Friday, February 26, 2016

Consequences of American Retreat from the Middle East - Prof. Efraim Inbar

by Prof. Efraim Inbar

While Washington claims to be confident that Iran will play "a responsible regional role," leaders in Ankara, Cairo, Jerusalem and Riyadh see Iran as almost entirely unaltered from its pre-deal state in any meaningful political sense, with the potential to produce nuclear bombs in a short time.


BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 331, February 24, 2016

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The American retreat from the Middle East signals weakness, and encourages an Iranian quest for regional hegemony that was bolstered by the P5+1 nuclear deal. The most dangerous consequence of current American foreign policy in the region is the likelihood of nuclear proliferation. Moreover, the current American approach allows for Russian encroachment in the region, which enhances the power of the radical axis led by Iran. It also opens the way for the ‘Finlandization’ of the Gulf and the Caspian basin by Iran. US weakness in the Middle East inevitably will have ripple effects in other parts of the globe.

The US, under President Barack Obama, has signaled its intent to reduce its presence in the Middle East. The US fought two unsuccessful wars in the region – a frustrating lesson about the limits of its power. At the same time, US dependency upon Middle Eastern energy has been reduced thanks to domestic progress in fracking technology. Moreover, Washington has decided to “pivot” to China, an emerging global challenger, and also to cut defense expenditures, leaving fewer military assets available for projecting power in the Middle East. (For a while during President Obama's tenure, the US had no aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean or in the Gulf at all, an unprecedented situation.) In addition, the American campaign against ISIS has been extremely limited, and has met with little success.

Unfortunately, this disengagement signals both fatigue and weakness.

Washington also has desisted from confronting Iran, and has gone to great lengths to accommodate it. President Obama's contention is that by completing a nuclear deal with Iran, he resolved one of the outstanding security issues in the region before leaving office. However the deal legitimizes a large nuclear infrastructure in Iran, and ignores the cardinal national security interests of at least two US allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia. The subsequent removal of international economic sanctions – with no reciprocal requirement for any change in Iranian regional policy – positions Iran to reap great financial benefits at no cost. President Obama's Iran policy has occasioned a dramatic change in the regional balance of power, yet Washington appears largely unperturbed.

Whereas US policy on Iran has been guided primarily by wishful thinking, the apprehensions of regional actors with regard to Iran's hegemonic ambitions have multiplied in response to the nuclear deal. While Washington claims to be confident that Iran will play "a responsible regional role," leaders in Ankara, Cairo, Jerusalem and Riyadh see Iran as almost entirely unaltered from its pre-deal state in any meaningful political sense, with the potential to produce nuclear bombs in a short time.

The gravest consequence of the US policy of disengagement from the region is the increased probability of nuclear proliferation. Powers contending for regional leadership, such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will not stand idly by in the nuclear arena, particularly as the US is no longer seen as a reliable security provider. US attempts to convince regional powers to rely on an American nuclear umbrella in an attempt to prevent nuclear proliferation are likely to fail. The emergence of a multi-polar nuclear Middle East, which is a plausible consequence of the American nuclear accommodation with Iran, will be a strategic nightmare for everyone.

An emboldened Iran, which traditionally acts through proxies rather than through military conquest, might intensify its campaign to subvert Saudi Arabia, possibly by playing the Shiite card in the Shiite-majority and oil-rich Eastern province. The loss of that province would considerably weaken the Saudi state and might even bring about its disintegration.

Iran could use subversion, terrorist attacks and intimidation of the Gulf states to evict the thinning American presence completely from the Gulf. In the absence of American determination and ability to project force, Iranian superior power might ‘Finlandize’ the Gulf countries. We could also see also the ‘Finlandization’ of the Caspian basin, where Iran shares the coast with important energy producers like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. The Caspian basin and the Persian Gulf form an “energy ellipse” that contains a large part of the world’s energy resources.

Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are very fearful of growing Iranian influence. It is possible that those countries, which adopted a pro-Western foreign policy orientation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, might decide to return to the Russian orbit, because Russia appears at present to be a more reliable ally than the US.

Russia is fully alive to the potential for a reassertion of a Russian role in the region in the wake of an American retreat. To that end, it has taken the major step of intervening militarily in Syria to assure the survival of Assad’s regime. The Syrian littoral is a vital base for enhanced Russian naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, and this preceded Russian air participation in the Syrian civil war. In addition, Russia wants to protect energy prospects that depend on Assad's survival. It already has signed exploration contracts with the Assad regime with regard to the recent gas discoveries in the Levant basin.

