There is a growing view that after seven years of multi-faceted wars, the Eastern Mediterranean is returning to stability.
Four factors lend credibility to this view. But their impact will be merely in the short-term. What will shape the future of the Eastern Mediterranean, though, are two realities that are major harbingers of conflict.
Let’s begin with the factors that imply an upcoming stability.
One: The war to topple the Assad regime in Syria was lost. Gulf states who backed the rebel groups have adjusted to this reality and are gradually reestablishing links to Damascus. The Assad regime, and its allies, have pacified almost the whole Western and Central parts of the country. The US will likely succeed in finding an accommodation that ensures, for Turkey, the security zone it wants in the north-west, and a safe, effectively independent, region for the Syrian Kurds in the north-east. The US will also succeed in coordinating with Russia the distribution of influence in the economically attractive parts of the country. All of this indicates that Syria will, in 2019, reach relative stability.
Two: There will be an easing in the refugees crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. Most of the ten-million-plus Syrians who left in the past seven years will settle in the countries they went to. But many of the, circa, three million Syrians who have been living in Jordan and Lebanon will, gradually in the coming years, return to southern and eastern Syria, where the regime’s control is less pronounced. International donors, aware of the socio-political pressures that their presence creates in Jordan and Lebanon, will prioritise their funding of reconstructing Syria to these areas. Plus, the reconstruction that will begin in the parts solidly under the regime’s control will require labour, and will create economic spillovers, that will incentivise many Syrians in these two countries to return. The lessening of the refugees crisis will strengthen the return-to-stability narrative.
Three: Iraq is, finally, arriving at a grand deal between its social constituents that has a real chance of bringing peace. This will open up even more significant economic opportunities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Iraq is a populous country, with a relatively high average disposable income. It has a diverse economy anchored on oil, but with serious agricultural and industrial potential. A return to relative normalcy there would be a huge boast to the Jordanian and Lebanese economies; will link the Gulf’s surplus investment capital with opportunities in the Eastern Mediterranean; and will absorb significant number of displaced Syrians into the colossal reconstruction work that will appear there.
Four: There is a conviction, particularly in Washington, that a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians could be reached. The view here is realistic enough to recognise that that deal will not end the century-old conflict. But the assessment is that both sides have incentives to accept a deal that can survive for at least a decade. And that, unlike the measures that were introduced after the 1993 Oslo Agreement, this time real improvements in economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, could materialise, which would strengthen the buy-in for the deal.
These factors combined seduce many observers into thinking that economics would amend what politics destroyed in the Eastern Mediterranean.
They are wrong.
Two key realities, in the existing strategic landscape of the region, augur for conflict.
First, along with the approaching stability in Syria, there came an unprecedented Iranian political and military presence in the country. This Iranian presence in Syria builds on an already existing power centre in the region: Hezbollah - the strongest, richest, and most tightly managed political player in Lebanon, and which though being a Lebanese force, is part of the Iranian Shii Islamic power structure.
Iran is in the Eastern Mediterranean to stay. Strategically, it, correctly, sees its expansion in the region as leverage in its confrontations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. There is also a historical, or even theological, reason. The Shii religious-political establishment sees its expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean as a return of Shiism to one of its key domains. (Indeed, centuries ago, Shiism had a prominent presence in the region, and communities that had important contributions to the development of Shii thinking, before they were persecuted by successive political regimes).
But a permanent, strong Iranian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean is a threat to the security frameworks of both: Israel and Gulf states (primarily Saudi and the UAE). There are links between the two sides. But the Israeli angle is more pertinent here.
The Israeli military establishment sees Israeli national security resting on having unrivalled power relative to all players in the region. Iran has, in the past fifteen years, succeeded in significantly strengthening its political and military capabilities, despite repeated attempts by the US and Israel to weaken it and destabilise its regime. And so, a strong Iran, effectively on Israel’s border, is not a reality that Israel’s military establishment will accept. Israel will wait, assess, and calculate. But it will attempt to change that reality.
At that moment of confrontation, Iran will be neither alone, nor willing to retreat. A key outcome of the seven years war in Syria is that the close cooperation between the Assad regime (commanding the official Syrian army), Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic of Iran has evolved into a strong alliance and a united front. As a result, in Israel’s coming attempt to significantly weaken Iran’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, it will face the combined military capabilities of the three players. This confrontation will be bloody, highly disruptive to civilians (including in Israel), and devastating to infrastructure. This is why it is being postponed. But it is inevitable.
The second reality in the region today is that the dynamic that has prevailed in the last fifteen years, between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, has come to its breaking point. Since the disappearance of former Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, the Israeli view was that the political structure that succeeded him will sign a deal that Israel finds acceptable, and be extremely cooperative with Israel in stemming security threats from the Palestinian Territories.
Neither materialised. And so, Israel came to the conclusion that it must change the dynamic: support the transition to a new Palestinian leadership, find a solution to the fact that Gaza is now a demographic time-bomb that’s out of the control of the Palestinian executive power in the West Bank, and curate a new deal (a must, given the growth of Israeli settlements). At the heart of these elements, there is an Israeli conviction of the need to entrench the separation between the West Bank and Gaza.
But the Palestinians, also, have come to the conclusion that they need a new dynamic. The Palestinian Authority realises now that any deal designed in existing circumstances will reflect Israeli’s absolute dominance, and so will not be acceptable to the Palestinian public. The Palestinian Authority has also now realised that it can neither subjugate nor marginalise the Islamist Hamas (that rules Gaza), and Hamas has realised that it can neither replace nor defeat the Authority. As such, a new deal between the two leading Palestinian factions is needed. And that deal must politically reconnect the West Bank and Gaza.
The fundamental difference between these Israeli and Palestinian conclusions mean that not only there will be no grand deal between the two sides in the foreseeable future, but also that there will be a political struggle to force through the separation versus reconnecting of the West Bank and Gaza. Given how central this point is to Israel’s security assessments and to Palestinians’ national aspirations, the struggle will likely involve violence.
There are different views on how these two realities will affect the Eastern Mediterranean’s strategic scene. The region might see, for very few years, a respite from the multi-faceted wars it witnessed in the past seven years. What is certain, though, is that conflicts, with far reaching and long-term consequences, are in the horizon.