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The new Middle East: A North/South divide where Israel is losing its narrative and its old game plan

A new geo-political Middle East is emerging which pits northern states and southern states against one another based on divergent economic and security interests. Saudi is top dog in the south which means that Israel is losing its ability to act unilaterally.

With the wars in Syria and Iraq drawing to a close and with the governments of both states standing victorious over both Takfiri terrorism as well as (broadly speaking) Kurdish ethno-nationalism, a new reality in the Middle East has emerged where the region is broadly divided between a geo-political north and south.

In the north there is the Syria-Iraq alliance made possible by common enemies and a common history, in spite of the Ba’athist schism of 1966-2003. Both states, for slightly different reasons are also allied with Iran and for oddly similar, are reasons partners with Russia. In the case of Syria, Damascus is an historic Soviet ally and in the case of post-Ba’ahist Iraq, the government looks to attain defence independence by working with a Russian state which unlike the US, is willing to sell arms to any reasonable nation without political preconditions.

Iran, Iraq and Syria in turn are allied with Hezbollah, which in effect means a large portion of Lebanon and in terms of geo-strategic defence considerations, it means the most important part of Lebanon. Turkey is now a partner of Iran, Iraq (to a surprisingly important degree) and Russia. While Syria will be very unlikely to forgive Turkey for its previous support of Takfiri driven regime change, in reality, Syria and Turkey have a common post-Takfiri enemy: the continued rumblings Kurdish ethno-nationalism. This means that it is becoming increasingly likely that Syria and Turkey may end up cooperating in the future, even if it means doing so at a covert level because of heightened sensitivities to such a thing among the general public in both Turkey and Syria.

To the south, there is another story. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are now close allies. The mentality and political independence of the Nasser years are all but done in Cairo. Jordan can also be-lumped into this group. Like Egypt, Jordan is one of the only two Arab states to have normal relations with Israel and by many accounts Saudi Arabia will soon follow. As goes Saudi, so goes the UAE, Bahrain and to a lesser extent Kuwait and to an even lesser extent the relatively politically unimportant Oman. Qatar finds it self in a situation that is both precarious and surprisingly advantages, as I explored in a the piece below.

The only winner of the Saudi (and Lebanon) great purge is Qatar

The alliance between the northern Middle East powers and the alliance between the southern Middle East powers are not formal blocs in the sense of the Warsaw Pact and NATO which divided most of Europe into east and west. Instead, the new geo-political blocs of the Middle East constitute a rapidly consolidating reality where countries are united based on the pragmatic acknowledgement of common interests. By including Turkey into the mix, one cannot say it is a “Shi’a crescent” and likewise, by including both Turkey and Iran into the northern Middle East, it is neither Pan-Arab. The same is true when it comes to including Israel in the southern portion of the alliance, which is very much where Israel is.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why many in Saudi Arabia and beyond are eyeing Lebanon as a potential prize. Lebanon, as a small state with beautiful real estate, is a microcosm of the entire alliance, certainly in terms of religious affiliation.

Hezbollah is well aware of this and in a move that can only be described as politically masterful and in terms of security, highly ethical, Hezbollah like the fellow Shi’a Amal Movement and the broadly Christian Free Patriotic Movement, have urged political unity at a time when clearly Saudi Arabia is attempting to sow divisions in the country.

Hezbollah is openly positioning itself as a ‘national party’ in a country that doesn’t have national parties. Lebanese politics often looks like ‘the art of the impossible’ with sectarian pacts being more prevalent than a unifying patriotism, as it is in Ba’athist Syria. Hezbollah cannot change this and certainly cannot modify it overnight, but in playing the national card rather than the Shi’a versus Sunni/Wahhabi card, Hezbollah has transcended the extreme sectarian politics of Lebanon, just as Saudi Arabia is becoming unable to transcend the family feud between some men from the House of Saud and other men from the House of Saud.

This attitude which will give Hezbollah and its coalition partners the moral high ground while refusing to exclude or scapegoat Lebanese Sunnis for Saudi’s meddling, means that Lebanon is well placed to become part of the political north of the Middle East.

This leaves Israel and Palestine. For the Israeli regime, recent events have all but killed Tel Aviv’s preferred narrative which it has invoked since 1947. For Israeli propagandists it was always “us versus the Arab world” and when the Arab world was attempting to unite in the age of Nasser, there was some truth to an Arab world uniting against Israel. This is something that the Arab world saw positively and Israel saw negatively. After 1979, the Israeli propaganda narrative was modified to be “The Arab world + Iran – Egypt versus us”.

Today though, with Jordan and Egypt on good terms with Tel Aviv, with Saudi Arabia looking to increase its ties with Israel and with only one Arab state, Syria, still fully behind the Palestinian cause, Israel’s narrative has collapsed.

There is no “Arab Israeli conflict” because half of the Arabs either tacitly or overtly accept the presence of the settler state. Likewise, Iran is a stalwart supporter of Palestine and Turkey is becoming ever more distant from Israel.

Israel is on the verge of turning Turkey into an enemy

The collapse of Israel’s creation myth narrative also means increased Israeli isolation from a military standpoint. Just as Israel boosts its relations with the Arab states of the southern half of the Middle East, so too does it mean that Israel will have a more difficult time acting unilaterally.

