Aweek and a half ago, Syria’s Kurds announced they are setting up an autonomous
region in northeastern Syria.
The announcement came after the Kurds
wrested control over a chain of towns from al-Qaida in the ever metastasizing
Syrian civil war.
The Kurds’ announcement enraged their nominal Sunni
allies – including the al-Qaida forces they have been combating – in the
opposition to the Assad regime. It also rendered irrelevant US efforts to reach
a peace deal between the Syrian regime and the rebel forces at a peace
conference in Geneva.
But more important than what the Kurds’ action
means for the viability of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, it shows
just how radically the strategic landscape has changed and continues to change,
not just in Syria but throughout the Arab world.
groundswell that has beset the Arab world for the past three years has brought
dynamism and uncertainty to a region that has known mainly stasis and status quo
for the past 500 years. For 400 years, the Middle East was ruled by the Ottoman
Turks. Anticipating the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the
British and the French quickly carved up the Ottoman possessions, dividing them
between themselves. What emerged from their actions were the national borders of
the Arab states – and Israel – that have remained largely intact since
As Yoel Guzansky and Erez Striem from the Institute for National
Security Studies wrote in a paper published this week, while the borders of Arab
states remain largely unchanged, the old borders no longer reflect the reality
on the ground.
“As a result of the regional upheavals, tribal, sectarian,
and ethnic identities have become more pronounced than ever, which may well lead
to a change in the borders drawn by the colonial powers a century ago that have
since been preserved by Arab autocrats.”
Guzansky and Striem explained,
“The iron-fisted Arab rulers were an artificial glue of sorts, holding together
different, sometimes hostile sects in an attempt to form a single nation
Now, the de facto changes in the Middle East map could cause
far-reaching geopolitical shifts affecting alliance formations and even the
global energy market.”
The writers specifically discussed the breakdown
of national governments and the consequent growing irrelevance of national
borders in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
And while it is true that the
dissolution of central government authority is most acute in Syria, Iraq, Libya
and Yemen, in every Arab state national authorities are under siege, stressed,
or engaged in countering direct threats to their rule. Although central
authorities retain control in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and
Bahrain, they all contend with unprecedented challenges. As a consequence, today
it is impossible to take for granted that the regime’s interests in any Arab
state will necessarily direct the actions of the residents of that state, or
that a regime now in power will remain in power tomorrow.
Striem note that the current state of flux presents Israel with both challenges
and opportunities. As they put it, “The disintegration of states represents at
least a temporary deterioration in Israel’s strategic situation because it is
attended by instability liable to trickle over into neighboring states…. But the
changes also mean dissolution of the regular armies that posed a threat in the
past and present opportunities for Israel to build relations with different
minorities with the potential to seize the reins of government in the
Take the Kurds for example. The empowerment of the Kurds in
Syria – as in Iraq – presents a strategic opportunity for Israel. Israel has
cultivated and maintained an alliance with the Kurds throughout the region for
the past 45 years.
Although Kurdish politics are fraught with internal
clashes and power struggles, on balance, the empowerment of the Kurds at the
expense of the central governments in Damascus and Baghdad is a major gain for
And the Kurds are not the only group whose altered status since
the onset of the revolutionary instability in the Arab world presents Israel
with new opportunities. Among the disparate factions in the disintegrating Arab
lands from North Africa to the Persian Gulf are dozens of groups that will be
thrilled to receive Israeli assistance and, in return, be willing to cooperate
with Israel on a whole range of issues.
To be sure, these new allies are
not likely to share Israeli values. And many may be no more than the foreign
affairs equivalent of a one-night stand. But Israel also is not obliged to
commit itself to any party for the long haul. Transactional alliances are
valuable because they are based on shared interests, and they last for as long
as the actors perceive those interests as shared ones.
Over the past
week, we have seen a similar transformation occurring on a regional and indeed
global level, as the full significance of the Obama administration’s withdrawal
of US power from the region becomes better understood.
When word got out
two weeks ago about the US decision to accept and attempt to push through a deal
with Iran that would strip the international sanctions regime of meaning in
return for cosmetic Iranian concessions that will not significantly impact
Iran’s completion of its nuclear weapons program, attempts were made by some
Israeli and many American policy-makers to make light of the significance of
President Barack Obama’s moves.
