Małgorzata Schwarzgruber talks to Łukasz Fyderk about the black-and-white game and three-way alliances in the Middle East.
What is the Middle East Peace Plan according to President Donald Trump? He attributes a large role to Saudi Arabia, which on the one hand is supposed to block Iran and on the other hand is supposed to silently support Israel.
The aim of this plan is not to solve the Palestinian problem but to build an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two regional pillars of Donald Trump’s Middle East policy. The problem is, as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these countries do not talk with each other. The offer will probably be more advantageous to the Palestinians than to the Israelis, as evidenced by the fact that we will only know its details after the elections in Israel. However, the chances of resolving the conflict are low as, according to opinion polls, the Israelis do not believe that the Palestinian issue requires urgent intervention. It has not been solved by the previous US administrations, which were far more competent than the current one is. Speaking of competence, the United States has no ambassadors in six countries in the Middle East, and there is also no Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East.
Is an alliance between Israel and the Sunni monarchy likely to last?
Unofficial contacts between the Saudi and Israeli elites have been and are being maintained. However, they rarely meet publicly, at a joint conference, as was the case in Warsaw. The Arab elites associated with the ruling courts see many advantages in possible cooperation with Israel, such as opening up to new technologies or jointly opposing Iran as a strategic threat. The Arab masses, on the other hand, are unambiguously anti-Israeli. For the last 60 years, society has been raised in the belief that Israel has not only taken land from the Palestinians, but has also taken over Al-Quds, or Jerusalem, the holy city of Muslims. If you ask the people of Saudi Arabia or Egypt who is their biggest enemy in the region, they will answer: Israel. Although the Americans are trying to convince Arab states that the biggest threat is Iran, against which Arabia and Israel are united and which presents itself as a defender of the Palestinians. Thanks to such a policy, although it is not, after all, an Arab country, it is able to gain the sympathy of some of the inhabitants of these countries.
Will the Arab elites accept a peace plan in spite of their voters’ demands?
If the suggestions are considered to be of little benefit to the Palestinians, the elite of the Arab monarchy will not dare to support them, regardless of how well they understand each other with Donald Trump or how well they found themselves talking to Prime Minister Beniamin Netanyahu at the Warsaw conference.
The Middle East is also the scene of a quiet cold war between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the hearts and minds of Muslims. In the Middle East peace process, Ankara supports the Palestinians and does not hide its ambition to play the role of Muslim leader. Can it win this competition?
Erdoğan is a charismatic leader who claims that the Turkish political model should be replicated. Ankara combines Sunni modernism with elements of Muslim conservatism. The Turks prove that a Muslim, fairly democratic and pluralistic state can exist. Turkish Islam with a certain amount of Western democracy is a threat to the Saudi absolute monarchy. Riyadh also perceives the Muslim Brotherhood in the same way, which proposes to introduce elements of democracy, but according to the Sharia, which may be an attractive solution for many inhabitants of Arab countries. This game is going on.
How are the Middle East alliances developing today?
There are three alliances around the most powerful countries in the region. The first one is concentrated around Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are supported by Egypt, the most populated Arab state, the Arab Emirates and Bahrain. These countries also have good relations with Jordan, Kuwait and Oman. The second alliance was built around Iran supported by its Shiite supporters. These are often non-state movements, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Bashar al-Assad regime, which controls a large part of Syria, and influential Iraqi groups, such as the paramilitary group Hashed al-Shabi or the Shia organisation Badr. The third player is Turkey, which remains in a political-religious alliance with the Qatari. Both of these countries support the Muslim Brotherhood operating in different countries of the region. Israel remains on the sidelines, which, due to its armed forces, may have the status of a superpower, but is outside the alliance, because it either does not have relations with the states of the region or is isolated.
Is there not also a reversal of alliances in the Middle East? For example, Israel is competing with Iran, and Russia, considered to be Iran’s ally, is working with Israel.
The classic reversal of alliances is a 180-degree turn, which is not the case in the Middle East. However, we can speak of alliances in triangular cooperation, where we have Saudi, Turkish and Iranian extremities. Support depends on the issue. Russia and China are in agreement with Iran on certain issues, while in other matters they will block Iran. We live in an increasingly interdependent world where policy is multi-lane. Big players don’t follow the black-and-white logic; they are in favour of one thing and against another. This is particularly true of those outside the region, mainly Russia, China and the European Union. They have their own interests in the Middle East and try not to have one option. The exception to this rule is Donald Trump’s black-and-white policy.
The war in Syria is a central conflict in the Middle East. There are strong overlaps of interests of Russia and Iran in this country. Even before its intervention, Moscow had invested more than 20 billion dollars there. Both countries support President al-Assad; for both of them this is the most important ally in the Arab world. Previously, Moscow and Tehran competed on the market for the sale of raw materials, where their interests were conflicting, because both countries were selling oil and gas. The Syrian conflict has brought them closer. However, in this relationship, the weaker ally – Iran – gains much less benefit than Russia does.
Turkey has also become closer to Russia.
Turkish-Russian interests converge in almost all areas, other than Syria and international security. Turkey is a consumer of the oil and gas sold by Russia. Ankara supplies Moscow with various services and products, e.g. construction products. However, in the Syrian war, these countries are at two opposite ends: Turkey has supported Syrian insurgents from the outset, Russia has sided with President al-Assad.