Syria has been an ally of Iran since 1979 – the longest alliance in the Middle East. The preservation of the Assad regime is critical to Iranian interests because Damascus is a linchpin to its proxy, the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia's efforts on Assad's behalf thus directly serve the interests of the Iranian regime. If successful, those efforts will further Iranian influence in the region.

Outside Syria, we may see Iran join Russia in supporting Kurdish political ambitions in order to weaken Turkey, Iran's rival for regional leadership. The Kurds are a thorn in Turkey’s side. Iran and Turkey are supporting opposing sides in the civil war in Syria, where the Kurds are carving out autonomous regions. Depending on how the war transpires, Kurdish national dreams might benefit from the power vacuum created by the disruption of the Arab statist structure and the American exit from the region.

As to Egypt, American reluctance to support the al-Sisi regime plays into Russian hands. The Russians are selling weapons to Egypt, negotiating port rights in Alexandria, and supplying Egypt with nuclear reactors. In Iraq too, we see the harbingers of a Russian presence in coordination with Iran, as American influence in that state continues to wane.

The rise of a more aggressive Iran – a direct consequence of the US retreat – may bring about greater tacit cooperation among Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The big question is whether Turkey will join such an anti-Iranian alignment.

US weakness in the region inevitably will have ripple effects in other parts of the globe. American credibility is now subject to question, and allies elsewhere may determine that it would be wise to hedge their bets. Greater challenges await the US beyond the Middle East.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.


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

Earthquakes of the Middle East - Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

by Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Five years after the outburst of the so-called Arab Spring, the Middle East has changed radically. Not only have nation-states crumbled, transformed or become failed-states, the moderating forces which used to hold the structures together are no longer present, have switched their allegiance allowing new factors to appear and dominate the scene.

  • The Middle East is experiencing tectonic and dramatic changes that are shaping its landscape into unexpected realities.
  • Russia engaged its forces to defend the crumbling Alawite regime. Since the beginning of the Russian military intervention in late September, the Assad regime together with his strategic allies have succeeded not only to stabilize the regime but to regain lost strategic positions.
  • Iraq today is struggling in its quest for self-identity. A year and a half after the Islamic State (IS) stormed Mosul and almost cut Iraq in half, Iraq is trying to recover and retake territory lost to Abu Bakr el Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.
  • The Islamic State, under attack by the Russians and the Western military coalition led by the United States, is feeling the crunch. Thousands of its fighters have been killed or incapacitated by the air raids.
  • Five years after the ousting of President Mubarak, and following the Islamist Mohamed Morsi’s short presidency, Egypt under Field-Marshall Sisi is fighting to regain stability. Never in its modern history did Egypt have such tumultuous and unraveling events.
  • Five years from now, what Middle East can we expect? It would not be adventurous to say that we will be confronted with a new map with new entities born or re-born.

Almost five years after the outburst of the so-called Arab Spring, the Middle East is still experiencing tectonic and dramatic changes that are shaping its landscape into unexpected realities. The more the Middle East is engulfed in crisis the more it is transforming into a different political layout far beyond anything in its history. As an allegory, one could imagine the Middle East as boiling magma erupting from the depths of the earth, transforming in its burning path each and every meter it passes before it stabilizes into a new landscape after it has destroyed everything in its way.

Those five years have witnessed every unimaginable drama that no analyst could have ever dreamt about: Arabs fighting Arabs; Sunni Arabs fighting Iran and Iranian-backed troops and political forces;  Sunnis fighting against Shiites; disintegration of nation-states; shifting alliances with the super powers; Western and Russian military intervention; Arab (Saudi Arabia, Qatar), Turkish, and Western intervention in local conflicts; the dominance of Russia and the slow shrinking of U.S. influence; Arab military intervention to assist failing fellow states unsuccessful in quelling internal rebellions; the elimination and persecution of Muslim sects; the disappearance of Christian communities; almost war between Russia and Turkey; and the rise of political Islam camouflaged as Jihadism on the ruins of former nation-states such as Syria and Iraq.  Extreme fundamentalism together with the brutal and outrageous  reality of the civil wars raging in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Lebanon have produced hundreds of thousands of victims, phantom cities, millions displaced and hundreds of thousands of refugees in foreign lands.

Where Do We Stand Today?