But on Sunday night, Channel 10 reported
that far from an opportunistic bid to capitalize on a newfound moderation in
Tehran, the draft agreement was the result of months-long secret negotiations
between Obama’s consigliere Valerie Jarrett and Iranian
According to the report, which was denied by the White
House, Jarrett, Obama’s Iranian-born consigliere, conducted secret talks with
Iranian negotiators for the past several months. The draft agreement that
betrayed US allies throughout the Arab world, and shattered Israeli and French
confidence in the US’s willingness to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear
weapons, was presented to negotiators in Geneva as a fait accompli. Israel and
Saudi Arabia, like other US regional allies were left in the dark about its
contents. As we saw, it was only after the French and the British divulged the
details of the deal to Israel and Saudi Arabia that the Israelis, Saudis and
French formed an ad hoc alliance to scuttle the deal at the last
The revelation of Jarrett’s long-standing secret talks with the
Iranians showed that the Obama administration’s decision to cut a deal with the
mullahs was a well-thought-out, long-term policy to use appeasement of the
world’s leading sponsor of terrorism as a means to enable the US to withdraw
from the Middle East. The fact that the deal in question would also pave the way
for Iran to become a nuclear power, and so imperil American national security,
was clearly less of a concern for Obama and his team than realizing their goal
of withdrawing the US from the Middle East.
Just as ethnic, regional and
religious factions wasted no time filling the vacuum created in the Arab world
by the disintegration of central governments, so the states of the region and
the larger global community wasted no time finding new allies to replace the
Voicing this new understanding, Foreign Minister Avigdor
Liberman said Wednesday that it is time for Israel to seek out new
In his words, “The ties with the US are
They have problems in North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Syria,
Egypt, China, and their own financial and immigration troubles. Thus I ask –
what is our place in the international arena? Israel must seek more allies with
In seeking to block Iran’s nuclear weapons program,
Israel has no lack of allies. America’s withdrawal has caused a regional
realignment in which Israel and France are replacing the US as the protectors of
the Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
France has ample reason to
act. Iran has attacked French targets repeatedly over the past 34 years. France
built Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor while Saddam was at war with
France has 10 million Muslim citizens who attend mosques financed
by Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, France has strong commercial interests in the
Persian Gulf. There is no doubt that France will be directly harmed if Iran
becomes a nuclear power.
Although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s
meeting Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin did not bring about a
realignment of Russian interests with the Franco- Sunni-Israeli anti-Iran
consortium, the very fact that Netanyahu went to Moscow sent a clear message to
the world community that in its dealings with outside powers, Israel no longer
feels itself constrained by its alliance with the US.
And that was really
the main purpose of the visit. Netanyahu didn’t care that Putin rejected his
position on Iran. Israel didn’t need Russia to block Jarrett’s deal. Iran is no
longer interested in even feigning interest in a nuclear deal. It was able to
neutralize US power in the region, and cast the US’s regional allies into
strategic disarray just by convincing Obama and Jarrett that a deal was in the
offing. This is why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again threatened to
annihilate Israel this week. He doesn’t think he needs to sugar coat his
intentions any longer.
It is not that the US has become a nonentity in
the region overnight, and despite Obama’s ill-will toward Israel, under his
leadership the US has not become a wholly negative actor. The successful
Israeli-US test of the David’s Sling short-range ballistic missile interceptor
on Wednesday was a clear indication of the prevailing importance of Israel’s
ties with the US. So, too, the delivery this week of the first of four US fast
missile boats to the Egyptian navy, which will improve Egypt’s ability to secure
maritime traffic in the Suez Canal, showed that the US remains a key player in
the region. Congress’s unwillingness to bow to Obama’s will and weaken sanctions
on Iran similarly is a positive portent for a post-Obama American return to the
But when America returns, it will likely find a vastly changed
regional landscape. Nations are disintegrating, only to reintegrate in new
Monolithic regimes are giving way to domestic fissures and
generational changes. As for America’s allies, some will welcome its
Others will scowl and turn away. All will have managed to
survive, and even thrive in the absence of a guiding hand from Washington, and
all will consequently need America less.
This changed landscape will in
turn require the US to do some long, hard thinking about where its interests
lie, and to develop new strategies for advancing them.
So perhaps in the
fullness of time, we may all end up better off for this break in US strategic