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America is leaving so prepare for the new Middle East

May 9, 2014 at 3:29 pm

An Israeli analytic report into the severe repercussions of the US withdrawal from Iraq

Authors: Alon Levin and Yuval Bustan
Publisher: Sikur Memukad magazine website, August 2010 edition
Original Language: Hebrew

Translation from Hebrew into Arabic by Spotlight on Palestine and from Arabic to English by MEMO’s researcher and editor, Zulaikha Abdullah.

General overview

This analytic report was published in the Israeli Hebrew-language magazine Sikur Memukad which, in its August 2010 edition, focuses on strategic and political affairs under the heading “America is leaving, so prepare for the new Middle East”.

In this report the authors, Alon Levin and Yuval Bustan, tackle the subject of the US withdrawal from Iraq and its impact on the Middle East. They argue that without the US presence in Iraq, the region will witness significant shifts in the balance of power. The US exit from Iraq will increase Iranian influence within neighbouring states; that constitutes a major threat to Sunni countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. This has encouraged these states to draw closer to Turkey to form a bulwark against the Shiite tide, thus bolstering Turkey’s position within the region and allowing it to undertake the regional role it played in the past, be that in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The authors stress that the region will witness tension and confrontation between the Arab states and Iran. However, if Israel is able to maintain a balance between self-restraint and deterrence, then it will be able to avoid getting involved in these confrontations while at the same time benefitting from the expected changes within the region.

America is leaving, so prepare for the new Middle East

The announcement of the US withdrawal of its forces from Iraq blew into the Middle East as a tornado as the leadership of the Sunni states fear Iraq’s transition into a Shiite state under the wing of Iran, which would threaten the survival and the stability of their regimes. Turkey is the only state capable of stemming this Iranian Shiite tide.

While Israel has prepared well in recent years for this withdrawal through the development and consolidation of its deterrents, if it plays its cards right, it will be able to avoid getting involved in military confrontations while at the same time benefitting from the expected changes in the region.

The US withdrawal became a reality after US President Obama’s announcement that all combat troops would leave Iraq by the end of October marking the withdrawal of 94,000 soldiers since Obama entered the White House. Only 50,000 soldiers will remain in the country to pave the way for the transfer of power to the new Iraqi government. The US withdrawal puts a disastrous scenario before the Middle East, particularly with regard to the leaders of the pro-Western states who benefitted positively from the war on terror. Unlike the war on Afghanistan which aimed at punishing those directly responsible for the events of September 11 and ensuring such events were never repeated, the war on Iraq aimed at engendering a profound and fundamental change in the structure of organisations in the region as a means of deracinating the roots of the culture of terrorism in the Middle East and replacing them with freedom and democracy.

The particular choice of Iraq has occupied many researchers and political analysts; however such matters are beyond our current remit which will concentrate on the effects and consequences of that war for the Middle East. The war on Iraq has led to a series of geopolitical changes and their direct and indirect impact has spared not a single state in the region. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime worked for many long years as a bulwark against Iranian Shiite expansion; the Iran-Iraq war which claimed the lives of one million, despite ending without a decisive victory for either side, created a mutual deterrence between the two states. Thus, after the end of the war in 1988, a balance of power between Iran and Iraq prevailed until Saddam was overthrown and the direction of the conflict between the two took a different, less direct course. 

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, for the first time, allowed the Iranians to expand into the Arab world and they penetrated Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen and the Gulf states with Iranian influence noticeable everywhere. This was reflected in attempts to establish secret Hezbollah cells targeting the heart of government regimes in Egypt as well as in the outbreak of civil war in Yemen; moreover, Israel has fought two wars   in 2006 and 2008/9   to limit the growth of this influence. Iran’s sense of its strength and influence has pushed the Shiite religious leadership into challenging the world as a whole. Iranian Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s arrogant announcements about the resumption of uranium enrichment, despite international protest which culminated in the imposition of a series of sanctions by the Security Council; his Holocaust denial and his repetitive threats against the Jewish state constitute the strongest indicators of the prevailing sentiments of power and self-confidence in Tehran.

