16 January 2019

POLITICAL AND SECURITY FORECASTS-2019 (XI)- MIDDLE EAST

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Image source: Mediafax

Context

Middle East’s “Mediterranean” region, represented by Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, whereat we add Jordan also, will reach some evolutions, in 2019, to end a series of 2018 tendencies, like the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the civil war in Syria, charting also the continuity of Russia’s presence in the region, the persistence of some Islamic terrorism centres, and the maintenance of some territories outside the governmental control (specially Syria).

The tensions between states and political/military actors in the region will continue, probably with less manifestations than in 2018, firstly due to this year’s military overexertion, but we cannot exclude also violent manifestations of those tensions at the border between Israel, Lebanon and Syria, in Gaza or the territories in Syria, which are under Kurdish control.

Turkey- a NATO member which does not take orders

President Erdogan firmly welcomes this year, thanks to his political agenda imposition in an internal, but also regional plan. Of course, Russia and US’s presence in this space have reduced Turkey’s lots of plans to dominate north of Middle East, but it still succeeded in creating a security area on Syria’s territory, in putting the Kurdish ambitions for independency or more autonomy on stand-by. The pending economic crisis, which has marked the second part of 2018, will continue to mark 2019 also, accompanying the internal political evolutions.

Politically speaking, Turkey will continue to use the opened pathways in the relation with the European Union, to gain the help of the strong states from Western Europe, in supporting the management of some files related to institutional coordination and funds/investments. Ankara will need the European support to manage Syrians refugees’ crisis, to financially support the big projects. It will be in defensive across the relations with the big Western powers, and in offensive with Balkan and South-East Europe’s states. To that end, the collaboration mechanism with EU will continue to work, including those which are aiming for Turkey to reach the standards of a possible EU accession. The political and diplomatic Turkish establishment is, quite a while from now, convinced that it will never happen, but it is also pragmatic when not wasting EU’s programs available for the candidate states.

In the relation with NATO, Turkey has les restraints than in the EU one, being based more on security reasons and mutual complementarity, than on standards, hence, in 2019, Ankara will continue to make decisions which are opposing most of its NATO allies’ ones, on various fields, spaces and issues:

  • The security situation from the Black Sea;
  • The relations with Israel;
  • The Syrian file;
  • The political-military cooperation with Russia.

But this will not stop Ankara from calling on NATO’s support in solving some security issues, especially in combating terrorism.

The Kurdish issue will continue to be the main internal and regional security file for Turkey. Already sure that the internal security in South-East of the country areas depend on the political, military and administrative involvement in regions like North of Syria and Iraq, which are majoritarian Kurdish, the Turkish authorities will continue to support the rebel Arab, pro-Turkish and Turkish groups, to whom is offering the administration of some territories and enclaves, creating a security and protection area in South of the Turkish border, hence avoiding the continuity of the territories controlled by Kurdish, but also their attempts to consolidate their local autonomies. Turkey will invest in these areas, will develop their local, administrative and educational infrastructure, will try to ensure their functionality to make them attractive for the refugees which are now on the Turkish territory or for the local population, whose options are Damask’s anti-regime.

The Turkish options regarding regional policy will bump into the american ones, especially regarding the relation with the Kurdish minority from Syria. Iran is also on the list.

But Turkey has also regional economic interests, some which can be solved through proxy tools, like North Cyprus. Because there were discovered great natural gases reserves, 2019 will raise another juridical demarcation conflict of the economic areas surrounding Cyprus, and especially in south of this country, the stake being huge for each of the involved parts. Turkey, which is the most distant, geographically speaking, from all the regional energy combatants, will push in to maximize the rights to exploit North of Cyprus, and this could involve also some negative accents in its relation with Israel, the country also asking for sovereignty rights over an important percentage of these energy resources.

Also regionally, Turkey will continue the conjunctural, economic, political and, sometimes, military partnerships with Russia (raising critics among its NTO allies), but also with Iran, wherewith it has superior economic relations, to the political and historical ones. These relations will be verified, from time to time, also in Syria or in the negotiations from Astana, these three states’ positions being often in opposition regarding the regional issues, but most of the times unitary on opposing the external political interference, firstly, US’s one.

