Rising tensions across the Levant

 

The last week has witnessed a heightening of tensions between Syria and Israel. Far from being a two-actor tale, this escalation is expression of the delicate balances of power and axes of alliance involving all the actors of the Syrian war

 

In the Middle East’s complex and ever-evolving arena, the past days have been marked by a worrying escalation of tensions between Syria and Israel. This escalation, that is now adding to the troubles the Levant is already facing, is taking place after a series of incidents that have occurred over the last week and that are the most serious cases of direct Israeli-Syrian confrontation since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.

It all began last Friday when Israeli warplanes conducted a series of air raids near Palmyra against convoys suspected of transferring weapons to Hezbollah. As a response, the Syrian government fired a number of missiles towards Israeli jets and -according to Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese reports- an Israeli drone was even shot down on Monday by Syrian aerial defense systems. Since then, tensions between the two countries have been worsening, with each side warning the other against the risks of retaliation and claiming its resoluteness not to leave attacks un-responded.

 

As these worrisome events unfold in the Levant, understanding the strategic considerations lying behind them, their significance as eventual “game changers”, and their likely future impact on the regional post-war settlement, requires to look at the broader set of actors involved in the Syrian conflict, at the specific regional and national interests motivating each of them, and at the peculiarities of the alliances of which they are part.

 

Of the many foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict, a major role –both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table- is that played by Russia since its direct intervention in September 2015.  Committed to guaranteeing the survival of its Alawite friend, and allied in its military activities and political moves to Iran and Hezbollah, Moscow is nonetheless determined to oppose any military strategy against Israel that its allies might want to pursue. In particular, it wants to avoid any destabilization on part of its war allies of the border along the Golan Heights (an area bitterly disputed since 1967) since a similar course of action might end up dragging Russia in an unwanted confrontation with Israel. For Russia, indeed, cooperating in the Syrian conflict with Iran and Hezbollah but keeping itself at a distance from their regional ambitions against Israel is the win-win strategy par excellence.

It is this position endorsed by Russia that has led Netanyahu to Moscow more than once (the latest on March 9th), as he sees in Putin an important partner to deter Iran and Hezbollah from challenging Israel’s interests. However, as political analysts and policymakers begin to see an end to the Syrian conflict, the weight of Iran and Hezbollah in negotiating a post-war settlement is something that Russia cannot ignore if it wants to play the role of mediator and peace-broker to which it aspires. In other words, if until now Russia has been able to find a balance between avoiding tensions with Israel over crucial (and to Israel indeed vital) issues such as the Golan border and preserving a united front with its war allies Iran and Hezbollah, continuing to do so is becoming ever more difficult for Moscow.

For its part, Damascus is similarly interested in preventing Iran and Hezbollah from turning the border region along the Golan into a future battlefield that would risk seeing Syria involved in another regional conflict that the country cannot afford (economically, militarily, demographically). However, the Syrian government has become ever more self-confident over the past months and last week’s counter-strikes against Israel not only strengthen the credibility of the regime’s image but also stand as real “game-changers” in the regional balance of power. Indeed, if Israel’s attacks against arms shipments to Hezbollah are nothing new, Syrian assertive response is instead a new factor that has to be dealt with.

On the contrary, Iran and Hezbollah are united in their aspiration to exploit the context of the Syrian civil war, the regional instability triggered by it, and the questionability of the regional borders that it has brought about, to revive the dispute over the Golan area and reignite direct confrontation with Israel. Strong of the successes that they have been achieving during the years of war, Hezbollah and Iran see now themselves in the right military position and with the right diplomatic leverage to destabilize at their advantage the Golan area – an area which is geo-strategically crucial for the pursuit of their security interests in the context of their historical hostility with Israel.

On the opposite side of the conflict, then, there is Israel, whose involvement in the Syrian civil war responds to considerations of national security and, in particular, to the need of preventing any meaningful success for Iran and Hezbollah that might turn them into major and powerful regional actors.  For Tel Aviv, a non-questionable tenet of its security policy is the preservation of the Golan border as defined unilaterally by itself in 1967. Therefore, it perceives as especially worrying the threats posed to the stability of the area by Iran and Hezbollah, and it is to the perception of these threats that one has to look to explain last week’s air raids against weapons convoys headed to Hezbollah.

In addition, Israel aspires to have a say in the post-war regional settlement in order to protect its interests and avert the creation of non-favourable centres of powers along its borders. In this light, last week’s attacks stand thus as Israel’s reminders of its weight and “voice” in the definition of regional balances.