How is Trump’s decision to significantly reduce US troops in Syria affecting the situation in the region?
This decision is a continuation of the American policy of further reducing engagement in the Middle East. The US does not want to take responsibility for the next region, and Syria is a secondary country for the Americans. In recent years, the United States has invested more than $7 trillion in the region. Many analysts therefore point out that Washington should limit its engagement. The withdrawal of the US from Syria, however, opens the way for the strengthening of Iran, which is contrary to Donald Trump’s Iranian policy. The strong Tehran limits the activities of the Americans’ allies in the region.
Is there an opinion in Kurdistan, which you recently visited, that Washington has abandoned its Middle Eastern allies, including the Kurds?
Well, it depends on who of the Kurds we are talking about. Those in Syria believe that the greatest threat to them is Turkey. They will want to communicate quickly with the regime in Damascus, to support Iran and President al-Assad against any Turkish intervention. The Iraqi Kurds are of the opposite opinion. The policy of the main group of the Iraqi Kurdistan Autonomous Region, the Kurdish Democratic Party, is quite close to that of Turkey, which is the largest investor there. The second party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is much closer to Iran. There are Kurds in both groups who demand sovereignty but do not have the approval of any of their neighbours. Both Turkey and Iran are making efforts to ensure that the Kurds remain politically divided.
Recently, the heir to the Saudi throne Prince Muhammad ibn Salman visited Islamabad. He promised multi-billion dollar investments in Pakistan’s economy. Can Pakistan count on the support of the Saudis in its dispute with India over Kashmir?
The strategic allies of Pakistan are China and Saudi Arabia. India can count on Russia’s support. The US is trying to maintain a policy of equal distance to Pakistan and India. The key is the Saudi-Pakistan relationship. These countries are separated by Iran, which is alarmed by such an alliance. The Saudi elite are convinced that if Saudi Arabia was threatened, the Pakistanis would come to its aid. There is also a belief that Islamabad will not hesitate to use all the available means at that time, and, after all, it is a nuclear power. A very strong argument in this case will be to defend the sacred places of Islam and to prevent the Shiites from approaching them.
At the 55th Munich Security Conference, the head of Iranian diplomacy, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated that the risk of war with Israel was high. Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, warned against Iran’s attack on Israel. How would such a war look like?
Iran and Israel have no land border. They are divided by 1,500 km. However, an Israeli air attack on Iran is possible. This is difficult given the distance between these countries and the need for Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Syria to make airspace available, where the Russians are heavily involved and would not like such an attack. What could it bring? Destruction would cause great mobilisation of the local society. Tehran would not be able to respond to a similar attack as its air force is outdated. That is why it is expanding its rocket programme. If Israel attacked using its technological advantage, Tehran could, in response, launch a saturation attack on Israeli anti-missile systems. It consists in sending a large number of rockets once – a part is shot down, but a part reaches the target. If an attack of this kind were to be carried out from the territory not only of Iran, but also of Syria and southern Lebanon, where there are probably rocket depots in Iran, the chances of destroying them once they are launched are drastically reduced.
Is Iran really a threat to the US and Israel?
For Israel, certainly not for the USA, because it does not have the technology of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It will not be soon enough for it to develop such a capacity.
How is the tightening of sanctions by the US affecting Iran?
The sanctions have a strong impact on the Iranian economy. Trade relations with Tehran are restricted by foreign companies, also Russian ones. For Iran, it is essential that China is present on its market, but it is also reducing its involvement. However, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs considers that the Union is not subject to sanctions. But the companies are waiting as they do not want to fall into disfavour of the United States. The sanctions also have the effect of mobilising Iranians against external threats. Even those who do not support the authorities will not rebel when the enemy is standing at the gates.
Will the hardliners have a say in that country?
Such a scenario cannot be ruled out, and it would have serious consequences for the Middle East, not necessarily in line with the interests of the United States. The reformist group will lose the argument that their policies are effective. The hardliners will find that the policy of submission has failed. If Hasan Rouhani’s team were to be removed from office, it is very likely that the nuclear programme would be defrosted, and thus there would be an excuse for an Israeli or Israeli-Arab attack. An American strike is less likely, although it cannot be ruled out.
What is the key to peace in the Middle East?
There is no such key. The Middle East will provide many security challenges over the next decades, both for Europe and for the world as a whole. We are talking about a region whose population has increased almost tenfold over the last half century. Such a huge birth rate, with rigid authoritarian power structures and a weak economy, is a fertile soil for many conflicts. If they take place within countries, they explode as revolutions, such as the Arab Spring or the protests that have been going on for weeks in Algeria and Sudan – in these two Arab countries of North Africa, the people are protesting against the dictators in power. Young people are not satisfied with the stability provided by current power. Some of the protests turn into civil wars, which are quickly internationalised. Conflicts have broken out in Libya, Syria and Yemen, and their neighbours have used those conflicts to wage their indirect wars. Today, traditional confrontation between states is rare. In internal conflicts, the state, militias, independence movements and terrorist organisations clash with each far more often. The greatest dilemma in the Middle East is the lack of a political model to follow in Arab countries that would link democracy and Islam, eliminating corruption and ensuring economic growth.
Łukasz Fyderek, PhD
He is a political scientist specialising in the Middle East. He is an assistant professor at the Institute of the Middle and Far East at the Jagiellonian University.
autor zdjęć: Michał Zieliński