Thursday, October 22, 2015

A new Middle East - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

The Russians and the Iranians are already openly speaking about the up-and-coming "new Middle East" with Syria as a cornerstone.

The vision of the dreamers among us -- who saw two decades ago how our region was changing into the "new Middle East" -- is now taking shape before our eyes. No, it's not a Middle East of peace, stability and prosperity, nor is it a Middle East controlled by the United States. This is a Middle East of instability and religious extremism, but more than that, it is a Middle East in which the tone is set by Russia and Iran and the pace is dictated by the knife-wielding attackers in the streets of Jerusalem. 

The dream to establish a new, good Middle East in our region was based on U.S. strength in the 1990s. The United States that defeated Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein and later conquered his country, while at the same time pushing Iran into a corner. Russia was a weak state at the time, barely standing on its own two feet. American strength led Arab leaders to seek close relationships with the U.S., and as late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat learned in his day: The way into Washington and into the Americans' hearts is through a peace deal with Israel.

But a lot of water has run through the Jordan River since then, and peace did not take root, certainly not in the heart of the Arab street, nor did it save the Arab world from its troubles or stop religious extremism from spreading. And meanwhile, the United States has grown tired and decided to disconnect from the region for the moment -- in any case, it has already lost much of its power to exert influence or to dictate what happens there. 

But there is no vacuum in our region -- the Americans' spot has already been filled with the Russian-Iranian alliance. And that is how the axis of evil of yesteryear became the central axis underlying the region today. The Russians are increasing their involvement and control in Syria, and Iran is doing the same in Iraq. And Egypt is not hiding its desire to become a part of this axis, as it is upon it -- and not the United States -- that the survival of many Arab regimes now depends. 

Israel is not a natural nor a desired partner in the Russian-Iranian alliance that is now trying to impose itself upon the Middle East, but, at least as far as the Russians are concerned, it is also not an opponent or an enemy. Russia is looking to push the Americans out of the region, and at the same time to put an end to the religious extremism that may even come knocking on Moscow's door. 

The Russians understand what Washington has yet to grasp -- that there is no connection between the spread of the Islamic State group and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that promoting an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will not stop the extremism and madness in the region. So the Russians are focusing on their own issues, and they have not issued a condemnation of Israel for working to restore calm to its cities. 

But at the same time, Russia is helping Iran increase its presence in the region. And Israel and Iran are like Russia and the United States -- competing for influence and status. So the struggle between them is difficult to resolve and may even get worse.

The Russians and the Iranians, and especially their allies in Hezbollah, and of course, Syrian President Bashar Assad, are already openly speaking about the up-and-coming "new Middle East" with Syria as a cornerstone, after the Russians and the Iranians establish their presence and strike the Syrian rebels. From there, they will move on to Iraq and maybe Lebanon as well, and they will raise their status in Egypt -- and that is just the beginning. Indeed, the United States is a strategic ally to Israel and will continue to be so. The U.S. will come and go and will obviously return in full force at some point. But for the next few years, the east is red (the color of the former Soviet Union) and Moscow will likely be the focal point. 

The Russians, like the Americans, will also learn with time that stopping radicalization and extremism may be a task beyond their ken; and eliminating the Islamic State may not even be an immediate goal for them, as the terrorist organization's existence justifies their presence in the region. But over the next few years, they will be the landlords here, and meanwhile the U.S. State Department will continue to offer protest and to call for calm, with no one outside the United States paying attention.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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