The McAlvany Weekly Commentary
with David McAlvany and Kevin Orrick
Kevin: David, today the issue is the Middle East and Kamran Bochari has been a guest that we have had on a number of times during this evolving situation, because what once were nations are now turning into just rogue states, actually, and these rogue states are falling prey to non-state actors, so it’s hard to keep up with Syria, Egypt, you name it.
David: If you were to think of there being one anchor or a rock immoveable in the Middle East, it would be Israel. With the amount of changes that have occurred, post Arab spring, and as you mention, transition from state actors and the secular nationalists, the autocratic regimes, to now non-state actors, and fledgling democracies, if they are that, then yes, there is a lot of clarification that needs to take place, because you still have a vying for power in the region. Will it be Turkey? Will it be Iran? Will it be Egypt? How will that play out?
It is very significant in terms of world events, Middle Eastern peace and also things like the price of oil and the world economy. So we are continuing our conversation with Kamran Bochari, an analyst with Stratfor Global Intelligence. We looking today at the changes in the Middle East which are of a critical nature to the stability, not only of the region, but also a contributing factor to a world which is either in economic recovery, or not, moving toward greater political stability, or not.
Too often, Americans limits their range of interest to the draft, not the military draft, but the first-round draft picks in the NFL and what have you. Domestic policy issues barely reach the radar screen, and it’s very, very important to move beyond provincial interests to issues which have great importance. The Middle East has been long considered the cradle of civilization and it has, and will continue to, play a dominant role in world politics and geo-economic stability.
Robert Kaplan, who is a fellow analyst with Kamran Bochari at Stratfor Global Intelligence says, “The combination of blood, belief, and technology, have given us a neo-medieval map, that rather than one of flourishing civilizations, is, in the case of Syria and Iraq, one of clans, gangs, and chaos. That is perhaps where we could start. The new map of the Middle East is, in some respects, like the old map of the Middle East in medieval times, where frankly, what we have today in terms of normal frontiers and borders, were undefined then, and to some degree, they are undefined now. Influence and control was really amongst strongmen, with the proximity of their strength being right next to them.
We have Turkey. We have overlapping issues between Turkey and Syria, with Kurdish separatists, and what not. We have, of course, the Lebanese issues in the south of Syria, fueled by Hezbollah. There are factions in Islam, which are, obviously, plentiful. But it’s difficult, I think, for us to understand the granularity involved, the importance of some of the distinctions. Maybe you could begin this conversation with us today, Kamran, looking at the Arab Spring, what began happening with the Arab spring, and what that has set in motion. Then we can talk about Syria and some of the other factors, even stretching on to Afghanistan.
Kamran Bochari: Yes, I would, actually. Before I jump into the Arab Spring, as Kaplan has written, the idea of fixed borders is actually something that is an exception, rather than the rule, to the general history of mankind. If we look at the last 100 years or so, or however we want to define the modern age, what has existed in the form, or at least, the effort to have nation states with fixed territories, recognized internationally, is a new phenomenon, considering the bulk of human history.
I don’t think, necessarily, it has something to do with the Middle East, though, because the question of the Middle East did not really get settled with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and rise of the European colonial powers and the decolonization of the area. We are still evolving from that major development where we had the collapse of large empires and the inability of some nation states to really take hold, with, of course, some large exceptions, Turkey being one of them, Iran being another one, and then there is Egypt.
Having said that, the Arab Spring is in the process of undoing the order that was established in the post-colonial age where you had secular nationalist autocratic regimes emerge. Those regimes are either in meltdown, or have completely collapsed, as is the case with Libya, and we are witnessing something very similar in the case of Syria. With the exception of Syria, we have moved beyond the uprising phase, or the revolutionary phase, as many would put it, and we are now in a transitional period where the oldest regimes are done, or on their last legs, and the question is if we are going to move to something that is going to replace the old order. So once the ancien régime is gone, we don’t have a new one, and that’s where the struggle lies within the region.
