Hard Questions, Tough Answers (2.5.18) - Bad neighborhoods getting worse

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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 the conflict arenas that have evolved seven years after the Arab Spring: Egypt, Jordan, the Iran-Hezbollah alliance, and the Red Sea/Horn of Africa.

 

Q. Seven years after the advent of Arab revolutionary chaos in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, tectonic changes are emerging in the Middle East and beyond. How would you define the new conflict arenas that have evolved?

A. I would define them as bad neighborhoods and in some cases as new-old arenas of conflict. They are getting worse, and that radically alters regional and international power relationships.

Here are several arenas that drew attention just in the past week for their immediate effect on Israel’s security. First, and closest to home, are threats to stability within Israel’s peace partners, Jordan and Egypt, and the responses they have engendered. Second, and still close to home, is the anticipation of conflict with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. Third, and moving a little farther afield, is the emergence of the Red Sea/Horn of Africa region as a major global arena of friction, with Turkey a surprise central player there and elsewhere.

 

Q. Let’s start with Egypt, on Israel’s southwestern flank.

A. Here the most spectacular news is the New York Times report that in recent years the Israel Air Force has carried out repeated attack missions against ISIS-allied forces in neighboring Egyptian Sinai. The IAF missions were approved by Egypt’s President Sisi and coordinated with Egyptian forces.

This is not the first instance of Israeli military involvement in an Arab country at the request of elements in that country or of an embattled minority there. Israeli military alliances with the Yemeni royalists (1960s), the Lebanese Maronites (1975-1983), and the Iraqi Kurds (until 1975) come to mind. But in the current instance, as reported, IAF attack planes, helicopters and drones are working directly with a neighboring army under coordination at the highest political level.

This is an important precedent. It reflects an emerging alliance between Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors as they confront militant Islam, both Sunni (ISIS, al-Qaeda) and Shiite (Iran, Hezbollah). But Israel’s reported involvement also reflects two issues of strategic concern: Egypt’s apparent inability to deal with a relatively small and contained Islamist insurrection on its own territory, and danger lest the Sinai conflict overflow into the Israeli Negev and/or link up with Hamas in Gaza.

 

Q. And moving to Jordan on Israel’s eastern flank?

A. Under financial pressure from Saudi Arabia and domestic pressure from its own citizens who are demonstrating over economic grievances, Jordan recently made two significant concessions to Israel. First, it resolved the diplomatic crisis engendered by the violent incident in the Israel embassy in Amman half a year ago in which an Israeli security guard killed two Jordanians--one a close friend of the embassy who was killed accidentally. That crisis had caused Jordan to close down Israel’s Amman embassy. Now King Abdullah has apparently waved one pre-condition for reopening it: a public trial for the Israeli security guard. In parallel, PM Netanyahu issued an apology, and the embassy is being reopened.

Second, by declaring at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos that there is no alternative to US mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Abdullah effectively left Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen)--who is boycotting the US--increasingly isolated over this issue on the international and inter-Arab scenes. And Abdullah made his peace with Washington after having attacked US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the United Nations.

Some of this may have reflected Amman’s need to present a positive face on the occasion of Vice-President Pence’s recent visit. More substantively, the King needs both Israel and the United States as he confronts a confluence of pressures from Syria on Jordan’s northern border: refugees, Iran, and militant Sunni Islam (ISIS, al-Qaeda).

 

Q. Turning to the Iran-Hezbollah threat against Israel, what’s new?

A. Israel is openly declaring that it confronts a concerted Iranian attempt to construct weapons plants in Lebanon that will produce missiles for Hezbollah equipped with far more accurate guidance systems than anything encountered until now. Accordingly, Israel recently took two dramatic strategic steps.

First, it effectively labeled the missile threat a casus belli. Leading Israeli security figures have begun threatening a preventive or preemptive strike or military operation or even war to interdict Iran’s missile warfare designs in both Syria and Lebanon. A recent Netanyahu-Putin summit in Moscow was apparently dedicated to this issue. Defense Minister Lieberman has publicly underlined Israel’s determination. The IDF Spokesman took the unprecedented step of publishing an article on a Lebanese opposition website threatening to attack the missile infrastructure.

Israel’s second step was to declare last week that it is establishing a tactical surface-to-surface missile capability under the command of IDF ground forces. Highly accurate Israeli missiles with a range of 150 and 300 kms will soon be able to threaten pin-point targets in Syria and Lebanon. (Israel reportedly has long possessed longer range surface-to-surface missiles.)

