The battle for hegemony in the Middle East took a significant turn for the better when five Arab countries on Monday decided to cut all ties with Qatar.
That, at least, is how Eran Lerman reads it.
Lerman, an academic who served as deputy head at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2015, has developed a model – call it the four camps model – that puts various seemingly isolated incidents in the Middle East into a broader context.
“You have to look at the entire region to understand the place of the Qatari incident in the larger picture,” he said in an interview. And the larger picture is that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen just delivered a stinging blow to the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to Lerman’s model, there are currently four ideological camps that are vying for hegemony in the Middle East: the Iranian camp, the Islamic State camp, the Muslim Brotherhood camp and the camp of stability, a grouping of states ranging from Saudi Arabia and most Gulf states to Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Israel belongs to this camp; a camp which does not want to see the entire order in the Middle East upended – which is the goal of the other three groupings.
According to Lerman, 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, the Islamic State camp is currently on the ropes, having lost considerable ground in Iraq and Syria. It is no longer the threat it once was. And the recent terrorism in Europe, in his analysis, is the last gasp of this organization.
That leaves three camps vying for domination. And now, with one fierce blow, the camp of stability – buoyed by clear, unambiguous support from US President Donald Trump – knocked the Muslim Brotherhood camp down a couple of notches.
The other members of this camp include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – which Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is fighting – Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Hamas.
Monday’s moves, Lerman said, is a sign that the camp of stability decided to “move in a decisive fashion to put an end to the Qatari practices that have been a nuisance to all of them.” These practices range from supporting radical Sunni Islamist groups, to making deals with the Iranians, to sponsoring Al Jazeera, which has worked against the governments in many of the countries that make up this camp.
Recent history, Lerman said, has shown that “if you sit on Qatar, it will crumble,” as evidenced when the Saudis, Egyptians and some Gulf countries in 2014 tried to get Doha to tone down its criticism of Sisi by suspending diplomatic ties. The Qataris backed down, and the camp of stability learned the lesson.
With the Muslim Brotherhood camp weakened, the stage is being set for a head-to-head battle between the two remaining dominant forces in the region: the Iranian camp and the camp of stability. Lerman predicted that this battle will be fought in Syria where Iran is trying to create a contiguous areas of control reaching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon; and where the rebel forces led by the Kurds – whom the US has decided to more actively support – are determined to stop them.
For Israel, Lerman said, the move against Qatar is positive.
“First of all, this is because the growing confidence and effectiveness of the camp of stability sets the stage for a more coherent response to the Iranian challenge,” he said.
This camp’s confidence, backed by a sense that the US under Trump is fully behind them, “means that the Iranians and their allies need to be increasingly apprehensive.”
It is good for us that Hezbollah has to sit and worry about what is coming next,” he said. “That means that they cannot afford to take any risks of getting mauled by the IDF, because then they may be fatally weakened before a wider war that may end up in their annihilation by the Sunnis.”
The move also leaves Hamas, heavily dependent on Qatar, more vulnerable, and “hopefully more cautious.”
The flip side, he warned, is that there is a need not to push Hamas “totally into the corner, where they may feel obliged to lash out.” This, he said, was the case in the summer of 2014, when Hamas fired rockets on Israel out of a sense that they “had nothing to lose,” prompted Israel to launch Operation Protective Edge.
“From our point of view it is wise to give the Gaza population some sense that they are not completely cornered,” he said, adding that both Israel and Egypt are obviously mindful of this. The Egyptians have opened up a channel to Hamas, and Lerman said they are dealing with the situation with “some degree of sophistication.”
And finally, he said, the developments in the Gulf are positive for Israel because there is a “general sense that the era of tolerance for terrorism is over, as is the era of acceptance of ambiguous excuses as to why a country like Qatar would pour money into terrorist organizations.
And in this respect, at least, Trump could have not been any clearer than he was when he spoke recently in Riyadh and Bethlehem.”