Amidst the different turbulences in the Eastern Mediterranean, observers ought to know where to kook. Five factors merit thinking about, for they will shape the Eastern Mediterranean in the foreseeable future.
One: whether Iran will entrench its presence in Syria and Lebanon
This is not certain, for at the core of the confrontation between, on one side the US and Israel, and on the other Iran, is not just Iran’s nuclear capability, but also Iran’s strong presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, which they see as threatening to Israel’s national security. Other players, such as the large Sunni Arab countries (most notably Saudi Arabia) as well as institutions such as the Maronite Church see in Iran’s strong presence in the area a major disruption of the traditional balance of power between the different sects there. For Iran, however, building that strong presence transcends projecting power and gaining prestige. Iran is compelled by its history as well as by geo-politics to look East. And the undying spark of empire in its soul, as well as calls in Shii history, have always ignited in Iran a desire to have and exert influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. There will not be a US-Iran confrontation anytime soon. But the war of wills between the two sides on ejecting Iran from versus entrenching it in the Eastern Mediterranean will be crucial to the evolution of the region in the coming few years.
Two: How will Israel face-off the Iranian presence if it gets entrenched
Israel has been bombing Iranian targets in the Eastern Mediterranean for several years. But these strikes have so far been surgical. This is because Israel has been waiting for (and trying to influence) the outcome of that war of wills between the US and Iran. But if the outcome turns out to be entrenched Iranian presence, anchored on enhanced military capabilities (directly in Syria and indirectly through Hezbollah in Lebanon), Israel will not tolerate that. A strong line of thinking within its security establishment sees this enhanced Iranian presence as a threat to its national security. Here Israel will escalate its strikes, targeting key military nodes of the Iranian architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean. This will result in a major war with exacting costs on Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, and with far-reaching consequences on the region.
Three: the future of Syria
The Assad regime has won the war to topple it. But a major international power, Russia, has now entrenched its position in Syria. This has consequences. Russia now sees its military bases in northern Syria as crucial to its interests in Eastern Mediterranean gas, to its stemming of the threat of militant Islamism in the region (all the way to its southern borders), and to its ability to influence the interests of others (the US, Europe, and Turkey). This means Russia wants a stable Syria where the costs of its presence in the country are limited. Russia will likely orchestrate the emergence of a new political order in Syria that is a continuation of the nationalist idea that the Assad (Baath) regime has always put forward, but an order that is more congruent with the demographic realities of the Syrian population, so as to avoid future flare-ups (especially given the the immense blood that was spilled in Syria in the past decade). A key milestone here would be a political transition aiming to balance the power of President Assad with that of an elected parliament. In this case, Syria will undergo a process of not only reconstruction, but crucially reconciliation. This is of utmost importance to the future of the Eastern Mediterranean because Syria is the biggest demographic concentration in the region, the historic and cultural seat of Sunni Islamism in the Levant, and the centre of gravity important constituencies (such as the Sunnis of Lebanon as well as various Palestinian groups) are naturally attracted to.
Four: Whether Egypt will return to the Levant
From the early nineteenth century and until the early 1970s, Egypt had a major political presence in the Levant. Since then, Egypt has been missing from the Levant’s socio-and-geo-politics. But as Egypt seems to be resuscitating its older engagements in different parts of its neighbourhood, the Levant will increasingly feature more prominently in its thinking. This is because whereas Egypt’s interests have historically extended south (to Africa, especially to where the Nile originates from), and west (to Tunisia and Morocco, from which some of the most influential Islamic movements in Egypt’s history came from), Egypt’s most compelling interests have always been in the East (the Levant). Whether during Pharaonic, Christian, early Islamic, Ayubid, Mamelukite, or modern times (Mohammad Ali and his son, Ibrahim Pasha), Egypt saw and pursued opportunities as well as threats in the Levant. Today there are forces in the region that miss Egypt and want it to return to the Levant (for example many Lebanese who believe in the centrality of Arabness to the idea and identity of Lebanon). Other forces, however, do not want Egypt in the region, either fearing its potential influence, or seeing the Levant already too crowded for another regional behemoth to enter. Yet, if indeed the Levant exerts its traditional pull on Egypt, the country’s return will change many power dynamics there.
Five: The nature of Turkey’s ambitions in the Levant
Turkey is an established power in the Eastern Mediterranean. But since the late nineteenth century, its reach was primarily maritime, in the areas round its southern shores. Its decisive influence in Levantine politics came to an end when Egypt’s Ibrahim Pasha chased its army out of the entire Eastern Mediterranean in the 1830s. Turkey never showed any real interest in returning to the region since then. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Ottomans effectively ceded control of the Levant to Britain and France. In the twentieth century, Turkey of Ataturk and his followers never looked south. And even under the currently ruling g AKP party, Turkey was primarily focused on ideological struggles in the Arab world (especially for and against Islamism). But Turkey has already begun to establish land presence in the north of the Eastern Mediterranean, and seems interested in expanding that presence south (at least through political influence, especially within some Sunni Muslim communities). This remains nascent, and it might be linked to security concerns as opposed to a strategic drive. But if it turns out to be the later, it will affect all of the previous four factors.
An elderly commentator from the region once remarked that “la terre”(the land or earth of this part of the world) has absorbed so much love, joy, and creativity as well as so much blood. For the sake of generating more joys and creativity and avoiding blood, the people of the region need to navigate well the tricky dynamics that arise from the combination of these five factors above.