Tectonic shifts in Middle-Eastern power politics

Several changes have become increasingly evident in recent months:

• President Trump’s increasing identification with Israel and Saudi Arabia as his key allies in the Middle-East, coupled with his hostility to Iran
• Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain’s growing alliance with Israel, mainly on account of their shared hostility to Iran and Qatar, and
• Russia’s emergence as the key arbiter in Israel’s ongoing battle against Iranian influence in the Arabian peninsula

Trump’s actions have been largely guided by his son-in-law Gerald Kushner. By recognising Jerusalem as capital of Israel Trump has emboldened Israel’s extreme right-wing government and settler movement, alienated America’s traditional Palestinian interlocutor (the Palestinian Authority) and done away with past pretense that the US could be an unbiased mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. By December 9th Israel had already planned 14,000 new Jews-only settlement units in occupied Jerusalem.

The actions of Saudi Arabia are overwhelmingly driven by their geopolitical rivalry with Iran, which it has treated as an existential threat ever since the Iranian revolution toppled another royal regime, that of the Shah, in 1979. During the 1980s, it sought to halt Iranian influence by backing Saddam Hussein in the disastrous Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s that resulted in as many as a million deaths. Now, it is bringing Saudi close to Israel which likewise sees Iran as an existential threat.

Notwithstanding the sympathy for the Palestinian cause that exists on the Saudi ‘street’, it hardly enters into the calculations of the Saudi leadership that appears to have agreed to Trump’s decision to move his Embassy, despite almost unanimous international disagreement. In addition, it is reported that that the Saudi royal court sent notice to the nation’s media outlets to limit the airtime given to protests against Trump’s announcement, and proposed that the Palestinians accept a small town, Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine, giving President Abbas two months to respond to the offer (see bottom of this article).

The self-named ‘Anti-Terror Quartet’, consisting of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have long-standing grievances with Qatar’s independent foreign policy including its willingness to pursue commercial ventures and relations with Iran. It has also been severely irritated by the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news channel which, since its inception in 1996, has prodded fellow Arab governments about sensitive issues, including the role of political Islam, corruption, Arab states’ support for the US/UK-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the lack of democracy across the Arab world. In June 2017, the Quartet launched a damaging embargo on Qatar with a series of demands which include the closing down of Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera has produced a documentary revealing activities pro-Israel lobby in the US, and this has caused a furious reaction among the relevant groups. A series of senior pro-Israeli figures visited Qatar to raise this subject with the Qatari authority, and it appears that Qatar has ‘pulled’ the documentary. In February, multiple Israel lobby sources told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that they had received assurances from Qatari leaders late last year that the Al Jazeera documentary will not be aired – see here for more details.

These power shifts have mainly worked in favour of Israel, but Russian involvement is making it difficult for Israel to get its own way in Syria. Israel has been bombing targets in Syria and Lebanon for months and there was a flare-up over the skies in the weekend of 12-13 February involving the downing of a Syrian drone, Israeli attacks on the drone’s command and control vehicle, and the Syrians shooting down a very modern Israeli F16 fighter.

Haaretz, 15 Feb 2018

According Joseph Mills of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Netenyahu sees Russia as the key power-broker in Syrian matters, and has met Putin at least six times in the last 18 months. However, Netenyahu’s entreaties over this recent incident brought forth blunt words showing that Russia continues its public policy of taking the Arab side. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also appears to have recognised Russia’s role as a power broker; meeting Putin in Moscow, he made it clear that he saw Russia and not the USA, as a mediator with Israel. Mills’ view is confirmed by Amos Harel writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Feb 15th, saying that, on this occasion: “Russian President Vladimir Putin put an end to the confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria – and both sides accepted his decision”.

This suggests that the United States has lost much of its power and influence in the region to Russia, notwithstanding Trump’s close relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Information from Wikileaks indicates that back in 2012, the State Department wanted to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Al Assad as a means of helping Israel defend itself from attack by Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon. By contrast, USA now appears a relatively powerless while Russia calls the shots. Britain also appears powerless as it seeks to enlist allies to support its stance against Russia over the poisoning in Salisbury. While a number of EU countries have rallied round the cause, President Netanyahu is unwilling to jeopardize its relationship with President Putin on Britain’s account – see here.

Notwithstanding, this is a situation fraught with danger. The recent engagement brought Israel and Syria within a hair’s breadth of outright war with Syria and Iran, and one cannot rule out the possibility that Syria’s civil war could evolve into a serious confrontation between major powers, including Israel. In a speech he gave in Washington on March 2nd, retired US army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson describes Israel as trying to “suck America into” an Iranian war that could lead to world war.