Middle East 2019. Another Uncertain Year Ahead.
The Return of Palestine and A Deepening
of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide.
One of the clearest lenses through which to gaze into the scenarios that could develop in the Middle East in 2019 is the next Israeli legislative election. It is scheduled to take place on November 5, 2019. But Israeli officials may move the vote ahead to the early spring because current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s margin of majority has been reduced to one seat in Parliament. In turn, that could either postpone or delay the unveiling of the latest White House peace plan for the Middle East. Given that Gaza, and its fate, will represent a top election issue, the Plan could be interfering in the campaign.
Trump is eager to see the plan, the terms of which have been completed, implemented; even if it’s unclear how that might be feasible, given that – apart from Israeli electoral factors – the Palestinians, and the officially recognized Palestinian National Authority (ANP) have not participated in any aspect of the plan to protest Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017. That does not bode well for what the U.S. president Trump has described as the ‘Deal of the Century’. As for the incorrigible, and often misguided optimists, such as NY Times veteran Thomas Friedman, they merely need to look at the map of the Middle East to understand just what obstacles, the formation of any Palestinian State that does not also establish a full return to the pre-1967 boundaries must overcome. The best outcome at present, would still leave the creation of a divided State, featuring the two non-contiguous territorial sections of Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Add to that the difficulties related to the unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as Capital of the Israeli State, and it’s evident that the only possible outcome is a fiasco.
Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall if you prefer, the dynamic, or chief dialectic, in the Middle East has gradually shifted away from the Palestinian question, which culminated with the 1973 Oil Embargo, to one that has exploited and stoked the ‘divide’ between Shi’a and Sunni. That so-called Arab Spring has allowed that divide to become the central idea of the current Middle East; all but disintegrating the post-colonial nationalist projects of the Republics, while favoring the Sunni monarchies and their vassals – Egypt included. Indeed, if it was once possible to analyze the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) together, it’s no longer the case now. The two are ever more ‘indifferent’. Egypt remains a key player in the Middle East, because of its links to Gaza and the so-called Peace Process. But, it’s a far cry from the defiant and nationalist Egypt of Nasser or early Sadat. The Camp David Accords of 1979 have beholden Egypt to American financial aid, which has become as essential as oil is to the Gulf States, placing Egypt directly in the ‘Sunni’ camp.
And in 2018, the Sunni States have given every indication of towing the White House line on Israel, even going as far as establishing bilateral peace deals or overtures as Oman has clearly done when it invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Muscat.
And then there’s the all but declared alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has agreed with the Trump administration and Israel to allow the latter to continue occupying the Jordan River Valley. That includes allowing all illegal settlements in the West Bank to remain. Of course, it also means that the Palestinians can forget about a capital in East Jerusalem. Clearly, the Palestinians will never accept such a proposal. And, the Israelis and Americans know that if, or rather when, the Palestinians reject it, they will appear as the deterrents to ‘peace’. And Iran will clearly emerge as the Palestinians’ only ally, cementing the Saudis and Israelis’ joint effort against Tehran and its allies.
Clearly, to find challengers to the ‘Deal of the Century’, therefore, we must look to the Shi’a States, and that means, of course, States that have enhanced their relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran in the past few years. Therefore, the war in Yemen will continue. The assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have shed unwelcome limelight on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (aka: MbS), but it has not discredited the war that the latter has waged with the backing of Egypt, the UAE and now Pakistan (reluctantly) against the Houthi rebels (Shi’a related sect) in Yemen in 2015. Therefore, that war and the related Saudi (and American) accusations against Iran for supporting the Houthis will continue despite the short burst of attention it received amid gruesome details of Khashoggi’s death.
Of course, it will also mean that despite its vast territorial gains in 2018 and the start of reconstruction, the President Bashar al-Asad’s government in Syria will continue to struggle in 2019. The Last Chapter of the Syrian Conflict Has Not Yet Been Written. Admittedly, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Asad pulled off what at the beginning of the Syrian conflict looked impossible: stay in power. Almost eight years after the first protests in Dara’a escalated into an armed insurrection, Bashar remains president. He has survived ISIS, al-Qaida and its variations such as al-Nusra, the Turks, the Americans, the Saudis and Qataris. But his biggest challenge is about to start. Few remember that before the conflict began in Syria, it and Israel had launched a series of Turkish brokered talks between 2008 and 2010 aimed at resolving the Golan Heights issue. Now, facing the prospect of a Syria stabilizing under Asad’s banner, Israel feels more threatened than at any point in the conflict.