David: This goes back to that notion that there is, perhaps, a solidarity group, a family tie, some sort of dynasty that needs to be created in the place of what has been just displaced. Is that really what we are beginning to see? Who will send down roots? Who will represent, not the autocratic regime of the past, but some sort of regime here in the immediate future?
Kamran: I would look at this in the form of stakeholders. I think that is a good enough general term to encompass the various actors actually in play. Yes, there are tribes, there are notable families, there are clans, there are what we would call organized criminal entities, and of course, political parties, ideological groups, economic interests. So we will just use the word stakeholder, and I think all of those stakeholders are now looking at threats and opportunities, threats in the sense that for those who have benefitted from the old order, and are now in a state of uncertainty as to where their fortunes are headed, there is the element of threat. There are opportunities for those who are out of power, and there are lots of groups that were out of power, and now there is an opportunity for them to seek power, but they have internal incoherence, and I guess the word here that really tells the story is fragmentation.
For example, if you look at the Islamists in Egypt. They are an extremely fragmented group, to the point that the word Islamist has become meaningless, if you will, because who are we really talking about? Are we talking about the Brotherhood, are we talking about the Salafists? Then within the Brotherhood, who are we really talking about because there is so much internal fractionalization? There are at least 7 or 8 different Salafist parties that have come out and registered themselves as political forces in Egypt.
And then there is a wider Salafist camp that is still out there in the apolitical realm. And so fragmentation and multiplicity of actors with overlapping interests are locked in a struggle with each other, and with remnants of the old order.
And there are still quite strong centers of power. For example, in Egypt the military is pretty strong, the judiciary is there, the bureaucracy is there, and we can make a similar case for Tunisia. There are also still society forces that don’t have to do with the state, particularly in a place like Tunisia, where there is a resistance to a rise of Islamist forces, and it is a fairly robust resistance, although it doesn’t get the coverage in the media that it probably deserves, but there is a push and pull in multiple directions.
David: When we look at the developments in Syria, we continue to see arms come from Russia, and support from across the Iraqi desert, coming from Iran. You have Hezbollah fighters coming up north from Lebanon, encouraged and funded by Iran. It would appear that the Assad regime has, perhaps, enough support to not flicker or flame out at any time in the near future, very hesitant participation by the West, some support for the rebels coming from European states, some behind the scenes support coming from the U.S., and perhaps the most outright support coming from the Saudi government, looking for some sort of a Sunni counterweight in the region. As you look at Syria, have we lost time? Two years. Is it too late to be involved? Is there any point to being involved? We know what the red line is, according to Obama, but in the absence of chemical warfare, do we escalate and see the toppling of the Assad regime, or with the support that he has from Iran and Russia, is he here to stay, at least for some time?
Kamran: I think the idea that we lost time assumes that there was time in the beginning. In other words, an intervention of sorts was perhaps possible in the beginning, but if you go back and look at each stage, if there are stages that can be discerned over the last two years, you would find that the same argument would be made, and quite powerfully, that the risks of intervention are far greater than the benefits. So I don’t think that we could look at it in that sort of a respect.
And of course, the United States’ red line is also shifting, if you will. If you look at the red line of the use of chemical weapons, or just the involvement of chemical weapons in the Syrian theater, there are two aspects to it: One is if the regime were to use those chemical weapons, and we have seen in the last 24-48 hours where the United States government from the highest levels has actually acknowledged that, in limited forms, these weapons have been used. There is evidence to suggest that obviously, the statements, as you go through them, are heavily caveated. Nonetheless, there is now a sort of progression where it’s not just, “Once you use chemical weapons we will come in.” There is a qualifier to it, in terms of, to what level and scale are these weapons being used. That’s the first red line.
There is another red line, which is that if these weapons were under the risk of falling into the wrong hands, i.e., Islamist militant non-state actors, Jihadists, and other unsavory characters such as Hezbollah, that would constitute, or warrant, an intervention. So the red line, itself, has shifted over a period of time.
