Rosh Hashanah 5774: The state of the region

A coffee shop in a slaughterhouse

Stable amid the Middle East chaos, Israel is watching the collapse of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, a deepening intra-Sunni war, and the revival of an old ally, Egypt

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Taking it easy at a cafe in downtown Jerusalem (photo credit Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Taking it easy at a cafe in downtown Jerusalem (photo credit Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The neighborhood in which Israelis live has changed completely. Taking stock at the start of a new Jewish year, this is a Middle East different not only from the one we knew before the Arab Spring, but also from the one we knew while the Arab Spring was taking place.

That Spring has not produced the “Islamic Winter” it seemed to be yielding, but a rabble of unstable national entities, with some of them — including Egypt and Tunisia — featuring the return of secular movements.

And as violence and bloodshed continues and worsens all around, to cite an Israeli official recently quoted by the Washington Institute’s David Makovsky, “Israel is like a coffee shop in the middle of a slaughter house.”

Israelis have a tendency to see everything in dreadful, blackened hues, noticing only the negative developments in the region and hyping up “existential” threats that are not always there. A small American operation in Syria, which is not yet underway (and who knows if it will be?), became a cause of semi-panic and a mad rush for gas masks late last month, even though the probability of Syrian retaliation against Israel remains low.

Professional Israeli doomsayers describe myriad threats, including al-Qaeda closing in on the tiny state from all sides, and taking over the Palestinian territories after an Israeli pullout from the West Bank. In truth, ironically, the West Bank, which until 2006 was the source of Israel’s main security headaches, is an island of stability without any serious threat of radical Islam or al-Qaeda-style terrorism. Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority stands strong and, compared to the surrounding regimes, unthreatened.

The Middle East has become more unpredictable and more unstable than it was at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Most attempts to evaluate where a certain country is headed have proved wide of the mark, and most such future attempts are similarly doomed to failure. But some trends are emerging.

First, three nation states, territories which were established through artificial division by France and Britain as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement, show clear signs of disintegration and are sinking into religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.

The collapse of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon

In Iraq, aside from the Kurdish autonomous areas, hostility between Sunnis and Shi’ites knows no rest. Almost every week sees atrocities and terrorist attacks that leave dozens injured or dead.

Relatives grieve for Mohammed Ali, 18, who was killed when a suicide bomber attacked a park in Baghdad, Iraq, on Saturday, August 24, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Hadi Mizban)
Relatives grieve for Mohammed Ali, 18, who was killed when a suicide bomber attacked a park in Baghdad, Iraq, on Saturday, August 24, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Hadi Mizban)

In Syria, the civil war has taken the form of a battle for survival among Sunnis and Shiites and Alawites. It is hard to see an end, even if a limited American operation strengthens the opposition.

In Lebanon, likewise, battles between Sunnis and Shiites have deepened. Hezbollah has for the first time found itself on the defensive, targeted by car bombings which killed dozens in its Dahieh quarter of Beirut, and hit by rockets fired Sunni militias affiliated with the opposition in Syria.

In all three of these countries, organizations affiliated with al–Qaeda are growing in strength. The inability of the central governments to function amid the chaos has produced a particularly fertile ground for extremist terrorists, unified not by a single command structure, but by an idea in whose name they fight and kill.

This threat from al-Qaeda and its emissaries has become more concrete in the past year from Israel’s standpoint. If in the past the various al-Qaeda-affiliated groups were small cells, almost insignificant from the defense establishment’s perspective, the various radical Islamist factions have accumulated strength, manpower and combat experience in the past year. The danger is presently felt less from the north, where Islamist terrorists focus their fight on Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military, and more on the southern border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But it is only a matter of time until the Islamist threat in Lebanon and Syria becomes more substantial for Israel as well.

A Sunni world divided

The second significant trend is the growing rift in the Sunni world. As though Sunni-Shiite rivalry hadn’t created enough drama, the Sunni camp has found itself torn between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is playing out within Egypt and without, pitting Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Egypt’s military-backed government against Qatar, Turkey, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Media coverage of Egypt reflects this intra-Sunni rivalry: while Qatar’s al-Jazeera unequivocally backs the Muslim Brotherhood, its competitor, Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya, strives to undermine the Islamist party. As Qatar pumps funds into Hamas coffers, the Saudis and other Gulf countries transfer millions to the Palestinian Authority and billions to the new regime in Cairo.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting in Cairo (photo credit: YouTube screen caption/Al-Jazeera)
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting in Cairo (photo credit: YouTube screen caption/Al-Jazeera)

And just to shuffle the cards a little more, a strange new alliance between Cairo and Damascus is spontaneously materializing against radical Sunni Islamist factions. The new government in Cairo warned this week that it is opposed to foreign intervention in Syria, to the immediate public delight of Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. Certain officials in Egypt are also trying to warn Israel that an American attack against Syria would actually work to Israel’s disadvantage.