Syria and the Assad regime. By late September 2015, Bashar Assad was losing the war against the rebels assisted in their fight by the Saudi-Qatari Turkish-Western coalition. The rebels were on the outskirts of Assad hinterland in Latakia after defeating his forces in the northern part of the country facing Turkey. Assad was also losing the Golan to the Free Syrian Army and to the storming units of the jihadists. Even in Damascus it seemed that the suffocating siege carried out by the rebels was having a serious impact on Assad’s grip on his capital.

Then, as if by “magic,” Russia engaged its forces to defend the crumbling Alawite regime. Since the beginning of the Russian  military  intervention in late September, the Assad regime together with his strategic allies (Afghani forces brought by Iran, Hizbullah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces) have succeeded not only to stabilize the regime but to regain lost the strategic positions in the Latakia  province lost in 2012 which secured the borders with Turkey. The next targets appear to be the re-capture of the whole city of Aleppo, thus assuring the Assad regime a large enough “lebensraum” to enable Assad to negotiate from a strong position rather than as a defeated regime. The forces of the regime flanked by pro-Iranian proxies (Afghanis and Uzbeks) have also recaptured Sheikh Meskin, a strategic stronghold near Daraa in the south thus recovering almost the majority of the ground lost in the Golan. In greater Damascus, Assad’s forces have regained control of some of the suburbs which fell to the hands of the rebels.

However, even with this reverse of fortune, the Assad regime controls barely 30 to 40 percent of the previous Syrian Republic. Assad is at the mercy of his saviors, and his regime is totally dependent on the decision-makers in Moscow and Teheran. His freedom to maneuver is almost nonexistent. Whatever scenario unfolds, Syria will not return to be the former spearhead of Arabism in the Middle East.

Moscow’s intervention in Syria and its strained relations with Turkey following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane which purportedly trespassed over the Turkish border have probably headed off a Turkish military incursion into Syria. Moscow and Teheran have become the guarantors of Syria’s Alawite regime. It remains to be seen what sort of partnership will emerge between the two allies when they will have to confront one another on different political agendas.

The Russian military intervention has spared Lebanon another civil war. Indeed, the Assad regime’s success (assisted by Russian air raids and Hizbullah fighters) in blocking the jihadists from reaching the Mediterranean Sea through the port of Tripoli has defused a fragile situation that could have developed into an all-out war between Sunnites and Shiites in Lebanon. But this has not solved the constitutional and political deadlock in Lebanon.

Lebanon is without a president since 2014; the whole political body is paralyzed and no compromise appears on the horizon. Hizbullah, blocking the issue of presidential elections by preventing the meeting of a quorum in parliament, has chosen a candidate (Michel Aoun) and is adamantly opposed to any alternative. The opponents rallied around the former Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Christian Maronite candidate Suleiman Frangieh, Jr. and have also decided not to compromise. In the meantime the country is run by a caretaker government which could in fact last for a long time if there is no dramatic change in the equation of forces.

Iraq today is struggling in its quest for self-identity. A year and a half after the Islamic State (IS) stormed Mosul and almost cut Iraq in half, Iraq is trying to recover and retake territory lost to Abu Bakr el Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph and leader of the Islamic State. With the help of the United States, Russia, and Iran, Iraq has recaptured almost in their entirety two key cities lost a year earlier to the IS: Tikrit and Ramadi. However, Iraq finds itself partly invaded by Turkish forces in the north and de facto partitioned between an autonomous Kurdish Government in the north, a Sunni territorial entity led by the IS whose capital is in Rakka, Syria,  and a Shiite state which extends north of Baghdad until the borders with Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the south.

Mosul Dam, largest dam in Iraq

At this point, Iraqi leaders are worried about the possible devastation Iraq would endure by the destruction of the Mosul Dam (formerly known as Saddam Hussein’s Dam) if it is not properly maintained. This problematic dam was built on soluble gypsum, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers warned already in the first years of the American presence in Iraq that the dam – “the most dangerous dam in the world” – could be a source of danger if it is not constantly reinforced with grout injections. Another scheme under discussion is the construction of a colossal wall to surround Baghdad to facilitate law enforcement in the area and to reduce if not to eradicate terrorist attacks originating in areas adjacent to Baghdad.

The Kurdish issue is also a thorny issue for Baghdad. Following unsuccessful negotiations, the Iraqi government allowed the Kurds to run the oil industry in the Kirkuk area and to monetize the oil produced to finance the Kurdish economy. However, the Kurds, aware of the weakness of the central government in Baghdad, courted and armed by the United States and the West, and encouraged by their victories against the IS in Iraq and Syria, are now considering a referendum on whether to declare an independent state. Although the Kurds say that it is only meant to take the pulse of the people and not to be implemented immediately, these noises are not welcome in Baghdad which sees the specter of secession becoming a reality in its northern provinces. It is clear that such a declaration would draw the ire of Turkey and Iran as much as Baghdad’s, and its consequences could carry a dire predicament to a potential Kurdish self-proclaimed independence.

