October 31, 2016 - Egypt, Lebanon: the wages of chaos on Israel’s borders

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses developments in both Egypt and Lebanon, two of Israel’s Arab neighbors, which appear to reflect a steady expanse of the regional influence of Russia, Syria and Iran, based on their military progress in Syria; what this means for Israel and the US; Egypt's tilt toward Assad; Lebanon's attempt to break an extended political logjam; who gains strategically from all this; where this leaves Israel; and does this affect the Israeli-Palestinian equation.

Q. Developments in both Egypt and Lebanon, two of Israel’s Arab neighbors, appear to reflect a steady expanse of the regional influence of Russia, Syria and Iran, based on their military progress in Syria. How is this unfolding? What does it mean for Israel and the US?

A. Essentially, in both Cairo and Beirut the political establishment seems to have come around to the assessment that extremist Sunni Salafist violence of the sort sponsored by ISIS is a bigger threat than the non-Sunni Muslim forces arrayed against it. In other words, better Bashar Assad in Syria than ISIS and the other Sunni Islamists. And since Russia and Iran support Bashar while the United States avoids entanglement and Saudi Arabia is considered too close to the Sunni extremists, better Russia and Iran.

 

Q. Why is this significant for Israel?

A. Because it draws Russia and possibly Iran closer to Israel’s neighbors. It also helps stabilize the Assad regime in Syria--another of Israel’s neighbors and one in whose bloody civil war Israel has taken pains to avoid taking sides. In effect, a far-reaching fait accompli that neither Jerusalem nor Washington can ignore appears to be transpiring on several fronts in the neighborhood.

 

Q. Let’s start with Egypt. Why the tilt toward Assad?

A. It begins with developments on the home front, where the Sisi regime faces twin threats. It seems to be losing control over a rapidly deteriorating economy characterized by severe shortages, and it is unable to stamp out the Islamist insurrection in the northern Sinai Peninsula near Egypt’s borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip. The Islamists in Sinai identify with ISIS, the very same violent and extreme Islamic State that controls portions of Syria and Iraq and still has a base in Libya--another neighbor of Egypt’s. Hence Sisi’s inclination to favor Syria despite US and Saudi disapproval.

Factor in US condemnation of human rights violations by the Sisi regime, deliberate delays on the part of Saudi Arabia regarding energy supplies to Egypt, and demands by the International Monetary Fund to radically reduce government subsidies as a condition for a major loan, and we begin to understand why Sisi in his current distress is inclined to side with Russia and Assad in Syria, despite US and Saudi condemnation of the Damascus regime.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the Egyptian Air Force was heavily bombing Ansar Bet al-Maqdes, the ISIS affiliate in northern Sinai. Egypt was bombing its own territory because Egyptian ground forces did not have the capability to attack the Sinai Salafists without unacceptable losses. Egypt, which is effectively bankrupt, is nevertheless arming itself with French helicopter carrier ships and the most sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles. Israel, which fears another round of chaos and possible revolution in Egypt, is asking itself what these arms are for. Right now they seem to be intended by Sisi to keep his armed forces happy: without their support he cannot continue to rule. But what happens if he falls and Islamists again come to the fore in Egypt?

Arab commentators are describing Cairo’s regional reorientation as “repositioning”. Joint military exercises have been held with the Russians, who are apparently inquiring about reestablishing a naval base at Alexandria. Relations with Tehran are reportedly improving. Despite commitments to the Saudis to the contrary, Egypt is avoiding military involvement against the Houthis in Yemen.

On the home front, an increasingly desperate Egyptian regime is risking relaxing its ban on attendance at a few soccer matches despite the role played in the past by violent soccer fans in destabilizing the country. To ward off mass protests the military, all powerful in the Egyptian economy, is delivering cheap, subsidized groceries and other goods directly to the public. The angry taxi driver who set himself alight to protest rising prices and the tuk-tuk driver who complained, “You watch Egypt on television and it’s like Vienna; You go out on the street and it’s like Somalia’s cousin” and whose video went viral, may only be harbingers of worse yet to come.