Israel’s new-old ally

The third significant trend is that second revolution in Egypt. It was hard to imagine, after the presidential elections in June 2012, that Mohammed Morsi would swiftly become one of the most hated men in Egypt and would be deposed in a revolution/coup a year later. The Muslim Brotherhood, which in early 2012 achieved a landslide victory in elections for the Egyptian parliament, has become an underground organization in the past two months, with its leaders either arrested or on the run.

Egypt’s new military leadership, seeking first and foremost to restore stability, has been the friendliest Egyptian administration to Israel since the signing of the peace treaty between the two countries more than three decades ago. Israel once again has a strong, important ally in the Middle East — just a year after pundits lamented the strain in the two countries’ diplomatic relations, and the ostensible loss of a second key ally, after Turkey.

In the “good old days” under Hosni Mubarak — ousted, jailed and freed in Egypt’s improbable, fast-forward reality — Egypt did not seriously tackle Sinai terrorism or act against Hamas. Now, the Egyptian generals are waging a real war against jihadists. There are voices in the Israeli defense establishment criticizing Cairo’s military strategy, but not its intent, and cooperation between the countries is firm.

Egyptian army soldiers seen in a watchtower on the border with Egypt in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 08, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)
Egyptian army soldiers seen in a watchtower on the border with Egypt in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 08, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90)

Almost every move by the Egyptian army to thwart terror in Sinai is welcomed by the Israeli security establishment. Israeli actions, even if they lapse over to the Egyptian side of the border, are backed by Cairo. Both sides are fighting against radical Islam operating within the Sinai.

This might be the most significant difference between Israel’s northern and southern fronts: the threats in Syria and Lebanon will only exacerbate, while in the south the Egyptian army has been able to achieve significant successes in the battle against al-Qaeda-linked groups.

Egyptian military activity in the Peninsula is far from over. There will likely be more terror attacks against the Egyptian army and doubtless further attempted assaults on Israeli targets as well. But the positive trend is clear. And after years of turning a blind eye, the Egyptian army is also fighting Hamas, and has brought smuggling between Gaza and Sinai through tunnels to an almost complete halt.

Nearly 80% of the tunnels have been closed down. And the Egyptian Army has began efforts to establish a “security zone” 500 meters deep along the border, destroying all houses in that area — a move Israel dared not essay in the days when the IDF controlled the Philadelphi Corridor separating Gaza from Egypt. The plan, ostensibly coordinated with the heads of tribes living in the area, is causing unrest among the local population, which is not a big fan of the Egyptian army. The willingness to pursue it underlines the rising confidence of the Egyptian military — whether confronting the Muslim Brotherhood, tackling terrorists in Sinai, or constraining a Hamas that is frankly amazed at the obvious Egyptian hostility.

The Syrian killing fields

It is impossible to sum up the Middle East today without focusing on Syria. Upwards of 110,000 people have been killed in the last two-and-a-half years. Between them, Assad’s forces and al-Qaeda rebels have turned Syria’s cities to rubble, to vales of slaughter. There is no sign of a viable, sane alternative to the regime. Everyone is fighting one another, killing one another. Assad himself could be hit any day in a rebel attack. There is no telling who would take his place; indeed, there is no telling how any of this could play out for Israel.

A member of a UN chemical weapons investigation team takes samples from sand near Damascus, Syria, Aug. 28, 2013 . (photo credit:AP/United Media Office of Arbeen)
A member of a UN chemical weapons investigation team takes samples from sand near Damascus, Syria, Aug. 28, 2013 . (photo credit:AP/United Media Office of Arbeen)

For now, Assad and his supporters are demonstrating great confidence and arrogance, the more so in light of the White House’s hesitation to carry out a military strike. Despite certain sensationalist misreadings of Obama’s comments, the US administration has clarified its intent to punish Assad but not at this stage to pursue regime change. Its range of attack options is not wide; bombing Syrian military bases that house chemical weapons would risk heavy environmental damage.

Israel’s hope, indeed the hope of all decent people, is that the US — with Russian and/or Chinese mediation if necessary — will be able to thwart any further use of chemical weapons. That won’t halt the killings, of course, but in the Middle East slaughterhouse, even hope must be realistic.

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