Adjusting to the new reality

US measures have harmed Egypt, which has found itself having to deal with a double Islamic threat at the most sensitive time for the country in the past 30 years, particularly in the light of President Hosni Mubarak’s poor health. US pressure has led to the implementation of political reforms which have strengthened significantly the forces of the Muslim Brotherhood and has led their success in securing around 5 seats in parliament. Congruently, Iran has sought to establish Shiite or pro-Shiite cells in Egypt   most recently for Hezbollah, which sought to overthrow Mubarak.

The Hashemite regime in Jordan has been confronted by a huge influx of Iraqi refugees. According to estimates, more than one million Sunni Iraqis have fled to Jordan to escape the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites; this has had an impact on the social, economic and demographic balance in the small kingdom. Jordanian anxiety from the aggravated problem of refugees, the infiltration of elements of al-Qaeda and the Iranian influence has caused the US to exert pressure on Israel to consolidate relations with Jordan in order to protect it and ensure its stability. However, when the Jordanian King eventually realised that neither Israel nor the US had the capability to protect his throne, he began exploring alternatives, such as ways of strengthening his country’s relations with Iran on the one hand and Turkey on the other.

As for Syria, the Arab state that led opposition to the US war on Iraq, it woke up one morning to a new reality in which the US army was at its borders and realised just how prepared the Americans were to step forward and topple the Middle East’s tyrants or, at the very least, to force them to implement democratic reforms. In this new reality, the range of options before the Syrian President and leader of the minority Alawites in Syria became very limited, as any democratic reforms would devastate the sect’s rule forever. For this reason, Assad chose to assist the Iranians in wearing down the Americans in Iraq which was reinforced by strategic relations between Syria and Iran.

The Syrians also suffered from the problem of Iraqi refugees in numbers exceeding those that flowed into Jordan, placing a heavy burden on the country’s already limited resources. Pressure on Syria came from several directions: a military threat from Israel; economic and political pressure from the US and France; and pressure from Saudi Arabia; all pushed the Syrians to explore ways of changing their former political position. They began to bring an end to the long conflict between them and the Turks; they agreed for Turkey to act as a mediator in the resumption of the political process with Israel; they joined in with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union initiative; and they reconciled with Saudi Arabia and the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, after five years of boycott following the assassination of his father (allegedly at Syria’s instigation).

Israel was unaffected by the war on Iraq as the growth of Hezbollah’s strength on the northern front and its alliance with Iran both led to the outbreak of the second Lebanon War. Despite the weakening of Iranian influence in the ‘rice states’ to some extent following the war, Hezbollah remains the dominant force in Lebanon. The Iranians have experienced some difficulty in infiltrating the Palestinians as Sunni Hamas has for many years refused any contact with Shiite Iran. However, with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who used to send $25,000 to the family of every Palestinian suicide bomber, the Palestinians have chosen to align themselves with a new extremist axis. This is evidenced by the clash between Israel and pro-Iranian pockets during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Lebanon, which has always been the scene of regional and international struggle for power, has witnessed an upsurge in Iranian influence, particularly following the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. This is reflected by Hezbollah’s conflict with the other Lebanese factions in May 2008 which threatened to trigger a new civil war. However, after Syria’s hostile forces in Lebanon realised that they were incapable of forming a Lebanese government without the participation of Hezbollah and that it was not possible to choose a leader for Lebanon without the agreement of the Shiite faction, the current Lebanese president, Michele Suleiman, was chosen only with Hezbollah’s consent. 

The war against Iraq has indirectly paved the way for Turkey’s return onto the Middle East scene after more than eight decades of estrangement. The Turkish government’s refusal to allow US bombers to fly from Turkish bases was the first hint of the comeback. The European Union’s continual rejection of Turkey’s accession has also contributed to pushing Turkey eastwards. Turkey was not convinced as such by its improving relations with Syria, though it succeeded in abolishing visa requirements for all Lebanese and Jordanian nationals as well as acting as a mediator between Syria and Israel. Ankara imposed its guardianship on the Palestinians and sought to interfere in Lebanese affairs, all of which had, in the past, been the preserve of the Egyptians and the Saudis. However, the current weakness of these two states coupled with the growth of the Iranian influence, provided Ankara with the opportunity to acquire a place for itself within the Middle East milieu. 

