Israel’s National Security: What’s an issue?
Since its foundation, Israel has based its defense calculations on two concepts: existential security and current security. Existential security concerns the preservation of the very fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise — the preservation of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. Current security is about maintaining the personal safety and well being of Israelis on a day-to-day basis.
For several decades, Israel has had the good fortune of not having to engage in all-out war with any of its neighbouring states. The country even signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. For decades, however, Israelis have been exposed to a wide range of terrorist assaults: aircraft hijackings, kidnappings, suicide bombings, car rammings, knifings as well as constant rocket attacks. Israelis are, understandably, obsessed with current security — so much that in recent public discourse issues of existential security are being almost completely overshadowed.
At times, Israel’s current security needs are in conflict with the country’s requirements for its long-term existential security. Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is justifiably seen as an asset in maintaining Israel’s current security. However, this very same occupation erodes Israel’s existential security by undermining its Jewish and democratic character as well as its international legitimacy, and thus has an undeniably negative effect on Israel’s long-term survival.
This is exactly what the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon wanted to avoid. His decision to disengage from Gaza was driven not by rockets but by long-term existential security considerations. Sharon’s goal was to preserve Israel’s Jewish character by ridding itself of any remnants of Jewish settlement and the concomitant direct control over more than a million and a half (now closer to two and a half million) Palestinians in Gaza.
The Israeli military plays a vital role in dealing with current security, which is often intertwined with existential security. They are not mutually exclusive because the ideologies of the terrorist organizations, which Israel deems as a threat to its current security, seek the destruction of the State of Israel, which is a threat to its existential security. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) feels that deterrence is the best strategy to discourage states (such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.) and sub-state actors (such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic State [Da’esh], Jabhat Fatah al-Sham [al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra], etc.) from attacking its country. The IDF will not change its deterrence strategy for state and sub-state actors. This is because both actors occupy land and/or have constituencies; thus, they have something to lose.
Israel has three ‘red lines’ of deterrence that are the deciding factors in whether the IDF will respond militarily: (1) transfer of conventional weapons, (2) transfer of chemical weapons, and (3) any projectile(s) landing on its territory. Israel will respond almost immediately with a strike, usually at the source of the weapons exchange or the point of origin of the projectile. It will strike regardless of where or when the incident occurs, all the while coordinating with its partners that might be affected by its actions. This ex-plains Israel’s rationale for military airstrikes against Iranian, Hezbollah, Syrian, and (Salafi) rebel targets in Syria throughout the Civil War.
A Regional Rumble in Syria: Israel’s Concerns over Iranian presence in Syria
Israel sees Iran as both an existential and current security threat. Iran’s rhetoric of wanting to destroy Israel and, according to Israel, attempting to acquire nuclear weapons makes this a cause for grave concern. Moreover, since 1979, Iran has sought to export its Islamic revolution and, over the decades, it has funded many Shi‘a militias—some of which have emerged in the Syrian Civil War—including Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a Lebanese Shi‘a political party-cum-militia with a strong military presence in Lebanon and now in Syria—a threatening presence on Israel’s northern border. The reason Israel also deems Hezbollah an existential and current threat is because of Hezbollah’s militant aspirations and its stated goal of eliminating the State of Israel.
The question now remains whether Israel will completely engage in the Syrian Civil War due to the recent incidents in southern Syria. Other than engaging in a complete military conflict in Syria, Israel will continue to monitor the developments in Syria, and do whatever is necessary to ensure that its security concerns are addressed. Currently, Israel is disturbed by recent developments, as there is now an Iranian militarily presence directly in southern Syria. The IDF will continue to implement its red line policy. Escalation will only occur if Israel feels provoked by its enemies in the south of (or other parts of) Syria. The higher the provocation, the stronger the response will be. This is why Israel has reacted to developments in the south of Syria by striking military targets, all the while communicating with its Russian partners.
From Israel’s Binoculars: A View of Damascus
While Israel came very close to concluding a peace agreement with Syria in 1949 under President Husni al-Zaim, the two countries (since the 1949 Armistice Agreement) have had no diplomatic ties and are officially in a state of war. They have fought three wars (1948, 1967, and 1973) and were involved briefly during the second Lebanese Civil War when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Prior to 1967, there were hostilities between the two countries in the demilitarized zones (DMZs) as well as continuous shelling and infiltration into the Golan Heights by the Syrians. Since 1967 the two major points of contention are Israel’s demand that Syria recognizes the State of Israel and Syria’s demand that Israel returns the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered at the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This is the essence of what is commonly known as “land for peace” for any future agreements between the two countries.
