Arthur Koll

Tensions rise in the Middle East

The Middle East has entered a period of unusually high tensions. Currently, it appears as if there are far more threats than opportunities, and the risk of military clashes has risen.

A clear example of the volatility of the situation was evident last Saturday when, according to reports in Syria, Israel attacked a military facility south of Damascus, believed to be used by Iran and its proxy militias already present in large numbers in Syria.

If these reports are true, Israel sent Teheran and Damascus a message saying it will not allow the Iranians to establish a military stronghold in Syria. This message was probably also directed to Washington and Moscow.

As tensions rise between Iran and its axis on the one hand, and the moderate Sunni camp and Israel on the other, Washington seems to have lost interest in the region. There is a concern that beyond any victory over ISIS, the desire of the U.S. to influence the Middle East will be minimal.

For Washington, the Middle East region seems to have become peripheral, playing second fiddle to Asia, and particularly, to North Korea.
Russia, for its part, has scored successes in Syria and is now focused on reaping the benefits of its campaign to expand Moscow’s influence in the Middle East. Consequently, the extent to which Washington is committed to stopping Iranian expansion, and the regional and global threats that emanate from it, is in doubt.

The Trump Administration has given up on the objective of regime change in Syria, and it left Iran’s ally, President Basher Assad in control – a war criminal who has used unconventional weapons on multiple occasions during the civil conflict, which killed hundreds of thousands, and displaced more than 10 million people.

The spears of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have rescued the Assad regime from defeat, and enabled it to emerge victorious.
During this time, Iran has tightened its own strategic grip over Iraq and Syria. It accomplished this through increased direct military involvement, and through its proxies, Hezbollah, and the other Shi’ite militias.

Iran is also continuing its involvement in the war in Yemen, which constitutes a significant threat to Saudi Arabia. A long-range ballistic missile fired at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, by Iranian-supported Houthi forces constitutes a dangerous escalation.

In the context of the growing Saudi – Iranian confrontation, Lebanese Prime Minister Saeed Hariri, a Saudi ally, departed Lebanon and then returned, denouncing the Iranian takeover of his country. Hariri’s situation remains unclear, and the stability of Lebanon, which is controlled by Iran’s chief agent, Hezbollah, is also unpredictable.

In November, Assad paid a surprise visit to Moscow to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin, representing only the second time he has left his country since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. His visit was an indication of the impending victory of the pro-Assad Iranian-Russian coalition.

Iran, Russia, and Turkey now seek to remake the rules in Syria. Moscow and Teheran do not necessarily share the same vision, or strategic goals regarding Syria. However, Teheran invested heavily in the survival of the Assad regime, and is not likely to forfeit the opportunity to reap the strategic benefits. These include a territorial continuum that stretches from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, via Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

All of these developments are turning the Middle East into a powder keg.
Even if none of the sides wish to enter into a military escalation, there is a tangible, heightened risk that in such a high-friction environment, a military clash can erupt with ease, due a mistake or miscalculation.
This holds as true for Israel, and its enemies in Syria and Lebanon, as much as it does for Saudi Arabia, and its enemies in the Iranian axis.

This complex reality creates fertile ground for Israeli intelligence and strategic cooperation with moderate Sunni states, in the face of the common Iranian enemy.

Israel’s military Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot gave an interview to a Saudi media outlet in November, signaling that this cooperation is underway.

The very fact that a Saudi media outlet published an interview with the Israeli chief of staff, in which Eisenkot spoke of joint Israeli – Saudi interests and intelligence sharing, is a strong signal of the regional realignment taking place.

Yet it is impossible for either side in this realignment to be too vocal about it, so long as the Israeli – Palestinian conflict remains in a deadlock.

Recent reports, which are unconfirmed, suggest that the Trump Administration is close to putting a new Israeli–Palestinian peace-plan on the table.

Yet even if the “Trump Peace Plan” is revealed, it remains unlikely that either side will be ready to take it forward. And the optimists hoping for overt normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia seem set for a disappointment, so long as there is no significant breakthrough on the Israeli – Palestinian diplomatic front.

But the growing dangers posed by Tehran means that an anti-Iranian camp, made up of both Israel and Sunni states, will continue to exist and that its members will grow closer.

The missing part of the puzzle is the United States. Will it continue to allow Russia and Iran to expand their domination in the new Syria and Iraq? Or will it make absolutely clear that it has no intention of abandoning its allies in the Middle East?

Edited By Yaakov Lappin

Co-Edited By Benjamin Anthony

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

About the Author
Ambassador Arthur Koll is the former Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He concluded his service as the head of the Media and Public Affairs Division. He is a former Ambassador of Israel to the Republic of Serbia and to Montenegro and served as instructor of the National Defense College. Mr. Koll also served as Consul of the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, USA. Ambassador Koll is a Senior Diplomatic Advisor to The MirYam Institute. Follow their work at Www.MirYamInstitute.Org
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