 

In conclusion, as each actor pursues its own interests as peculiarly defined against the prospect of an end of the Syrian war, the escalation between Syria and Israel and the possibility of a post-war confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran over the Golan have the potential to become the most serious challenges to the region’s equilibrium in the upcoming future.

Interestingly enough, the resolution of these challenges will largely depend on Russia’s capacity to maintain even in a post-war context its crucial balancing role and to adapt it to the changing circumstances on the ground.

 

[Picture rights: Israeli Defense Ministry]

 

Yemen, one year after

Entering its second year of hostilities, Yemen is stuck in the dynamics of a civil and regional conflict that seems to offer no easy way out

 

Often obscured by the other events threatening the Middle East’s precarious balances and often buried under the curtain of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Yemen is nevertheless one of the most crucial theatres of the region and one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of the past decades.

It all began (or rather escalated) one year ago, when the Houthis took control of the capital Sanaa and the Saudis intervened at the head of a Sunni coalition determined to prevent any Shia rise in the Gulf.  Since then, Yemen’s already weak political landscape has definitely collapsed; a civil conflict has taken roots in the country and taken the life of too many of its inhabitants; jihadist groups such as AQAP and ISIS have found a fertile ground for their terrorist acts; and all the attempts made to reach viable agreements through diplomacy have gone up in smoke.

With the war marking this month its first anniversary, no light seems to be in sight at the end of the tunnel and no side seems to be disposed to step back and compromise. Rather, each party maintains the perception that a step back would be a step down in the precipice and a victory for the enemy.

Saudi Arabia, the war’s major foreign player, entered the Yemeni conflict through an intervention that marked the beginning of a new and more assertive Saudi foreign policy and that revealed how much Riyadh was (and still is) feeling exposed to the threatening rise of the Shia rival Iran.                                                                                                                                           With the rapprochement between the West and Iran in full course and with the role played by Teheran and its Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iraq, the rise of the Houthis in Yemen became for Riyadh the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Despite the lack of any confirmation of a direct Iranian support for the Houthis, it became nonetheless vital in the eyes of Riyadh to prevent the Houthis from taking control over Yemen so as to avoid any risk of an Iranian wave of influence spreading from the Levant to the Gulf. In this framework, the war in Yemen became for Saudi Arabia pivotal to preserve its credibility as regional power and instrumental to send a signal to the rising Shia rival.

All this, though, came at a cost for Riyadh and to stand up to the perceived Iranian threat the Saudis have found themselves stuck in Yemen.

Acting as it did, Saudi Arabia gave to what was a domestic conflict a regional geopolitical dimension that it did not have and this, over the past twelve months, has turned the Yemeni war in such a complex and multidimensional conflict that it is now difficult to even imagine a viable way out.

Riyadh has thus far invested too much (both economically and in terms of credibility) to accept anything less than a settlement that grants the House of Saud a major influence over Sanaa’s affairs.

Nor is the search for negotiations stronger on the opposite side of the war. The Houthis have found themselves at the heart of geopolitical games, calculations and interests that go beyond the framework within which they had initially conceived and conducted their upsurge.        Risen against Hadi and a political system which they regarded as discriminating, they ended up on the stage of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and seem now to be in a position in which their bargaining power in any future settlement depends on how long they manage to resist the attacks of the Saudi-led coalition.

Therefore, imagining an agreement capable of restoring stability in the country requires a considerable degree of faith and hope.

Interested by domestic and regional dynamics whose boundaries are becoming ever more overlapping, the Yemeni war can find its end only with a serious and unambiguous intervention on part of the international community. In the specific, the international community should frame each side’s perception of costs and benefits of the war in a way that stresses possible points of convergence when it comes to imagining a post-war Yemen. For instance, nor the Houthis nor Saudi Arabia have anything to gain from the presence on the Yemeni soil of jihadist groups that directly threaten to the former’s survival and to the letter’s security. Their common opposition to AQAP and ISIS could thus be turned into a first and concrete point of convergence capable of making the dialogue start and progress.

For the moment it seems that the prosecution of hostilities is the only point on which all parties agree and though it is not too late yet to merge faith and hope with a coherent and resolute diplomatic approach aimed at avoiding another anniversary of a war that is tearing Yemen apart.

[Published in “The Times of Israel – Blogs“]

Iran’s new political chapter?