According to Israel, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been confrontational to-wards Israel by aiding and abetting Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as being the conduit by which Iranian weapons are transferred to Hezbollah and other Shi‘a militias. Both Iran and Hezbollah, in Israel’s view, are respectively state and sub-state actors that are a threat to its national security. For the same reason, Israel also views Syria as a national security threat. The Israeli establishment was clearly expecting the al-Assad government to fall to the Sunni jihadist rebels, who were supported by Saudi Arabia, prior to Russia’s limited intervention in September 2015. If the ongoing peace negotiations in Sochi and Geneva are successful, it is almost certain that President al-Assad will remain in power or whatever the warring parties in Syria agree upon. Nevertheless, Israel is concerned about a strengthened al-Assad government remaining in power. That would be the best explanation for why it was recently revealed that Israel is arming some Sunni jihadist rebels. Israel is willing to ally itself with Salafist rebels in order to prevent the “Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis” from proclaiming victory in the Syrian Civil War. Whether this proves to be a wise decision for Israel, remains to be seen.
Russia’s Syrian Foreign Policy: The Israeli’s Vantage Point
Russia intervened in Syria in 2015 at the request of Syrian President al-Assad. Russia has no particular affinity for al-Assad; rather it sees him as the only alternative to an Islamic fundamentalist state. Russia’s main objective is that the Middle East remains stable while Syria was heading towards anything but stability. There are two reasons why Russia entered the Syrian fray.
First, while the Caucasus region is not entirely in Russia proper, it is on its border and presents a “zone of vulnerability.” Given the recent history of US-sponsored “regime changes” in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus, Russia is on high alert. This is because many Muslim citizens of the Caucasus countries were joining extremist organizations to fill the power vacuums created by US “regime change” policy. This is the main reason why Russia came to the aid of al-Assad’s government in September 2015 in the Syrian Civil War. It did not want to see a chaotic “Libya outcome” in Syria or see Da’esh or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Damascus.
The second reason is that Russia has a large Muslim population (estimated at 12-15 percent or 16 million to 20 million ethnic Muslims) that it also fears might become radicalized. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia deems Islamic radicalization as one of the most serious challenges to its national integrity and stability. A destabilized region will pose grave problems within Russia’s borders. Thus, it has created a strong partnership with Israel to coordinate these stabilizing efforts.
Russia and Israel share a common concern towards international terrorism spreading throughout the region. When Russia entered the Syrian Civil War, the Israeli government immediately contacted their Russian counterparts. It appreciated the concern Russia had towards the jihadist terrorist threat in Syria, but the intervention led to an equally alarm-ing concern for Israel. That is, Israel worried that this would increase Iran’s influence in Syria. This should not be interpreted as a cooling in Russo-Israeli relations. There has al-ways been dialogue between the two governments on all-levels. Given Russia’s intervention in Syria, both countries’ military and intelligence apparatuses are in contact in the Syrian arena to avoid unfortunate outcomes. Moreover, Israel relies on Russia to be the intermediary to resolve border issues. We saw this recently in Lebanon and Syria given Russia’s ever-expanding presence and many contacts in the region. However, the con-cerns in Israel regarding Iran in southern Syria still remain. For instance, Israel has made it clear that it is concerned with the recent agreement between the US and Russia for a “zone of de-escalation” in southern Syria. In the view of the Israeli establishment, this prevents Israel from reacting to security concerns in the area—namely, military activities by the “Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis.” Nevertheless, given the US absence, Israel under-stands that it must balance between protecting its security and awareness that its activities could, as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned, lead to “a new round of dangerous consequences for the region.” In other words, Israel now understands that it cannot take a militant line in the Syrian arena.
From the Israeli Lens: America’s Policy in Syria
Israel was never entirely sure what to expect from the Americans throughout the Syrian Civil War. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both balked at intervening in the Syrian arena. However, like President Obama, President Trump does not have a com-plete grip on his administration and it is difficult to tell what the US foreign policy is in Syria.