As to your question about the endurance of the regime, well, the regime needs to be defined, as well. One of the things to keep in mind is that it would be really fair to say that President Assad and his regime, for lack of a better term, have actually devolved, because it has lost control over large swaths of the country, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he is perhaps devolving to the level of a non-state actor, still, the most powerful non-state actor in the country because of the intrinsic strength of the regime over the decades. This is not a Libya, definitely not a Tunisia, and very different from Egypt, where we saw the strongmen toppled.
Then there is a large amount of support, as you mentioned, from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Russia, and there is a general aversion on the part of the United States and its allies to go for the jugular of the regime. So yes, the regime is going to endure, but it is also changing form. So its writ is shrinking, albeit very slowly, but nonetheless, very noticeably, because if large parts of the countryside out in the east and the north and the south are in the hands of disparate rebel groups, then that is not the same regime that we were looking at a year ago.
Then there is the question of the personality of President Assad, his family, his clan, the Alawite sect, which dominates the existing order, and of course, the Baath party and its military apparatuses. We could see that with President Assad, it is very feasible that what happened last year in July with the bombing at the National Security Agency where three top-level officials of the government were assassinated, at some point President Assad could fall victim to an assassin’s bullet or suicide bombing. This is not beyond the realm of possibility, so what happens then? Does that mean that the regime collapses? It could. But it is in the interest of those surrounding President Assad, the various elements of his regime and the outside supporters, to be aware of such a risk. They are likely prepared to continue to try to endure. So we really need to be careful with terminology of regime collapse and regime change, and so on.
David: Some of the complexity in the region does go back to Afghanistan, and I know you would like to talk a little bit about Afghanistan today, but before we get there, maybe the Afghanistan of yesterday, the U.S. put money behind the most likely to succeed in the conflict between the Afghan freedom fighters and the USSR, going back decades. They happen to be the most radical in their Islamic beliefs, and thus, most willing to fight to the death. Now we have the same issue with the Saudis funding the most radical resistance movements in Syria on a most-likely-to-succeed basis.
But the question remains, what challenges does this present diplomatically, moving out 5, 10, 15 years? In the meantime, for the Saudis, it appears that the disaffected youth in Saudi Arabia have a place to go and to fight, and this is, of course, conjecture, but perhaps the Saudi government sees this as a place for them to die, disassociated from the Saudi Kingdom and the rumblings of discontentment amongst this group of disaffected youth.
But the conflict lasts longer when you empower and essentially give real-world training to the most committed Islamists. We’ve seen that in Afghanistan, with the later birth of Al Qaeda. What are we giving birth to here in the midst of allowing the rebels who are fighting the Assad regime to grow? Explain some of this complexity for us.
Kamran: In an effort to roll back Iranian influence in the region, the Saudis have actually devoted a disproportionate amount of their resources to the fight in Syria. If you look at the map of the region, strategically, you will see that regime change in Iraq allowed Iran at least to have the opportunity to create a contiguous sphere of influence stretching from Western Afghanistan all the way to the Eastern Mediterranean in Lebanon. That was the case just before the Arab Spring hit Syria in March of 2011. Until then, from the Iranian point of view, from their strategic window, it was blue skies because they had achieved what they had wanted and things were looking bright and good.
From the Saudi point of view this was really a nightmare scenario because their regional rival, their historical sectarian rival, had gained a disproportionate amount of influence. Not only was the buffer of Iraq gone, but now there was potentially a large Iranian sphere of influence, just really overbearing for the Saudis. The Syrian conflict, the uprising, created an opportunity for the Saudis to say, “Here is where we can punch a hole in this sphere of influence,” and a significant one, one that would not only undermine Iranian influence in Syria, but if the Syrian regime were to collapse, Iranian influence in Lebanon would weaken, Hezbollah would be disconnected in many ways from the Iranians.
And the nascent Iranian position in Iraq would also come under an extreme amount of pressure. So as long as the Iranians are on the defensive, they can’t go on the offensive. In this quest, the Saudis have essentially adopted a policy where the drumbeat of Jihad in Syria is essentially based on the idea that you will find the most zealous of all religious elements will be the ones that would be the most effective fighters, as we have seen in Iraq, as we have seen in Afghanistan.
