With our attention focused on other things – Israel’s elections, the legal fraternity’s aggressive lawfare against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump’s peace plan, to name just a few – profound strategic shifts have upended the strategic balance in the Middle East.
Israel’s two most formidable adversaries – Iran and Turkey – both came up short in their quests for regional domination, and Israel is reaping the rewards of their losses.
Two weeks ago, Netanyahu held a previously unannounced meeting in Uganda with Sudanese President Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. Instant commentaries presented the meeting as a salutary side product of the Trump plan. But the truth is much more significant. The sight of the two leaders sitting next to one another smiling made heads explode from Tehran to Ramallah. The Netanyahu-Burhan meeting was no mere byproduct of a peace plan. It was a long planned and hoped for result of a set of policies, that aided by good fortune felled a cataclysmic blow against Iran and its terrorist proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Until last April, Sudan was ruled for thirty years by Omar al-Bashir. Bashir, an Islamist, was a major sponsor of global terrorism. From 1991-1995, Al Qaeda was headquartered in Khartoum.
Al-Bashir was also a close ally of Iran. He permitted the Iranian regime to use Sudanese ports to move weapons to Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Assad regime in Syria. Al-Bashir also allowed the Iranians to use Sudanese territory to surround Saudi Arabia, to transfer weapons to the Houthis in Yemen and to threaten the Saudi port in Jeddah, outside of Mecca, and to threaten Saudi oil platforms at Yanbu.
In December 2018, disgusted by rampant corruption and human rights abuses, the Sudanese people rose up against their leaders. For five months, massive anti-government protests were held throughout the country. Responding to public pressure, last April the Sudanese military overthrew al-Bashir.
The units that overthrew al-Bashir were supported by the Gulf states, Egypt, the U.S. and according to some reports, Israel. The new regime, which is pledged to transition to some form of democracy within two years, is supported by these governments.
Al-Bashir for his part was supported by Iran, Qatar and Turkey. His removal, then was a huge blow to all three. For the Iranian regime, his removal from power by forces allied with Iran’s bitter enemies was arguably a greater loss that the loss of terror master Qassem Soleimani and his lieutenants last month at the hands of a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. The loss of Sudan calls into question Iran’s continued ability to maintain its regional campaigns.
Consider its positions in two of its satrapies – Iraq and Lebanon.
Among the people killed along with Soleiani was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Iran’s Shiite militias in Iraq. This week the Guardian reported in the wake of their deaths, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi sent his top advisor to Beirut to meet with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Mahdi is an Iranian proxy. His representative beseeched Nasrallah to take command of the Shiite militias in Iraq that Soleimani and Muhandis directed. Nasrallah acceded to the request. But, apparently fearing that he would end like Soleimani if he began flying around to rally the troops, Nasrallah said that he would run the militias by remote control from Beirut.
Nasrallah’s decision to take control over Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq endangers Lebanon. The more the evidence piles up that Lebanon is a Hezbollah-controlled Iranian colony, the more likely it becomes that the U.S. will end all its military and civilian assistance to Lebanon.
After a long delay, last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approved the transfer of military and civilian aid to Lebanon. That approval is already being questioned and conditioned in the Senate. Without U.S. assistance, the Lebanese economy will crumble.
Like Sudan before it, for the past four months, Lebanon has experienced mass anti-regime protests throughout the country. Long-serving prime minister Saed Hariri resigned last October in a bid to quell the protests. But his resignation had little effect. The protests have continued since. They didn’t diminish with the appointment of Hariri’s replacement Hassan Diab, who was hand-picked by Hezbollah.
In the last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif and its speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani both visited Beirut and promised financial assistance. But Iran is in no position to keep such promises. U.S. economic sanctions have dried up Iran’s coffers. The deeper Hezbollah is pulled into Iran’s wars in Syria and Iraq, the worse off Lebanon will be. And the worse the situation becomes in Lebanon, the less likely it becomes that Hezbollah will risk starting a war with Israel.
This then brings us to Iran’s frenemy Turkey.
In a paper published last week by the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and Africa Studies, Turkey scholar Dr. Soner Cagaptay described how, over the past decade, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has made and lost a series of strategic gambles that have diminished Turkey as a regional player.
Erdogan views himself as a neo-Ottoman ruler and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, at the outset of the war in Syria, Erdogan bet on the Sunnis. With halting, lackadaisical U.S. support, he formed the Free Syria Army. The FSA was presented as a coherent fighting force with the will and capacity to defeat Assad and his Iranian patrons. But it was nothing of the sort. The FSA, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, was a hodgepodge of fighters with no coherent ideology or operational plan. Over time, it was eclipsed by Islamic fanatics who used the FSA organizational framework to form what became the Islamic State.
