The events of recent months show just how turbulent, violent, and challenging the Middle East can be for Israel. Iran, on the verge of becoming a threshold nuclear state with the backing of the historic nuclear agreement (July 14, 2015), is increasing fears among the Sunni countries, and is heightening the incentive for a possible nuclear arms race in the region. Tehran’s appetite to enhance its influence in the region is growing and its leaders are flaunting their control of four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and now Sana’a. ISIS continues to control vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, and is contributing to the collapse of the nation-state system in the region. It is also fomenting the “failed state” phenomenon, when governments cannot regain control over their sovereign territory from radical anti-state actors (such as in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen). The capture of the regional capital Ramadi (May 17, 2015) brought ISIS within 110 km of Baghdad and further exposed the Iraqi army’s weakness. Jihadist organizations throughout the Middle East are declaring their allegiance to ISIS and committing brutal acts of murder and violence, destroying economies and infrastructure, and rendering recognized international borders irrelevant.
The civil war in Syria continues to rage as the death toll nears a quarter of a million. Four million people have lost their homes, many of them have fled Syria and others are displaced persons in their own state. ISIS controls roughly half of Syria, while the balance of forces between Assad and the rebel groups continues to shift. Earlier this year it seemed that Assad had the upper hand, which brought about a shift in the tone of the U.S. and the West regarding his regime. Considering the anarchy, which had been only expected to increase in his absence, Assad was increasingly seen by many as a part of the solution, the best of the bad options at hand. However, currently, due to a number of losses at the hands of rebel groups, and the loss of the city of Idlib and other territories, commentators are once again discussing Assad’s eroded power, and some are forecasting his coming fall.
In parallel, Washington sees ISIS as the central threat, and American warplanes are hitting it from the air as Washington supplies intelligence to forces fighting it on the ground. (This essentially creates a reality of indirect cooperation between the U.S. and Iran, which sees the murderous Sunni organization as a dangerous enemy and is thus helping the Iraqi government in its fight against it.) During the negotiations over its nuclear program, Iran did not cease escalating its subversive behavior in the region.
The Shi’a Houthi militias fighting in Yemen with Iranian support succeeded in toppling the Sunni government in Sana’a. This development created a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, which is attempting – with help from additional Arab armies and without an American military presence on the ground – to push back the Houthi militias. An open question is whether the change of regime in Riyadh following the death of King Abdullah (January 23, 2015) and the subsequent crowning of King Salman signals a shift in Saudi Arabia’s long term character, and its willingness to act more aggressively against regional challenges: Iran, jihadist terror, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and more. A series of adjustments announced by King Salman to various senior posts in the kingdom as well as to the chain of succession (April 29, 2015) might just imply such a shift. The joint Arab military force that was formed (March 29, 2015), comprising forces from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan, and Jordan, may indicates the beginning of long process in which Arab countries gradually cease counting on the U.S. as the “regional policeman.”
However, Israel should have some apprehension over the formation of a joint Arab military force that gains experience in coordinated complex military action. Thus, while this force is currently composed of regional moderates, and while it is focused on fighting regional extremists, such a force could theoretically turn on Israel in the future. If this weren’t enough for concern, it should be noted that in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran, it would likely compensate the Sunni Arab camp with further advanced arms sales.
Egypt and Jordan continue to cope with difficult security challenges of their own. The terror threat combined with the inherent threat of Iran’s growing presence creates an infrastructure that invites increased cooperation with Israel. An especially bold and deadly terror campaign by ISIS allied forces against a number of military targets simultaneously in Sinai (July 1, 2015) proved the force of the threat it presents against the Egyptian military, and even signaled the organization’s capacity to harm Israel. Egypt, which is fighting terror groups in Sinai, sees Hamas as an enemy that aids the terrorists in their fight against it. President al-Sisi has not hesitated to destroy vast built-up areas in order to create a security buffer on the Egypt-Gaza border, while fighting a bitter battle to destroy the smuggling and terror tunnels that run underneath. In early April of 2015, the U.S. cancelled its freeze on arms shipments to Egypt. The American strategic preference of promoting democracy and human rights in Egypt was pushed aside by the urgency of helping Egypt maintain stability, preventing alternative arms deals with Moscow, ensuring maritime freedom in the Suez Canal, and maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. Jordan as well, perhaps America’s closest ally in the fight against ISIS, is in dire need and receives American support (Jordan absorbed roughly a million Syrian refugees). The video showing ISIS burning a Jordanian air-force pilot alive (February 3, 2015) increased the internal pressure in Jordan to take revenge and bolstered Jordan’s centrality in the fight against ISIS.
The harsh upheavals in the Middle East appear to demand the engagement and intervention of a stabilizing power. However the U.S. is not interested in deepening its involvement in the region, is not interested in sending (back) its soldiers to shed their blood in the Middle East, and prefers to “lead from behind.” Moreover, it doesn’t seem that the U.S. and Russia can, at this point, cooperate effectively in order to jointly bring about regional stability. Putin’s aggressive moves in Ukraine and the Western sanctions against Russia and Putin’s inner circle, do not facilitate the necessary infrastructure for cooperation, but rather enhance competition and conflict. Therefore, Russia’s announcement (April 13, 2015) that it will thaw the long frozen deal to sell the advanced S-300 surface to air missile system to Iran exemplifies of the current gloomy state of affairs.