A week and a half ago, Syria’s Kurds announced they are setting up an autonomous region in northeastern Syria. The announcement came after the Kurds wrested control over a chain of towns from al-Qaida in the ever metastasizing Syrian civil war.
The Kurds’ announcement enraged their nominal Sunni allies – including the al-Qaida forces they have been combating – in the opposition to the Assad regime. It also rendered irrelevant US efforts to reach a peace deal between the Syrian regime and the rebel forces at a peace conference in Geneva.
But more important than what the Kurds’ action means for the viability of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, it shows just how radically the strategic landscape has changed and continues to change, not just in Syria but throughout the Arab world.
The revolutionary groundswell that has beset the Arab world for the past three years has brought dynamism and uncertainty to a region that has known mainly stasis and status quo for the past 500 years. For 400 years, the Middle East was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Anticipating the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the British and the French quickly carved up the Ottoman possessions, dividing them between themselves. What emerged from their actions were the national borders of the Arab states – and Israel – that have remained largely intact since 1922.
As Yoel Guzansky and Erez Striem from the Institute for National Security Studies wrote in a paper published this week, while the borders of Arab states remain largely unchanged, the old borders no longer reflect the reality on the ground. “As a result of the regional upheavals, tribal, sectarian, and ethnic identities have become more pronounced than ever, which may well lead to a change in the borders drawn by the colonial powers a century ago that have since been preserved by Arab autocrats.”
Guzansky and Striem explained, “The iron-fisted Arab rulers were an artificial glue of sorts, holding together different, sometimes hostile sects in an attempt to form a single nation state. Now, the de facto changes in the Middle East map could cause far-reaching geopolitical shifts affecting alliance formations and even the global energy market.”
The writers specifically discussed the breakdown of national governments and the consequent growing irrelevance of national borders in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
And while it is true that the dissolution of central government authority is most acute in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, in every Arab state national authorities are under siege, stressed, or engaged in countering direct threats to their rule. Although central authorities retain control in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Bahrain, they all contend with unprecedented challenges. As a consequence, today it is impossible to take for granted that the regime’s interests in any Arab state will necessarily direct the actions of the residents of that state, or that a regime now in power will remain in power tomorrow.
Guzansky and Striem note that the current state of flux presents Israel with both challenges and opportunities. As they put it, “The disintegration of states represents at least a temporary deterioration in Israel’s strategic situation because it is attended by instability liable to trickle over into neighboring states…. But the changes also mean dissolution of the regular armies that posed a threat in the past and present opportunities for Israel to build relations with different minorities with the potential to seize the reins of government in the future.”
Take the Kurds for example. The empowerment of the Kurds in Syria – as in Iraq – presents a strategic opportunity for Israel. Israel has cultivated and maintained an alliance with the Kurds throughout the region for the past 45 years.
Although Kurdish politics are fraught with internal clashes and power struggles, on balance, the empowerment of the Kurds at the expense of the central governments in Damascus and Baghdad is a major gain for Israel.
And the Kurds are not the only group whose altered status since the onset of the revolutionary instability in the Arab world presents Israel with new opportunities. Among the disparate factions in the disintegrating Arab lands from North Africa to the Persian Gulf are dozens of groups that will be thrilled to receive Israeli assistance and, in return, be willing to cooperate with Israel on a whole range of issues.
To be sure, these new allies are not likely to share Israeli values. And many may be no more than the foreign affairs equivalent of a one-night stand. But Israel also is not obliged to commit itself to any party for the long haul. Transactional alliances are valuable because they are based on shared interests, and they last for as long as the actors perceive those interests as shared ones.
Over the past week, we have seen a similar transformation occurring on a regional and indeed global level, as the full significance of the Obama administration’s withdrawal of US power from the region becomes better understood. When word got out two weeks ago about the US decision to accept and attempt to push through a deal with Iran that would strip the international sanctions regime of meaning in return for cosmetic Iranian concessions that will not significantly impact Iran’s completion of its nuclear weapons program, attempts were made by some Israeli and many American policy-makers to make light of the significance of President Barack Obama’s moves.