Assessing the political implications that the lifting of the sanctions against Iran can have for the Teheran-Riyadh relationship in the region

Since 1979, when the Shah was eventually overthrown after his steadiness on the throne had been decreasing by the day and Khomeini took that crucial Air France flight that brought him back home, Iran has been politically isolated in the Middle East and marginalized in the international community. In addition, since 2006, because of its nuclear program, it has been subject to economic sanctions imposed by USA, EU and UN that have reined in the country’s economic potential and condemned its population to economic hardships.
Now all this might change.
On 17th January 2016, after the IAEA confirmed Iran was complying with what agreed upon in last summer’s nuclear deal by sensibly reducing its nuclear activities, those sanctions that over the past years had doomed Iran to face a double-digit inflation were lifted. A breakthrough development, capable of opening –in Rouhani’s words- a “new chapter” for the country, a major event whose consequences will not interest Iran only but will affect the whole region – economically as well as politically.

On the economic side it is where the consequences are clear the most. With the country back in the international economy, new prospects and opportunities are on the horizon and optimism is slightly reappearing in the streets of Teheran.

Though, it is in the political field, where clear and certain predictions are much more difficult to be made -especially in a region as complex as the Middle East, where any new day brings about new crucial events and developments- that consequences are interesting the most.
As said, Teheran is considerably isolated since the earliest days of life of the Islamic Republic –an isolation that first emerged with undeniable clarity during the war with Iraq and that is still reflected in today’s regional dynamics- new scenarios might be now opening up.
Over the past years, the Middle East has witnessed a progressive disengagement of the United States -whose major strategic interests are shifting towards the Pacific and for which the Middle East is becoming nothing more than a source of continuous failures and worries- and a progressive heightening of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ever more engaged in a struggle for power in which any loss is a rival’s gain, the two regional powers have turned Syria and Yemen into the preferred fields of a bloody proxy war whose prize is supremacy over the region, prestige and political sway.
Resisting the temptation of reducing everything to a Sunni-Shia divide that this time is just in the background, it is to be reckoned we are in front of a struggle for power whose balance is leaning in favor of Teheran – at all expense of a Saudi monarchy that its own most recent moves are dragging ever down. In front of a rival getting closer to the international community thanks to the nuclear deal, Riyadh has responded by escalating the conflict in Yemen -now destined to become a new endless, Syrian-like bloody stalemate- and by escalating sectarian and political divides through the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Both disputable choices that are not leading Saudi Arabia anywhere. Especially when on the other side of the Gulf’s waters Iran is on the rise and strengthening its standing at international and regional level.
Indeed, the reality that is now unfolding in the area, and that is bringing worries to the Saudis as much as it is bringing hopes to the Iranians, is that Iran, by signing a nuclear deal the population had been waiting (and asking) for long, is not only reaping the economic advantages that the lifting of sanctions brings. It is seen itself recognized as a power capable of sitting at a table with the world leaders, negotiate agreements and keep its promise. It might seem nothing big at a first look, but it actually is. The fact that today the international community begins to regard Iran not as a radical Islamic country, led by bearded religious leaders and ambiguous political figures, but as a country with which dialogue is possible and agreements are reachable, creates the possibilities for a new chapter to begin for real. Politics is made of perceptions, of ideas we have of ourselves and of the others, and of behaviors that by those ideas are instructed. A change in perceptions is therefore a change in behavior, and the perception today is that Iran is on the rise and that the future dynamics of the Middle East will depend much more on Teheran’s moves than on Saudi Arabia’s.
With an opening economy, political leaders such as Zarif who are giving the country a new face, and an educated population willing to work, travel and enter in relations with the outer world, Iran’s capacity of expanding its influence in the region goes now beyond the “proxy war rationale” through which Teheran and Riyadh have used to confront each other. Iran is now increasingly on the rise because it is believing in the possibility of founding its strength and regional influence on elements other than material capabilities: a new international image, new economic opportunities, new capacity of building relations with the outside.

That said, it is clear that Teheran will not reduce its indirect presence in Yemen, will not abandon its intervention in Syria, nor will it moderate its support to Hezbollah and other regional Shia militias. However, attention must be given to the fact that it is giving to its foreign policy a new dimension, competitive because centered on soft power. A dimension that Riyadh is proving it does not know how to compete with.

