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Crucial Days in the Middle East: What Strategic Consequences?

Crucial Days in the Middle East: What Strategic Consequences?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

On 8 May, President Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. The next day, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, was commemorating the 1945 armistice agreement in Moscow. During the night of 9 to 10 May, Israelis launched a massive raid on Iranian positions in Syria responding to an attack of about 20 missiles in the Golan Heights. This adds to the Lebanese and Iraqi general elections of 6 and 13 May, as well as to the inauguration of the new American embassy in Jerusalem held on 14 May. The same day, on the eve of Israel’s 70th birthday but also of the Nakba (or “catastrophe” for Palestinians), over 50 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers on Gaza’s border. 

"Israelis have long been worried by the implantation of an offensive Iranian force in Syria, as it would bring the Iranians in Israel’s backyard."

Is there a discernable pattern or common thread between these various events? And, first and foremost, what can be said about a potentially existing link between the intensification of the Iran-Israel confrontation in Syria and the fate of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA)?
A chronological analysis is required to answer this question. Israelis have long been worried by the implantation of an offensive Iranian force in Syria, as it would bring the Iranians in Israel’s backyard. They have conducted multiple raids in the last few years, notably against arms transfers from Iran to Hezbollah. This fear was only strengthened by the launch of an Iranian drone on Israel in February. As previously mentioned in our blog, a profound shift occurred on 9 April with the Israeli strikes on the T4 Facility near Homs, exclusively targeting Iranian military installations. Israeli airstrikes hit once again on 30 April, destroying Iranian missiles that appeared to be destined to be used as payback for the 9 April airstrikes. Finally, Iranians took practical actions against the Golan Heights in the night of 9 to 10 May, possibly because they were waiting for Donald Trump’s decision regarding the JCPOA to attack Israel.
This escalation of tensions during the night of 9 to 10 May therefore marks the end of a cycle for the region. The words that were pronounced on both sides ended up being relatively appeasing. However, it could also be argued that this is in fact the beginning of a new cycle. Indeed, on the one hand, Israelis want to put an end to Iran’s expansion and even possibly go back to the former status quo. They benefit from strong American support, a form of approbation coming from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and also Egypt, and a benevolent Russian neutrality. On the other hand, Iranians believe settling in Syria has helped them to fulfill their ancestors’ historical aspiration of both benefiting from an opening on the Mediterranean Sea and - more prosaically - of strengthening their access to Hezbollah. 

"Trump’s desire to dismantle the JCPOA gives the Islamic Revolutionary Guards yet another reason to maintain pressure in Syria."

With this background in mind, the Tehran regime hardliners have two precise reasons to pursue the implantation of military bases in Syria and adopt a threatening attitude towards Israel. First, Iranians are witnessing Netanyahu's and Putin’s budding “flirt”. They certainly have information leading them to believe that Russians are trying to convince Israel - and the West in general - that there is no better warrantor of Iran’s “containment” in Syria than Moscow. They are also noticing that the Russians are not using their anti-aircraft tools to intercept Iranian missiles. They should therefore, in their view, gather as many guarantees as possible. 
Trump’s desire to dismantle the JCPOA gives the Islamic Revolutionary Guards yet another reason to maintain pressure in Syria. Iranian President Rouhani has announced his ambition to remain part of the deal if the economic interests of Iran were preserved by other deal-members, particularly by Europeans. German, British and French leaders have made it clear that such was their intention in a joint press release that same night. Yet, it is no secret that facing the steamroller that are American sanctions, these resolutions will be difficult to put in place. Moreover, the Trump administration will most probably accompany the return of sanctions on nuclear activities with other sanctions in other domains and pressures to destabilize the Iranian regime. The Iranian hardliners are certainly tempted by “asymmetric” responses such as leading actions in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Strait of Hormuz or even Afghanistan. It is not clear whether they fully realize that by adopting such an attitude, they will be playing into the hands of the Israeli-Saudi axis that wishes for an escalation of tensions. All conditions are therefore met in order to witness the materialization of the risk of a general conflagration in the region in the days to come. 
A “new cycle” of clashes between Iran and Israel in Syria could very well implicate the Hezbollah. Yet, it is well-known that the Shi’a Lebanese organization now holds an arsenal of missiles large enough to inflict on Israelis serious casualties for weeks. Another possible scenario is that incidents occurring in the Strait of Hormuz could lead to an American military intervention, triggering an “asymmetric” response against Americans in Iraq. Indeed, Tehran hardliners perceive the presence of American troops in Iraq as one of “Great Satan”’s weaknesses, which could be exploited when necessary. 

"At first glance, Trump’s bet to “crack” Iran without engaging any additional American military force in the region seems to be mad."

Considering these frightening perspectives, elections in Iraq or the latest upheavals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may appear to be minor. This is far from being the case. The great battle opposing Iran and its Shi’a allies (mainly Hezbollah) and the growing axis uniting Sunni states and Israel is also being played out in public opinion. It is not merely irrelevant that the recent Lebanese elections strengthened Hezbollah’s political control and legitimacy. The upcoming elections in Iraq’s results should also be carefully analyzed since the emerging of a new force hostile to the US but focused on an emancipation from Iran can have an impact far beyond Iraq itself. However, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without provoking genuinely negative reactions from Saudi Arabia or Egypt, Trump seems to be playing into the Iranian narrative. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undoubtedly no longer the central political question it once was but it remains a sensitive issue for the region’s population. With this in mind, the blood spilled by Palestinian protesters in Gaza on the day remembering the Nakba is likely to cast an infamous shadow on the current rapprochement process, in the name of combatting Iran and under US leadership, between Sunni states and Israel. 
After having glanced through various spectrums of current misfortunes and future dangers, a few troubling questions remain. At first glance, Trump’s bet to “crack” Iran without engaging any additional American military force in the region seems to be mad. Still, does it really not stand a chance? Vladimir Putin, for his part, invested in Syria, which gave him a position of honest broker between a number of players. Is he risking losing this enviable position by solely relying on his past successes? Between these animals, what latitude is left for Europeans in the region? 

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