How the Middle Eastern region continues – and will continue – to be a hotbed of instability.
On the 14th of May 2018 Israel celebrated its 70th anniversary, reaching a goal that in 1948 seemed impossible to most, given the tense Middle Eastern cotext in which the Jewish State came to light. And indeed, even to this date the Middle East continues to be a region of deep tensions, in which the passing of time produces ever more crises and never significant distensions.
Taking the anniversary of Israel’s independence as useful pretext to raise the question of where the Levant stands today, the first element to be noticed cannot bu be the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Contrary to the expectations of all those who 25 years ago – when Arafat and Rabin famously shook their hands on the lawn of the White House after signing the Oslo Accords – thought to be witnessing the beginning of a new era of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians, the conflict between the two peoples has actually never ceased. At most, it has changed form –conventional war, peaceful resistance, guerrilla war, terrorism – in order to respond to the circumstances and the requirements of each specific moment.
Over the past year, a dangerous combination of factors has inevitably led to an increase in hostility: the ascent to the White House of Donald Trump, most-openly pro-Israeli American president to date; the strengthening in Israel of the ultra-right front that has been leading the country since 2015; the lack of a coherent and credible Palestinian political leadership able to address the divide between Gaza and the West Bank and to advance the national interest of the Palestinians.
Elected President in January 2017, as early as last December Trump announced the moving of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Recognizing the latter as capital of the Jewish State and modifying in this way the American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question that had been maintained by any previous administration, Trump has compromised the credibility of the United States as arbiter super partes in the dialogue between Jews and Palestinians – a dialogue that consequently has now become ever more doomed to stalemate. Furthermore, Trump’s decision has not only made any prospect of future negotiations more difficult, but it has also changed its terms significantly: recognizing Jerusalem as Jewsih capital, it has canceled the possibility of a two-state solution leading to a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.
A decision of this kind, with the implications that it has on the bilateral dialogue, could not but ignite the Palestinians’ anger and embolden Israel’s ultra-right governing coalition. The latter, indeed, strong of the new Israeli-American friendship that has been restored under Trump, has rapidly exploited the momentum to take steps that seek to change the demographic balance in Israel/Palestine to its sole advantage: it has proceeded at a fastened pace with the Jewish occupation of the West Bank by means of new construction permits and the retroactive legalization of illegal settlements and it has passed a new law that gives to the Interior Minister the power of outstripping Israeli Palestinians of their citizenship if their “loyalty” to the Jewish State is doubtful.
On this background, on the 30th of March the Palestinian people of Gaza launched the “March of Return” to protest the isolation enforced by Israel against the Strip and to claim their right to retunr to their ancestral land. The protests, held for six consecutive Fridays, have seen thousands of youths (some affiliated with Hamas, others with no political affiliation and others critical of the group that has been ruling Gaza since 2007) march towards the border with Israel to be met with gunfire and tear-gas by the Israeli Defense Forces. Until mid May, the victim toll was of 49 but the apex was reached on the 14th of May, a symbolic date that not only marks the anniversary of Israel and of the Palestinian Nakba but that this year also coincided with the opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem. On that single day, 58 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,000 injured. A dramatic confirmation that even if 70 years have passed tensions between the two peoples still run high.
Alongside the perennial Palestinian question, the Middle East today is the theatre of further tensions that are contributing to defyining new regional dynamics and new axes of alliances and rivalries.
In Syria, the victory of Assad is by now undeniable and the war has entered a new phase in which the civil conflict is leaving the place to an open competition between external powers – regional and non regional – interested in carving out for themselves convenient areas of influence upon the Syrian territory. Thus, while the opposition to Assad is seeing itself forced to leave the areas that it still controls in exchange for guarantees of survival, and while the Kurds seek desperately to defend their aspirations to statehood, Russia, Iran and Turkey have made of the negotiation table of Astana (where the U.S. does not participate) the place where to define the future status quo of Syria.
Here, an important role is played by Iran. In fact, if Turkey uses Astana to make sure that the national aspirations of the Kurds in Syria do not achieve successes that might embolden the Kurds of Anatolia and to carve out for itself a role of primacy in the Middle East at a time in which its relations with the West are at their lowest, and if Russia uses Astana to defend its startegic interests through a Syrian firendly regime that leaves in place Moscow’s air and naval bases in the Mediterannean, Iran is using Astana to accomplish its hegemonic ambitions. In the specific, it is exploiting its involvement in Syria on Assad’s side (supported via the Revolutionary Guarda and the proxy Hezbollah) to create a corridor of influence that stretches form Iran to the Mediterannean going through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The presence in Syria of Iranian military bases and pro-Iranian forces is a first-hand threat to Israel, that has in Iran its nemesis and that sees the vicinity of Iran to its borders as a red line that, if crossed, jutifies any response.
To worsen the tensions triggered between Israel and Iran by the latter’s ascent in Syria, last week came Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program signed in 2015 by the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. The American withdrawal – strongly encouraged by Saudi Arabia and Israel – risks strengthening within Iran those hardliners who criticized Rouhani’s opening to the West and who might now call for a more assertive foreing policy and a full recovery of the nuclear program. Unsuprisingly, the hours after the US decision saw Israel and Iran firing missiles over the Syrian sky, thus seeming to be ever closer to an open confrontation that might lead the entire region to chaos. The evolution of these tensions will largely depend on the role that Russia – a precious ally of both – will want to play and on Europe’s capacity to ensure the survival of the JCPOA.
For Israel, the Iranian threat is accentuated by the ascent of Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that Teheran has been nurturing since the ‘80s in open anti-Israeli function. Since the outset of the Syrian war in 2011, Hezbollah has obatined two important victories that make Israel particularly worried. Firstly, is the military victory that the group has obtained thanks to its beloning to the pro-Assad axis and that is made by a combination of: increase of the group’s military (especially milistic) arsenal thanks to the arms transfers by Iran; access to sophisticated war material capable of posing a direct and serious threat to Israel’s security; conslidation of the group’s presence in the Syrian-Lebanese area that borders Israel. Besides this military victory, there is the political victory that the group has obtained last week at the polls and that confirms the wide support it enjoys among the Lebanese people – even beyond its traditional Shia powerbase.
Having at its borders an historical enemy like Hezbollah that is now more preapred militarily, more favoured strategically and more credible politically represents a primary threat in the eyes of Israel. From the perspctive of the Jewish State, in fact, hezbollah could use Syria as a strategic platform from where to launch attacks against Israel without openly compromising Lebanon and from where to upset the existing sttaus quo.
In this cotnext, the Middle East has become today the theatre where two blocs of triple alliances are in competition: the “status quo bloc” formed by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S; and the “resistance bloc” formed by Iran, Turkey and Russia. Contravening past rhetorics and ethnic-religious divergencies, these systems of alliance are born to respond to immediate needs but, whatever their length will be, they are producing dynamics whose effects are likely to be felt in the region in the medium to long term.