While Europe suffers, Islamists face setbacks in Middle East

As France grapples with terror, back in the region jihadist, Muslim Brotherhood, and Iranian camps are actually weakening, which may be a factor in the devastating export of extremism

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.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks in front of the state-run TV ahead of a military funeral for troops killed in an assault in the Sinai Peninsula, as he stands with army commanders in Cairo, Egypt, October 25, 2014. (photo credit: AP/MENA, Mohammed Samaha)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks in front of the state-run TV ahead of a military funeral for troops killed in an assault in the Sinai Peninsula, as he stands with army commanders in Cairo, Egypt, October 25, 2014. (photo credit: AP/MENA, Mohammed Samaha)

For media outlets that deal with the Middle East — both in Israeli and abroad — there is a tendency to focus primarily on regional threats and on dangerous developments that threaten to destroy us: the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Islamic Jihad. This is even more the case at times, like this weekend, when Islamist violence is plainly gathering force beyond the region.

But the past few months in the region indicate that we may be witnessing the rise of a “new Middle East,” and that not everything that happens here is bad for the civilized world or for Israel.

Even as France is grappling with an unprecedented series of terror attacks, the map of the Middle East is changing, and some familiar states that presented a serious threat to Israel’s security, like Syria and Iraq, no longer exist as coherent entities. At the same time, several new trends in the Middle East may produce quite a few opportunities to make progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

First and foremost, of the four camps in the contemporary Arab world, the three problematic ones for Israel have been weakened substantially — the jihadists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Shi’ite-Iranian axis. Meanwhile, the fourth, more moderate camp, grows stronger.

The advance of the jihadist camp — al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra — is slowly being halted. The international and Arab coalition, along with local actors like the Kurds, have made IS much less threatening than it was six months ago. In Iraq, the international coalition is recording significant achievements in the war against IS, which is in a difficult bind. In Syria, the Islamic State’s progress has also been slowed, but it is hard to see the end of the civil war on the horizon.

The jihadists, it should be noted, have been halted beyond Syria and Iraq as well. In places like Libya and the Sinai Peninsula, they are absorbing painful blows.

These setbacks, as this correspondent noted earlier this week, are likely to lead to intensified efforts to carry out acts of terrorism in Europe.

In this Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014 photo, fighters from the Free Syrian Army, left, and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), center, join forces to fight Islamic State group militants in Kobani, Syria.  (Photo credit: AP/Jake Simkin)
Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (left), and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (center), join forces to fight Islamic State group militants in Kobani, Syria, November 19, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jake Simkin)

A second trend whose implications are also being felt by Israeli citizens is the drastic decline in oil prices, which significantly weakens the Shiite camp economically. This positive development is likely to have a serious effect on Iran and possibly on its willingness to show flexibility in negotiations over its nuclear program. It may also have an impact on the entire Shiite axis, and on Iran’s capacity to maintain support for Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and what is left of the Bashar Assad regime at the current levels. With revenues from the oil industry dropping more than 50% due to lower global prices, Tehran desperately needs the economic sanctions on the country to be lifted.

The decline of oil prices is a fascinating story in itself. Many attribute it to the Saudis’ desire to harm Iran economically, but this was not their main goal. They refused to reduce their oil production, and create higher prices, primarily to prevent competition in the energy market from American companies producing oil shale gas. The cost of producing this gas is extremely high, and if oil prices are lower, oil shale will become unprofitable. On the way, as an advantageous side-effect, the Saudis were happy about hurting Iran’s economy.

An oil technician in an oil field southwest of Tehran. (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)
An oil technician in an oilfield southwest of Tehran (photo credit: AP/Vahid Salemi)

Iran’s budget planning for 2015 began six months ago, on the basis of a barrel of oil at $115. Last June, prices hovered around $110 a barrel. Following the decline in prices, Iran’s finance program was updated, based on the estimate of oil at $70 a barrel.

This week, oil prices were hovering around $50 a barrel.

Tehran’s newest plan is to increase its oil exports by June 2015 from 1.1 million barrels a day to 1.5 million. This indicates Iran is banking on the possibility that it can make a deal with the P5+1 world powers, which would result in the easing of the sanctions on its oil industry.

The power of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt continues to rise

The third positive trend is the regional containment of Muslim Brotherhood-style political Islam. Though it is less radical than IS, it is extremist enough for its downfall to be hailed. The trend is apparent in Tunisia, Egypt, and even in Qatar, the most pro-Muslim Brotherhood country in recent years, which decided to change course and move closer to the pragmatic Sunni axis.

The fourth trend is related to the moderate Sunni Arab camp. The power of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt continues to rise, and they have recorded significant gains in the battle for the future of the Middle East. Along with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, they constitute the sane Sunni camp, which wants to restore quiet and stability to the region, and presents exceptional economic and political opportunities for Israel.

In the face of Arab countries that are breaking up and/or disappearing from the map — such as Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen — some Arab leaders are standing up and presenting a strategy and a determination that Israeli leaders could only dream about.

The new meteor in the Middle East’s sky, Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, along with Saudi Arabia’s ailing King Abdullah and his Jordanian counterpart, are signaling opportunities for a better future for the region.

Feeling the murderous consequences of Islamist extremism, Europe will be watching closely and hoping the relative moderates can make further strides.

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