Syria- long-term option for the authoritative model

In 2019, Syria will be eight years away from the Arab Spring and will enter, starting with March, the ninth year of civil war. Even considering the statistics, the Syrian conflict is about to reach unexpected, but also painful records. Defence and Security Monitor has been presenting, in a report[1], the reasons why this war should have ended long time ago. This may possibly happen in 2019. Even if there are some conditions for this hypothesis, we will not see a “happy end” of the war by the end of this year, although the main security issue of the Syrian regime, the seizure of the rebellious Idlib enclave, may end positively.

The East and North of Syria territories, which are under Syrian Democratic Force’s control (majoritarian Kurdish) and are still under US’s protection, will face a very difficult situation after the American withdrawal. FSA’s South enclave (Free Syrian Army) from Al-Tanf/ the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border may be the smallest sacrifice made by the Kurdish forces to remain in South of Syria. This is, obviously, also a consequence of the Jordanian-Iraqi pressures, which will refuse to maintain a tension focal point close to their borders.

By embracing a long-term strategic partnership with Moscow, Damask assumed (some may say it was force to do it) a political, economic, military and even educational authoritative model, which is continuing the model started by Havez Al-Assad, although maybe young Bashar would have wanted, at some point, something different. 2019 will mark the intensification of the Russian presence in Syria in these fields, Damask’s dependency against Moscow continuing to be bigger, because even for country’s reconstruction program there are less chances to find other partners.

Taking over the majority of the Syrian territory makes the Iranian presence more hardly to be explained and accepted, which could lead to its massive decrease, especially regarding the combination of Shias with Iranians, but also with Iraqi and Afghan communities. Of course, the foreign pressures, either American, Iranian or Russian, can have a say. Yet, the Iranian elite elements might remain in strategic and even religious locations, to protect some sacred places or some special military objectives.

Resuming, 2019 will continue some unsolved issues, some of them remaining the same also by the end of the future year:

  • The control over the rebellious Idlib enclave. Its future will, probably, be decided by a new reunion in Sochi or Astana. Its solution will not longer be postponed to indefinite time, because the Damask regime will not tolerate to lose the control of a province close to country’s green area, massively populated. The presence of the terrorist Islamic groups, opponent to the regime and Turkey also, will ease making a political decision about a military operation of the Syrian army in the region. Actually, Damask is keeping also the option of undermining from the inside, through fights alike the guerrilla ones, of the Islamic administration from the enclave;
  • The Kurdish autonomy from North and East of the country, supported by military elements dislocated by US and France, to whom the regime cannot address now because of the foreign support, but also because the military solution would be extremely difficult, being already known Kurdish’s militants’ sacrifice spirit;
  • The presence of the foreign forces, unwelcomed by Damask’s regime on Syria’s territory. We are firstly talking about US and Turkey’s dislocations in the rebellious or Kurdish enclaves from North-West, North and East of Syria, but also close to the border with Jordan and Iraq. The Syrian regime was always against this presence, but the lack of military and diplomatic resources is divesting it, now, and the situation will continue also in 2019, from the appropriate pressures to impose the withdrawal of the foreign military detachments. Turley imposed itself a deadline- at the end of the Syrian elections, but this is also something ambiguous, because it does not define the elections category (Parliamentary, presidential etc.) and neither if these will have international supervision. The US built, inside the Kurdish territory, tens of bases on different dimensions, is installing observation points at the border with Turkey, to “protect” it from ISIS’s interferences (although the only enclaves wherein the terrorist group is still functioning is hundreds of kilometers away to south), the number of the American presence has been suddenly increased, in some reports, to 4.000 military men, double in comparison with those 2.000 unofficially reported[2], even if there are less chances for Damask to prevent the regulated Syrian forces in East of the country. But Washington slowly decided the withdrawal, without mentioning what happens with the old deadline to withdraw those forces: “after Iranians will leave”[3], which, using an old game invented by Persians, chess, in Damask, means a possible long-term tie.  
  • Remaking the country and bringing refugees back home. For the first one, there are no sufficient resources, and the common Moscow-Damask attempts to convince Europe to be part of the reconstruction effort did not have the expected results. For the second one, the property infrastructure is missing, being completely destroyed in 8 years of war and Damask’s regime is not an attractive point for those who revolted in 2011’s spring. 2019 will continue to be difficult for those millions of Syrian refugees, especially for the ones in Syria’s neighbor states, who will be under double pressure to go back home: from the states on whose territory they are, which want to get rid off a financial and humanitarian burden, but also from Damask, which needs their comeback to re-legitimize itself. In 2019, Syria will have the chance to end the internal conflict, but reaching internal peace is a long and unpredictable way.

