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Seeing regional alliances through Israel's eyes

May 11, 2015 at 1:06 pm

One could possibly argue that the Arab world has experienced more dysfunctional situations, ambiguous alliances and contradictions in the past few years than in any other period in the region’s history, which makes it difficult for any decision-maker to draw out a well thought out plan that would take into consideration the geo-strategic realities there. Not to mention the fact that the interference of many outside parties such as the United States and Russia makes it quite difficult to predict or sketch any new roadmaps for the region.

It may seem upon first glance that many of the regional alliances are a cause of concern to Israel; the United States has a good relationship with Iran, for example, despite its involvement in Iraq and Washington ultimately disagrees with Iranian involvement in Yemen. Furthermore, when it comes to the Syrian crisis, the US deals closely with Iran on some points and not on others depending on the progress of the nuclear talks.

In the event that one can actually read the rivalry between two states such as Qatar and Egypt, who disagree on virtually every issue with the exception of the crisis in Yemen, both countries have allied themselves with Saudi Arabia. This confusing geo-political reality has prompted Israeli decision-makers to define the nature of relations between Arab countries in the region on three levels: friendship, hostility and a grey area in-between.

The Israelis are growing increasingly more concerned about their military and security estimations now that the entire Middle East is engaged in a “Dance of Wars”, wherein the Americans are helping the Iranians in the battle against ISIS in Iraq; Hezbollah is helping the Houthis in Yemen; and the Egyptians are struggling against Hamas and the Gaza tunnels with the help of Israel. All of these factors make it difficult for any American, European or Russian intelligence officers to report to their bosses without considering the fiasco taking place in the region.

It was once possible to define the situation in the Middle East by summarising a series of conflicts as, for example, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Iranian nuclear issue and the relations between certain countries within the Arab world. Over the past four years, though, the cards have been re-shuffled completely and have affected every country from Iraq to the Levant and even to Libya, where people are embroiled in dozens of bloody conflicts. From an Israeli perspective, these regional realities are quite chaotic in how they have affected the region. As minor local conflict evolve into regional hostilities, it is difficult for Israeli intelligence agencies to anticipate events let alone direct them.

Israel’s army and military intelligence institutions –especially Mossad — believe that there are four basic camps struggling to acquire regional hegemony in the region: Iran’s axis with Syria and Hezbollah; central Arab regimes that tend to rely on the West, namely, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and most of the Gulf states; independent players who have a good relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Turkey, Qatar and Hamas; and jihadist organisations like Al-Qaeda and other state-based organisations who change on a frequent basis.

Strategic circles in Israel share the view that regional realities have flared up due to a number of parallel confrontations, all of which affect each other at one time or another. Many of these conflicts are being affected currently by the confrontations in Yemen, the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Hamas’s confusion as it continues to oscillate between growing closer to Iran and restoring its relationship with the Egyptian bloc.

Much of the media’s attention over the past two months has been focused on Yemen and the sudden decision of many Arab states to form a coalition to confront the Houthi militias. This, at least, was the case until the sudden decision to end Operation Decisive Storm last month.

Despite all of this, the Israelis still consider the civil war in Syria to be the most complex and the bloodiest of the Middle East conflicts. The Assad regime continues to grow strong with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, whose joint forces have gained control of Daraa. Yet, Syrian rebels continue to approach and threaten Damascus and the presidential palace is within range of rocket fire, meaning that Assad can no longer sleep in peace. Israel believes that despite the security blanket that Hezbollah and Iran are providing for Assad, he will not be able to maintain his control of all areas in Syria under the present circumstances and will sooner or later be forced to choose between areas he can control and others that he deems less important.

Moving eastward, Israel has continued to keep a cautious eye on what is happening with the aggressive US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. At the moment it appears that the coalition has had more success in Syria than in Iraq, where ISIS withdrew its forces from several areas, and last summer’s momentum has slowed down. There continues to be Jordanian and Saudi airstrikes against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. With such a complicated web of events, Israeli observers fear that the developments in Yemen will prevent forces in the region from paying proper attention to Syria; this is what has led Tel Aviv to turn to Jordan, its closest Arab ally, in an effort to keep some of the spotlight on the fight against ISIS.

Turkey has been assessing Israel’s views of the region with the intention of re-defining its alliances on a slow burner, particularly with countries like Saudi Arabia, which has cemented its role in the region at the expense of Egypt. Because Israel saw the potential for developments between Tehran and Washington that were not to its benefit, the rapprochement that is taking place between Ankara and Riyadh is also a cause for concern because it is viewed as an attempt to alienate Turkey from both its European and Arab neighbours.

Furthermore, while the US administration finally mustered up the courage to remove its sanctions against Egypt, which is struggling socially and economically, this change has allowed Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to speak with a louder and more decisive voice in the Arab alliance; this, while he has pledged to defend the security of the Gulf states as part of the security of Egypt.

As a result, the crisis in the area will not be easy to solve. The current situation, which is unfolding before ignorant American eyes, brings to mind the US pledge in the 1990s to strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons, which was at that time playing the role of a nuclear threat that Iran plays today. Russia supported the US in that endeavour.

It may also not be too surprising that Israel has a great deal to say about Russia as well, which supports the Iranian-Syrian axis militarily so that it can function as a player in the Middle East. Preserving Assad’s status is in Russia’s interests, not least in order to maintain a warm water port for its fleet in Tartus. Russia’s influence is also present in Yemen; indeed, its fingerprints can be seen clearly across the region, whether through the Russian initiative to arm Iran with advanced anti-aircraft batteries or proposals to build nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes in various countries. It seems that Moscow, in opposition to Israeli wishes, has moved the Cold War to the Middle East as part of its dream to return to its status as a great power, and its desire to get revenge on Washington for America’s stance on the Ukraine and Crimea.

In sum, Israel feels that there has been a shift in political and military alliances in the region, and is racing against time to support some alliances and break others based on the interests or losses it would accrue for itself from such actions. However, decision-makers in Tel Aviv are well aware that matters have gone beyond the old chess game due to the existence of new players who have decided to take a central role in the region.

Translated from Al Jazeera net, 6 May, 2015

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.