This is a revolutionary development for the IDF. For decades Israel has confronted Scud and related missile threats from neighboring countries. At wartime it has in the past been attacked, relatively ineffectively, by missiles launched from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. The inclination in Israel was to scoff at the threat these missiles posed. But now Israel contemplates Iran’s arrival with its more sophisticated missiles in Syria and Lebanon. The Israel Air Force confronts the possibility that Russian and Iranian air defenses in Syria will constitute an obstacle to Israeli air attacks.

This explains the new missile force. Apparently, missiles launched from Israel were already used recently against Iranian weapons being transported across Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. An added advantage is that, at least for now, Israel has the capability to intercept incoming missiles whereas Iran and Syria do not, thereby giving Israel a step up in missile warfare.

The Iranians apparently disagree. Deputy Head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Hossein Salami recently bragged that Israel is no longer considered by Iran to be a strategic threat because Hezbollah has gained superiority over it. And speaking in Ankara, Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei, stated that “Iran’s influence in the region is inevitable. . . . Iran has no intention to abandon the oppressed nations in the region . . . Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon.”

In other words, Iran would like us to believe that it can now deter Israel in Syria and Lebanon. Israel disagrees. Unless Iran packs up and leaves, expect escalation on this front and in this bad neighborhood.

 

Q. This brings us to the Red Sea/Horn of Africa arena.

A. Turkey recently signed an agreement with Sudan to build a naval base at the Red Sea port of Suakin, where the Ottoman fleet’s Red Sea base once was located. Here two new dynamics are at play.

On the one hand, Turkey is hardly alone. Its prospective Red Sea force is joined by Iran’s presence in northern Yemen and a growing United Arab Emirates presence in southern Yemen, Socotra and Eritrea. Further, Djibouti on the Horn of Africa now hosts or will soon host naval and air forces from China, Japan, the US, Turkey, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

All of these deployments by navies from near and far underline the growing international importance of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa for global energy transport and access to Africa and the Middle East. These naval contingents are particularly relevant to Israel because they potentially either threaten or protect the passage of Israeli naval and commercial traffic through the chokepoint of Bab al-Mandeb at the southern exit from the Red Sea in the direction of Iran, Africa and Asia.

The second dynamic represented by the Turkish naval presence at Suakin is Ankara’s drive under the leadership of President Erdogan to renew the regional sway exercised until 100 years ago by the Ottoman Empire. Besides Suakin and Djibouti, Turkish forces have recently been deployed to Qatar where they back Doha’s resistance to Saudi and UAE pressures. There is a Turkish military presence in Somalia. And Turkey has invaded parts of northern Syria in a campaign to remove all or at least part of an independent Syrian Kurdish military presence there. This last move poses challenges to recently enhanced Turkish-Russian relations--Russia supports Kurdish autonomy in Syria--and risks friction with US forces that are present in the same region with the mission of training a Kurdish force that the Turks vehemently oppose.

 

Q. Is there a strategic bottom line here?

A. Tentatively, yes. Put differently, a bottom line is beginning to emerge. Prior to 2011 the Arab world was weak and fragmented and the strongest powers in the region were Iran, Turkey and Israel. But the latter, the non-Arabs, avoided direct interference and involvement in the Arab world, with the singular exception of Iran’s hegemonic presence in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Now, seven years later, the situation has changed radically. Arab chaos has drawn in the region’s non-Arab powers. Iran has established a solid land-based military presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (via Hezbollah) and Yemen (via the Houthis). Turkey too has expanded, on land and by sea--to the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea/Horn of Africa, and Syria. Israel, preoccupied by the chaos around it, has generally “kept its powder dry” but is involved militarily around its borders and is gearing for possible war to its north.

The chaos in the Arab world has still not subsided. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, though relatively weak Arab powers, have nevertheless also responded by projecting force into neighboring Yemen and the Horn of Africa. And the world too has responded. Syria now hosts a major Russian strategic presence. Everyone wants eyes and ears on the Horn of Africa. The US has what it advertises will be a modest but long-term presence in eastern Syria.

New crises seem inevitable: between the US and Turkey, between Israel and Iranian and Iranian proxy forces to its north, and in the Red Sea/Horn of Africa region.

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