Those fighters, some of whom may have, at some point, opposed the Saudis, have been redirected to the fight in Syria, because the motivation is that these are Shi’a, and then the regime, itself, is not even Shi’a, it is Alawite, which is considered, from the Saudi point of view, worse than the Shi’a. And so there is a sectarian religious motivation to fight this regime that has oppressed the Sunni majority of the country, and therefore it is creating a landscape of battle-hardened fighters who will pose a problem later on.
In other words, the Saudis, through the deployment of Jihad in Syria, are creating a new manifestation of jihadism. In other words, you will have a new form of Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda has become this general purpose moniker to explain all forms of Islamist militants, but from our point of view, Al Qaeda in Syria would represent an element, a force, that would not necessarily in the future even be willing to, if you will, align with Saudi interests.
As we have learned in Iraq, and as we have learned in Afghanistan, once you set proxies into motion, it doesn’t take long for them to go independent, especially if they have their own ideology, their own agenda, and for them to take on a life of their own, as we saw in Afghanistan.
I think that’s what we are looking at in Syria, and the danger in Syria is that it borders some key countries. It borders Israel, it borders Lebanon and Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. The risk of spillover, the risk of a regional conflict, is very high. And in their effort to undermine the Iranian influence, it seems that the Saudis are overlooking the cost of this investment. One of the motivating factors for them, or at least which gives them comfort, is that they don’t have a border with Syria, so they feel that they are insulated from whatever spillover or unintended consequences will emerge from this investment.
David: And that seems to be a primary consideration for us, if they are overlooking the cost. Essentially, they are trying to check the power, as you say, of the Iranian regime, but are adding to what is already developing as a real issue in the Middle East, that many more non-state actors. That is, as you say, maybe it is far enough away, but for everyone else in the Middle East, we have the U.S. which has just sent the first armored division, around 200 troops deployed to Jordan, under the guise of assisting the Jordanians in handling Syrian refugees. We also have the U.S. just signing an arms deal with Israel, with Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates.
And very interestingly, it appears, at least from what is a part of that arms deal, to be focused on Iran, and not on the emergence of these non-state actors like Al Qaeda. With Israel, we have the KC135 Strata Tankers, the mid-air refueling – that’s being put on the table. We have the AGM-88 anti-radar missiles and the Osprey aircraft.
If you look at the anti-radar missiles, the Strata Tankers for mid-air refueling, Tehran is 1500+ miles away, it seems that we are throwing our weight in, not necessarily into the Syrian conflict, but we are trying to create something of a deterrence in the region. I think it is the United Arab Emirates that is going to receive the Desert Falcons, 26 of the F16s. Is this what we are seeing? That the way we play our hand, in terms of foreign policy, is by some sort of buying of deterrence, if you will?
Kamran: Yes, absolutely, and I think at the heart of all of the strategic outlook is the question of how to balance between two sets of threats, one threat being Sunni radicalism, whether in the form of non-state actors, or the rise of an Islamist regime, or one that could be as moderate as the Brotherhood in Egypt, or Aanada in Tunisia, but nonetheless, having a significant divergence of interest with the United States. That is one level of threat.
On the other hand, you have the Iranian-led radicalism, which is another form of a threat where Iran has its own competing vision of what the region should look like and supports groups like Hezbollah, and ultimately would like to consolidate its gains in Iraq and preserve them from any fallout from Syria.
The United States and its allies are caught between these two trends, and therefore, it has to balance, and if you look at the history of the last 10-12 years, you will see sort of a pendulum effect. Right after 9/11 the United States aligned itself with Iran to fight the rise of what was a common enemy, Al Qaeda and Jihadism, and then the Taliban, and then, of course, with the invasion of Iraq, that was something that was very much in the interest of the Iranian government.
At some point, after regime collapse in Iraq, and when it became apparent that the Shi’ite and Kurdish partners of the United States who worked with them to topple Saddam, were actually much closer to Iran than to the United States, and that is when the United States decided that it was perhaps time to swing back to the Sunni world and reach out to the Sunni insurgents and that is where we saw the arise of the Awakening Councils in Iraq, the tribal militia that fought Al Qaeda and then were encouraged to join the political system so as to create a balance.
