A new war in the Middle East?

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The extremely complicated situation in the Mideast in the last decades has consolidated patterns of evolution that have accustomed experts to rapidly find their bearings during new developments that occur on such an unpredictable stage. During the Cold War, for instance, when Syria was playing a preponderant role in Lebanon’s domestic politics, it was normal to imagine that in any deterioration of relations between Lebanon and Israel one would immediately detect a certain Syrian political-military agenda. Numerous events were interpreted over the years based on this model of analysis, otherwise extremely fragile but one which in the extremely complicated situation in the Mideast offered a certain premise of logical orientation.

That this model turned out – not seldom – to be presumptuous and did not offer the veritable key to understanding the situation, that is also true, but here we are talking about the extraordinary complexity of globally-determined geopolitical developments, and about the internal developments of local actors and, consequently, about the connection between these two factors that are so unpredictable. In this case, for instance, with the appropriate reservations, anytime Israel is threatened by war one must answer the following questions: 1. Who wants to put in balance Israel’s independence and sovereignty, its right to independent existence within the international system of states? 2. Why and who is the one who wants to unleash a war against Israel now? What must be done for such a possibility to be avoided and for international security to be preserved?

On Saturday, 10 February 2018, military clashes took place in Israel and Syria, foreshadowing this danger of imminent war against Israel. On Israel’s northern border with both Lebanon and Syria, the situation has become extremely hot. A drone, programmed and controlled by Iran from one of its military sites in Syria, was destroyed by the Israeli defence. In response, the Israeli Air Force bombed the sites that were at the origin of this military development. An Israeli fighter jet was hit by the Syrian air defence (the Bashar Assad regime in Damascus) and the pilots were recovered by Israel. In the opinion of competent sources, we are facing the most serious act of war that has occurred between Israel and Iran and the latter’s allied regime in Syria.

The following observations must be made. During the Syrian civil war, which erupted in 2011 and in which numerous external actors intervened, aside from the combatant members of the fragmented domestic camps – including terrorist networks such as Al Qaida and the Islamic Caliphate (IS) –, Israel reserved its legitimate right to carry out military strikes on any arms transports from Iran to Lebanon via the Syrian territory, a legitimate right required by its strategic situation on its northern border, where in the past it had to wage veritable wars against the Lebanon-based Hezbollah (2006), which denies the Israeli state’s right to statehood. This right was exercised every time it was necessary in recent years, including since Russia got involved in the Syrian civil war (September 2015), and it was tacitly accepted.

Hence, let us address the above one by one to see where we stand today. We know for whom Israel’s independent existence is nonsensical for their own future designs, and this reality unleashed all the wars that Israel has waged since its modern establishment (1948). We are not talking solely about the Arab world, even though history energetically encourages such a working hypothesis. It’s just that, since 1948, when Israel proclaimed its independence, this Arab world, whether it was under the leadership of Nasser, President of Egypt (the 1950s and 1960s), or of its successor Anwar Saddat (1970s and 1980s with the ingredients of the asymmetric war of the post-Camp David peace era), all the wars waged in the Mideast sought the destruction of Israel. Why? This is much more complicated to answer, but we do not hesitate to point to a direction of political though in this field: removing the West’s presence in this volatile region of the planet.

The current situation in the Middle East is much more complicated. The yet to be decided result of the civil war in Syria and the evolution of the peace process – “moved” from Geneva to Astana and then to Sochi, with different sponsors (Russia, Iran, Turkey) – is growing even more complicated because of Turkey’s military intervention in Syria, which seeks to eliminate the danger of a Kurdish autonomy taking shape. It is a context in which U.S. President D. Trump announced the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem – equivalent to recognising this ancient city as the capital of Israel –, but also the fact that the White House deems that the nuclear agreement with Iran (2015), which stopped Iran’s accession to the club of nuclear states, must be revised. Also under the chapter of new developments, one must mention the fact hat an alliance between Israel and the Arab states (Saudi Arabia in particular) is developing in order to block Iran’s access to regional hegemony. Yet another issue is taking shape: the European Union, a major systemic actor, has a near abroad in the Mideast, which compels it to adopt a cautious policy (not just because of the issue of clandestine immigration, whose threatening dimension was clearly shown in 2015), and a potential war in the region would significantly worsen its own security, as well as the foreign policy consensus of its member states. The caution shown so far by the EU clearly outlines that a war in the Mideast region is one of the events endowed with great destabilising potential, from the refugees’ dossier to internal cohesion and traditional alliances. How will the relations between the EU and U.S. evolve in case of a war between Israel and Iran?

The military incidents that took place on Saturday, 10 February 2018, at the border of Israel and in Syria, show that Jerusalem will not accept Iran’s military presence in Syria becoming impressive and hence a threat that it would have to answer appropriately, just as the strengthening of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an organisation allied with Tehran, would raise the same problem. The same goes in case of similar behaviour on the part of the regime in Damascus. An Israeli armed forces’ spokesperson stated on Saturday that: “Syria and Iran are ‘playing with fire’ and will pay a heavy price. The Prime Minister Office has instructed cabinet ministers not to speak publicly about the events on the northern border.” Regarding the way in which Washington sees the current developments, an official document specifies the fact that Israel has the legitimate right to defend its national independence and sovereignty. On Sunday, an Israeli newspaper (‘Israel Hayom’) published an interview that President Donald Trump gave to its editor-in-chief “before the latest escalation in Israel’s North.” The Israeli journalist’s assessment in what concerns the White House’s position is the following: “it was painfully clear that Syria and Iran are testing the U.S., checking how far they can push the Americans (including reports of chemical attacks and hospital bombings in recent days).When I asked Trump if Israel is free to operate in Syria and in Lebanon against Iranian targets, he adopted an air of uncharacteristic ambiguity. But the message was clear – when it comes to Iran, it is best to let actions do the talking. The U.S. is keeping its cards close to the chest.” http://www.israelhayom.com/2018/02/11/trump-to-israel-hayom-palestinians-are-not-looking-to-make-peace/. In this interview, D. Trump also assessed that the inexistence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a negative aspect of such a complex regional picture.

The Middle East is now at high risk of regional war. The situation on Israel’s northern border, where it borders Lebanon and Syria, is today the “hottest” border zone on the globe. Avoiding a war with consequences that are difficult to calculate must become a systemic priority.