The Shifting Sands of the Middle East

Shimon Peres, President of Israel, has, for the last thirty years, called for a New Middle East. In fact, he wrote a book by that title in 1993, the year of the Oslo Accords. He believed that economic cooperation in the ME was the starting point for cementing ties and reconciling peoples. The Oslo Accords, of which he was the main architect and instigator, were intended to lead in that direction. They failed miserably.

In those days, the main players on the Muslim side were Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria, all Sunni. And of course, we cannot leave out Arafat, also a Sunni.

All this began to change with the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. in 2003. Talk about unintended consequences. The defeat of Iraq created a power vacuum which Shiite Iran was salivating to fill. Although Iraq under Hussein was in the Sunni camp, its population was 60% Shiite. Luckily, the Iraqi Shiites prefer independence from Iran, perhaps due in part to the fact they are Arab and not Farsi -- at least for now, but that could change.

Iran had aspirations of grandeur and imperialist ambitions. She began to plot a course which would lead to her dominance of the Muslim world and the Middle East. No small task, since 80% of Muslims are Sunni, and Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites in Islam, are located in Saudi Arabia.

This course had two prongs: the development of Iran's own nuclear bomb and the confrontation with Israel, the Little Satan, and the U.S., the Big Satan on behalf of all Muslims everywhere.

Iran also had a natural advantage: her location. Egypt, with its population of 55 million, is poor and on the periphery. Egypt also made peace with Israel, thereby taking them out of the race for now. Iran borders Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Caspian Sea. The U.S. needs Iran to be cooperative in each of these theaters.

Iran's first success was to win over Syria, the most rejectionist Sunni state. Their alliance is constantly growing and seems to have no bounds. This is so notwithstanding that the U.S. has attempted to wean Syria away from Iran. Syria is important because it borders Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel, with whom it has a casus belli for the return of the Golan.

Syria also has imperial ambitions. She has visions of recovering all lands which were part of the Ottoman province of Syria. Britain and France entered into the Sykes-Picot Agreement during WWI, in which they agreed that Britain would control Mesopotamia (Iraq) and southern Syria (Jordan and Israel), and France would control the rest of Ottoman Syria (Syria, Lebanon, and the Hatay province of Turkey). The League of Nations formalized this agreement in 1923 when it created the British Mandate and the French Mandate.

In pursuance of these ambitions, in 1970, Syria invaded Jordan only to be repulsed by Israel. Over the recent decades, Syria has extended its influence over Lebanon. This was made easier with the growth of Hezb'allah, which was predominantly Shiite. It was natural for Syria and Iran to come together on this. Together they have armed Hezb'allah to the teeth in order to have a proxy for the war against Israel. In truth, there is no casus belli between Hezb'allah and Israel.

Iran took Hamas under its wing after Hamas took over Gaza from the Sunni-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. It was natural for this to happen, since they both are dedicated to destroying Israel.

This is a development which has put Egypt in the crosshairs. Hamas is an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood has been a thorn in Egypt's backside ever since. It believes that Muslim society is no longer Islamic and must be transformed by an Islamic vanguard through violent revolution. Thus, the Brotherhood and Iran are natural allies.

There is great concern that when Mubarak dies, Egypt will be vulnerable to a Brotherhood takeover. Hamas, with the backing of Iran, could greatly assist in this.

Turkey was the last to join the Iranian axis. With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the modern state of Turkey. He ruled as president  until his death in 1938. During this time he sought to transform Turkey into a modern and secular nation-state. The Turkish army maintained this orientation until the election of Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister in 2003. This victory was made possible by the changing demographics of the country. The higher birth rates of the rural class in Turkey (and in Hezb'allah in Lebanon) made possible the shift in power.

The U.S. championed the admission of Turkey to NATO and to the EU. Turkey maintained a friendship with Israel to gain favor with the U.S. and with the EU. She succeeded in being admitted to NATO, but not to the EU. The EU was not in the mood to admit a Muslim state and set all kinds of preconditions. Erdogan decided to chart his own course rather than follow the one dictated by the EU. Turkey gave up on admission and turned increasingly Islamist and anti-Israel -- and, I might add, anti-American.

In "Turkey's MidEast Gambit," Sam Segev notes,

Since his Justice and Development party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Erdogan has cautiously but consistently moved to reclaim Turkey's "grandeur" of the Ottoman Empire era.

This necessitated a slow but cautious distancing from Israel and the U.S. In 2003, it refused an American request to allow American troops to enter Iraq through Turkish territory. Then a Turkish diplomat was elected secretary general of the 53-member Organization of Islamic Countries and relations with Israel cooled.

"Erdogan ramped up his Islamic-oriented policy after his re-election in 2007. He reconciled with Syria, welcomed Hamas leaders in Ankara, hosted Sudanese President Omar Hassan el-Bashir, who is accused of war crimes, and began to undermine Egyptian and Saudi roles in the Sunni moderate Arab world.

[...] Turkey is the only NATO member to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its alignment with Brazil to extricate Iran from stronger sanctions agreed upon by the five permanent members of the Security Council is a direct challenge to American influence in the region.

Turkey's attempt to break the blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip was a direct affront not only to Israel, but also to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

And yet President Obama still believes "Turkey can have a positive voice in this whole process."

To make matters worse, the opinion-makers in the U.S. and the EU have come out in favor of lifting the blockade, which in effect is in support of Hamas, a terrorist organization. And Obama is on their side.

The strengthening of Hamas effectively strengthens Iran, strangles the peace process, and scares the bejeesus out of Egypt and Jordan.

As Obama stands astride the shifting sands what possible vision can he have?

You would think that as the U.S. is losing control of the Middle East and plans to bring most of the boys home before the end of next year, she would need a strong Israel all the more.

Ted Belman is the editor of He made aliya a year ago and now resides in Jerusalem.
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