Now, with the rise of the Arab Spring, and the situation in Mali, and in Libya, and the national gas facility that was attacked in Algeria, the attack on the U.N. diplomatic post in Libya during the anti-Mohammed movie, the controversy last year, and more recently, with Syria going the way of Jihadism, at least in the form of non-state actors, all of this is forcing the United States to revise its strategy and say that perhaps it’s time to swing a bit back toward Iran, because ultimately, there is no permanent fix. You can’t completely deal with Iran because of the obvious complications of the nuclear issue, the three-some decades of nondiplomatic relations with the United States.
So there is a lot of ground to cover there, but at least if there is some sort of a tactical understanding, then there perhaps is a way to balance between these two types of threats. Hence we see the statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, who, last month in March actually said that the government in Syria and the rebels need to reach a negotiated settlement. We are seeing some faint signs of progress, or at least what appears to be progress, in the nuclear talks. But it seems like there is this constant balancing act that the United States and its allies have to pursue in order to be able to deal with the region of the Middle East.
David: It is a balancing act, and it is a balancing act in a context that seems fairly unstable. As we conclude, and as you are looking at the region as a whole, I know that when we took the balance of power between Iraq, Egypt, and Iran, and upset that balance of power, that was our own doing, our foreign policy, perhaps a misstep. Clearly we had our reasons, many of them maybe unfounded, some of them may have been well-founded, but the Middle East now is what it is.
So when we are thinking of Turkey, we are again thinking of another state actor in this balancing act between Iraq, Iran, Egypt, and of course, Turkey, playing a major role. Do we begin to see an ultimate codification, or solidification, of leadership in the Middle East? Are the elections coming up in June in Iran a significant event? Or can we expect to see Turkey continue to move toward the re-establishment of the Ottoman Empire, as arrogant as at least suggested.
Kamran: I think that the United States, for some time now, has sought to rely on Turkey to help it manage the Middle East. Turkey is in a much better place than the United States because it is indigenous to the region. There are historic religious and cultural linkages, and there are political linkages. The problem with Turkey’s ability to manage the Middle East is that immediately on its three borders it finds itself, for lack of a better term, blocked by Iran. You have the Turkish-Iranian border, Iran and Turkey share a border, so it is a major power, a competitor to Turkey, but Iran, though it is not as powerful at Turkey, nonetheless, enjoys a disproportionate amount of influence in the border regions of Turkey.
Looking at Iraq, it is almost completely under Iranian influence, with some notable exceptions, but nonetheless, it is fair to say that Iran has far more influence in Iraq than Turkey does. Turkey is trying to develop influence, especially with the link with the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government, which also helps Turkey deal with another major domestic problem, which is Kurdish separatism. So in an effort to deal with Iranian influence and its own domestic Kurdish insurgency, the Turks are trying to develop relations with Iraq, but still, it is going to take a while before that will happen and we are not sure if this is a linear process at all.
There is another border that Turkey has and that is with Syria, and that brings us back to the Syrian crisis, because from Turkey’s point of view, it doesn’t share the Saudi zeal to undermine Iranian influence. But nonetheless, if this regime in Syria were to be replaced with a more favorable regime that is close to Turkey, then Turkey would have made some significant inroads into what has long been the Iranian sphere of influence. And once in Syria, it could go back to the old Ottoman times where it was able to project power in the wider Middle East, stretching to the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and of course, North Africa. There, Turkey runs into Egypt, and Egypt, though one of the weakest players right now in the entire region, in fact, the weakest amongst the major states in the Middle East, nonetheless, is not ready to just accept Turkish hegemony. And we have seen evidence of push-back.
For example, last year in August when Prime Minister Erdogan visited Egypt, he said in a speech that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership should not be afraid of secularism and should embrace it, because it doesn’t really contradict our religious values. The Muslim Brotherhood essentially shot back and said, “We appreciate your achievements and we respect them, but we don’t need a lecture on secularism, we have our own views.” And if you look at it beyond the ideological level, and look at it historically, Egypt has always been resistant to Turkish hegemony in the region.