The Islamic State, under attack by the Russians and the Western military coalition led by the United States, is feeling the crunch. Thousands of its fighters have been killed or incapacitated by the air raids. The French Defense Minister mentioned the number of 20,000 casualties which could mean a very heavy toll on the military structure of the IS.  However, even after losing Ramadi and Tikrit, the IS has enough energy to continue to fight in Syria and Iraq. During the year and a half since the declaration of the caliphate, the IS has succeeded to gain new territories in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, India, Afghanistan and the  North Caucasian region. Its franchises in Egypt, the Gulf States, and North Africa are expanding and are still very active. Of late, indications suggest that the IS is looking for a possible alternative to Rakka in the failed state of Libya. The vacuum created in Libya since the ousting of Qaddafi by the West which contributed to the disintegration of Libya offers now a safe haven for jihadists in North Africa, destabilizing North Africa and the African Sahel states. The number of IS fighters in Libya has doubled in a year (5,000 fighters as of today), and their main goal is to capture the oil installations in the area of Sirte after having made inroads in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The growing IS presence in Libya has lit red lights in Europe and the United States. The possibility of a military Western and Russian military intervention in Libya is now closer to reality than before. Unlike Rakka, Sirte in Libya is less than an hour flight from the coast of Italy. Moreover, the IS has taken advantage of the enormous influx of refugees to Europe by introducing IS agents and operatives disguised as refugees, part of its strategy to wage terrorist attacks in the very heart of Europe.

The Changing Saudi Arabia. Far under the radar, and for almost a year, another conflict between Sunni Arabs and Arab Shiites backed by Iran has been unraveling. Saudi Arabia is leading an Arab military coalition against the Houthis in Yemen with little success. The military intervention by Saudi Arabia in Yemen was accompanied by a much-publicized campaign promising a swift end to the rebellion initiated by the Houthis against the elected government. However, even with the participation of allied Arab armies, including Egypt, Sudan and the Emirates, the Saudi campaign achieved very little in military accomplishments. At this point it appears that the war in Yemen will persist with no clear ending in the near future.

Pursuant to the Saudis’ confrontational policy carried out since the death of King Abdullah, the ascension of King Salman, and the nomination of his young son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman al-Saud, as minister of Defense of the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has join with Qatar to spearhead the effort to bring down the Alawite regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia has made no secret of its policy to arm and finance the Sunni rebels fighting against the Alawite-Iranian-Hizbullah coalition in Syria. Saudi Arabia has been active in trying to promote a “Pax Saudiana” by gathering in Riyadh and Geneva the main opposition factions to the Assad regime, but to no avail for the time being. Saudi Arabia went as far as declaring its readiness to send troops to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq which considers the ruling Wahhabi family and regime in Saudi Arabia to be heretical.

In fact Saudi Arabia is facing a double threat to its regime – both initiated by outside factors. The first one is directed by Iran using the Shiite population in Saudi Arabia as a means to destabilize the kingdom, and the second one is inspired by the Sunni radicals in Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Map of Yemen and the strategic Bab el Mandeb Strait

Saudi Arabia has openly accused Iran of meddling in its internal affairs and pointed at Iran as a terrorist state undermining the stability of the Gulf region. The disaster that occurred during the 2015 Hajj, with the death of scores of Iranian pilgrims and the disappearance of several high-ranking Iranian officials who took part in the pilgrimage, poisoned even more the already strained relations between the two countries. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Saudi Arabia’s execution on 47 Shiites accused of terrorism including the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr who was considered to be the spiritual leader of the Shiite opposition to the Wahhabi policy of persecution. Iranian mobs attacked and ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, and Saudi Arabia answered by severing its diplomatic relations with Teheran. However, with the two countries understanding they were sliding towards confrontation, they chose to lower the flames for the time being and not to engage in an open conflict. Rather, both Iran and Saudi Arabia chose to continue their fight through their respective proxies. Saudi Arabia announces from time to time the uncovering of subversive schemes inspired by Iran. There has not been a month without the Saudis announcing the discovering of clandestine terrorist cells and without suicide attacks being carried out by jihadists associated either with Al-Qaeda or ISIS against “cult” Shiite mosques and military installations. Saudi Arabia is experiencing an unprecedented period of domestic instability due to terrorist activities carried out by Saudi recruits who joined the jihadist effort to destabilize the Kingdom. The Saudi “Patriot Act” (similar to the one enacted in the United States) meant to deter Saudis from joining the ranks of the Jihadists did not meet with great success. The Saudi volunteers in ISIS and Al-Qaeda remain one of the biggest contingents of fighters and carry the dubious title of being the highest number of volunteer suicide bombers. The Arab press today is full of innuendos relating to the possible abdication of the Saudi king to be replaced by his young and energetic son, Salman, the architect of the war in Yemen and of Saudi intervention in Syria.