Since Erdogan supports Islamists, he placed no limits on the entry of foreign fighters to Turkey en route to Syria. From 2013-2015, the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border became the logistical base and economic hub of IS in Syria.
International revulsion at IS’s barbarism compelled the Obama administration to send forces to Syria to fight it. The U.S. forged an alliance with the Kurdish YPG militia to advance this aim. The YPG is a spinoff of the Turkish Kurdish PKK, which the Turks consider an existential threat. The U.S. partnership with the YPG, forged as a consequence of Turkey’s indirect sponsorship and facilitation of IS, significantly strained U.S.-Turkish relations.
To fight the U.S. allied Kurds, Erdogan betrayed Washington and tried to make a deal with Russia and Iran at the Kurds’ expense.
Angered by Turkey’s embrace of Russia and by regime-incited anti-Americanism that fomented the arrest and judicial persecution of American pastor Andrew Brunson, last year President Trump imposed economic sanctions on Turkey that nearly destroyed the economy.
Today, Erdogan is in a new mess of his own design. In the battle for Idlib, Turkish forces are pitted against their erstwhile Russian, Iranian and Syrian partners. The Americans have publicly sided with the Turks, but to receive more than rhetorical support from Washington, Erdogan will be forced to undermine his own tenuous ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin still further.
Which brings us to the self-inflicted mess Erdogan has created for himself in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood sympathies made him the greatest supporter of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt in 2012. When the Egyptian military deposed the Morsi government in 2013, Turkish-Egyptian relations became openly hostile.
In part to undermine Turkish power, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has forged close ties with other Mediterranean Basin countries – and Turkish foes – Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Supported by the Trump administration, the burgeoning alliance between these four states has led to joint military exercises between Egypt, Cyprus and Greece on the one hand and Israel, Greece and Cyprus on the other. It also is the context in which Egypt signed a deal to import Israeli natural gas. The Israeli-Cypriot-Greek gas pipeline to Europe will bypass Turkey.
To extricate Turkey from the regional isolation he induced, last December Erdogan signed a maritime cooperation agreement with the Tripoli-based Libyan government. The Tripoli-based government is at war with the Tabruk-based Libyan government supported by Egypt, the UAE and Russia. Today, Tabruk-based forces are advancing in their offensive against Tripoli.
To save his allies in Tripoli, Erdogan will need Putin’s help. And if he receives it, it will further weaken his ties with America.
In other words, Erdogan is boxed in and has no good options.
Then there is the Turkish economy. As a Chatham House report on the Turkish economy published early this week showed, Turkey’s government stimulus-induced inflation and cheap credit are positioning the Turkish lira for another collapse. The political implications of another economic meltdown, just two years after the last one are self-evident.
Israel and the Sunni Arab states, as well as the United States are enjoying the benefits of the Iranian and Turkish defeats. This owes in great part to the strategic priorities their leaders have adopted. Netanyahu, Trump, Sisi, and the other allied leader have placed a premium on defeating and weakening their enemies. New leaders, with different strategic priorities are liable to squander these gains and even reverse them.
During the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Senator Chris Murphy, (D., CN) met secretly with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and other Democratic senators reportedly also participated in the meeting. After the U.S. media reported that the secret conclave had taken place, Murphy acknowledged his participation. He argued that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy is a complete failure – even as Iran’s regional position is collapsing in broad daylight.
Last year, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution committing the next Democratic administration to restoring the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. All of the Democratic presidential candidates have expressed varying degrees of commitment to the pledge.
Since leaving office, Kerry has remained in contact with Zarif and has reportedly advised him about how to ride out the economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in order to survive into the next Democratic administration.
As for Israel, earlier this week, Blue and White party leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid harshly criticized Netanyahu for maintaining close ties with Trump. Both men pledged to cultivate Israel’s relations with the Democrats.
Gantz’s top advisor Yoram Turbovich was Ehud Olmert’s chief of staff during his tenure as prime minister. Last week Olmert travelled to America as the guest of J Street, which in turn enjoys close relations with radical, anti-Israel Democrats. Gantz’s campaign strategist Joel Benenson served in the same role for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
If the next Israeli government prioritizes good relations with pro-Iranian Democrats over defeating Israel’s enemies, it will necessarily undermine the strategic windfall we are now experiencing. Nothing happens by accident. If the strategic processes now taking place don’t have the time to mature, they can and likely will be reversed.
Reprinted with author’s permission from Caroline Glick