But on Sunday night, Channel 10 reported that far from an opportunistic bid to capitalize on a newfound moderation in Tehran, the draft agreement was the result of months-long secret negotiations between Obama’s consigliere Valerie Jarrett and Iranian negotiators.
According to the report, which was denied by the White House, Jarrett, Obama’s Iranian-born consigliere, conducted secret talks with Iranian negotiators for the past several months. The draft agreement that betrayed US allies throughout the Arab world, and shattered Israeli and French confidence in the US’s willingness to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, was presented to negotiators in Geneva as a fait accompli. Israel and Saudi Arabia, like other US regional allies were left in the dark about its contents. As we saw, it was only after the French and the British divulged the details of the deal to Israel and Saudi Arabia that the Israelis, Saudis and French formed an ad hoc alliance to scuttle the deal at the last moment.
The revelation of Jarrett’s long-standing secret talks with the Iranians showed that the Obama administration’s decision to cut a deal with the mullahs was a well-thought-out, long-term policy to use appeasement of the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism as a means to enable the US to withdraw from the Middle East. The fact that the deal in question would also pave the way for Iran to become a nuclear power, and so imperil American national security, was clearly less of a concern for Obama and his team than realizing their goal of withdrawing the US from the Middle East.
Just as ethnic, regional and religious factions wasted no time filling the vacuum created in the Arab world by the disintegration of central governments, so the states of the region and the larger global community wasted no time finding new allies to replace the United States.
Voicing this new understanding, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Wednesday that it is time for Israel to seek out new allies.
In his words, “The ties with the US are deteriorating. They have problems in North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Egypt, China, and their own financial and immigration troubles. Thus I ask – what is our place in the international arena? Israel must seek more allies with common interests.”
In seeking to block Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Israel has no lack of allies. America’s withdrawal has caused a regional realignment in which Israel and France are replacing the US as the protectors of the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
France has ample reason to act. Iran has attacked French targets repeatedly over the past 34 years. France built Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor while Saddam was at war with Iran. France has 10 million Muslim citizens who attend mosques financed by Saudi Arabia. Moreover, France has strong commercial interests in the Persian Gulf. There is no doubt that France will be directly harmed if Iran becomes a nuclear power.
Although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s meeting Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin did not bring about a realignment of Russian interests with the Franco- Sunni-Israeli anti-Iran consortium, the very fact that Netanyahu went to Moscow sent a clear message to the world community that in its dealings with outside powers, Israel no longer feels itself constrained by its alliance with the US.
And that was really the main purpose of the visit. Netanyahu didn’t care that Putin rejected his position on Iran. Israel didn’t need Russia to block Jarrett’s deal. Iran is no longer interested in even feigning interest in a nuclear deal. It was able to neutralize US power in the region, and cast the US’s regional allies into strategic disarray just by convincing Obama and Jarrett that a deal was in the offing. This is why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again threatened to annihilate Israel this week. He doesn’t think he needs to sugar coat his intentions any longer.
It is not that the US has become a nonentity in the region overnight, and despite Obama’s ill-will toward Israel, under his leadership the US has not become a wholly negative actor. The successful Israeli-US test of the David’s Sling short-range ballistic missile interceptor on Wednesday was a clear indication of the prevailing importance of Israel’s ties with the US. So, too, the delivery this week of the first of four US fast missile boats to the Egyptian navy, which will improve Egypt’s ability to secure maritime traffic in the Suez Canal, showed that the US remains a key player in the region. Congress’s unwillingness to bow to Obama’s will and weaken sanctions on Iran similarly is a positive portent for a post-Obama American return to the region.
But when America returns, it will likely find a vastly changed regional landscape. Nations are disintegrating, only to reintegrate in new groupings. Monolithic regimes are giving way to domestic fissures and generational changes. As for America’s allies, some will welcome its return. Others will scowl and turn away. All will have managed to survive, and even thrive in the absence of a guiding hand from Washington, and all will consequently need America less.
This changed landscape will in turn require the US to do some long, hard thinking about where its interests lie, and to develop new strategies for advancing them. So perhaps in the fullness of time, we may all end up better off for this break in US strategic rationality.