On the other bank of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia’s ally, President of Egypt Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi, is also fighting in order to survive the jihadist tide. Five years after the ousting of President Mubarak, and following the Islamist Mohamed Morsi’s short presidency, Egypt under Field-Marshall Sisi is fighting to regain stability. Never in its modern history did Egypt have such tumultuous and unraveling events. The domestic scene is the main issue for the Sisi government to tackle. The Muslim Brotherhood, far from conceding defeat to the army, is still trying to topple the regime. Thousands of them are in jail with several of them being tried before exceptional tribunals; hundreds are awaiting execution. In the meantime, they have managed together with ultra-extreme jihadists to create an atmosphere of uncertainty in Egypt, striking from time to time at institutional targets, high-ranking officials, and military and police installations. President Sisi himself said in an interview he had uncovered two assassination attempts against his life. However, unlike the past regimes, Sisi has engaged his army to fight and restore Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai where the local jihadists (Ansar Bayt el Makdess) have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and changed their name accordingly to IS-Wilayat Sina (IS-Sinai Province). The events in Libya and the emergence of ISIS in that failed state are also a cause to worry. The Egyptian air force has struck several times at ISIS camps in Libya, and there is constant talk about a ground military operation in order to stabilize Egypt’s western borders with Libya.

Sisi must also focus his attention on events in Ethiopia where the government has decided to build a mammoth dam on the Nile called the “Renaissance Dam” whose basin when finished will create a serious problem for the Nile flow to Egypt. Negotiations are being held between Egypt and the countries to be affected by the dam with the Ethiopian government in order to try to minimize the impact of the dam on the daily life of the Nile basin countries. Under the Morsi presidency, leaks to the press reported a debate in parliament during which the bombing of the dam by Egypt was one of the options considered by some of the parliament members.

Sisi had to fight for the legitimacy of his presidency especially vis-a-vis Washington which considered a freeze on all military and economic aid to Egypt following what it perceived as a military coup against the “democratically elected President [Morsi].” The United States delayed the delivery of weapon systems, some of which were essential in the battle against the jihadists in Sinai, such as Apache gunships and F-16 aircraft. Sisi’s answer was to open up towards Russia and to sign with Moscow huge deals for weapons and nuclear electricity generation plants financed by Saudi funds. France also became a partner by selling Rafale aircraft and Navy frigates. Finally, Egypt struck deals with Europeans entities relating to its gas exploration program leaving American companies out of the room.

The more the Egyptian regime encountered bumps on its way, the more the regime became nervous and retaliated by limiting the freedom of expression. Draconian laws were enacted relating to the freedom of the press and the government made no secret of its zero tolerance to criticism, thus transforming what had been promised as a road map to democracy into a road map to military dictatorship. Egypt under Sisi reverted to the early days of the Nasser’s regime following the resignation of General Negi in 1954.

Where Will the Middle East Be in Five Years?

Five years after the outburst of the so-called Arab Spring, the Middle East has changed radically. Not only have nation-states crumbled, transformed or become failed-states, the moderating forces which used to hold the structures together are no longer present, have switched their allegiance allowing new factors to appear and dominate the scene. Such is the situation with the United States which is accused by almost all Arabs to be the source of the creation of ISIS, to have abandoned its traditional allies for the benefit of Iran, to have failed to assist friends in need and to have looked at the Muslim Brothers as an alternative to secular nation-states. As a result, Arab states are questioning U.S. policy and raising questions about its resolve to lead the military coalition against the Islamic State. Russia found the cracks in the geopolitical wall and easily replaced the United States with its traditional clients. Russia’s success in Syria is but another sign of the weakness of the United States in these dire times.

