Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Doomsday for the Middle East?

With political and military alliances shifting and tensions rising, where is the Middle East heading, asks Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is almost certain that the Russian military intervention in Syria will move way beyond the current air strikes, diplomatic sources have been saying over the last 48 hours.

“A kind of ground operation is highly likely — although it might not be about Russian ‘boots’ on the ground in the traditional sense of the word; it will be Russian ‘fighters’ and fighters from other parties supporting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad,” said an Egyptian diplomat who asked that his name to be withheld.

This week, Egypt openly, and in the words of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, expressed its support for the Russian air strikes that are supposed to be targeting the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, but are not doing so, according to the Syrian opposition and almost every Western capital.

Shoukri also later insisted that a military operation is not enough to meet the terrorism challenge in the region.

“To be quite honest, we would like to see the Syrian army saved because we fear it is all but falling apart, but at the same time we are concerned about an extended and exhaustive military ground operation that could add to the instability of the region and ferment further conflicts on a religious basis,” the same Egyptian diplomat said.

Despite its attempt to accommodate its Saudi Arabian financial and political ally, Egypt was at least apprehensive about Riyadh’s call to gear up a Sunni front against the Shias of the region, which the Saudis say are acting under Iranian instructions to destabilise the oil-rich monarchy at a time of considerable economic challenge.

Egypt is trying to avert this call for Sunni-Shia escalation, not just in Syria where it is on the same side as the Russians, who are in alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, but also in Yemen where Egyptian ground troops were sent as part of a Saudi-led military coalition that has been making the situation worse, according to accounts from Western diplomatic and humanitarian sources.

“Yemen is turning into a big quagmire where the Saudis seem to be getting stuck,” said one Gulf-based European diplomat.

The Sunni-Shia polarisation is not the only concern for Egypt at the moment. Cairo is also apprehensive about a new “Afghan-style” war that it knows the Saudis are calling for in Syria against the Russians.

Western diplomatic sources in Cairo, Washington and Brussels speak of escalating Saudi and Qatari spending to buy more arms to send to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was jointly established, trained and financed by Washington and Riyadh, among others, to topple Al-Assad and eventually lead to the establishment of a new regime in Damascus with a considerable Sunni share.

This is also a concern that is shared in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, with the latter particularly apprehensive that its IS-controlled territories might end up being the launching pad for a long militia war against the Russian military presence in Syria and also Russian interests across the region.

Arab diplomatic sources say that the Iraqi government has been telling its allies in Tehran that if they have successfully prompted, or at least encouraged, a Russian intervention in Syria to simultaneously help Al-Assad and to serve the strategic agenda of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Crimea and the Middle East, then Iran needs to make sure that IS will also be seriously undermined in Iraq.

Iraqi officials attending the UN General Assembly in New York late in September shared with counterparts from like-minded countries their apprehension about the impact of the US-led anti-IS strikes. They suggested that so far these strikes seem to have been tailored to strengthen the Kurds rather than to weaken IS.

Today, according to one Washington-based diplomat, the Iraqis also see the Russian strikes in Syria as not being tailored to eliminate IS, and they fear the consequences.

The Kurdish question is also on the agenda in Cairo amid concerns about the convoluted situation in the Arab Mashreq and Gulf region. Cairo, like Damascus and Baghdad, is well aware of Riyadh’s growing support for Kurdish political demands.

This might be to their liking, in as much as it annoys Ankara, but it is certainly not an issue they would generally condone given its impact on the already challenged governments in Syria and Iraq.

“We cannot condone anything that could lead to the division of any Arab country — for us this is a red line,” said the same Egyptian diplomat.


THREATS OF DIVISION: The division of some Arab counties is not an imminent scenario, according to well-informed diplomatic sources in Cairo and leading Middle Eastern and Western capitals.

“But for sure, in some cases this is not a scenario that can be excluded — even though it remains rather remote,” said a Cairo-based European diplomat.

Libya, on the immediate western border with Egypt, seems to be a prime target for such an “inevitable but not immediate” scenario. The efforts of UN envoy Bernardino Leon to establish a national unity government in Libya before the deadline of 20 October, the official expiry date for the internationally acknowledged Libyan parliament, do not seem to have met with much success.

This week, Leon’s mission became more complicated as the parliament decided to expand its role beyond the tentative Leon-based understandings. The management of the political and security crisis in Libya is also related to a wider dispute among Arab countries.

This is again a situation in which Egypt is not on the same side as its otherwise close ally Saudi Arabia. The latter is keen on strengthening the Sunni grip on power in Libya, even if it means supporting the Egypt-hostile Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.

“I think it is very hard to predict what will happen in Libya. I personally fear that with the growing shift of international diplomacy towards Syria, Libya might be left further on the back burner, given that it is not ripe for a solution anyway due to the many conflicting views of the stakeholders there,” said one Middle East desk officer in a leading southern European capital.

According to the same diplomat, “Syria is not going to be an easy win for Russia and its allies, but of course Putin will not quit easily because this would amount to acknowledging a tough defeat not just in the Middle East, where he is trying very hard to have a say in the fate of the region and to keep tight control over the few remaining allies he has, but also because he knows that defeat in this war would force him to make concessions in Crimea.”

What could complicate the situation in Syria to the point of seeing it extended for at least a year or two, according to diplomatic sources who spoke to theWeekly, is the unmasked Israeli intervention.

Russia is making sure that it has secured an otherwise impossible coordination between Hezbollah and Israel in Syria, these diplomats say, through detailed and recurrent talks in Moscow and Tel Aviv. However, they add, it is very hard to predict what the situation will be on the ground in Syria, with foreign fighters from several countries involved, in the case of a much-anticipated escalation of violence in the Palestinian Territories.

Most of the diplomatic sources who spoke to the Weeklysaid they could neither exclude a new Palestinian Intifada nor expect it to unfold in the coming few weeks.

Diplomats informed about the talks held by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York say that the frustrated Palestinian leader would not exclude a third Intifada. This perhaps, they said, was why Abbas had chosen to issue the highest ever alert about the possible collapse of the Oslo Accords.

Western diplomats say that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not showing wisdom on the matter and seems willing to use this exceptional moment to deal a final blow to the two-state solution, all the while offering lip-service to the peace process which is in fact long dead.

They add that a new Intifada in parallel to the chaos in Syria and Libya and the political vulnerability in Lebanon and Jordan and IS control of most of Iraq and Syria would be “doomsday” for the Middle East.

For the Europeans, this would be the worst possible nightmare because it would mean that their southern neighbourhood would be inflammable beyond containment and the humanitarian crisis in the region would prompt more waves of asylum-seekers.

“It would be a nightmare not just for the Europeans who are already cutting funds for humanitarian assistance in the region as they are consuming considerable funds to help with the resettlement schemes of the refugees they already have, but also for the governments in the region that are all facing serious economic challenges. I don’t even want to think about it,” said a leading humanitarian official in the region.

As the Weeklywent to press, escalation was in motion across the region, especially in Syria, with NATO asking Russia to end its operations in Syria, Turkey complaining about a Russian breach of its airspace by Russian jet fighters, Arab Gulf countries voicing concerns over regional events and asking for Western pressure on Russia to quit Syria, and the Israeli army expanding its operations in the West Bank.

Then there is the war intensifying in Yemen, IS executing dozens of non-Muslim Iraqis, and top military, intelligence and political officials in Egypt meeting to consider potential explosion points and the possible Egyptian reaction.

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