 

Q. And in Lebanon?

A. Today, October 31, after nearly two and a half years without a president, the Lebanese parliament is set to break an extended political logjam and elect General Michel Aoun to the presidency. Aoun heads the largest Christian bloc and the Lebanese constitution insists the president be a Christian. The octogenarian Aoun, a former army chief of staff who once bitterly opposed Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, cooperated with Israel against Syria and went into prolonged exile in France when he failed, is now the candidate of the pro-Syrian Hezbollah Shiite movement.

For Aoun to be elected, an entire coalition of Maronite Christians, moderate Sunnis and fence-sitting Druze has had to make its peace with him and with his sponsors, Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad regime. Saad Hariri, a Sunni millionaire whose father was assassinated by Hezbollah at Assad’s bidding and who is so deeply in debt financially to Riyadh that the Saudis have cut him off, will have to swallow his pride and dignity in order that Aoun, once ensconced in the Baabda palace, appoint him prime minister again. But that’s the deal.

The upshot of all this will be a victory for Assad and his Shiite and Iranian allies in Damascus and Beirut. Lebanon, awash in Syrian Sunni refugees, prefers Assad’s umbrella to the militant Sunni threat. Indirectly, Russia will register a strategic gain while Saudi Arabia and the US lose out here too. The Aoun-Hariri-Hezbollah political deal with its backdrop of money, betrayals and inexplicable maneuvers is quintessentially Lebanese.

 

Q. Who gains strategically from all this?

A. Ostensibly, Russia, Iran and Syria gain greater influence in Egypt and Lebanon and the Assad regime in Damascus is strengthened. But this may be a short-lived equation. Both Lebanon and particularly Egypt desperately need major economic aid that neither Russia nor Iran can deliver. If and as Syria prevails in its civil war, it too will need a massive influx of aid that only the Gulf states and international financial institutions--meaning Riyadh and Washington, which have the clout there--can provide.

Meanwhile, Russia’s heavy strategic commitment to Assad’s survival is already running up against major obstacles. Moscow failed in recent weeks to persuade Assad to accept a federal arrangement with another ally, Syria’s Kurds, and now it fears a US-sponsored drive to liberate the ISIS capital at Raqqa in eastern Syria and steal its thunder there even before Mosul in Iraq is fully re-conquered.

Right now, with the US Sixth Fleet being thinned out in the eastern Mediterranean and Russia’s lone and aged aircraft carrier stationed there, Moscow looks like at least a symbolic winner. But US President Obama’s “quagmire” warning regarding the Russians’ fortunes in Syria still hovers over the scene. And a new US administration is around the corner: as matters stand, a Clinton administration would take a tougher stance in the Levant, while a Trump administration might actually try to make nice with the Russians.

 

Q. Where does all this leave Israel?

A. Israel has good reason to be concerned about the direction of events in Egypt. With all of Sisi’s faults and failings, indeed, perhaps because of them, his regime has upgraded strategic cooperation with Israel to unprecedented and very advantageous heights. Yet, beyond contributing to Egypt’s overall security and putting in a good word for him in Washington and Riyadh, there is little Israel can do regarding the domestic threats to the stability of Sisi’s regime.

As for Lebanon, to the extent the new and bizarre coalition taking over in Beirut is beholden to Hezbollah and Iran, Israel must be more concerned than ever regarding its northern borders with both Lebanon and Syria. Here Russia’s influence is important, and Jerusalem’s relations with Moscow take on ever greater importance, at least in the months ahead.

 

Q. Does all this affect the Israeli-Palestinian equation?

A. Not really. The power structure in Ramallah is increasingly in disarray. Hamas in Gaza still has few if any friends to rely on. Unless Obama weighs in after November 8 with a very powerful new two-state initiative, Netanyahu can continue to lower the profile of a two-state solution in favor of strategic relations with Cairo, Riyadh and Amman. Indeed, they may now need him more than ever. The highly problematic argument that they will “deliver” a more moderate and cooperative Palestinian leadership with which Netanyahu proceeds to make peace has yet to be tested.

The march toward a one-state reality--more (Orthodox) Jewish and less democratic--continues. It makes Israel look more and more like its neighbors.

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