Five years from now, what Middle East can we expect? It would be foolish to prophesize. But it would not be adventurous to say that we will be confronted with a new map with new entities born or re-born. However, the future of the Middle East will remain conditional on the events and transformations that will affect the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. In this equation there is no room for the IS: sooner or later, the traditional forces will destroy the entity. This does not mean that the jihadist, Salafist ideology will be eradicated and that jihadist cells will stop from being established. Unless the roots of the problem are dealt with – meaning the financing of religious institutions – the jihadist movement will continue its interaction with the financial institutions receiving their funds from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and even Morocco.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah


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

Implications of Greater Chinese Involvement in the Mideast - Dr. Alon Levkowitz

by Dr. Alon Levkowitz

Should Israel perceive China's visits as a threat, or do they suggest the potential for cooperation and a new balance of power in the Middle East?

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 332, February 25, 2016

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the Middle East does not indicate an imminent new balance of power in the Middle East, but does suggest the prospect of greater Chinese involvement in the region over the long run – a likelihood that Israel and the other Middle Eastern states should take into account. Israel should continue to improve its economic and political relations with China, but not lose sight of the constant tensions between Washington and Beijing.

In January 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. In the cases of Iran and Egypt, this was the first visit from a Chinese president in almost a decade.

What does Xi Jinping’s visit to the Middle East mean? Does it suggest a Chinese political aspiration to shift the bipolar Russian-American balance of power in the region to a multipolar order, or is Beijing simply looking for business opportunities? In either case, what might be the implications for Israel of heightened Chinese engagement? Should Israel perceive China's visits as a threat, or do they suggest the potential for cooperation and a new balance of power in the Middle East?

It seems that China's incrementally greater interest in the Middle East is mainly economic – for the time being. But over the longer term, China is likely to become a more active player, one willing to project its military power in the region to safeguard the free flow of energy to China and protect its interests.

President Xi declared several times during his visit that Beijing, in contrast to Washington or Moscow, is not looking for a proxy in the region; nor does it intend to dominate, monopolize, or politically influence it. The central object of his visit was to promote the Belt and Road Initiative, which will revive the ancient Silk Road. The intention, as expressed by President Xi, is to enable the Middle East states to develop their economies and enjoy the financial benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative without being concerned that China will exploit or dominate their economies.

The growing significance of Middle Eastern-Chinese economic relations is illustrated by the fact that over the past decade, China has become the second largest trading partner of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. The lifting of sanctions on Iran will allow China to increase trade with Iran and become its biggest trading partner. This has clear implications for Saudi Arabia, which is China's main supplier of crude oil. As soon as Iran is able to export, China will be able to diversify.

There is another critical element to China's Middle East relations that must be taken into account: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), established by Beijing. The AIIB is an unofficial competitor of the World Bank (WB). In the WB, China has 4.78% voting power in comparison to the US's 16%. At the AIIB, Beijing has 30.3% voting power, while Washington is not a member at all. The AIIB allows China to use funds to promote projects in the Middle East as well as in Asia.

The US opposed the AIIB, but failed to dissuade its allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East from joining it. American allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, together with Iran, were the founding members of the AIIB. Egypt's decision to take part reflects its expectation of Chinese investment, either directly or indirectly through the AIIB, in infrastructure projects that can boost the Egyptian economy.

Israel made the right decision to join the AIIB in 2015 despite Washington's objections because membership will allow her to influence decisions on where investment money will go. Depending on the projects it elects to promote, the AIIB's investment in the Middle East could serve Israel's interests by helping her develop her economy, achieve some degree of stability, and potentially decrease threats to her security.

During President Xi's visit, China signed deals worth billions of dollars, promised to invest billions more in regional projects (particularly in Egypt), and signed a memorandum of understanding to promote the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative.  He visited both Saudi Arabia and Iran, notwithstanding the tensions between the two countries on the nuclear issue, Yemen and Syria.

The warmth exhibited by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei toward China during President Xi's visit to Iran suggests the potential for a greater role down the road for Beijing in the geopolitics of the region. Khameini had this to say about China's behavior during the sanctions period: “The government and people of Iran have always looked and are still looking for expanding relations with independent and trustworthy countries like China and on this basis, the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China for the establishment of a 25-year strategic relation is completely correct and wise…The Islamic Republic of Iran will never forget China’s cooperation during the time of sanctions."

The strategic cooperation between China and Iran, the P5+1 agreement in which China participated, and the billions invested in Iran by Asian and European companies will give Tehran the latitude to rehabilitate its economy now that sanctions have been lifted. In so doing, they will help Iran in its quest for regional political and military dominance.

