A "Hot" Summer Across the Middle East

By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | August 20-28, 2019

Middle East players

Contrary to the "silly season" metaphor, the passing summer in the Middle East featured considerable developments and strategic shifts – ranging from the Persian Gulf through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, on to Sudan.


In the Arab Peninsula, the foreign policy shift of the Emirates was most notable – deterred by the Iranian threat and mistrusting the American security umbrella. The three notable aspects of the shift in Abu Dhabi's policy are: (a) gradually withdraw its military involvement in Yemen – as the UAE-supported militias seized Aden from the government forces supported by Saudi Arabia; (b) reluctance to blame Iran for attacking its tankers at Fujairah; and (c) concluding a MoU with Iran on maritime navigation in the Persian Gulf, while at the same time, the U.S. is busy forming an international coalition to defend freedom of navigation in the Straits in response to Iran's threats.


In Yemen, UAE's actions are a win for Iran and the Houthis – the splitting up of the forces they challenge could well result in territorial gains. At the regional level, this has demonstrated again the gaps within the Sunni Arab camp that is already divided regarding the conflict with Qatar and differences between Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt. Contrarily, the radical camp led by Iran appears to be more homogenic and united.


The intimidating and growing shadow that Iran casts led to another significant development – the U.S. decision to deploy military forces to Saudi Arabia for the first time since 2003. Even though the force size is limited (500 troops), the deployment bears significant symbolic implications. The deployment sends a clear message that the U.S. is determined to support Saudi Arabia in face of the Iranian threat. The military presence in Saudi Arabia sets the scene for a potential American involvement in active combat in Yemen – by intercepting missiles launched by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, opposing the standing Iranian demand that the U.S. should withdraw its forces from the region, the deployment shows that Iran's aggressiveness in the Gulf produces the opposite effect. Finally, some contend that the return of American troops to Saudi Arabia could become life-saving wheel for al-Qaeda to mobilize and recruit new jihadists.


The operational aspects of the struggle against Iran expanded over the past month to Iraq as several attacks targeted bases of the Shiite militias bringing back Iran and Israel to the collision course. The U.S. administration, led by the Pentagon, leaked to U.S. media that Israel had carried out some of those attacks. This clearly reflected discontent with Israel's policy particularly after Iraqi sources blamed the U.S. Air Force for facilitating the attacks. The American messages, including on-record statements of the Pentagon's spokesperson, reaffirmed Iraq's right to defend its sovereignty; warn Israel that it is "pushing the limits" too far, risking American forces in Iraq, and could ultimately lead to an Iraqi demand to withdraw U.S. forces and harm Washington-Baghdad relations.


Several regional sources have pointed to a strategic shift in Israel's policies in the region. Lebanese media, for instance, claimed that Israeli attacks in Iraq have changed the rules of game and have expanded the clashing zones between Israel, Iran and Hezbollah to Iraq following the pattern of Israeli operations in Syria.


Israel's continuing alleged operations in Syria and what appears as the opening of new front against Iran in Iraq are what prompted Iran's Quds forces to launch a drone attack against Israel from Syria. Israel thwarted the Iranian plans and killed two Hezbollah operatives. Simultaneously, UAVs launched an attack in the heart of Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut (Dahieh suburb) targeting the organization's missile project. In response, Nasrallah vowed to retaliate against Israel and deny it from operating in Lebanon as it does in Iraq.


Meanwhile in Syria, the clash of interests between Turkey and the U.S. and Russia became all apparent. In Syria's northeast, under a Turkish threat to invade the region buttressed by amassing tens of thousands of troops along the border, the U.S. agreed to establish a joint operations center and to speed up the creation of a safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. Originally, the U.S. agreed to a 15km zone within Syrian territory (between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border), while Turkey demanded a buffer zone double in size under its exclusive control. The details of the agreement have not been disclosed, but the U.S.-supported Kurdish forces are supposed to withdraw from the area and remove the infrastructure they set up (that process has commenced already).


In northwest Syria, Turkey opposes the military onslaught of the Syrian regime in the Idlib district. Syrian regime forces have seized Khan Sheikhoun from the opposition forces supported by Turkey. A Turkish military convoy that attempted to enter the area was attacked by the regime's Air Force supported by Russia – an incident that created deep tension between Ankara and Moscow.


Finally, in Sudan the military and civilian leaders reached an agreement on the transition phase. A transitional council and government will lead the country till elections that will take place in the three years' time. The civilian leaders made most of the compromises as the military led by Generals al-Burhan and Hamdan Dagalo will hold overall control of the nation in the next 21 months.


What are the implications for Israel? In the mid-term, the likelihood of military escalation along its northern border – vis a vis Lebanon and Syria – has risen requiring Israeli military readiness and alertness for the foreseeable time. Simultaneously, Israel will have to manage the tensions along its southern border with Gaza, which are challenging Israel's preference to avoid escalation as it heads for elections in mid-September.


Against the backdrop of developments in Iraq and Washington's reactions, Israel must reexamine its course of action and develop a comprehensive strategy vis-à-vis Iraq – as a state. Such a strategy must rest on an accurate assessment of Iraq's central government relations with the Shiite militias and the extent to which the government effectively controls the militias. The strategy should include a broad range of factors and tools – diplomatic, economic, military and intelligence. Israel ought to prioritize the threats emanating from Iraq with a clear understanding that there is a world of difference between capabilities destined for Hezbollah transiting via Syria and the deployment of military systems in Iraq within an attack range against Israel.


With regards to the Arabian Peninsula – Israel has to address the question – to what extent can it rely on Saudi Arabia and the UAE as allies and partners in the struggle against Iran? Answering that question could have different implications, including regarding Israeli arm sales.


Finally, and as a result of the growing regional complexities, there is a need for closer coordination between the U.S. and Israel. This is particularly timely as Israel – not always at its fault – is being drawn-in to the American domestic political battleground between the Republicans and Democrats.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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