Under President Obama, the CIA covertly armed opposition forces, many of which were jihadis (some even linked to al-Qaeda). To his credit, President Obama hesitated to enter the Syrian Civil War, knowing the dire implications of intervention. Unfortunately, his biggest flaw was that he was not in full control of his administration. As a result, powerful forces within the military, foreign affairs and intelligence communities decided to act independently of the President. For instance, President Obama and President Putin agreed to cooperate in Syria to destroy Da’esh and other terrorist organizations after a weeklong ceasefire (organized through their foreign ministries). However, only 48 hours prior to the implementation of full US-Russian cooperation in Syria, the Pentagon sabotaged the efforts made by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
While President Trump had ended the CIA program to covertly give weapons to ji-hadi forces, he too had his fair share of mistakes in the Syrian arena. While mentioning on numerous occasions during the 2016 US presidential election campaign that he wanted to cooperate with Russia in Syria, President Trump has been unable to fully implement his campaign promise due to anti-Russian sentiments in the American political class. As a result, due to his inexperience, he has had to deal with the same conundrum as President Obama. For instance, relying on very weak intelligence that Syrian President al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, President Trump authorized a launch of 59 tomahawk missiles on the Syrian Army’s outposts—raising tensions in Syria of a possible ‘hot war’ between the United States and Russia as well as forcing Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev to proclaim that US-Russian relations were “destroyed”. While the situation has settled down, the US retains a military presence in Syria, making it unclear what their foreign policy is for Syria. Is the US policy to destroy terror-ism in Syria (as President Obama professed at the UN Security Council and President Trump promised during his campaign) or is it, as it was at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, to remove al-Assad from power? Unfortunately, due to infighting in the US foreign policy establishment over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, President Trump does not have a free hand in dictating foreign policy and this includes the Syrian arena. As a result, there is no clear answer.
The Israeli establishment views the ongoing conflict in US politics, as an internal mat-ter but was hopeful that the al-Assad regime would fall. Given that events seem to suggest that al-Assad will remain in power, Israel is acting according to its security concerns. Regardless of what happens (or who is in power) in Syria, Israel will observe its red lines accordingly with caution (given that Russia is the “new sheriff in town”). However, the internal US political struggle has convinced the Israeli establishment that the Americans are retreating from the Middle East. There has been no significant US military presence in the region for over a decade and the US has been coming less and less to Israel’s defense on the political scene. This has made it increasingly hard for the Israelis to rely on and seek political assistance from their American partners. Having said that, the Israeli establishment still considers the US its number-one ally. While some might consider US bipartisan support for Israel to be on the wane, the two countries share decades of deep ties in the political, economic, cultural, military, and intelligence spheres. In other words, they share the same values and it is highly unlikely that the Israelis and Americans will completely relinquish this relationship for the foreseeable future.
Russo-Israeli Relations: Détente or Full-Partnership?
To conclude, the question must be asked: can Israel and Russia find common ground? That answer is yes. Israel’s two major national security concerns converge with Russia’s. While the current Israeli government sees no interest in seriously negotiating for a two-state solution, Russia, like the Israeli Left, understands that a two-state solution is the most viable and practical answer to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would address Israel’s existential national security concern and, by extension, significant-ly reduce its current security concern. If both parties (Israeli and Palestinian) are serious about negotiating, Moscow is more than willing to be that broker to resolve this matter—as we saw in 2016. In the Syrian arena, both the Russians and Israelis share the belief that the threat of international terrorism is not only a threat to the region but to the international community as a whole. Where the two countries’ national security concerns do not converge is on Iran, specifically the “Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis.” Nonetheless, here too we see cooperation. The two countries have found a way to communicate when their countries’ security concerns are at odds. Even so, they continue to cooperate on a military and intelligence level in the Syrian arena. There are big changes afoot in the global arena. Unlike the Cold War era, the United States is retreating from the region. Israel will have to rely more and more on Russia to resolve security issues. The ball is in the Israelis’ court to make that decision. Russia shows that it is willing to be Israel’s primary partner in the region; Israel must do the same.
First published in our partner RIAC
Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’
On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.
Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.
As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.
The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year, to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.
In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.
Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.
In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.
In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.
The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.
The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.
Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.
In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.
The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.
The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.
Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.
Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.
It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.
Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.
In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.
It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.
According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.
The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.
Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.
According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.
Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War
War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.
The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.
Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?
War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.
While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.
Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.
The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.
Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.
Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.
Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate
A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.
Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.
The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.
The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.
The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.
The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.
To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.
China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.
Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.
To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.
A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.
It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.
On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.
They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.
Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.
“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.
The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.
They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.
“Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.
Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.
“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.
“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.
Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.
“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.
Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.
The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.
“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.
The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.
By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.
There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.
That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.
Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.
The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.
The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.
Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.
Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.
“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.
An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.
Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.
The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.
Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.
China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.
China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”
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