Beijing will not replace Washington or Moscow in the Middle East in the short run, as it does not yet serve its interests to be militarily or politically involved in the region. China can be expected to deepen its economic involvement by increasing investment and trading directly or indirectly through AIIB. Beijing might boost its sea-lanes patrols in the region if it perceives its trade and oil supplies to be under threat (and indeed already has taken steps to combat piracy off the Somali Coast). Over the longer term, those sea-lanes patrols would allow Beijing to project its power.

It is worth noting that despite Beijing's protestations that it does not intend to get deeply involved in the Middle East, Tehran, Cairo, and even Riyadh already look toward China as an important player – particularly in the wake of disagreements with the Obama administration on Iran and on Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s human rights violations. China offers an appealing alternative: Beijing is understood to have no intention of sending military forces to the region the way Moscow or Washington would, but has veto leverage at the UN Security Council and billions of dollars available for investment. China therefore has the capacity to change the Middle East balance of power in the long run.

In the case of Israel, China has become an important economic player. Chinese companies are opening R&D centers in Israel, building construction projects, and buying Israeli companies outright (see, for example, Tnuva, the Haifa Tunnel, and one of the Israeli ports). The Israeli foreign office and ministry of trade have increased the number of delegations to China. From the Israeli point of view, increased trade with China will allow Israel to spread trade and investment into more than one region. Greater trade with China would also diminish the trading leverage Europe uses in its attempts to compel Israel to accept European Middle East policy.

Jerusalem understands that Beijing will not become pro-Zionist, and will not replace Washington as Israel's main ally. But Israel fully acknowledges the rising importance of Beijing in the Middle East and globally, as President Xi’s visit to the Middle East demonstrates.

The Israeli government should, accordingly, continue to improve its economic and political relations with China. But Israel should not lose sight of the constant tension between Washington and Beijing on issues in Asia, such as the South China Sea and Islands issues. These tensions should serve as a warning for the Israeli government to avoid enacting policies that might be seen by either party as tilting in one direction over the other.

Nor would it be wise to sell technologies or equipment to China that might be seen by Washington as a breach of conduct. The scuttled Phalcon deal during the Clinton administration was a painful example of the price Israel can pay if she finds herself caught between Washington and Beijing.

The Israeli government should establish an internal working group (with representatives of the foreign, defense, finance and trade ministries) to coordinate government policies as China ramps-up its involvement in the Middle East.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Dr. Alon Levkowitz, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is an expert on East Asian security, the Korean Peninsula, and Asian international organizations.


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

Fatah-Hamas feud hits boiling point - Dr. Reuven Berko

by Dr. Reuven Berko

Hamas has become a major strategic problem for Fatah, which understands that now is not the time for words, only action.

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera network featured two major headlines this week. The first had Israeli human right groups accusing the Palestinian Authority of sharing information tortured out of Hamas operatives with Israeli intelligence; the second quoted Jibril Rajoub, deputy secretary general of Fatah's Central Committee, as saying the situation by which Hamas has "hijacked" the Gaza Strip cannot be allowed to continue.

Past rumors have suggested that former Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan was organizing a Sinai-based force seeking to expel Hamas from Gaza. But, like many other rumors concerning Gaza, that has proved false.

A Palestinian official said this week that the situation across the Palestinian Authority has become intolerable, and that the very nature of Hamas' separatist Islamist statements is crippling the "national Palestinian project." 

The Palestinian leadership is at a critical juncture, and the decision whether to muster the strength to eliminate Hamas can no longer be avoided. According to the official, Hamas has become a major strategic problem, and the issue will be the focus of a Fatah Revolutionary Council meeting called for March. 

Fatah, the official said, is facing a major dilemma, as it has found itself between a rock -- ensuring the Palestinian presidency's safety and continuity -- and the hard place that is the risk of losing the support of the Palestinian people to Hamas, which continues to agitate the situation on the ground by accusing the Palestinian Authority of betraying its people. 

This dilemma has translated into distress and discordance among Fatah ranks as well, to the point of threatening the stability of the Palestinian presidency.

The failed attempts -- as recent as the last few days -- to reach some sort of national agreement with Hamas has made the Palestinian Authority understand a confrontation is unavoidable and that it is time to face the music. 

Fatah has to make potentially painful decisions if it is to prevent the Palestinian Authority from collapsing and save the "national Palestinian project." According to the Palestinian official, it was this sentiment that prompted Rajoub's aggressive statement, which reflects Fatah's understanding that the time for words has passed, and only deeds will suffice.