Israel- between a peace plan with opened options and the parliamentary elections with predictable end

The parliamentary elections from 2019 should have been only a normal political exercise of one of the most successful Israeli politicians lately, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Right is already seen as a winner on all fronts, and Likud would get a convincing electoral score. If… it wasn’t for that little and always postponed corruption file wherein prime-minister’s wife, but also the prime-minister himself are accused for working illegally in the relation with a sponsor of the party and the family as well. A file which, recently, demanded prime-minister’s incrimination.

Hence, 2019 becomes a challenging electoral year, wherein there is only one certainty, the end of Israeli’s Left, but also a lot of uncertainties on the Center-Right side from Israel’s internal policy. The young “wolfs” of the Right Israeli, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, representatives and leaders of Bayit Yehudi party/ The Jewish Home, are only the most obvious adversaries, who, along with the ex-minister of defence, leader of the “Israel is our Home” party/Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, are hoping together that Netanyahu will not get away with justice’s challenge. Prime-minister Netanyahu survived complicated circumstances many times, which may happen also in 2019. For a start, from a short political manipulation exercise, he gave his political adversaries a “security vigilance” moment, by starting the destruction operation of the Hezbollah tunnels, dug under Israel’s North border fence.

So, 2019 will be on term Parliamentary elections’ year, from September, anticipated, if prime-minister Netanyahu will see it more appropriate. Until then, ex-Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli’s army option, Benny Gantz, will be clear also. He is the one who seems to have big chances to enter the political Israeli scene, according to a pole recently made[4], if he will decide so, even by founding a new party.

The ex-General, already surpassing the three years of “penitence” period, wherein those who had military positions cannot enter the political fight, who is now 59 years old, seems to be the favorite person to receive votes from all the Center side parties of the Israeli politics, if he will decide to enter on his own, and not joining any other political groups. Prime-minister’s forecasts for elections’ possible outrun, will take into account this perspective also, if it will be useful for him or not, in the post-electoral period.   

2019 will be also the year wherein Trump will present his peace program[5], probably in January-February. The planners of Trump’s Administration new program, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, did not offer many details over the continuity of US’s proposals to solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians (no one even knows if the solution of these states is still an option), but, given the recent evolutions and decisions, its provisions will be not that attractive for the Palestinian side. Actually, the American negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, stated that the plan will be directed towards “Israel’s security needs”, being, at the same time “fair for the Palestinians”. Plan’s presentation at the beginning of 2019 aims to avoid the overlap with the electoral campaign, which could move its debate topics towards something else.

Probably 2019 will bring Israeli executive’s new initiatives to retake/extend the diplomatic and political contacts with a series of Arab states, especially from the Gulf, in its attempt to consolidate the Anti-Iranian stances. The targets will mostly be first line’s states, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, where there are important Shia minorities, and their external policy tries to insert disciplines and pressures from Teheran, but also from Riyadh. As we speak, the relation with Saudi Arabia are obviously coordinated by Netanyahu and the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. 2019 could bring some unpleasant surprises for the prince, which could cause some consequences for the Israeli openness towards the Arab world from the Gulf area.

To these evolutions, the Palestinians from West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be only onlookers, as they do not have a political class able to implement an internal reconciliation project (of course that Israel had a say in this situation too), they are concerned for their economic issues, especially those from Gaza, and the lack of a consistent international support. There are also some details which makes us conclude that the Israel-Hamas agreement will work in 2019 in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian group being more pragmatically directed to solving the humanitarian situation from the area, than to taking anti-Israeli revenge. Fatah’s administration comeback in Gaza Strip, but also the impact of US’s new peace program announcement could be landmark and fragile moments for this temporary equilibrium.

And the hot ashes of the Israel-Palestinian tensions can hide some permanent military and social explosion focal points.

Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories

These states and Israel’s neighbor entities are sharing a series of issues and common threats, but also have different political structure foundations and economic frameworks, which, often, makes them act at cross-purposes.  

2019 brings Jordan the endless issue in economy functioning and budgetary shortage coverage. The current government promised not to make the same error as the previous one, to increase the fiscal burden over the citizens from the lower and middle class of society, but it quickly discovered (mostly the prime-minister Omar Razzaz, as the ministries which came from the previous governments already knew about it) that there are not so many budgetary sources wherefrom to cover the financial breaches, generated by an excessive administration. Hence, when the government will find the proper moment, the classic subsidies of the basic products will disappear or will be substantially reduced.