The game the Middle East does not need

The sectarian rivalries the Saudis are trying to ignite in an anti-Iran logic are a direct threat to the whole region, and the Middle East’s near future is now dependent on Teheran’s responses

Too fast have the events of the past two days unfolded before our eyes.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia carried out the execution of 47 prisoners – some of them accused of involvement in the Al-Qaeda-led terror attacks that have hit the country over the past years, others of incitement of violence against the government.
Bearing in mind that in 2015 alone Saudi Arabia executed 175 people, the executions of the 2nd January might look as nothing more than the prosecution of a grim record that ensures Saudi Arabia a place in all the statistics on human rights violations. However, this time it is different and worse, because beyond the human rights dimension there is a political one, that comes to give a particular significance to the executions of Saturday and has the potential of spreading instability and violence across the whole region.

Among the 47 people executed on Saturday, in fact, one individual stands out: Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Arrested in 2012 with the charge of inciting the wave of anti-government protests that in the framework of the Arab Spring did not spare the Saudi Kingdom, Nimr al-Nimr was more than a critic of the House of Saud. He was also more than a Shia expressing his resentment towards a Sunni government that has always relegated the Shia minority of the country in a marginalized position: he was the face of all the Saudi Shias who in 2011-12 took to the streets asking for the end of discrimination. He was expression of the Shia soul of a Wahhabist country that one day though will have to deal with its Shia side in a more inclusive way, if it aspires to be something more than a regional power. He was a man and an icon, and the execution of a figure like him cannot but have consequences in the broader region, there where the axis Sunni-Shia is still the main definer of the individuals’ identity and one of the major driver of the countries’ foreign policies.

Not surprisingly, Nimr al-Nimr’s execution sparked a wave of protests than spread from the Gulf to Indian Kashmir, going through Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
And it is indeed at Iran that we have to look to understand what lies behind Saudi Arabia’s move.

Putting on the lenses of Realism to look at the region’s reality, it immediately emerges how Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two protagonists of a zero-sum struggle for power. The champion of Sunnism and the exponent of Shiism are indeed involved in a struggle whose price is nothing less than influence on the region, and whose battlefields are Syria as much as Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to carry out Nimr al-Nimr’s execution has the effect of dramatically escalating the tensions between Riyadh and Teheran: on Saturday itself, the Saudi Embassy in the Iranian capital was set on fire and on Sunday Saudi Arabia announced the end of any diplomatic tie with Iran.

Why do so then? Precisely to achieve this result: escalate tensions with the region’s number one rival.

In the bilateral competition for power of which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the players, the former has emerged over the past year as the weakest one. Since Salman became king last January, global economy and international diplomacy have played against Riyadh and given King Salman sleepless nights.
As if the fall of oil prices was not enough to dramatically weaken the influence of a country whose contracting power and strength has since its foundation relied on its black oil, the nuclear agreement reached by the P5+1 with the ayatollah has made Saudis’ position even more staggering.
Iran has indeed emerged over the last months as a growing regional power, whose re-integration in the international economic and political system represents a direct threat to Riyadh’s national interests. If to this we add the increasing possibility of negotiations emerging on the horizon of the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars that would improve Iran’s image worldwide, it emerges the necessity for the Saudis of curbing the rival’s rise.
The execution of Nimr al-Nimr find thus explanation within such framework. It is the last, exasperate card played by a country in economic and political decline trying to preserve what still remains of its traditional role of major regional actor. A role the Saudis are trying to preserve igniting the sectarian conflict in the Middle East; pushing Iran to react harshly and thus lose the possibility of a full (re)integration in the international system; strengthening Sunnis’ anti-Shia feeling in the whole region; protracting the wars in Yemen and Syria to prevent Iran exploiting the benefits of diplomatic negotiation.

As of now, Iran has reacted verbally only and the ayatollah – though obviously condemning Nimr al-Nimr’s execution – has also avoided leaving unpunished those who attacked the Saudi embassy in Teheran.
By so doing, Iran is following not only a positive path that might succeed in keeping the sectarian tensions under check, but also a strategic one. It is playing the Saudis’ card against the Saudis themselves. It is presenting itself as a reasonable regional power who reacts by words without inciting violence as the Saudis hoped, and it is making all the responsibility of sectarian clashes fall on Riyadh, thus impairing even more their international image, when not even legitimacy.
A route of action that, if maintained with coherence and avoidance of any reprisal, will confirm even more Iran’s rise – despite the dangerous game the Saudis have initiated and that could turn into an added element to their recent weakness.