People who think they know what will happen in the Middle East this summer are either prophetic or simply fooling themselves.
Western analysis has been inaccurate so many times that the forecasts seem more akin to throwing darts. From the unanticipated Iranian Revolution of 1979, to the unexpected Arab Spring, all analysts should be humbled by the past before speculating about the future. The situations this summer in Israel, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, etc. all could change at a moment’s notice.
When ISIS inevitably strikes in Europe or America this summer, America needs to resist being blinded by the horrific images of a terrorist attack and losing sight of the Pentagon’s new national defense strategy, which prioritizes “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism (as) the primary concern in US national security.” Iran’s rise in the Levant was a direct consequence of the previous strategy of prioritizing the defeat of ISIS over Iranian expansionism in Syria and Iraq.
America should be very concerned about the outcome that may emerge later this summer as a result of the recent Iraqi election, with the formation of a philo-Iranian parliament. The Iranian-controlled Hadi Al Amiri’s Fatah Alliance, which includes radical groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, has tentatively joined together with American nemesis Moqtad Al Sadr (Saeroon list) and his anti American platform.
Can America figure out a way this summer to encourage the Iraqi Arab Shi’ites to remain more independent from their Iranian non-Arab Persian Shi’ite co-religionists? Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the most important Iraqi Arab religious figure, has been against Iranian influence in Iraq. Can Secretary of State Mike Pompeo find any economic or other leverage to work against further Iranian encroachment? Interests create strange bedfellows in this region.
This is really an uphill task. Even the currently more pro-American Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi felt compelled to legalize incorporation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard-controlled Popular Mobilization Unit Hashd al-Shaabi militia into the Iraqi Army, in essence, a permanent Iranian military presence within Iraq.
As for Syria, America must make it clear to all parties this summer that American interests demand that its forces remain within Syria not only until ISIS is defeated, but until all Iranian, PMU and Hezbollah forces and bases have left Syria. Hopefully, Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton can convince US President Donald Trump of this necessity.
IF THERE is war this summer in Israel’s North, calling it the “Third Lebanon War” would be a misnomer. It will be a regional war involving Syria, Lebanon, Iran and possibly Turkey, Iraq, Russia and Jordan. Israel needs to continue its preparation for the new challenges it faces since the last Lebanon war of 2006, with the possibility of massive tunnels, advanced GPS-guided long-range missiles, and Hezbollah chemical weapons inherited from Syria.
One of the most crucial questions for the summer, as it affects every player in the region, is who will succeed ailing Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomenai? Will it be Ebrahim Raisi, another hardliner who this year stood on the Israeli-Lebanese border and said, “Soon we will witness the liberation of Jerusalem”?
American interests in the Mediterranean are complicated by the combination of Israel’s new relationship with Cyprus and Greece at the expense of NATO ally Turkey over access to Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields. Add the newly upgraded Russian naval base in Syria and Hezbollah threats against Israeli gas fields, and the next war could begin at sea. This summer, proactive diplomacy should be explored to lessen the possibility of this being the catalyst for the next war.
Will there be war this summer in Israel? It may not take much to set off the Northern front with Lebanon and Syria, with Hezbollah and Popular Mobilization Unit soldiers reportedly putting on Syrian regime uniforms and moving to within a few kilometers from the Israeli Golan border. Israel and America seek to avoid hostilities for as long as possible, but Iran is continually testing Israeli red lines in deconfliction zones, so miscalculations could spiral out of control.
Whether we like it or not, Russia has been made a player, with its American-sanctioned deescalation zones in Syria. Russia’s interest is stability in Syria to solidify its gains, especially its warm-weather port in Latakia. It is said that Russia is not a natural ally of Iran. Is there a way for America and Israel to leverage that natural division?
IN THE South, it may seem counterintuitive, but a perceived failure of the “Mass March of Return” could increase the chances of war if Hamas believes that their support among Gazans is decreasing and needs violence as a unifying factor.
There will be no reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah this summer or any time soon. The more important question to ask is who will follow the ailing Abbas if he succumbs to his infirmities this summer. When Abbas dies, a civil war could follow in the West Bank, with Hamas making a play to take over the Palestinian Authority. America should be reaching out to Palestinian Intelligence Chief Majid Faraj to prepare for the day after Abbas and prevent a Hamas takeover.
American sanctions this summer will be ramped up on Iran to further economically weaken the Iranian regime forcing it to either re-enter new nuclear negotiations that deal with all of its malevolent behavior, or risk the wrath of its people and the viability of its regime because of economic deprivation.
Don’t take your eye off of Jordan this summer. It is close to a failing state and a northern war on its border with a new flood of refugees could push it over the edge. Jordan could become an Islamist stronghold with the fall of the Hashemite dynasty. In addition, America should help Israel’s other cold ally, Egypt, before their next economic crisis, which could give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance for resurrection. Developing an economic plan to strengthen the Egyptian regime with reciprocal concessions on human rights is the way forward.
This summer America should begin to repair the damage caused by abandoning the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. The abandonment of the Kurds in Iraq and in northwest Syria was perceived by American allies in the region as America being an unreliable partner for the long run.
It is also the time to reengage with Qatar and see if there is some way Pompeo can dissuade it from its support of fundamentalist groups that undermine American allies in the Gulf. America needs to find a way for both the Saudis and Qataris to save face, with the goal being a Qatar closer to its natural allies in the Sunni Gulf, and the beginning of some “daylight” between Qatar and Iran, although it will be impossible for that distance to get too wide, with their shared interest in the world’s largest gas field. American leverage is the Al Udeid air base, which Qatar takes for granted as an insurance policy against Iranian aspirations.
What will happen this summer in the Middle East? Nobody knows, but an America that supports its allies and takes an active role in affairs, has a fighting chance to advance its interests in a complex region.
The writer, director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™, regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East. He is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, and The Forward.