The Jordanian economy was relieved by traffic’s opening, at the border with Syria and Iraq, but its systematic issues will not find a solution just by increasing the agricultural products exports from Jordan Valley, or the less mineral resources from the Southern desert.

Amman waits, concerned, Trump’s Administration plan to find out the winner.

Everybody already knows the winner, but the provisions related to the future Jordanian-Palestinian relations, the statue of the sacred Islamic places from Jerusalem, which are under the custody of the Jordanian monarch, king Abdullah the Second, are also important. Jordan already offered a firm gesture by deciding not to recharter some provisions of the Peace Treaty with Israel[6], which were allowing the use, by the Israeli farmers, of two agricultural enclaves from the Jordanian side of the border, Baquoran in the North, and Ghumar, in the South.

Jordan’s negotiation freedom is sometimes increased, but also limited, by its geographic and strategic position. The personal partnership between the Israeli prime-minister, the Saudi Crown Prince and the US president are reducing even more this maneuver space for the Jordanian King. Hence, alike its 100-years of complicated circumstances history, Jordanian state’s options for the difficult 2019 year will depend on the Hashemite monarch decisions who proved, all in all, that he is more prepared than any other sovereigns from the region, to protect his country.

Lebanon will be the same in 2019, namely in its permanent political crisis. The denominated prime-minister, Saad El-Din Rafik Al- Hariri, announced[7], two months ago, that he will form a government in less than ten days, and president Aoun consolidated, at that moment, the message, stating that the government “will be formed soon”. We are close to 2018’s end, so Lebanon will welcome 2019 with the same ministries from the previous executive, with the same political forces around its tables, with the same political dependency reports of the institutions and political positions in the Lebanese society.

Of course, at some point, a new government will be formed and approved by the political Lebanese forces, but it will be more like an administrative decision.

The Lebanese society is already working through the constitutional agreements’ inertia from Ta’if, which offers each community a chunk from country’s political and economic power, hence the governments are formalizing something that already exists. 2019 will bring Lebanon some supplementary challenges:

  • The pressure made by different elements of the Lebanese society to bring the Syrian refugees’ home;
  • The increased influence of Hezbollah group, which already became, through its military wing, an alternative force to the national Lebanese army;
  • The Israeli pressures for a favorable delimitation to the Jewish states of the marine blocs, wherein are located the natural gasses reserves (specially bloc 9), already licensed by Beirut to some international companies;
  • Changing the regional power reports, being registered a Saudi recoil and Damask’s increasing influence, of course, Moscow’s too, the S-400 system covering the entire Lebanese air space.

As for the Palestinian Territories, 2019 could be the beginning, or the end, of Palestinian state’s dream to have the capital to Jerusalem. It can also be the year wherein a new Palestinian leaders’ generation could take a stand on the internal political scene. It could be the year wherein the economic or humanitarian priorities will prevail the affirmation messages of region’s geo-political realities. It could be the dialogue year. These are the recent evolutions. Unfortunately, the Palestinian issue gained too much internal tensions, but which have repercussions on the international plan too, so it makes it difficult to find a simple solution now. And if Americans proposal from the long-awaited peace plan will, in their turn, gas up with pro-Israeli additive, West Bank and Gaza Strip’s moldering fire, the explosive recipe is ready.

2019

According to the report, for Middle East’s West part will start some cold rains and snowfalls over the areas situated at high-altitudes. After that, everything will go back to normal. How much these will last, until … again, the external factors will, once more, disrupt the local evolutions? It looks like a political prognosis, isn’t it?


[1] https://monitorulapararii.ro/sapte-motive-pentru-care-razboiul-din-siria-ar-fi-trebuit-sa-se-incheie-ieri-1-5021

[2] https://www.militarytimes.com/flashpoints/2018/09/07/us-plays-down-talk-of-imminent-pullout-of-forces-from-syria/

[3] https://www.defensenews.com/global/the-americas/2018/09/24/bolton-us-troops-staying-in-syria-until-iran-leaves/

[4] https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/poll-party-headed-by-former-chief-of-staff-gantz-would-take-12-seats-in-election-1.6534086

[5] https://www.timesofisrael.com/israels-un-envoy-trump-peace-plan-completed-to-be-unveiled-in-early-2019/

[6] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-jordan-israel-peace-treaty/jordan-says-it-wont-renew-peace-treaty-land-deal-with-israel-idUSKCN1MV0JF

 

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