Murky friendships in the Middle East

Middle East

The era of superpower confrontation hardly elicits nostalgia. The Cold War did, however, possess one redeeming quality: clarity. It was relatively easy to identify friends and the alliances that cemented them. This was clearly the case in the Middle East: Syria, Iraq, Egypt under Nasser and Algeria were clearly on the Soviet side, with Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Morocco on the other side of the divide. In today’s Middle East clarity has given way to murkiness. Consider the numerous summits between Russian President Vladimir Putin, the cloaked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan brokering the truces in Syria. There are plenty of smiles going around and photos of handshakes.
There’s also substance behind the relationships between these three actors. Turkey, after all, has bought the Russian S-400 air-defense system in defiance of Washington. Trump, long regarded as a friend of Erdogan, has retaliated with scuttling the sale of F-35s to Turkey. The simple reason is that Washington cannot possibly sell planes designed to avoid systems like the S-400 to a country that might allow the Russians to improve Russia’s air-defense system performance based on knowledge of the F-35 that Turkey might gain once its air force flies them. Russia presumably also enjoys a warm relationship with Iran, at least on the nuclear front. It warmly embraced the nuclear agreement of 2015 and staunchly and consistently denounced economic sanctions against Iran both in 2012, when they were originally imposed, and then the second time in 2017. The same can be said of Turkish-Iranian relations. Turkey is often blamed for being a commercial and financial conduit for Iran in reducing the bite of US-led sanctions, and Istanbul Airport is by and away Iran’s major gateway to Europe. But then look at the relationship between these three major actors in the Middle East in the wars on the ground. In Syria, Turkey is basically waging a proxy war against Syria and its staunch Russian ally. Russian sorties are in the forefront in the campaign against the last Sunni rebel stronghold in Idlib, most of which are armed and financed by the Turks. Nor is there anything new about the proxy war. It began with the massive Russian Air Force involvement in September 2015 in Syria against the same rebels backed by Turkey on the eastern and southern outskirts of Damascus – an intervention that many military experts believed saved the Syrian regime from tottering altogether. The Turkish-Russian proxy war in Libya is more recent. Russia is backing Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli on behalf of the Tobruk government in the east against the United Nations’ sanctioned government in Tripoli in western Libya, which – according to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who support Haftar – is basically dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey, along with Qatar, are backing the government in Tripoli, so much so that Erdogan asked and received permission from his parliament to send Turkish troops to stop Haftar’s advance. There is even a strong technical side to the conflict between Russia and Turkey in Libya. The Russians provided Haftar with bomb-laden drones, of critical importance to Haftar’s forces as they increasingly penetrate the densely and built-up areas of Tripoli. Drones can help identify and kill the pro-government forces. The Turks responded by providing Turkish-manufactured drones to the government in Tripoli. NO SUCH proxy war occurs on Syrian soil between Iran and Russia. In fact, during the height of the civil war, considerable coordination existed between the two sides. Russia “brokered” a truce between the rebels around Damascus that allowed them to withdraw to Idlib, which the Russians three years later are now helping Syria, Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias finish off. That rebel withdrawal (including their families) required safe passage through areas controlled by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. The withdrawal by bus, accompanied by Russian military police, was carried out without a glitch. But cooperation between Iran and Russia has given way to considerable bitterness, as Russia has effectively given a green light to Israel to destroy Iran’s military and industrial build-up in Syria in an attempt to place Israel under a siege of precision-guided missiles in Lebanon and Syria. Israel has publicized that more than 200 attacks took place in Syria against Iran and its proxies in 2018 alone. True, the major aim is to hit the infrastructure rather than kill Iranian personnel, but the latter often happens nevertheless. This divergence in behavior is of course a reflection of divergent viewpoints over what Syria should be. Russia wants to see a strong Syrian state – basically the restoring of Syria to the state of affairs that prevailed before the civil war, so that Syria can provide both a military and naval base for Russia in the Mediterranean. Iran, by contrast, wants to turn the Syrian state into a “Lebanon,” where, like Hezbollah in the land of the cedars, the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias are strong and the state is weak. As for Turkish-Iranian relations, the third side in the triangular relationship, one has only to read the invective in the pro-Iranian media outlets of al-Manar, the official Hezbollah media site, and al-Mayadin. Turkey is vilified in terms similar to those invoked against Israel for supporting Sunni fundamentalists who kill Hezbollah fighters on Syrian territory. Turkey also controls swaths of Iraqi territory inhabited by Sunnis, presumably to protect them from the wrath of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.  Murky relations between allies regarding the Middle East is hardly contained to the Russian-Turkish-Iranian triad. The United States-European alliance, certainly one of the most powerful and resilient since WWII, has always been characterized by tensions regarding the Middle East, certainly over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under Trump, these tensions have reached new heights with the decision by Great Britain, Germany and France to create a financial system between the Iranian Islamic Republic and European countries to avoid the bite of US sanctions.  Nor does the warming of relations between Israel and the Sunni Arab states prevent them from taking the lead in decisions denouncing Israel’s purported misdeeds against the Palestinians or condemning states which show any desire to open any kind of representative office in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. But at least there are no proxy wars between them. However murky and sometimes violent the relationship between “allies” on both sides of the divide, the lessons are clearly disadvantageous for Iran and promising for Israel. For Iran, it means that it will be on its own in facing the consequences of any move against the United States. For Israel, the divisions between Iran and its “allies” offer opportunities to exploit these tensions to keep Israel safe in a dangerous neighborhood, provided its leaders realize that in all this absence of peace, Israel is the least likely candidate to be its recipient. The writer is a professor in the Political Studies and Middle Eastern Studies departments of Bar-Ilan University.

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