Turkey and Saudi Arabia

The US announcement of its withdrawal from Iraq came at an uncomfortable time for the leadership of the surrounding states who were hoping that the US would remain in Iraq until the situation was stabilised and there was a strike against Iran which would allow the stability of the region to be preserved. However, the immediate US withdrawal from Iraq and its exit from the region constitute a grave threat to pro-Western regimes.

Saudi Arabia is one of the states in the region that will be most affected by the US withdrawal. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been trying to delineate its borders and security at a cost estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars, both along its southern border with Yemen and its northern border with Iraq. The Saudis fear the continual seepage of Sunni refugees from Iraq, although their greatest fear is that forces loyal to Iran consolidate inside Iraq and on the Saudi border or that the Iranian army itself should assemble along its border.

The Saudis believe that the Iranian threat could manifest itself in several ways, beginning with the invasion of one of the oil rich emirates, moving on to Iranian control over the waters of the Arabian/Persian Gulf and culminating in an attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities near Iran. The Saudis also fear the presence of covert Iranian activities inside the kingdom seeking to undermine the rule of the House of Saud.

The Saudis know that the US will not abandon them completely, but that after its bitter experiences in Iraq, nor will it hasten to their rescue. The US’s greatest interest in the region is the protection of oil facilities and ensuring the flow of the black gold. There is no doubt that after withdrawing from Iraq the Americans will still have several options for deterring Iran, including aircraft carriers patrolling in the region. Having said that, there is nothing that would currently induce Washington to get involved in another military confrontation, particularly in the shadow of Obama’s presidency and just months before the US mid-term elections in November.

As such, the Saudis need to find an alternative to the US in deterring Iran. Israel has tried to combat Iran’s influence within her own borders but with the exception of US and EU pressure on Iran in the form of scrutiny of its nuclear programme and the imposition of sanctions against Tehran, no practical action on the ground has been taken to deter Iran from extending its influence in the Gulf.

The choice has fallen on Turkey to become the new bulwark against Iranian influence. Because the Turkish army is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and is perhaps the strongest army in the region alongside Israel’s, in recent years the majority of Arab states have begun courting Ankara. Turkey’s critical and oppositional stance to Israeli practices has added several points in its favour. However, what the Arab states really want from Turkey is more criticism of Israel and moreover, for it to provide a Turkish umbrella for them against the Iranian threat.

Within this context, at the beginning of last April the Saudi Minister of Finance, Ibrahim bin Abdul-Aziz, declared that over the next four years his country would invest approximately $400 billion in Turkey. He also stated that in addition to his country’s direct investments, Saudi Arabia would be interested in doubling the size of trade between the two countries which is currently estimated at $5 billion. Turkey, which has been damaged seriously by the global economic crisis, considers the Saudi proposal an economic lifeline which allows it to continue with its new economic policies to strengthen its position in the Middle East.

Whether Saudi Arabia sticks to investing the volume of money stated or less than that, it is certain that Saudi Arabian funds will flow into Turkey in the coming years on condition that it undertakes the role assigned to it. The Saudis have always used oil money to buy influence, and their billions worth of investment would mean they expect Turkey to undertake to halt Iranian influence in the region.

Turkish interests

Turkey has interests that should be nurtured regardless of Saudi aid, as since the 90s a semblance of Kurdish autonomy has existed in northern Iraq, from where funding for the terrorist activities of the Turkish Kurds originates. The Turkish army has, on several occasions, invaded these areas and the air force has bombed sites in Iraq suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. The Turks believe that preventing assistance from the Iraqi Kurds would lead to an end to Kurdish terrorism in their country or, at the very least, it would limit its system of operation. 

During the course of the US presence in Iraq, given that the Kurds are considered to be US allies, Turkey has been forced to show self-restraint in dealing with them. However, after the US army’s exit from Iraq and in the shadow of the expected chaos that will ensue, Turkey will be able to act with impunity in dealing with the Kurdish areas in Iraq. In recent months, indications of this escalation have begun to show with increased Turkish air and land attacks on Kurdish areas, particularly since the beginning of June (2010) when Kurdish insurgents announced an end to the unilateral ceasefire which lasted for fourteen months.

