The 3 Regional Winds Blowing over the Middle East
The 3 Regional Winds Blowing over the Middle East
If we are to depict the current situation in the Arab Near East, perhaps the best description would be a boat beaten by strong winds and high seas.
Behind this grim picture stand two worrying factors: The first is the quality of regional and global leaders involved with the region’s affairs. The second is the pressing time element influencing decision makers at every level, ranging from the US elections to the Chinese and Russian ambitions, as well as Covid-19 with all its worldwide repercussions.
Today, in Lebanon, for example, there are two well-known initiatives dealing with internal crises in the aftermath of the Beirut port disaster on August 4. Tey are the French initiative presented by President Emmanuel Macron during his two visits to Beirut, and the American initiative carried to the Lebanese by the assistant secretaries of state David Hale and David Schenker.
Throughout the last couple of weeks, a lot has been said about how far or close the two initiatives are, and whether the differences are purely “tactical” or “strategic” and “serious” in their approaches to the future of Lebanon and the region; and be they what they may, neither side is willing to make them clear in the runup to the US elections.
So far, and thanks to its old “mandatory” and religious ties with Lebanon’s Christians, and its “good” relations with Iran, France seems to think that it can carry out a policy of “carrot and stick” with the local players in Iran’s dominated Lebanon. Indeed, through damaging leaks, open admonition and threats of sanctions and halt of all form of aid, France has managed to silence the Lebanese players, and forced on them someone it trusts to form the next cabinet.
As for the American initiative, and following a tour of “listening” made by Mr. Hale shortly after the port disaster, and just after President Macron’s second visit, Mr. Schenker took the unusual step of boycotting the Lebanese leaders, and talking instead to the activists and rebellious politicians, whether through resignation from parliament or their adoption of the civil society’s uprising.
Evidently, the role of Hezbollah – indeed, Iran’s regional project – has been the major open difference between the French and American approaches. For while Paris views Hezbollah as a Lebanese political and sectarian “ingredient” that must not be ostracized or kept out of the country’s government, Washington regards it as a “terrorist organization” that has imposed itself thanks to its arsenal on its own community, as well as the Lebanese population and political system.
From this standpoint it becomes possible to see Paris’ considerations, as well as other European capitals, that continue to support the Iranian nuclear deal, or JCPOA, despite their full knowledge of the regional dangers of Iran’s expansionist project and its repercussions.
Among the abovementioned French considerations are the following:
1- Iran can be a regional political and strategic partner, in addition of being a promising consumer market and economic powerhouse; more so after the emergence the Turkish threat in the eastern Mediterranean.
2- Despite the broad and old common understanding between the US and the West European powers, the main interests of President Donald Trump seem a bit different from his European allies’ priorities and interests. In fact, US and European officials have recently been talking about the worry that Trump may be thinking of withdrawing from NATO if re-elected next November.
On the other hand, although the relations between West European powers and Israel are quite good, the former do not believe that Israel – particularly, the Likud – must be the indispensable channel to good relations with Arab and non-Arab Middle Eastern countries, as seems to be the case with President Trump. But in any case, the Israeli right does not look concerned about or unhappy with Iran’s expansionist project, because it is diluting old Arab animosity towards Israel, and diverting it towards the Iranian threat from the east. This is particularly the case with the Gulf countries that have always been apprehensive of Iranian ambitions since the days of the Shah.
Meanwhile, there is a mirror-image situation, when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and their local arms occupy, murder and destroy in their “occupation-intended” expansion inside Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and even Yemen under the pretext of “liberating Palestine”. Thus, in what looks like a tacit agreement, Iran’s “hawks” have been the main beneficiaries from the Likud’s policies of settlement building and annexation under Benjamin Netanyahu.
Finally, there is the issue of Turkey.
Resurrecting the “threat” of ISIS and other Sunni extremist organizations has become a valuable tool for Tehran’s project in Lebanon, especially after proving its huge benefits in Syria and Iraq with Russian blessings, and tacit American and Israeli approval.
At the moment, it is thought that certain intelligence agencies are “manufacturing” and sponsoring such extremist gangs of brainwashed and marginal hardliners, be they Lebanese or Palestinian and Syrian refugees. The aim(s) may be:
1- “Demonizing” the Sunnis at a time when Turkey is flexing its muscles and backing Islamist hardliners in the eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean and Libya.
2- Convincing naïve Lebanese that Hezbollah must keep its arms, and that Michel Aoun is going into an “alliance of minorities” with the pro-Iran militia was a wise decision.
3- Facilitating the escape of Hezbollah and its Christian ally (Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement) from facing justice and answering questions about the Beirut port disaster, as well as preoccupy the Lebanese people with issues of internal security, and shifting their eyes away from Hezbollah’s illegitimate arms that has been to a large extent responsible for covering up corruption and threatening the incorruptible.
Turkey’s ambition, which is now for all to see, in northern Syria, northern Iraq and western Libya, is being brandished more than ever since the end of WWI. Erdogan is truly being portrayed as a potential protector of the Sunnis against Iranian aggressive expansionism and Christian calls for “neutrality”.
Actually, in the few days after the Beirut disaster, there were shy calls to transfer shipping activities from the badly hit Beirut port to the port of Tripoli. However, they were all quashed, claiming that Lebanon’s second largest city, and major Sunni population center was a potential Turkish stronghold. Later, the killing of three young men in a Christian north Lebanon village was also linked with pro-Turkey “Islamists”.
These “intersecting” developments look and sound weird, but they should not be unexpected between now and the US elections in November.