Middle East view: Through a glass darkly

HAIFA, Israel–There is, perhaps, no more thankless task in our times than trying to make sense of what’s going on in the MENA region of the world (Middle East North Africa). Since the onset of the so-called “Arab Spring” in April of 2011, most of what had seemed understandable in the area was turned upside-down.

Some would argue that what had been considered the norm was actually overturned earlier, with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, or even earlier, with the 9/11 attacks. But those events were seen at the time as one-off, and not as the start of what has been termed “World War III,” the war against radical Islam. (I would argue that it is actually World War IV, WWIII having been the Cold War.)

Things fall apart …

But the entropic disintegration of the region since April of 2011 far surpasses the admittedly negative effects of the earlier events (including the invasion of Afghanistan). MENA is now sprinkled with failed states, which have literally fallen apart: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya. The recent failed coup in Turkey may be an indication of what’s in store for that former Middle-Eastern powerhouse. Iran and Russia have rushed in to fill the power vacuum, while Europe and the US dither and dally.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans and wave Turkish national flags during a pro-government demonstration on Taksim square in Istanbul, Turkey, July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans and wave Turkish national flags during a pro-government demonstration on Taksim square in Istanbul, Turkey, July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Terrorist and separatist organizations are challenging the traditional order and the nation-states established after World War I by the victorious powers. Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Kurds of Iraq and Syria are actively undermining the region and controlling large swaths of territory. National armies are often only one of many competing armed forces.

In two cases, Algeria and Egypt, traditional secular military dictatorships have maintained power, in Egypt after a flirtation with a government led by the granddaddy of Middle Eastern extremist organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim monarchies have also maintained their power in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States (Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman), often with difficulty, and in the case of Bahrain, only through Saudi military intervention.

Only Tunisia, of all the Muslim countries of the region, has evolved into something approaching a western-style democracy. But of course, there is always the other, much longer-standing regional democracy — Israel. Despite its diminutive size (smaller than Tunisia) and population, Israel is a scientific, technological, economic and military powerhouse. With the meltdown of the Turkish armed forces, Israel has only one military rival in the entire region—Iran, which is also the only country that is approaching nuclear weapon status, which Israel has had for many years.

The Sunni-Sh’ia divide

Which brings us to our fearless analysis and prognosis. Among other elements of entropy, the Middle East is riven by the resurgence of the millennial rivalry between the two great branches of Islam: Sunni and Sh’ia.

twoeyesThis is not a minor rift—the two great Islamic sects consider each other heretical and therefore subject to extermination. The Sh’ia world is headed by Iran; the Sunni world by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are many more Sunni than Sh’ia. But Iran as a military power outweighs Egypt and Saudi Arabia put together. It is also much more successful in operating through proxies in the region, such as the Iraqi government, the Alawite regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Because of these on-the-ground facts, in recent months there have been the beginnings of a brand-new, unlikely alliance between Jordan/Saudi Arabia/Egypt/Gulf States on the one hand and Israel on the other.

The Sunni powers need Israel, now more than ever, since Turkey has taken itself out of the power equation. Defense, security and intelligence cooperation is extensive, although taking place under the radar. More and more, however, diplomatic, political and economic cooperation is coming to the fore and often in an open fashion. The trend is unmistakable and make a great deal of sense on both sides. But it has two significant weaknesses that could render the realignment of forces of no value of importance.

One is that it is to a large extent dependent on individual leaders—particularly President al-Sisi of Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan and King Salman of Saudi Arabia (and in the latter case specifically his son, deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman). In a region as unstable as the Middle East, none of those leaders can be considered invulnerable, and losing al-Sisi or Abdullah particularly would have a highly negative effect on the budding alliance. The case of Salman is different, in that if anything should happen to him he would be seamlessly succeeded by his designated successor.

The other factor of potential weakness is that in order to seal the alliance, the Sunni powers need to be able to claim that the running sore of the Levant, the Palestinian issue, has been resolved and that as a result they can formally and openly recognize their alliance with Israel. And it is here that events are rapidly developing and should become clear in relatively short order.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel (unseen) at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel (unseen) at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Abbas’ expiry date?

The Abbas regime in the West Bank is approaching its end. Abbas himself, in the eleventh year of a four-year term of office, has lost all internal and external legitimacy that he may have once had.

He has no support in the region, although the Europeans and Americans insist on pretending that he is a respectable leader of the Palestinian Authority. He will shortly be presented with a Saudi/Egyptian/Gulf/Israeli plan to resolve the West Bank impasse. If he accepts he can stay a while longer. If he refuses he will simply be replaced, most likely by Mohammed Dahlan, former West Bank security chief, who has been living in exile in the UAE for some years. Dahlan, a Gazan by birth, is seen as a strong leader who will cooperate with the Israelis and the Sunni powers.

In the case of Gaza, the Hamas government will not be part of the arrangement and will be confronted with a separate ultimatum, particularly on the part of the Egyptians — change your internal and external policies, abandon your alliance with Iran, and break your ties with Islamic Jihad and Islamic State or you will be overthrown through an Egyptian military intervention with the support of the Israelis.

At this point, the main roadblock to these plans is the Obama administration, which retains an incomprehensible attachment to Abbas. But neither the Sunni powers nor Israel is likely to let that opposition derail their strategic plan. And if it goes ahead and the Sunni leaders retain their positions, the Middle East will be transformed.  Iran will be stymied, the terrorist organizations will be greatly weakened and the Sunni powers, allied with Israel, will establish a regional dominance that hopefully will last.

Dr. Norman A. Bailey is a political economist, specializing in national security affairs.  His career has included academia, business, finance, consulting and government. He was on the staff of the National Security Council at the White House during the Reagan Administration and on the staff of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during the George W. Bush Administration.  He is the author, co-author or editor of six books and hundreds of articles.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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