win the support of pragmatic Sunni states, and Israel.

This arrangement holds the promise of creating an area free from a radical Shi’ite presence in south Syria. Even if the Assad regime and its Iranian backers would like to deploy forces into this zone, Russia has the ability to stop them.

Sunni elements currently have control in southern Syria, and this is good for stability, and for the security of both Israel and Jordan. The US is helping Sunnis in southern Syria to maintain their control.

THE ISRAELI VIEWPOINT

In recent weeks, Russia and the US declared southern Syria to be a deconfliction zone, raising the possibility of creating an Iran-free zone in this sensitive area. Israel, nevertheless, remains deeply suspicious of the effectiveness of this set up. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed this skepticism when he said that Jerusalem opposes the truce in southern Syria. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, responded by saying that Russia would look out for Israel’s interests.

The wider ambitions of the Shi’ite axis remain large in scale, and dangerous. The Shi’ite camp is attempting to create a continuous corridor, stretching from Tehran, through Baghdad and Iraq, and into Syria and Lebanon.

Currently, this effort is focused in eastern Syria near Tanaf.

The rival Shi’ite camp, an enemy of both of Riyadh and Jerusalem, isn’t going anywhere. It still plans to take over southern Syria and threaten Israel and Jordan. International involvement, together with the support of the emerging Sunni camp and Israel, can help stop these dangerous Iranian plans from being realized.

Edited By Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited By Benjamin Anthony (www.oursoldiersspeak.org)

Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.

About the Author
Brigadier-General Ben-Meir (Res.) served as the head of the IDF's research and analysis division, responsible for the National Intelligence Assessment in The Intelligence Corps. From 2011 to 2012, he was the Intelligence Military Attaché in the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, USA. Brigadier-General Ben-Meir holds LLM and LLB degrees from Bar Ilan University and completed a BA in Logistics and Economics from Bar Ilan University. He is intelligence analyst for Our Soldiers Speak.
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