Middle East Confidential
Many intriguing and unusual developments have been taking place in recent days and weeks in the Middle East. They reflect and contribute to the changing shape and geopolitical orientations of several countries around this whirlwind of a region.
Shifting alliances and the breaking of historical taboos, traditional affiliations and groupings are all taking place, all against the backdrop of the American election’s outcome and its ensuing uncertainties for forthcoming US foreign policy.
Here’s a rundown of major events that have taken place in the Middle East recently, and a look at how they could affect or even reshape future stability of this volatile region which seems to be under the spell of continuous turmoil.
The Killing of Iran’s Nuclear Program Chief Mohsen Fakhrizadeh
Many regional powers – most notably Turkey and Israel – have reacted with either caution by rearranging their cards and priorities in the region as Ankara appears to have done, or by flexing their military muscles by launching fresh missile attacks against Syria and what they claim to be Iranian military targets in Syria, or even more dangerously assassinating Iran’s top rocket and research man in Tehran Friday. This is an operation widely believed to bear the fingerprints of Israel’s Mossad.
How, when and where will Tehran retaliate to the assassination of the founder of Iran’s nuclear program and probably its top military scientist Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh remains in question. Some pundits compare his significance to that of General Qassim Soleimani, killed in a sophisticated American operation along with his Iraqi counterpart Al Muhandes and a number of senior aides, when a US drone blasted their cars as they left Baghdad airport last December.
The main brain behind Tehran’s advanced rocket, missile and nuclear program, Fakhrizadeh was no ordinary figure for both the Iranians as well as their many adversaries, especially Israel and the United States. Fakhri Zadeh’s assassination during a gun battle with his armed bodyguards is inevitably not going to pass without a retaliatory operation somewhere. Germany was the first EU country to react to assassination by calling upon all parties for self restraint despite the gravity of the incident.
Initial Iranian Reactions to Fakhri Zadeh’s Murder
“The assassination of ‘Mohsen’ Fakhrizadeh was a cowardly act that bears the hallmark of the ‘Zionist’ entity”, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a comment on the incident. Whether Zarif’s remarks could indicate a simple tit-for-tat reprisal, or snowball into an all-out confrontation with Israel somehow and somewhere soon, remains a wild guess. Later, Iran’s supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for “the severe punishment of perpetrators of this crime as well as those who stand behind them”. One day later, Iran’s Parliament unanimously endorsed increasing uranium enrichment at key nuclear plants in the country to 20%.
However, the Iranian rocket attack against the American quarter of Ain Al Assad air base near Baghdad a few days after their open threat to vindicate General Soleimani’s assassination makes an Iranian response to the killing of Fakhrizadeh ever more likely and likely not too far away.
Syria’s equivalent scientists to the slain Iranian “rocket father” Fakhrizadeh were the nation’s top missile and rocket masterminds General Nabil Zgheib and Dr. Aziz Esber, Chairman of Research Centre in Mesyaf. They were also previously assassinated by what many believe were pro-Israeli agents. Zgheib was brutally murdered along with his wife and two sons in Damascus in 2012, while Esber was shot dead in his car as he left a local petrol station near Hama in 2018; the list of assassinations goes on and on.
Israel is Biggest Short-Term Beneficiaries of Current Chaos
While Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his intelligence chiefs might be raising their glasses to the success of their latest and highly precarious operation in Tehran it is arguably still too soon to celebrate. Netanyahu is undoubtedly encouraged by the audacious — some observers claim historical — normalization moves recently made by some Arab nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and the Sudan to normalize ties with Israel.
This was followed by the leak of the first ever visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli PM, as Benjamin Netanyahu himself, accompanied by Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen boarded a private jet and headed for Saudi Arabia last week.
The three-hours-long meeting with Saudi Crown Prince MBS (Mohammed Bin Salman) – whose father King Salman was reportedly kept out of the loop about Netanyahu’s secretive visit – was an encounter attended and reportedly brokered by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and signals a ground breaking development between the two sides.
Still, with the recent killing of Fakhrizadeh, pundits are also warning that such escalatory actions by Tel Aviv threaten to drag the Middle East towards the abyss of an all-out war that would have devastating both regional as well as international ramifications.
Turkish Economy in Ruins as Erdogan Faces EU’s Wrath
A covert war also seems to be unfolding between Ankara and the European Union over Turkish intransigence and continuing provocation against neighbors including some EU member nations and its infringement of international law as well as a number of bilateral treaties and understandings. The recent boarding of a German frigate and inspection of a Turkish cargo ship highlights the ongoing tension and Western dissatisfaction with President Recep Erdogan’s foreign policy and already dented image and bad human rights record.
