War is already the order of the day in the Mideast. The opposing camps have gained visibility, with Iran on one side and an alliance of states centred on Saudi Arabia and Israel on the other, something that would have been unthinkable as a geopolitical reality just a few years ago.
However, the activism of President Trump’s performance in the region last year made possible the setting up of this alliance. The clashes are punctiform for the time being. There are clashes in Yemen, opposing the forces loyal to the two mentioned camps, and in Syria the Iranian military presence and the presence of Hezbollah armed groups from Lebanon represents for Israel, according to Jerusalem, a threat it will have to deal with decisively and in a timely fashion so as not to become overwhelming.
For the time being, through an agreement with Russia, Israel strikes Iranian weapon shipments to the Lebanese Hezbollah, hence aiming to prevent the changing of the force ratio, especially in what concerns the capabilities of the rockets that can strike Israeli territory. Turkey’s military presence in Syria, seeking to eliminate the threat of the Kurdish YPG, which Ankara perceives to be a terrorist organisation, has resulted in a worsening of relations with Washington, for the latter the Peshmerga deserving support in order to eliminate the remnants of the Islamic caliphate in Syria.
The fuel for a regional war is thus present and in sufficient quantity, both in Syria and in other parts of the region. While Turkish-American tensions can cease or diminish based on the common interest of the two states’ alliance as members of NATO, something that will hopefully happen as soon as possible, Israel’s interest in not having a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria runs against Tehran’s effort to achieve precisely such a feat. The gravity of such a clash cannot be underestimated, and the diplomacies of the states involved in Syria certainly realise that the avoidance of a widespread regional war is closely linked to the reaching of an agreement on the cessation of the Syrian civil war and the start of a peace and reconstruction roadmap jointly agreed by the internal factions in that country.
A demonstration of this extremely tense situation in the Mideast, precursor of a widespread war in the region, with unsuspected international implications, took place at the Munich security conference almost two weeks ago. The three main actors involved in the regional picture sketched above – Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia – benefitted from the possibility of presenting their own positions in separate statements, naturally followed by questions from the audience. The first to speak was Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu. He presented a piece of the Iranian drone recently shot down in Israeli airspace. He accompanied this with the following statement, made while looking at Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif: “Mr. Zarif, do you recognise this? You should. It’s yours. You can take a message back to the tyrants of Tehran: Do not test Israel’s resolve.” This was one of the climactic points of the entire international security summit, which did not lack harsh confrontations between the decisionmakers of the states represented there. Netanyahu made this statement after he mentioned the appeasement policy that England and France adopted toward Nazi Germany in the years preceding the Second World War – he thus cited the September 1938 Munich agreement through which the great European powers gave in to Hitler’s demand to occupy a part of the territory of a neighbouring state, and mentioned, in this context, that the nuclear agreement concluded with Iran in July 2015 allows it to build a veritable nuclear arsenal. It is easy to understand that the Israeli Premier thus suggested that his country will not remain indifferent to what it considers to be an existential threat.
When asked from the audience whether he foresees any future for the implementation of the “two-state” solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dossier, Netanyahu answered that the solution is of course possible, observing the Palestinians’ right to their own leadership, but that security, given the specific regional conditions, must be Israel’s prerogative. Present at the conference, UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres noted on his Twitter account: “We must face today’s sad reality: the global consensus for a 2-State solution could be eroding. I reiterate my full commitment to a solution of two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders.”
In reply to the Israeli Premier’s statements, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif stated that we are “dangerously close to escalating conflict” and that Syria recently shooting down an Israeli fighter jet represents a landmark in regional developments, being a sign of the end of “Israel’s [military] invincibility.” But the Iranian diplomat did not avoid the use of harsh words when answering his Israeli counterpart, pointing out that the accusations he levelled against Iran “would not resolve Israel’s problems. ‘It is the problem of aggression, occupation and trying to escape responsibility for the criminal policies they followed for many years.’” Zarif launched a call for dialogue with Saudi Arabia, and, in an interview, he did not hesitate to point out that in the case of a potential Israeli attack against his country “they will see the response.” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir, in his speech, immediately rejected the call for dialogue, pointing out to the destabilising effects of Iran’s actions in support of terrorism throughout the region. On the contrary, he pointed out that Iran must change its destabilising regional policy, hence to cease its threats and its support for terrorism instead of resorting to “shaking hands.”
Another interesting aspect in this context was that, present in the audience, former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who played a very important role in concluding the nuclear agreement with Iran more than two years ago, strongly defended this international agreement, being of the opinion that the Israeli Premier’s statements about it are “fundamentally incorrect.”
Present in the audience, former Swedish Premier Carl Bildt, a prominent personality on the international relations scene, tweeted the following, after the statements made by decisionmakers from the three states that are part of opposite camps: “Difficult to avoid the conclusion that a new war in Israel/Syria/Lebanon is highly possible in 2018. Better prepare for new major wave of refugees.”
Is a major war in the Middle East to be expected in 2018? It seems so, unless an unexpected “game changer” occurs.
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