Middle Eastern Game of Thrones
A SYSTEMIC OVERVIEW OF THE COMPETITION FOR REGIONAL HEGEMONY
The competition for regional hegemony and Israel’s national security
Authors: Eran Shyshon, Adi Levy, Alex Grinberg
The purpose of this document is to present a general overview of the systemic ties of the leading Middle Eastern countries, and their allies, presently striving for regional hegemony. The paper also offers a basic assessment and implications of these rivalries on Israel’s national security.
This document inaugurates a new project of the Reut Group, which aims to assist Israeli leadership more successfully navigate the ever-changing landscape of the Middle East from a national security perspective. The Reut Group is utilizing a unique package of theory, methodology, and technology, which helps us make sense of the various complex and inter-connected events, as well as to better conceptualize the new reality.
The authors of this document are: Eran Shayshon, the CEO; Adi Levy; a senior analyst; and Alex Grinberg, a senior advisor and a geo-political that speaks most of the languages prevalent in the Middle East.
1. The Middle East is currently experiencing a period of tectonic shifts in the regional balance of power, further intensified by American withdrawal from the region. This trend has increased the appetite and audacity of regional powers to promote their interests and create networks of ad hoc collaborations and alliances between rivals.
2. The competition for Middle Eastern hegemony can be divided into four regional blocs with contrasting agendas and ideologies, each with its own proxies, loyal local militias, and mercenaries. These blocs include: 1) Iran and the Shia Axis; 2) Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood Axis; 3) pro-Western Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt; and 4) jihadism, most identified with the Islamic State, which is witnessing a downward trend. Russia, which maintains a significant foothold in the region, is tremendously impacting this balance of powers.
3. Iran and its proxies continue to pose the greatest regional threat to Israel. Iran invests considerable resources in order to surround Israel with a “ring of fire”, despite its deep-seated economic crisis. To reword Kissinger’s statement about Israel, it actually appears that Iran has no domestic policy, only a foreign policy.
4. The attempt to conceptualize the Iranian war plan against Israel, which we will refer to as a “borderless open war”, raises the following principles:
The firing of tens of thousands of missiles from a geographical area that stretches from Iran and Yemen to the Gaza Strip and through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, over several months, during which Israel is unable to end or contain the situation, or even defend itself against so many high quality targets located over such an expansive area.
The “ring of fire” is intended to, first and foremost, enable Iran to deliver a conventional “second strike” in the event its nuclear program is attacked.
Nevertheless, the “ring of fire” infrastructure also provides Iran with the option of a conventional “first strike”, which Iran believes could lead to Israel’s collapse. The acquisition of nuclear weaponry would provide Iran immunity from a significant, external attack and would also theoretically prevent Israel from using such weapons in response to an attack orchestrated by Iran. In the eyes of the Iranians, the combination of damage to the home front and the country’s functional continuity in the long term would ultimately lead to immigration and Israel’s collapse.
5. Meanwhile, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood axis are essentially taking a pragmatic, practical approach towards Israel at this point, where the Jewish nation is not at the top of their agenda. However, Turkish aspirations for regional hegemony are making the escalation between Israel and Turkey almost inevitable in the future.
6. This document warns that, in the next significant round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the danger of an unprecedented escalation and clash between Israel and Turkey is likely. Turkey has altered its approach in recent years. The country is currently intervening militarily in the conflicts across the region, most notably in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey seeks to uphold the banner of the Palestinian struggle and even granted Turkish citizenship to exiled Hamas leaders. It is not certain at all that Turkey will be satisfied with its heretofore rhetorical opposition to Israel during next rounds of fighting with Hamas.
7. Israel also faces the threat of “regionalization” of the conflict. It seems that the most likely ultimate threat scenario for Israel would be a fight on two fronts, one against Hamas in Gaza and the other against Hezbollah in Lebanon. In fact, however, a more threatening scenario is for the Gaza front to become a regional front with the active involvement of two claimants to the regional throne - Iran and Turkey - and their cooperation with one another.
8. Turkey and Iran’s pursuit for hegemony has created ongoing friction and tension between them. Their activities in Iraq and Syria and, more recently, that of Turkey in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, have resulted in nearly direct contact with one another. All of this must be understood within the historical context of the hostility between Sunni Islam, represented by Turkey, and Shia Islam, represented by Iran.
9. Nevertheless, there are effective mechanisms for dialogue between the two countries, as well as overlapping interests. Support for Hamas is the most prominent of these overlapping interests. Hamas, which was born as a Gazan proxy of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is supported on one side by Turkey and Qatar, and by Iran and Lebanon on the other. Hence, there is a greater potential for “regionalization” of the conflict between Israel and Gaza, following the next significant escalation.
10. Despite the image of Russian strength, Moscow has limited influence in the region. Russia is taking advantage of the United States’ withdrawal to better establish itself in the region, but it lacks the capabilities (and intention) to effectively replace the American presence. Russia has no natural allies in the region and even its influence on the Assad regime is limited. Nevertheless, Russia has managed to become a key player and even a mediator in Syria and, and to a lesser extent, in Libya.
11. Russian interests continually conflict not only with those of Israel, but also with the interests of Turkey and Iran. Russia usually tries to avoid confrontations with Israel, but the potential for friction is high due to Israel’s military efforts against Iranian entrenchment in Syria, which hampers Russian ambitions to lead the economic and military reconstruction of the country.
12. Although both Democrats and Republicans support American withdrawal from the Middle East, there is no doubt that decisions made in Washington regarding the region have a greater impact than those made in Moscow. Thus, after the presidential elections, US policy towards Iran and ties with Turkey and Saudi Arabia (issues on which the presidential candidates are deeply divided) will have a profound impact on the regional balance of power.
13. Israel’s diplomatic accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are strategic, and better its position in dealing with the gamut of regional threats. Israel’s status will likely be upgraded, making the Jewish state, in effect, a member of the bloc of moderate Arab states. The main interest of this axis is to stymie Turkey and Iran’s pursuit for regional hegemony. The multiplicity of players and the absence of a clear hegemon in this bloc has led to ad hoc coalitions on various issues. Israel was involved and invested in some of these issues even before the peace agreements.
14. The peace agreements may indeed herald a reversal of Israel’s status in the Middle East. Apart from the potential security, political, and economic benefits, the taboo against “normalization” with Israel in the Arab world has been shattered. In fact, the Arabic word for “normalization” once had derogatory connotations. Now, however, it is used frequently and unabashedly by Arab leaders. This is an important and courageous move on part of these leaders with the potential to break down the psychological barriers which have so far prevented Israel’s integration into the region.
15. The Palestinian issue has been pushed aside - for now. It seems that Arab countries have lost interest in the Palestinian issue and are no longer even bothering to pay lip service to the subject. Israel’s diplomatic achievements during the Trump presidency are perceived as a Palestinian defeat, which received, at best, a weak response from other Arab nations. The refusal of the Arab League to condemn the United Arab Emirates following its peace agreement with Israel, when compared to the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab League for several years following its historic 1979 peace agreement, testifies to how great the change has been regarding the Palestinian issue.
16. However, Israel could pay dearly in future for failing to manage the conflict with the Palestinians. Although the issue seems to have paused for a “commercial break”, it is still a strategic issue of enormous importance for the future of Israel, and will certainly continue to create ongoing challenges for the country.
17. For example, following the internal process of Palestinian reconciliation led by Turkey, and in view of the Palestinian sense of abandonment by the Arab League, the ‘Palestinian ball’ could land permanently in the court of the Turkish Axis, instead of the coalition of Arab states. This could have significant implications for the conflict, which will be discussed in future documents.