This uneasy relationship is likely to take an even sharper nosedive following the harsh sentences passed by Erdogan’s judges against 337 people, including high-ranking army officers and pilots who were sentenced to life imprisonment last week, after being “indicted” in connection with the failed 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan. Many pundits believe the whole coup saga might have actually been orchestrated in order to enable Erdogan to get rid of all his opponents and rivals in one fell swoop.
Can Erdogan Mend Fences with Saudi Arabia – and if So, at What Cost?
Despite the Saudi ruler King Salman’s surprise phone call to Erdogan on the eve of the G20 summit hosted by Saudi Arabia last week — and the friendly exchanges publicized by both leaders and their state-run media — both nations remain at odds vis-à-vis numerous issues. These obstacles include the blockade on Qatar, support of radical and terrorist groups such as Muslim Brotherhood, hegemony over the Muslim world, relations with Egypt and the conflicts in Libya and Syria to name just a few stumbling blocks.
It remains to be seen how international human rights groups and Western nations will react to such unprecedented vendetta verdicts made by the Turkish courts, which are highly influenced by Erdogan’s strict control.
Deepening Turkish economic hardships were recently reflected in Erdogan’s sacking of his Governor of the Central Bank which in turn led to the resignation of his brother in law and Finance Minister Barat Al Bayrak. The resignation followed a 400% devaluation of the Turkish Lira currency over the past few years and decreased foreign investments aggravated by a sharp decline in foreign currencies national reserves over the past few months.
Meanwhile, the European Parliament agreed last week to impose sanctions on Turkey that cover oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean as well as prominent individuals close to Erdogan. Those sanctions will have to be approved by EU leaders at their meeting due in little over two weeks. Some experts argue that these sanctions are not only a reflection of European policy but are also in line with the new American policy towards Turkey.
What are Washington’s Options in the Region?
Many observers highlight the likelihood that the Trump Administration will have to take some controversial steps and make some precarious regional decisions in the remaining few weeks before the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden some seven weeks away. Should President Donald Trump fulfil his ever-changing promise to withdraw US troops from hotbeds of the Middle East and Afghanistan?
Some analysts argue that in Iraq for example, the United States came up with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kazemi in order to prevent Iraq from heading east to China, abort the Iraqi-Chinese agreement failed and to prevent Baghdad from taking its default position in the so-called “Axis of Resistance.” Washington, they maintain, has instructed both France and Britain to keep their forces in Iraq, and is adamant that they should hold up the strategic goal of securing their share of Iraqi oil.
Syria remains another challenging obstacle where the United States wants first and foremost the to ensure that Iran withdraws whatever forces it has there, as well as to guarantee some kind of autonomy for its Kurdish proxy militia the SDF, before any such withdrawals. Trump’s sudden decision last October to leave Syrian Kurds in the open to fend off for themselves against the overwhelmingly advancing Turkish war machine has had a devastating impact on any remaining trust between Kurds and Trump.
In Lebanon, Washington’s main objective is to protect its closest ally Israel from Hezbollah’s massive rocket arsenal, believed to run into well over 100,000 missiles of varying caliber, range and capacity, in case a conflict breaks out with Israel. American sanctions against Hezbollah — along with strangling the Lebanese economy and encouraging riots and anti-government demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins have all failed to bring Washington’s adversaries to their knees. Even the suspicious catastrophic explosion that wiped out much of Beirut’s once thriving sea port and scenic sea front, appears to have backfired; the political vacuum and musical chairs game continues, the economic dilemma and the rift between the warring parties widens with no hope of resolution in the offing.
Middle East Peace Looks More Distant Than Ever
Regardless of what the US and its regional allies wish for — and despite some on and off glimpses of hope every now and then, the future does not look promising. The COVID-19 pandemic has been spiking in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and many other countries in the region as a result of a second wave of the virus. This has further exhausted ailing economies and exacerbated problems and challenges facing Middle Eastern peoples and governments alike.
With conflicts that have ravaged many Asian as well as African Arab nations such as Libya, Yemen and Syria raging on with no political settlements in sight, and a chronic political as well as economic turmoil hitting hard in Lebanon, talk both behind most the closed as well as in public is emphasizing the seriousness of what is to come, on various fronts, sectors and levels.
As another year of doom and gloom is closing its last chapter, and with Christmas and the New Year’s just a stone’s throw away, more and more people of the Middle East are turning their heads upwards and raising their hands to the sky and the Creator, having lost all faith in earthly solutions.