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The Middle Eastern Security Situation

Dr Jonathan Schanzer

1 MAY 2018 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF
Key Points
  • Iran is now so deeply involved in Syria that even the Assad regime cannot challenge it. Israel will continue to counter that presence, primarily via one-off strikes.
  • Shared perceptions of the threat posed to them by Iran are bringing greater opportunity for a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
  • Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to modernise his country under the Vision 2030 programme. The success of those efforts is by no means guaranteed, particularly because the response to them from the country’s most conservative elements is still to be seen.
  • The overall outlook for the region over the next decade is one of continuing instability. Attempts during that period to foster some form of Arab-Israeli rapprochement should be maximised.
Introduction Amid the continuing uncertainties and conflicts in the Middle East, Future Directions International spoke with Middle East expert and FDI Associate Dr Jonathan Schanzer to learn of more the changing strategic circumstances in the region and of their implications for the future. Commentary FDI: Thank you for speaking with us today, Dr Schanzer. Let’s begin with the Iran-Syria nexus. How, and to what degree, is Iran extending its influence in Syria? JS: Iran is moving into Syria at an alarming rate. This includes the personnel deployment of regular military forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its proxy Hezbollah, as well as scores of other Shi’ite militias that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic Republic. In the meantime, Iran has transferred military hardware into the country to both counter the Syrian rebels and to target Israel. The Israelis have struck at more than 100 Iran-related targets over the last year in Syria, but that likely only represents a fraction of what could be struck. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Iranian deployment in Syria is that the Assad regime reportedly doesn’t know about most of Iran’s activities. In other words, Iran’s strength cannot even be challenged by the nominal head of state. FDI: How might Israel counter those efforts? JS: Israel continues to counter those efforts with one-off strikes: the more than 100 strikes that I mentioned above. There are also the larger operations that Israel conducted in February against the T4 air base and multiple anti-aircraft systems. The question now is whether the Israelis will take things a step further and destroy more of Iran’s assets in a pre-emptive blitzkrieg. FDI: How credible are media reports that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS) travelled to Israel in September 2017? What could have been his agenda if he did? JS: I do not know if that visit actually took place. Although it was denied by both the Saudis and the Israelis, the fact that it could have even possibly transpired is remarkable in itself. The agenda, regardless of whether MBS paid the visit or not, is about countering Iran and its network of malign actors across the Middle East. FDI: To what extent would MBS be willing to go to nurture a Saudi-Israeli (unofficial) alliance to counter Iran? Would he, for instance, really give the West Bank to Israel in exchange for an anti-Iran alliance? Is the desire not to upset Tel Aviv the reason why he has not commented on Trump’s statement on Jerusalem? Does this signal a new era of détente between Riyadh and Tel Aviv/Jerusalem? JS: I don’t believe that there is the possibility of a territorial transaction along those lines. The Saudis want the Israelis to put forward another peace plan to the Palestinians. Any such plan must be viable. To be so, it would need to provide the Saudis with enough political cover to continue the quiet ties that are being developed with Israel, regardless of whether or not the Palestinians acquiesce. The Saudis, I should note, have not been quiet on Jerusalem. The most recent Arab summit included some tough words from the Saudis on that very issue. But, I do believe that there is a significant opportunity for a rapprochement between Riyadh and Jerusalem right now, primarily due to their shared threat perceptions of Iran. FDI: How does the deteriorating Saudi-Turkish relationship factor into the Israel-Iran situation? JS: The Turkey-Saudi relationship is really independent of the Israel-Iran situation. The Turks are currently more aligned with Iran than they are with Saudi Arabia, which is troubling. But the Turks are not likely to get involved in the Israel-Iran standoff. FDI: What is your view of the potentially highly transformative Vision 2030 programme that is being led by MBS? JS: On the one hand, we should laud MBS for working to bring Saudi Arabia into the twenty-first century. Between allowing women to drive, opening up cinemas, jailing clerics and fighting the systemic corruption in that country, he has accomplished quite a lot in a short period of time. He still has quite a way to go if Saudi Arabia is to no longer be a rentier economy in 12 years’ time. He has even farther to go if Saudi Arabia is to have an alliance with the West based on common values. The three concerns that I have right now are: 1) how destabilising the changes may be to the conservative elements in the country, 2) whether MBS is creating enemies who may seek do him and his vision harm, and 3) that the country is still an absolute monarchy, which will always undermine efforts at reform. FDI: What is your prognosis for al-Qaeda? What do you see as the best way to counter it? JS: Right now, al-Qaeda controls more territory that it ever has in its history and it is constantly working to spread its vision of Islamist terrorist revolution. The best way to counter it is the ideological battle that we have failed to wage for more than a decade now. That is the battle against the ideology of radical Islam. Our definition is lacking, as are our cultural and diplomatic responses to that challenge. FDI: Let’s conclude now by looking a little further out. How do you see the region looking in ten years’ time? JS: I am a paid pessimist. The region is likely to be as unstable in ten years as it is now. Syria, Libya, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon all have very negative outlooks. But there is an opportunity to stabilise some of the region with the rapprochement discussed above between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab states like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and others. The focus now should be on maximising that opportunity, if we are to try to shape a more stable region for the future. FDI: So, although the overall outlook does indeed appear pessimistic, it is not entirely without some grounds for optimism. On that note, Dr Schanzer, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today. JS: You’re very welcome. *****   About the IntervieweeDr Jonathan Schanzer is Senior Vice-President of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), in Washington DC. In that role, he is part of the leadership team of the FDD Centre on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, which provides policy and subject matter expertise on the use of financial and economic power to the global policy community. Dr Schanzer has also worked as a terrorism finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury, where he played an integral role in the designation of numerous terrorist financiers. He earned his PhD from King’s College London, where he wrote his dissertation on the US Congress and its efforts to combat terrorism in the twentieth century. In 2013, he published State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State (Palgrave Macmillan). His 2008 book, Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine (Palgrave Macmillan) is still the only book on the market that analyses the internecine conflict between the two most powerful Palestinian factions. Dr Schanzer has testified before the US Congress and publishes widely in the American and international media. He has appeared on US television channels including CNN and Fox News, and on Arabic-language television channels such as Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. Source :
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