Turkish intervention in northern Iraq will contribute to the possibility of preventing Iranian expansion toward Turkey, Syria and Lebanon and the question is whether the Turks are prepared to remain for an extended period of time in Kurdish territory in northern Iraq as in the past they have preferred to retreat immediately into their own territory after attacking the Kurds. However, it should be remembered that in the past Iraq was ruled by a strong centralised government led by Saddam Hussein followed by the Americans. After their expected withdrawal, no strong direction controlling the Iraqi territory will remain. Given that the issue affects Arab and particularly Saudi interests; Turkey will get nothing, materially or morally, for remaining in northern Iraq.

The Kurdish areas encompass Iraq’s main oil reserves which are the sole guarantor for the process of Iraq’s reconstruction. For this reason, as well as to avoid angering the Americans, Turkey will not attempt to control these reserves. Another point of interest and cause for concern is the presence of the Turkmen minority in northern Iraq. According to some estimate they number half a million while others put their numbers at close to over a million living in the majority of the major cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurds and the Turkmen have lived in a state of permanent conflict, and in the shadow of this fragile state, Turkey’s entry into northern Iraq could pave the way for the establishment of Turkmen autonomy partisan to Turkey and which would help Ankara to administer the north of Iraq.

With regards to the Iranians, the up-coming stage will be easy indeed as, thanks to the Americans, Iraq has today become practically a Shiite republic. The United States has endeavoured to establish a secular Shiite republic; however it appears that the Shiite political leadership cannot take control of matters without the support of the mullahs in Iraq and Iran. Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, which is larger than that of Hezbollah and all other Shiite groups, controls the south and is capable of constituting a significant danger to the secular authority should it deviate from the track mapped out for it. Religious elements have also sneaked into this government which have the ability to influence it. So even if the Arab Shiites in Iraq do not want to submit to Iranian influence, they can now no longer avoid it and with this, the south of Iraq will succumb easily to Iranian influence.

The third sphere of events lies in central Iraq. 50,000 American soldiers will remain in this region, alongside millions of Iraqis from the factions with which the majority of combat operations since 2003 have taken place. It is expected that the region will witness more chaos and acts of violence after the US withdrawal, similarly, it will return to being the main arena for the regional power struggle for control over the fragile Iraqi regime.

The Lebanese Arena

Although the principal battlefield will be in Iraq, the impact of the changes in the Middle East will go beyond its borders, just as they did so in the past. This is what worries Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and it is for this reason that in recent years these states have worked at getting closer to Turkey. The Syrians in particular have for many years been getting closer to Turkey for various reasons, after first having reached a solution to the problem of the territory of Iskenderun. They also want Turkish intervention in Iraq to halt Iranian influence.

Saudi Arabia has worked at bringing Syria and Turkey closer together as a step toward weakening Iran. Within the same framework, it has persuaded the Lebanese Prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, to place responsibility for the murder of his father on the pro-Iranian Hezbollah and thus exonerate the Syrians from any suspicion. Similarly, they have encourage al-Hariri Jr. and the leader of the Druze, Walid Jumblatt, to improve their relations with Damascus while getting al-Assad onside with promises of economic assistance. With the strengthening of Syrian relations with the majority of the Arab world, its intervention in Lebanese affairs will again become acceptable to the West after years of isolation and all the while reducing its relations with Iran.

Turkish assistance for Syria aimed at weakening Iranian influence and Saudi Arabian economic assistance, which has replaced Iranian assistance, aimed at encouraging al-Assad to mitigate Hezbollah’s prominence is a rather sensitive matter. The goal of the establishment of Hezbollah and its survival is the protection of the Shiite sect, and while the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, is tolerant in many respects, he considers anything that hurts his party as tantamount to a declaration of war; on this point Israel and Lebanon are viewed in exactly the same way.

Severe pressure is currently being put on Hezbollah which is evidenced by the provocative operation in which an Israeli battalion commander was killed on the Lebanese border by the Lebanese army. It is expected that Hezbollah will undertake other provocations through other bodies and organisations to drag Israel into war and which will give Nasrallah the opportunity to reaffirm in Lebanese public opinion the importance of the party’s survival. In the event of Hezbollah’s conviction for the al-Hariri assassination, discourse will return to the internal Lebanese peace initiative toward disarmament, a matter which Nasrallah will not accept and which he considers tantamount to suicide for those who try to implement it.

