Why the month of May did not see an all-out Middle East explosion

Undoubtedly the ingredients were in place this month that could have led to an explosion.

The sun sets over the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border May 15, 2018 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
The sun sets over the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side of the border May 15, 2018
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
On paper, the month of May swept in some of the most combustible elements at one time the region has seen in years.
The U.S. officially opens its embassy in Jerusalem as dozens killed in Gaza protests, May 14, 2018 (Reuters)
Iran was entrenching itself in Syria and threatening revenge for alleged Israeli attacks on Iranian assets in Syria; US President Donald Trump was going to decide on the future of the Iran nuclear deal; the “Great Return March” was continuing in the Gaza Strip; the Palestinians were to mark Nakba Day, the “Day of Catastrophe,” marking Israel’s independence; the US was going to move its embassy to Jerusalem; and Ramadan, a month often accompanied by terrorism and violence, was to begin.
All the ingredients were in place, some feared, for an all-out explosion.
Yet, despite some tense and ugly days – specifically May 14 – the all-out explosion did not materialize. On May 14, the same day the US moved its embassy, some 40,000 Palestinians in Gaza marched on the fence with Israel, hoping to breach it, and 62 people were killed – 50 of them, by Hamas’s own admission, were their own men.
Nevertheless, May was not apocalyptic.
Israel and Iran did not go to war in Syria; the Iranians did not dash for a nuclear device with the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal; the “Great Return March” did not lead to the breach of the border fence with Gaza; the Nakba Day protests were limited; the move of the US Embassy did not lead to the orgy of violence in Israel, the territories and around the world that many warned of for years; and Ramadan has so far been relatively quiet.
Because alongside the combustible elements, there are forces working on the ground to prevent matters from spiraling out of control.
Who are these moderating forces?
First, there are the Russians. Syria seems a perfect setting for an Iranian-Israeli clash. Iran is determined to build a military infrastructure in Syria that would give it leverage over Israel. Imagine Iranian precision-guided missiles in Syria that could hit any target in Israel from Dan to Beersheba. This would be a tremendous deterrent to Israel against acting against the Iranian nuclear program.
But just as determined as Iran is to create this leverage in Syria, Israel is determined to prevent it; dead-set on not allowing the Iranians to replicate in Syria the Lebanese model – where Hezbollah armed itself to the teeth over the last decade without anyone preventing it.
The ingredients were all in place for the conflict, including the reported Israeli attacks on Iranian assets in Syria that killed Iranian forces. Yet the conflagration did not materialize – the Russians are keen on ensuring it does not happen.
Russia is fighting in Syria, as is Iran. But unlike Iran, Russia is not Israel’s enemy and does not want a collision between Israel and Iran.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has had an amazingly successful run in Syria, he has – some argue – “made Russia great again.” He proved Moscow is a player, an arbiter on the international stage; he showed his credibility to his allies; he tried out his new weapons; he got an air and a naval base in Syria; he saved Syrian President Bashar Assad; and he beat Islamic State.
Now he wants quiet in Syria, and a confrontation between Israel and Iran – two countries with whom he has open lines of communication – would spoil the works. So he is working to prevent it, including recent reports that he is now amenable to pushing the Iranians 60-70 kilometers from the border with Israel – an Israeli demand last year not accepted by either Moscow or Washington.
THE SECOND major concern going into May was how the Iranians would react to a US withdrawal from the nuclear accord. Would they, as some feared, make a mad dash toward crossing the nuclear threshold, thereby hurtling the region to a military confrontation?
They did not. Why? Because they have too much to lose. Iran is now biding its time until the 2020 US presidential elections, hoping that just as Trump was swept in – and fundamentally changed US policy in the Middle East – he will be swept out, changing the policy again, but in a direction more favorable for Tehran.
The Iranians can bide time by continuing the negotiations with the Europeans, trying to keep them in the deal, weakening the sanctions, pushing off the sanctions and isolating the Americans. The draconian sanctions that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said would be instituted if the Iranians did not fundamentally change their ways will take a great deal of will and time to implement. The Iranians are hoping the clock runs out on the Trump administration before then.
And then there are the issues that came to a head relating to the Palestinians: the “Great Return March” in Gaza, the embassy move, “Nakba” Day, Ramadan – all ingredients that could very well have led to much worse violence than what was experienced. It is not that 62 killed in Gaza is not serious violence. It most definitely is. But it could have been much worse, and it could have spread both to the West Bank and to the region.
Yet, it didn’t spread because there were countervailing forces who had as much an interest in containing the violence, as Iran, Hamas and Turkey had in seeing it spread. Those forces were Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even the Palestinian Authority.
Had the violence – over the embassy move or the developments of Gaza – spread to the West Bank, it would have presented a severe challenge for the Palestinian Authority, since while the violence might have been directed at Israel, it could easily have been used by Hamas to turn on the Palestinian Authority as well. And with PA President Mahmoud Abbas ill, and no one sure who is going to take over when he is gone, the last thing the PA needs now is a wave of Hamas-inspired violence it could find difficult to contain.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan, meanwhile – while sympathetic with the Gazans and opposed to the US Embassy move – simply have bigger concerns right now; namely Iran. They will not, for instance, tolerate massive demonstrations in their streets against the US when they need the US to stop Iran. Everything takes a back seat to that primary goal.
The same is true of Egypt. With Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi battling Islamic State and Islamic fundamentalism in his own country, he has a real interest in containing the situation in Gaza, so the violence there does not spread easily to the Sinai, endangering Egypt and perhaps his regime.
Undoubtedly the ingredients were in place this month that could have led to an explosion. That things did not explode is a positive sign that the countervailing forces – at least for now – have the upper hand.