Conflict Flashpoints in the Middle East encompass myriad local, regional, and foreign actors linked by alliances, some of which are temporary. Besides the historical Sunni-Shiite tensions, there are intra-Sunni tensions: the Saudi-Egyptian axis (which fears Iranian and radical-Islamic subversion), and the Turkish-Qatari axis (which supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and flirts with Iran). The regional flashpoints embody these tensions and also highlight the acceleration of strategic trends relevant to Israel. Two of the most notable trends are worth mentioning here: 1. The vacuum diminishing American dominance has left in the region is allowing the Russian superpower to become a highly influential actor in the Middle East; 2. Erdoğan is also taking advantage of this “dis-order” and continuing to advance Turkey’s status as a regional power undeterred from exerting itself militarily far beyond its borders.
The Syrian arena – a reflection of Moscow’s serious intentions
After nine years of civil war, Bashar al-Assad remains in place. Russia, which has expended considerable energies to keep his regime from toppling, is exacting a price. Moscow is strengthening its hold on Syrian naval and air bases (Tartus and Khmeimim), which reinforce its standing in the region and vis-à-vis NATO. Accordingly, Russia is now being courted by both Erdoğan and Netanyahu.
Erdoğan worries about the empowerment of the Kurds near his border, and that another wave of Syrian refugees from the three-million-strong concentration in Idlib will flee toward the Turkish border should the fighting intensify between Assad’s forces and the Idlib-based rebels. The ceasefire arrangements achieved with Moscow’s involvement have thus far proven unstable.
Israel’s efforts to frustrate Iran’s plan to establish a military stronghold in Syria also depends largely on Russian approval. It seems that Israel has persuaded Moscow to recognize the logic of its military measures against Iran in Syria. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Russia is engaged in superpower competition with Israel’s sole ally – the US, or that Syria has established an axis of partners hostile to Israel (Assad, Iran, Hezbollah). The deployment of Russian-made S-4000 anti-aircraft missiles in Syria, and Moscow’s warnings to Israel not to attack the Syrian army, indicates that Israel must continue to exercise caution in protecting its interests while avoiding friction with Moscow.
Turkey as a regional power
Erdoğan aspires to establish Turkey as a regional power and ideological leader in the Islamic world. This can be seen in Ankara’s aggressive involvement in conflict hotspots across the Middle East, and its complete abandonment of the “zero problems” foreign policy Erdoğan so proudly espoused when he first came to power. Erdoğan does not hesitate to deploy his army, which has demonstrated the capacity to operate simultaneously on multiple fronts. He invaded Syria (September 8, 2019) to strike Kurdish forces Ankara claims are terrorist organizations, and his army has attacked, by air and land, “Kurdish terrorist targets” in northern Iraq (June 2020). The Turkish army engaged with Assad’s forces as they attempted to eradicate the (Turkish-supported) rebel pockets in Idlib. At the same time, Erdoğan has been playing the refugee card with Europe, threatening to inundate the continent with asylum seekers if his demands are not met. These demands include financial assistance, and the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria where he could send two million Syrian refugees who have fled to his country.
Erdoğan’s continued support for the Muslim Brotherhood is exacerbating conflicts with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. He has insisted on drilling for oil off the northern coast of Cyprus (occupied territory per international law) over European Union objections. He has sent forces to Libya to fight alongside the “Government of National Accord,” and has signed a Maritime Boundary Treaty with it (November 27, 2019) delineating an exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean, without considering the interests or rights of Greece, Egypt, or Cyprus, which loudly protested the development. Turkish military involvement halted the advancement of the “Libyan National Army,” commanded by Khalifa Haftar. Egypt views this Turkish involvement, and the victory of the Government of National Accord (which supports the Muslim Brotherhood), as a threat to its security, and has warned that it will send its own forces to Libya. Thus, the tension between Cairo and Ankara is worsening, and could potentially escalate into open military conflict.
The Turkish army has also flexed its muscles in the Mediterranean Sea via naval and air force exercises, with the aim of enhancing Turkey’s regional status. Ankara’s goal is to secure a share of the regional oil and gas reserves, to redress its exclusion from the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (Greece, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus), and to prevent the laying of gas supply pipelines to Europe that would bypass Turkey and run counter to Turkish interests (as with the EastMed project recently approved by the Israeli government).
Nor has Erdoğan avoided confrontation in the global arena. Turkish-American relations have had ups and downs. Ankara is maneuvering between the West and Russia, and is threatening to leave NATO. The purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, which is antithetical to the logic of Turkey’s NATO membership, has drawn anger from Washington (but gives Ankara an advantage in possible future confrontations in the Mediterranean). Turkey is efficiently manufacturing and operating UAVs, and this year it will complete the production of a light aircraft carrier. Erdoğan is also claiming that his country has the right to develop nuclear weapons, just like other nations.2
Erdoğan boasts that, within three years, his country will be “unstoppable” in the region. The Hagia Sophia’s transformation from a museum into a mosque (July 10, 2020) is more proof of his Islamist pretensions and neo-Ottoman ambitions. Relatedly, Erdoğan has announced his commitment to liberating the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The activity of Turkish aid organizations in East Jerusalem has raised ire in Israel, a regular target of hostile rhetoric on the part of Erdoğan and his associates. In December 2019 there were reports of an incident in which the Turkish navy ordered an Israeli research vessel to leave Cypriot waters, claiming that the area was within Turkey’s exclusive economic zone.
Turkey’s involvement in the eastern Mediterranean, and its aid to Hamas, create potential for increased friction with Israel, which needs to carefully monitor the development of Ankara’s appetite for regional dominance.
Converging interests – opportunities
Israel’s power and advanced capabilities, the Iranian threat, Islamic terrorism, and the challenge of exploiting and protecting the eastern Mediterranean gas reserves, have led to a convergence of interests between Israel and the major Sunni states, and to growing security cooperation between them. The most significant manifestation of this was Israel’s historic agreement with the United Arab Emirates for normalization of relations in exchange for suspending Israel’s plans to annex territories in Judea and Samaria. As more Arab states follow the path paved by the Emirates, the strategic and historical significance of the agreement will intensify. Indeed, there is a concerted effort underway to utilize the political momentum created by the normalization agreement to include more Arab countries in the reconciliation process with Israel. (The effort is currently focused on Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, and Sudan.)