Hezbollah’s leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah has admitted for the first time that under the “new” Muhammad bin Salman regime in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli regime is being coerced by Saudi into making provocative moves while Israel remains cautious for selfish reasons. As recently as last week, it was assumed that Tel Aviv called the shots, not Riyadh.

Hezbollah flips the script and says that Israel does the “Red Prince’s” bidding

This means that if Israel is going to preserve its new friends in the southern part of the Middle East, it will have to do something it has never done: consult with others in order to preserve alliances.

This weakens Israel’s ability to fight its customary blitzkrieg wars, as such wars rely on a single front against a united enemy. Instead, the region now has multiple possible fronts with many different enemies to rage at, in many scattered locations and many different partners to placate or even show deference towards. By contrast, Saudi Arabia prefers slow burning/grinding conflicts for obvious logistical reasons but also for the tactical reason that Saudi Arabia wants to present itself as the legitimate leader of the Arabs while Israel is keen to present itself as the country that Arabs fear. In reality, Israel is more hated than feared and Saudi is far from a leader of the Arab world, but these are the aims, however preposterous, of both states, respectively.

Even in Yemen where Saudi has used a large amount of shock and awe, it is still far from the Israeli blitzkrieg where a swift ground attack follows shortly from aerial bombardment. Likewise, Israel probably wouldn’t have the patience for such a protracted war, while Saudi at least for now, still is intend on beating the Houthis in Yemen, a task which will likely prove impossible.

This helps explain Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah’s confidence in the fact that Israel will not go to war in Lebanon even at Saudi’s gold plated behest. Israel knows that a conflict in Lebanon in 2017 would be a long protracted struggle, the kind Saudi might be willing to put up with in Yemen, but Israel does not have the stomach for on its border.

I previously wrote how this new reality could work in the favour of the besieged Palestinians in the long term. I stated,

“On the one hand, if Tel Aviv concentrates on both co-opting and being co-opted by states like Saudi, Egypt and Jordan who in recent decades have shown little enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause, there is a danger that Palestinian land could become a tragic ghetto of isolation in an otherwise booming region. However, on the other hand, the idea of prosperity trickling horizontally across a newly booming economic region could actually take the wind out of the sails of the Israel-Palestine conflict, something which in the long term bodes well for Palestine reclaiming its full statehood. This is the case because if the Tel Aviv regime becomes fully immersed in a mostly Arab led regional prosperity initiative, having to contend with rightfully angry Palestinians could only exorcise all parties. Furthermore, Palestinian grievances in a would-be south-Arab ghetto could further incur the wrath of Palestine’s meaningful allies including Lebanon (aka Hezbollah), Syria, non-Arab Iran and in the future, quote possibly a revitalised and almost certainly pro-Palestine Iraq. Wanting to keep such countries away from Saudi’s ‘south Arab’ project would be in the interests (however selfish) of Saudi, Jordan, Egypt and the regime in Tel Aviv.

And here is where a peaceful one-state solution could come into play. Rather than divide a portion of an increasingly inter-dependent south-Arab region (aka the two-state solution), leaving open the possibility of Syria, Hezbollah, Iraq and non-Arab Iran playing a part in this new region via the Palestinian back door, it might instead be easier to create a single state along the pre-1947 Palestinian borders that could be described as Palestine with cosmopolitan characterises or perhaps Israel with Arab characteristics, depending on the demographics and political will of various countries in ten years or more from today.

Just as Lebanon is a cosmopolitan country that is increasingly tied in with the north-Arab region, so too could this new Palestine be a kind of cosmopolitan bridge to the south, a place which like Lebanon has a shared history that at times has been peaceful and at others has been horrific. Tragically, Israeli meddling is by far the greatest author of mystery in both Palestine and Lebanon.

Ultimately, unless something radically changes in Egypt, Jordan or Saudi, the kind of good will that countries like Syria has for Palestine will never be present in the new ‘south Arab’ bloc. However, pragmatism which would come about in the ‘new Arab south’ to spite countries like Syria and groups like Hezbollah, could indeed force a pragmatic one-state solution based on the peace that is implicit in the need to pacific a region in order to make it ‘prosperity friendly’. In this sense, Palestine could breath a much needed breath after decades of asphyxiation, while Palestine friends in the ‘new Arab north’ would have something of a last laugh as they have got a decades long running start in developing key relations with China and Russia.

This situation is both far from assured and also far from ideal in many ways. It is however, a possible solution which still represents some improvement on the hopeless status quo”.

Saudi’s burgeoning relations with Israel could kill the two state solution in more ways than one

Thus, we see the emergence of a new Middle East, one which has risen from the sinews of war in the north and political stagnation in the south. As Israel, Saudi, Egypt and Jordan become ever more economically interdependent, this will only further limit Israel’s ability to act in a unilateral fashion in its old blitzkrieg style.

While the north is increasingly revitalised by victory, the south is increasingly interdependent. Into this fray, the most heavily armed state in the  Middle East, Israel is now trapped in a cycle of interdependence, without its old narrative, without its old might, without its old confidence and without its old boogie men. Israel’s devious attempts to destroy Arab unity have just backfired in a spectacular fashion. Israel has built itself a fortress of partners and these partners have a lot to say to Israel and not all of it is the echo of a choir. For the first time in history, Israel may just have to listen to what others are saying.

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