So for Turkey to be able to deal with the region, it has to deal with Iran. It somehow has to go around it. Turkey is not interested in a conflict with Iran. Syria has to materialize, the Syrian conflict has to lead to some sort of a favorable outcome for the Turks, and then the Turks also have to deal with countries like Egypt. And there is obviously Saudi Arabia, and its politics in the region, that could diverge from Turkish interests. So that is the problem with Turkey. It is a potential power, but there are a lot of arrestors in its path.
David: And lastly, Israel is not a country that we are mentioning here as one who is vying for power and influence in the region, yet they are a significant player in the region. How would you define their significance today, and are they feeling stress and strain over the tactical understandings, as you have described, as they are developing? What is their position in response to Iran and Syria?
Kamran: If you look at it from the Israeli point of view, the region is tossing and turning in really unpredictable and very dangerous ways. One of the biggest problems or concerns for Israel is what will be the relationship with Egypt five years from now, two years from now, three years from now. Clearly, Egypt is not in a position to abrogate the Camp David Accords, or the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. That would be an extreme case, which is unlikely, given the weakness of Egypt and the dependence of Egypt on outside financial assistance, so that is not something that we can expect to happen. But short of that, there are lots of things that can go wrong, which is that Egypt has already begun to behave very differently. Egypt, under the Muslim Brotherhood government, is already beginning to assert itself. If you look at the Palestinian issue and the issue of Hamas, it has shown a bit more favorable attitude toward Hamas that strengthens Hamas’s bargaining position with the Israelis.
If you move to domestic politics in Egypt, from the Israeli point of view, the fear that the edifice that is the Egyptian state could somehow weaken to the point where the writ of the state no longer extends to key parts of the country, particularly the Sinai, meaning that it constitutes a security threat for Israel. So it may not be that the state of Egypt turns against Israel. Well before that there is the possibility that the state of Egypt, itself, may not be in a position to where other non-state actors threaten Israeli national security interests. So you have the Egyptian side.
The second most important, if you will, concern for the Israelis is obviously Syria right now, and we are seeing a lot of activity on that front, where the regime collapse, or the pending expected regime collapse in Damascus, creates a really, really tough situation for Israel in terms of if there will be another regime to replace President Assad. It is unlikely in the short to medium term.
And in that period, what kind of threats will emanate? There are all sorts of rebel forces who are currently fighting for Assad and his forces, but once that is done, what will they turn to? And with Al Qaeda playing in there with the recent merger between the Iraqi and Syrian branches of Al Qaeda and the rise of Salafi Jihadi groups in the Gaza strip, from the Israel point of view, this is a serious threat that somehow needs to be dealt with.
And then there is Jordan. Jordan’s king is growing weaker because of the Arab Spring. He is not in as bad of a position as the republican autocrats have been, but nonetheless, he is much weaker. Not only does he face the challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood in the country, but also from people who have historically supported him, the east bankers of the tribes of Jordan, and there is a lot of dissent there, as well.
And then, of course, there is Lebanon, and Hezbollah is there, and Iran is there, so this is a very, very dangerous strategic environment in which the Israelis have to live and they have to somehow manage this. The recent apology from the Israeli government to the Turks, essentially fulfilling that demand that has been in place for the past three years, suggests that the Israelis feel that they need to minimize the number of actors that they have to deal with in terms of opponents.
Reducing tensions with Turkey is one way of mitigating the risks in the environment, or at least bringing down the temperature in the region, and being able to have some options. But at the end of the day, the biggest problem of Israel is that it doesn’t have a whole lot of good options, or at least doesn’t have the tools of influence to be able to shape the Arab world, as it once used to when the autocratic regimes were very much in place.
David: When you mentioned that there is the issue of Egypt, and a greater support by the Brotherhood of the Palestinian issue, and of Hamas, at the same time we have Erdogan going to the Gaza strip, and maybe this adds a little bit more support for the Palestinian issue, requiring compromise inside the state of Israel. It seems that this is perhaps the stickiest situation they could possibly be in, losing influence regionally, perhaps even losing a strong position that they have had “domestically.”