Unlike Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Moammar al-Qadhafi in Libya, the ‘unthinkable’ (as Robert Fisk put it), that is the victory of Bashar al-Asad’s forces over the ‘rebels’, had happened. The Syrian army, backed by its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies, had managed to win back almost all the areas that the rebel/terrorists from ISIS, al-Nusra or Fatah al-Sham were occupying. If the Syrian Government were left unencumbered (by a multitude of foreign armies, intent on carving out zones of influence and security to advance improbable imperial goals like Turkey or protecting a regional ally’s superiority such as the case of the USA vis-à-vis Israel and Saudi Arabia), it would successfully shut down any remaining resistance, potentially even reaching a federalist arrangement with the Kurds in the so-called ‘Rojava’.
But, to allow Asad to succeed like that would represent an utter humiliation for all the major ‘parties’, which have driven the proxy conflict in Syria. In 2019, the Americans and Israelis could become more involved in Syria because of two main reasons:
First, the Syrian army and Hezbollah’s victories mean that they have become quite simply the most experienced fighting force in the region. They have all too real-world training fighting militias in urban settings and non, using a variety of tactics. They have also enhanced their ability to work together as allies, mastering the art of coordination. In other words, should Israel attack Hezbollah or Syria at a point, they will have face a fiercer and more capable enemy than they did when they suffered a humiliating ‘draw’ in July 2006.
Second, because of the Syrian-Hezbollah’s army’s greater and proven ability, the Israel (and the United States) will be even more determined to overthrow the al-Asad government. The conflict in Syria may have left death and destruction, but it has also strengthened the loyalties around the presidency and the Ba’ath Party.
Third, Turkey’s Erdogan wants to get something out of his ‘investment’ in the Syrian conflict. He wants to grab hold parts of northern Syria around Afrin (and Iskenderun/Hatay). These are areas, which, apart from their Kurdish interests, have long been a source of tension between Ankara and Damascus.
Meanwhile, Syria will become ever more isolated from the Arab States, interested as they are in pursuing better relations with Israel – independently of any U.S. ‘peace plan’. It will leave Syria ever more reliant on Iran and, in turn, the Arab States (those aligned with Washington and now Jerusalem) will consider Iran to be their real enemy.
Syria faces a higher risk of becoming the stage for a war against Iran.
The Trump administration has changed a longstanding position on the Golan Heights – a Syrian territory that Israel occupied in 1967. Since 1973, the United States formally maintained a policy demanding Israel give up the Golan. In 2010, in closed-door talks in Turkey, the Syrians and Israelis even came close to a deal over the disputed territory, that would have seen a return of Golan in exchange for a bilateral peace agreement. The Arab Spring ended any such hopes. Yet, recently Trump has ended any pretense of the U.S. promoting the idea of Israel giving up the Golan in exchange for peace. Rather, the United States has de-facto accepted permanent Israeli control of the Golan.
Apart from having given Israel PM Netanyahu – who may pull seek military wins to boost his election campaign in 2019 – the Golan and Jerusalem, Trump appears to have given the Jewish State carte blanche to expand however it wishes in the Middle East. This could imply any lands in southern Syria or, another invasion of Lebanon or offensive against Tehran backed Hezbollah, as a provocation to trigger a conflict against Iran. That conflict has already begun in the form of economic isolation, or more ‘sanctions’: the U.S. State Dept.’s ‘favorite word’.
Syria was always just the opening act. Before embarking on a complicated war, reasonable leaders evaluate such basic aspects as ‘can a war against Iran be won?’. While, there are good reasons to suggest that Donald Trump may be less than reasonable, he’s not much different than any of his predecessors; especially, when it comes to confronting any subject that concerns Israel. If the Israelis and their many supporters in the U.S. Congress are concerned about Israeli security, the Christian Zionists are trying to accelerate the second coming of the Messiah to save the world. Trump is a practical man. He does what he must to achieve specific and tangible targets.
In 2019, the clearest aspect of the Middle East is that the Israelis and the Saudis have the same enemy: Iran. Trump is happy to comply because the American industrial-military complex secures hundreds of billions in sales to both. It matters not, whether the sales are U.S. taxpayer or Saudi oil funded. The earnings are posted by the likes of Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and others. In 2018, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Iran in order to foment anger, dissent and protests in the streets – Arab Spring style. But it has not worked yet. In 2019, the sanctions could get tougher. Will the policy succeed? Not likely, the Iranian Revolution may have had unified along a Shiite content, but it also had a nationalist character, determined to reject foreign influence. Thus, no matter how long Trump chooses to dangle the nuclear deal treaty carrot, he won’t succeed in curbing Iranian influence (and its allies) in the Middle East.