In a recent Israeli press conference, Nasrallah was accused of being involved in the assassination of al-Hariri in an attempt to provide a comfortable way out of the problem for all parties involved. It also focused on the old activities of the party such as operations targeting “the Israeli navy” in the late 1990s which was intended to remind the Lebanese of the importance of Hezbollah. Nasrallah’s ostentation in an operation carried out thirteen years ago and its accusations that Israel assassinated al-Hariri reflect the extent of the pressure that the party is under. Other sects in Lebanon seek to avoid war with Israel and have prevented Hezbollah from taking control of Lebanon along with the reduction of Iranian influence within the political and security arenas, while the Syrians try to use all their influence inside Lebanon to maintain calm.

The countries of the Sunni belt

On the eve of the US withdrawal from Iraq, Jordan is the weakest link, as it is subject to the flow of more waves of Iraqi refugees into its territory and it is likely that among them, elements of the al-Qaeda network will sneak in. The Jordanian kingdom, which is ruled by the Hashemites with the support of the Bedouin tribes, is subject to numerous threats including infiltration by al-Qaeda who fired rockets from Sinai onto the city of Aqaba and carried out numerous other attacks inside Jordan; the growing Shiite influence and its infiltration from Iraq into Jordanian territory; and the Palestinian attempts to change the Jordanian system of governance.

Jordan has tended toward strengthening its relations with Syria and Turkey after it realised that the Americans would withdraw from Iraq before stability in Iraq and the region was achieved. Just as the tremendous pressure Jordan came under as the most vulnerable country in the belt   and thus the most vulnerable to being targeted by Iran   pushed it to request all manner of assistance from Israel, including the use of Israeli journalists to stimulate Israel to respond to Jordanian requests, Jordan fears communication between Palestinians in the West Bank and their brethren in the Kingdom of Jordan. For this reason, they have demand that Israel remain in the West Bank, despite the sharp anti-Israel criticism in the Jordanian media. Amman hopes that Israel will succeed in deterring Iran before the latter attempts a military incursion into Jordan.

The greatest challenge facing Jordan is the increase in terrorist cells that aim at overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a new religious regime as part of the greater dream of establishing the Islamic Caliphate. This will push the Jordanians into dealing violently with such cells as full US withdrawal from Iraq draws closer so as to ensure the safety of the regime. This is a step that will find support from the West and Arab states alike. Should matters escalate in Jordan, it is expected that King Abdullah will carry out an operation similar to ‘Black September’ which was carried out by his father against the Palestinians.

Egypt is another state that will not escape the pressures, for while the country is preparing itself for an era following President Hosni Mubarak and the names of several successors have been put forward (including his son Jamal, the head of Egypt’s intelligence services, Omar Suleiman; the former Director General of the International Atomic energy Agency, Mohamed El-Baradei and the Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Musa), the pace of terrorist operations by Hamas, al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad and pro-Iran Hezbollah cells in Sinai has increased. These organisations aim at undermining the current regime in Egypt and severing its relations with Israel. Any great deterioration in Mubarak’s health will encourage the Egyptian regime to use violence uncompromisingly and on a large scale against their opposition which will also achieve large support from the West and Arab states.

How will the US withdrawal from Iraq affect Israel? So far, Israel has been able to stop any attempts to invade its borders as in recent years, the strength of the Israel deterrent against Lebanon and the Palestinians is still valid. Even if there has been unrest and the relative calm has been somewhat disturbed, it is in Israel’s interest to respond within very narrow limits and to maintain self-restraint to allow the rest of the region to fight Iran and cut off the arms of global terrorism.

Jordan constitutes a complex problem for Israel’s national security and we therefore assume that Israel will provide assistance to the Jordanian kingdom, even covertly, to avert the threat of terrorism. Similarly, the US forces present in Jordan will be keen to protect the Hashemite regime. Indeed self-restraint coupled with an understanding of the threats and the maintenance of the policy of effective deterrence, will enable Israel to remain relatively outside the arena of war when the Middle East sharpens its swords.