Does this make Israel perhaps a little bit more tense and on edge? I don’t want to imply there is too much to this, as the KC135 Strata Tankers and the anti-radar missiles perhaps are mere deterrence, but is there the greater potential for an Iranian first strike, for instance, in an environment where the blood pressure is at a very high level to begin with, due to domestic issues, regional issues. Or are we really looking at Israel maintaining the “poise of the boy on the burning deck,” keeping their wits about them, and continuing to operate diplomatically and very calmly in what is, frankly, an increasingly chaotic region?
Kamran: I think it is the latter, because the evidence points to the fact that the Israelis are trying to maintain readiness for any eventuality, without actually being proactive in terms of shaping the region. As I mentioned earlier, they lack the tools to be able to shape the region moving forward, especially to oppose the Arab Spring.
They also have the experience of Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, with the invasion, and then the occupation of Lebanon, to deal with the PLO, and it created unintended consequences. Hezbollah was born out of that conflict. That conflict allowed Iran, with the help of Syria, to cultivate a group like Hezbollah and turn it, over the decades, into what it is right now. One could call it a state within a state. It doesn’t fit the classical non-state definition.
The Israelis see the risks of that. For example, if they were to intervene in Syria sometime down the road, if that were to be the case, it would be a limited intervention to deal with a specific tactical threat that was completely unbearable and intolerable and so they would need it to be done. But I don’t see a large-scale operation on the part of the Israelis because the situation is so fluid, and the Lebanese example is very apt, that when it was in a state of civil war, the Israeli invasion only made matters worse.
I think the United States is also looking at it from the same point of view, and hence, its own reluctance. I think it is going to want to encourage that Israel stay out of it as much as possible. But again, the question is, what are the options? Inaction is not an option, sitting by is not an option, so what we have, essentially, is a lack of good options from the Israeli point of view.
Let me actually step back and raise the question, what is a bigger threat for Israel right now? Iran and the possibility that it could, at some point in the future, carry out a military strike against Israel, or the immediate environment in which states are devolving into non-state actors, which is in the here and now, and in geographical proximity. In my opinion, I think that is a far greater threat to Israel than a distant Iran could be.
Israel is not going to let its guard down, it is going to maintain that level of military preparedness and continue to enhance it, but that is not the worry at this point. There are far bigger issues, namely Syria, and Syria being the most important, because at least in Egypt, you still have the military there. The monarchy in Jordan is still standing, it’s not about to wither away any time soon, though the situation is getting dire. But nonetheless, this is the strategic threat environment for Israel.
David: Kamran, thank you for helping us organize some of the issues in the Middle East as they relate to Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Israel, and we look forward to continuing or conversation when things develop, and when we need greater clarification. We appreciate your expertise.
Kamran: Thank you.
Kevin: David, it is fascinating to me that we have Kamran on probably once a year, and how much things change in that year. We were talking just a few years ago about Turkey’s relationship with Israel, and how it was under stress and strain, and that has evolved since the time we talked to Kamran about that.
David: And actually improved quite a bit. We still have this issue, as he mentions, of fragmentation, and of diverse pockets of power. The old power structures have been in decline and continue to be. The new power structures don’t yet have a full-fledged personality, and thus judging what they will be, in terms of either foe or friend, is something still to be determined, by either our state department, or those living in the Middle East trying to determine whither the winds blow.
Kevin: I think it is also interesting for a lot of our listeners watching Israel, in particular, to see what he said about their options. They really have no good options. Things are starting to crumble around them, and inaction is not necessarily correct action, as Kamran said.
David: As Kamran mentioned, maintaining readiness is the position they have to take, and we will continue to monitor the Middle East as something that is a bit of an X factor in terms of the global economy and stability, whether that is oil prices, and really the critical impact that the region can have on the world markets.
Later this year we will have Kamran back on as he publishes a book, Political Islam in the Age of Democratization. We talked to him today from London, where he is finishing his Ph.D.