If you want to understand the seemingly crazy dynamics in the Middle East – including the dramatic deterioration in Saudi-Iranian ties this week – the best place to start is to divide the region into quadrants.
Four parts, and not the standard two – Sunni vs Shi’a – stressed Eran Lerman, now a faculty member at the Shalem Academic Center in Jerusalem and a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. And Lerman knows a thing or two about quadrants in the Middle East, having served for the last six years – until leaving on October 1 – as deputy for foreign policy and international affairs on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Council.
As reverberations from Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr spread through the region this week, with the succeeding sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the cutting of diplomatic ties between the two countries, Lerman said the ideological divide in the region is not – as many simplistically maintain – between Shi’a and Sunni. Rather, he said, it is between three camps that are a variation on the Islamic totalitarian theme, and a fourth – a loosely defined group – that could be called the regional forces for stability.
Luckily, Lerman said, the first three camps – Iran, Islamic State, and the Muslim Brotherhood – are all fighting each other. Al-Qaida, or what is left of it, is part of a marginal element of jihadi Salafists in a field now dominated by ISIS.
These three camps, he said – borrowing a phrase used a few years back at the UN by Netanyahu – are “three branches of the same poisonous tree.”
And in the other corner, as a ringside announcer might bellow at a boxing match, are the forces of regional stability, the camp of which Israel is a core member.
This camp, Lerman said, now includes the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, “some elements in the Libyan game,” and even Algeria, which once upon a time was “fueled by fiery socialists, but now is a force of stability.” And, of course, the Kurds, though – Lerman pointed out – “the Turks are stabbing the Syrian Kurds in the back.”
Another country in this camp, though on the outer reaches of the region and a country Lerman said the West should be treating much better because of its strategic importance, is Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan – with which Israel has strong and constructive ties – is a majority Shi’ite country, which is one of the reasons that the effort to group the regional divisions into a battle between Shi’a and Sunni just doesn’t work.
Another reason why that division is not relevant is that Shi’ite Iran’s main ally in this battle for dominance is Bashar Assad of Syria, an Alawite, a sect Lerman said some consider beyond the fold of Islam.
Also, one of Iran’s main proxies – along with Hezbollah in Lebanon – is Islamic Jihad in Gaza, which is also Sunni.
And here is where things get real interesting.
Lerman characterized Islamic Jihad as a “fully owned Iranian proxy,” a “nasty organization sufficiently large to ensure that Hamas – which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood camp and not organically on Iran’s side – will not do a Sudanese dance.”
And, one may reasonably ask, what is a “Sundanese dance?” It is the simple shifting of alliances, almost overnight, from Iran to Saudi Arabia; from one Mideast quadrant to another.
After many years of providing Iran with a corridor for smuggling arms into Gaza and a “gateway into Africa” – in exchange, of course, for very generous military and financial aid – mostly Sunni Sudan last year switched allegiance and sought to get closer to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Notice that Sudan – Sudan! – was one of a number of countries in the region that joined Saudi Arabia in cutting off ties with Iran this week.
Islamic Jihad, Lerman said, is Iran’s leverage on Hamas to ensure that it, too, does not at one point abandon Iran for one of the other Islamic camps vying for domination.
Lerman noted that Hamas has “not been sufficiently motivated” to put an end to a situation in Gaza that should have been intolerable for it – namely, that a major armed organization there simply does not answer to its command.
While Hamas does get considerable material support from Iran, it is primarily linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Or, as Lerman put it succinctly, “Hamas works with the Iranians; PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] works for them.”
According to Lerman’s scorecard, Qatar is not in the “forces for stability camp” but, rather, in the Muslim Brotherhood camp, and Oman has ties with the Iranians.
Which leaves Turkey. Ah, Turkey. The Turkey of former AK Party leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who – as Lerman put it – thought until a few years ago that he could ride the Muslim Brotherhood camp to dominance in the region. But that was when Egypt was ruled by Mohamed Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood was on the rise. Now, obviously, things have changed, and Erdogan seems to find himself between camps.
It is absolutely no coincidence – and an indication of Turkey’s efforts now to move toward the camp of stability – that Erdogan’s first positive comment about Israel in years was made to reporters as he was flying back to Turkey from Saudi Arabia last week.
