Middle Israel: None of our business

As of this writing, King Gog has yet to arrive at Jerusalem’s gates.

August 2, 2012 15:25
Peter the Great

Peter the Great. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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Had Ezekiel joined us for the nightly news these summer evenings he might have had a heart attack. Fathoming the bloodbath in Syria and its countless protagonists and extras, the prophet from the rivers of Babylon might have concluded that King Gog is about to emerge from Magog and march on Jerusalem.

After all, the mega-war Ezekiel envisioned was to span much of the Eurasian rim that is lynch-pinned by today’s Iran and Turkey, and involves “many nations” (38:5) – arguably an allusion to the colorful array of tribes, faiths and powers that lurk behind the Sunni insurgents, Shi’ite reinforcements, Alawite corridors, Druse bastions, Kurdish strongholds, Christian enclaves, Iranian supplies, Russian arms, Saudi transactions, Turkish encampments, Qatari intrusions, and American admonitions that have become part of an Israeli dinner’s background music.

Well fortunately, the “mighty army” Ezekiel saw converging on us, along with its troops – “all of them riding horses,” storming our way “the way cloud covers land” – has yet to gather. And while it is tempting to see in us that attack’s target – a nation “gathered from among the nations” and busy nursing “reclaimed desolations,” as Ezekiel put it – Ezekiel also said Gog’s attack would target a people “dwelling without walls and having neither bars nor gates,” pretty much the perfect opposite of what the Jewish state has now come to be.

Sure, with this brawl flanked by nuclear weapons on one end and chemical droppings on the other, who can promise us that this rapidly thickening plot will not culminate in cosmic tumult; that the land will quake so hard that the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the beasts in the field, “and all creeping things that creep upon the earth, and all the men that are upon the face of the earth” will shake with it, “and even the mountains shall be thrown down, and the deep places shall fall, and every wall shall fall to the ground.”

Even so, with all due respect to biblical analogies, chances are low we are about to see a heavenly sword chase Israel’s enemies “throughout all the mountains” while “every man’s sword will be against his brother” and the skies will rain on them “great hailstones, fire and brimstone.”

Instead, what we are seeing is a prosaic clash of tribes on the ground floor, regional powers on the second floor and superpowers on the rooftops – in the aftermath of which our enemies will have merely been rearranged, and their enmity reinforced.

What, then, is going on and how should Israel respond to it? THE FIRST thing that is going on is the demise of the European architecture of the northern Middle East.

Like the Congress of Vienna, whose design of post- Napoleonic Europe lasted for a century, the Anglo- French invention after World War I of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has also come apart, almost exactly a century after their creations. The common denominator among the three, the emergence of minorities that dominated majorities, has crumbled: first in Lebanon, where the Maronites were marginalized by the 1990s, then in Iraq, where the Sunnis lost power in the last decade, and now in Syria, where an estimated 2.5 million Alawites are in the process of losing their grip on some 20 million non-Alawite Syrians.

No matter how long it will last and how many lives it will cost, it goes without saying that once this conflict is over Syria will be in the hands of its Sunni majority.

The second showdown at play pits Turkey against Iran.

The Turks seem eager, and well positioned, to produce in Damascus a Sunni-led puppet regime. The Iranians are equally eager to preserve their strategic foothold in the Arab world, which rests on the Shi’ite-Alawite axis they built between Beirut and Damascus. Lurking beyond them are the Saudis and the Qataris who also want the Sunnis in and the Iranians out, but do not want the Turks returning to domineer a corner of the Arab world.

The gathering signs that Ankara is preparing to invade northern Syria, highlighted this week by Iranian warning to avoid such an adventure, means that the 20-month-old upheaval in the Arab world is about to spill over to its non-Arab outskirts.

Lurking beyond all this are the superpowers.

Moscow’s staunch backing of Assad is a major gamble. More than a quarter of a billion Sunni Arabs will now blame Russia for generations as an accomplice to the ongoing mass-murder of Sunni Arabs.

Russia knows this, but it has two strategic concerns: First, Assad has been buying annually $700 million worth of Russian-made arms, while a Sunni succession will likely be in a position to buy its arms somewhere between Paris and Washington. And secondly, the Red Army’s naval base in Tarsus is post- Soviet Russia’s only maritime outlet outside its own shores.

Russia has sought “warm waters” outlets since the days of Peter the Great. These are the scales, both geographically and chronologically, in which Vladimir Putin thinks, and no threat – even from Turkey’s unpredictable Erdogan, let alone from the current American administration, which to him must seem like a set of verbose wimps – will make him forfeit this asset, which he judges as strategic and historic.

This means that in pursuing its anti-Alawite cause, the Turks are provoking not only Iran but also Russia.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Ankara’s neo- Ottomans and Moscow’s neo-Czarists are returning to spar, if even not as directly as their alter egos did during 12 Russo-Turkish wars between 1568 and 1917.

It follows that the current mayhem may ultimately produce not a recomposed but a decomposed Syria.

While this sorry country can break up in many ways, the most likely breakaway province would be an Alawite strip somewhere between Syria’s short Mediterranean coast and the Ansaria mountain chain to its east, where the Alawites have concentrated historically. Such an enclave would accommodate the Russian maritime concerns, and also allow Iran to continue cultivating its own interests by encouraging its ties to nearby Lebanon’s Shi’ites.

Meanwhile, Iran and Russia can be expected to encourage Syria’s 2.5 million Kurds, tucked in the country’s northeastern corner, to assert themselves and link up with Iraqi-Kurdish autonomy to their east.

THERE WAS a time when all this commotion would tempt Israeli decision makers to join the fray. The First Lebanon War has taught us that in this region no alliance endures and no stratagem pays, when it comes to the Jewish state.

By any yardstick – demographically, religiously, economically and political – we are too marginal to reshape the region where we live. Our task, therefore, is to humbly follow its travails from the regional margins where we belong, and only respond when provoked.

As of this writing, King Gog has yet to arrive at Jerusalem’s gates. Alas, while everyone seems to understand this vis-à-vis Syria, not everyone understands this vis-à-vis Iran.

Let it therefore be said loud and clear: Isolate Tehran – sure, sabotage its nuclear program; attack Iran – no. As things are unfolding, everyone around us is busy with each other.

The last thing we need is to become part of this fray.

The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.


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