Palestinian officials know that the only hope to impose any kind of authority or exercise any force against Hamas has to be done from the Gaza-Egypt border, but so far, Ramallah has failed to insert so much as one soldier into the Rafah crossing. The situation, one Palestinian official said, is bleak, to say the least. 

Meanwhile, the Palestinian public is subjected to a gross anti-Israel incitement campaign, laced with fear-mongering suggesting imminent airstrikes on Gaza, the harassment of fishermen off the Gaza coast, the projected demolition of Qabatiya homes, and the pending arrests of dozens of Palestinians.

The deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the fact the Palestinian Authority is unable to achieve anything in its dealings with Israel have seen Palestinian morale plummet to the depths of despair. Still, the official warned that if Israel was indeed concerned about a new "Hamas emirate" in Judea and Samaria, its decision not to move forward in the peace talks was tantamount to "playing with fire," since preventing Ramallah from marking any sort of achievement to present to its public is playing into Hamas' hands and may bring about the Palestinian Authority's collapse in the West Bank.

With hostilities raging on, Hamas continues to gain political points across Judea and Samaria at Fatah's expense, especially when it touts alleged clandestine agreements with Israel, at a time when Jerusalem officials refuse any dialogue with their Ramallah counterparts. 

In this precarious atmosphere, Palestinian security forces' collaboration with the Israeli military is seen as betrayal. This notion is propagated by Al Jazeera, as seen by the report suggesting Palestinian security forces are arresting and torturing Hamas operatives and sharing the information derived from their interrogations with Israel.

Fatah founder Yasser Arafat had once used the threat of Hamas terrorism to intimidate and extort Israel into making concessions. I doubt he ever imagined one day the tables would turn and Fatah would be at the receiving end of these threats.

Dr. Reuven Berko


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

Behold the Syrian 'cease-fire' - Dr. Ephraim Herrera

by Dr. Ephraim Herrera

The Shiites, backed by the West, will not stop fighting Islamic State and Nusra Front, while the Sunnis continue to support them.

The cease-fire agreement in Syria, arranged by the United States and Russia, which the Damascus regime this week said it is prepared to accept, is being seen by many as a positive step. The optimists, however, are ignoring one of the main reasons for this war: the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.

Sunnis represent some 85% of Muslims in the world, while only about 15% of Muslims are Shiites. The West, by standing firmly alongside the Shiites, is betting on the minority while disregarding the overwhelming majority. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the nuclear deal between Shiite Iran and Western powers, not to mention Russia's unwavering support for the regime of President Bashar Assad and his Iranian patron.

The Sunni states, chief among them Saudi Arabia, feel the West has betrayed them and consider Iran, justifiably, an existential threat. To be sure, the vision of the ayatollahs is first to spread the rule of Shiite Islam across the Muslim world, and then the globe. Even efforts by prominent Sunni clerics to intercede, among them Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, have proved unsuccessful and failed to restrain Iranian ambitions.

The Sunni world cannot under any circumstances come to terms with Iran's attempt to stretch its sphere of influence from Yemen to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia has recently taken a series of steps to that effect: After Hezbollah lambasted the kingdom, the Saudis rescinded their multi-billion-dollar military aid package to Lebanon. It also brazenly executed a Shiite leader who openly challenged the government. The Iranians, in turn, torched the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, which the Saudis and several other Sunni states retaliated to by severing diplomatic ties with Iran.

The Saudis have also formed a Sunni coalition to fight the Shiites in Yemen. 

On the war in Syria, the Saudi foreign minister declared that the Assad regime needs to be toppled by force, and that rebel forces should be armed with surface-to-air missiles. The Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, which control a considerable portion of the country, are not part of the cease-fire agreement. They see the Shiites as infidels who need to be annihilated. Just this week Islamic State operatives murdered over 150 people around Damascus. One of the jihadi group's publication described Shiites as "Jews who entered Islam to spread their deception," and as heretics who should be killed by religious decree. There is no question that they will continue fighting the Shiites and Alawites in Syria.

The Shiites, backed by the West, will try to destroy Islamic State and the Nusra Front, while the Sunni states will continue to support these groups. After all, they are the only obstacle on the ground standing between the ayatollah regime and its ambitions. Like those preceding it, it appears the current cease-fire agreement has little chance of succeeding.

Dr. Ephraim Herrera is the author of "Jihad -- Fundamentals and Fundamentalism."


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