“Israel needs a country like Turkey in the region. We need to accept that we also need Israel. This is a reality of the region,” he said, likely influenced by what he heard in Riyadh.
“I am simplifying, but what is happening is this,” Lerman continued. “Islamic State is a very nasty, very ugly group very much committed to running in the face of all the human norms that we know, and it is quite dangerous in places. But ultimately they are not a contender for dominance in the region; they don’t have what it takes.”
Lerman said that whenever ISIS runs up against a force willing to resist it, as was seen recently in Iraq and Syria, “they are far less impressive than they were against the hapless Iraqi army after the Americans left.”
Lerman said he thinks Assad was interested in letting ISIS gain ground in Syria, “so he begins to look like a human being by comparison.”
While Israel must be alert to the ISIS threats in Syria, in Sinai, and potentially in Libya, “at the end of the day I don’t think ISIS will sweep the region, but [rather] will be slowly pushed back. We saw this at Ramadi in Iraq, and to some extent in Syria.”
The Muslim Brotherhood camp, he said, is also not as menacing as it appeared when Morsi ruled in Egypt for a year.
“In Egypt they are down and out, and in Tunisia they voluntarily accepted their role as a third fiddle, after they were in power for a short period.”
“So, he concluded, “it begins to loom as a fight between the Iranian camp that will be empowered by all the money that will flow as a result of the JCPOA (Iranian nuclear deal), and this camp of the forces for stability, of which the Saudis are central.”
The Saudis, Lerman said, came to the conclusion under King Salman that they can no longer do what they have done for years and let others fight for them to the death. In Yemen, he said, Saudi and UAE soldiers are “fighting and dying in not insignificant numbers in a battle against an Iranian proxy [the Houthis] in what they consider to be their back yard.
“They see the Houthi incursion into Yemen as an Iranian incursion into the Arabian Peninsula, aimed as an arrow directly at Mecca and Medina. Which is why they are fighting.
“The other side of the story is that they have probably come to the conclusion that they can no longer rely, or take for granted, that the Americans will do their work for them, as in the days of old,” he said.
“So we are looking at a region which is in two polar positions – the Iranian camp, which is on the march in places, particularly now that the Russians have undertaken to keep Assad from collapse; and the forces of stability, where the Saudis are now taking a much more aggressive stance – and they are signaling to the Americans that they will fight their way.”
What this all means for Israel, he said, “is that the regional forces for stability are more likely to be attentive to the need to keep the communication channels open with Israel, and to look for opportunities of cooperation, taking into account that the region is getting more dangerous, and that those who feel endangered should huddle together.”
Lerman said this may explain why Egypt, after three years, decided late last week to send back its ambassador to Israel, and why the Jordanians have “played a constructive role in trying to take the poison of the al-Aksa story out of the [current confrontation] with the Palestinians.”
In general, he said, the dramatic shifts in the region must be making the Palestinians “increasingly forlorn” – something that, he added, “partly accounts for the vicious undercurrent in their behavior. If they don’t do something nasty, who will pay attention to them or to what they fear is their plight?” Lerman agreed with the assessment of his former boss at the NSC, Yaakov Amidror, who told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week that one of the consequences of the Saudi-Iranian tension is that the Syrian war will continue to rage.
“Our reading of the situation in Syria from the very early stages was that this was not going to end like Egypt or Libya, that the country was too deeply divided, and essentially had gone into three different directions.”
Lerman divided the country into the Kurds in the north, the Sunnis in the space now largely occupied by Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and the Assad regime in the west.
This new Syria, he said, is a “fact of life.”
“I don’t think any effort – American diplomacy, Russian military, or Saudi, Iranian or Hezbollah intervention – can put Syria back together again in any way.
There is no point in sitting here or anywhere and waiting for the impossible to happen. Syria might as well be called Humpty Dumpty: all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not be able to put it back together again.”
As to whether that is good or bad for Israel, Lerman said it creates a situation where the position of the Assad regime and its allies will “remain precarious for a very long time. These allies include an armed organization [Hezbollah], with 100,000 rockets aimed at our children. The fact that they will be bound to be there, and not want to be fatally weakened by a conflict with us, does carry with it an element that enhances our long-term deterrence.”