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A new state of play is emerging in the Middle East, which redraws the regional web of influence, following the military victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the concurrent and related negotiations for the end of the war in Syria. At the global level, the current jockeying taking place in the Middle East and its result will also have consequences as it impacts perceptions of global players, as well as influence and thus capability.
As of mid-November 2017, Iran appears as having achieved its objective to establish a Shia crescent from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, Iran now appears as having succeeded in becoming a major influential regional power, if not the most influential. Russia has asserted its position as major power in the Middle East, while the United States has seen its influence being winnowed away, notably in Iraq, a process started under the Obama presidency.
The situation is still evolving as the various countries of the region, here Saudi Arabia and Israel, act to at minima see their interests considered and protected, and at best to try turning the current state of play to their advantage. Meanwhile, China, as rising global major if not super power also enters the fray.
In this framework, on 16 November 2017, three significant “diplomatic events” took place (see sources below).
First Chinese President Xi Jinping and King Salman of Saudi Arabia discussed over the phone. Xi Jinping stressed that “China’s determination to deepen strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia will not waver, no matter how the international and regional situation alters”. The Chinese President also added that “China supports Saudi Arabia’s efforts to safeguard national sovereignty and realize greater development.” Considering China’s good relations with Iran, this is a strong Chinese statement that assures Saudi Arabia that China will not take side even though the regional situation were to escalate further. The Chinese statement may even be read as a warning to Iran not to threaten Saudi Arabia’s national sovereignty. In that, China may be seen as a stabilizing actor in the region. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are indeed crucial to China, not only in the framework of its Belt and Road initiative, but also and relatedly as energy suppliers, to say nothing of the highly probable willingness to dethrone the USD as the supreme global currency (see forthcoming 20 November article on the Petrodollars system).
Meanwhile, Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot gave “an unprecedented interview to Saudi newspaper” Elaph (Haaretz see below). Unsurprisingly, Eisenkot labelled there Iran the “real and largest threat to the region”, stressed that “Iran seeks to take control of the Middle East, creating a Shi’ite crescent from Lebanon to Iran and then from the [Persian] Gulf to the Red Sea”, and that “We must prevent this from happening”. He welcomed the new Trump Presidency’s policy in the region, underlining that “The United States is trying to strengthen and support the moderate Sunni axis in the region without bringing in [American] troops or fighting on the ground.”
Practically, Eisenkot stated that “We [Israel] are willing to exchange information with moderate Arab countries, including intelligence information in order to deal with Iran.”
Yet, he also set limits to what Israel was willing to do. Israel did not intent to initiate a conflict in Lebanon against the Hezbollah, while he “cautioned … that local flare-ups could “lead to a broad strategic conflict.” He then pointed out a weakening of the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Then, Eisenkot re-emphasised that Israel had a “long-term policy not to get involved in the Syrian conflict”… as long as there was no “attempt to harm our Druze brothers”. He reiterated Israel’s demands regarding the need for the Hezbollah and Iran to leave Syria, stressing that “we will not accept Iranian consolidation in Syria in general, and their concentration west of the Damascus – Sweida Road [about 50 kilometers from the Israeli border on the Golan Heights]. We will not allow any Iranian presence, we have warned them against building factories or military bases and we will not allow it.”
Eisenkot statements are, among others, an official and public response to the Saudi highly possible intent to stop Iran and act against the Hezbollah, as expressed by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir in an interview with Reuter. There, Jubeir stressed that “(The Iranians) are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner. We are reacting to that aggression and saying: ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore’.” He added, as summarized by Reuters, that “Saudi Arabia was consulting its allies about what leverage to use against Lebanese Shi‘ite group Hezbollah — an Iranian ally — to end its dominance in the small Mediterranean nation and intervention in other countries.”
Lebanon, considering Israel’s statement, however, does not appear as a realistic theatre of operations to stop or check Iran’s influence. Israel even seems to suggest a kind of laissez-faire, that would appease the situation there. If the Saudis pay heed to Israel, considering too previous developments in the Lebanese crisis (see previous signal), as Iran did not appear to have so far poured oil on the fire, it is likely that the situation will settle in Lebanon.
In Syria, considering the state of play on the ground (see map below), it continues to be difficult to see “anti-Iranian influence” actions other than tough peace negotiations being endeavoured, except if the U.S. were willing to change enemy, which does not appear as likely. Yet not likely does not mean impossible.
Remains Yemen, where China’s position added to Israel willingness to share information could act as a stabilising influence on the conflict, without, of course, forgetting to consider the willingness of the local actors.
Thus what seems to be emerging is a stabilizing Middle East, with a stronger Iranian influence, which would be kept in check by global powers.
Potential feeling of threats and dangers to survival felt by the Hezbollah must also be closely monitored as they may engender further instability.
The way the Syrian conflict will be settled and if it is at all settled, as Turkey’s interest must also not be forgotten, will probably prove key.
China’s determination to deepen strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia will not waver, no matter how the international and regional situation alters, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in his phone conversation with the ruler Thursday.
Israeli military chief gives unprecedented interview to Saudi media: ‘Iran is biggest threat to Mideast’
In an unprecedented move, a Saudi newspaper on Thursday published an interview with the Israeli military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. This is the first time that an Israeli chief of staff is interviewed by a media outlet in the kingdom, which doesn’t have diplomatic ties with Israel.
RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir said on Thursday the kingdom’s actions in the Middle East were a response to what he called Iranian aggression, and hinted at future action against Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Long-standing arch-rivals, Riyadh and Tehran are waging a contest for power on several fronts across the region, notably in Yemen and Lebanon.