With our attention focused on other things—Israel’s elections, the legal fraternity’s aggressive lawfare against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump’s peace plan, to name just a few—profound strategic shifts have upended the strategic balance in the Middle East.
Israel’s two most formidable adversaries—Iran and Turkey—both came up short in their quests for regional domination, and Israel is reaping the rewards of their losses.
Two weeks ago, Netanyahu held a previously unannounced meeting in Uganda with Sudanese President Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. Instant commentaries presented the meeting as a salutary side product of the Trump plan, but the truth is much more significant. The sight of the two leaders sitting next to one another, smiling, made heads explode from Tehran to Ramallah. The Netanyahu-Burhan meeting was no mere byproduct of a peace plan. It was a long-planned and hoped-for result of a set of policies that, aided by good fortune, dealt a cataclysmic blow to Iran and its terrorist proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Until last April, Sudan was ruled for 30 years by Omar al-Bashir. Bashir, an Islamist, was a major sponsor of global terrorism. From 1991-1995, Al-Qaeda was headquartered in Khartoum.
Al-Bashir was also a close ally of Iran. He permitted the Iranian regime to use Sudanese ports to move weapons to Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to the Assad regime in Syria. Al-Bashir also allowed the Iranians to use Sudanese territory to surround Saudi Arabia, to transfer weapons to the Houthis in Yemen and to threaten the Saudi port in Jeddah, outside of Mecca, and to threaten Saudi oil platforms at Yanbu.
In December 2018, disgusted by rampant corruption and human rights abuses, the Sudanese people rose up against their leaders. For five months, massive anti-government protests were held throughout the country. Responding to public pressure, last April the Sudanese military overthrew al-Bashir.
The units that overthrew al-Bashir were supported by the Gulf states, Egypt, the United States and, according to some reports, Israel. The new regime, which is pledged to transition to some form of democracy within two years, is supported by these governments.
Al-Bashir, for his part, was supported by Iran, Qatar and Turkey. His removal was a huge blow to all three. For the Iranian regime, his removal from power by forces allied with Iran’s bitter enemies was arguably a greater loss than the death of terror master Qassem Soleimani and his lieutenants last month in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. The loss of Sudan calls into question Iran’s ability to maintain its regional campaigns.
Consider its positions in two of its satrapies—Iraq and Lebanon.
Among the people killed along with Soleimani was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Iran’s Shi’ite militias in Iraq. This week, The Guardian reported that in the wake of their deaths, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi sent his top adviser to Beirut to meet with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Mahdi is an Iranian proxy. His representative beseeched Nasrallah to take command of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq that Soleimani and Muhandis had directed.
Nasrallah acceded to the request, but apparently fearing that he would end like Soleimani if he began flying around to rally the troops, said that he would run the militias by remote control from Beirut.
Nasrallah’s decision to take control over Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq endangers Lebanon. The more the evidence piles up that Lebanon is a Hezbollah-controlled Iranian colony, the more likely it becomes that the United States will end all its military and civilian assistance to Lebanon.
After a long delay, last month U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approved the transfer of military and civilian aid to Lebanon. That approval is already being questioned and conditioned in the Senate. Without U.S. assistance, the Lebanese economy will crumble.
Like Sudan before it, for the past four months, Lebanon has experienced mass anti-regime protests throughout the country. Long-serving Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned last October in a bid to quell the protests, but his resignation had little effect. The protests have continued since. They didn’t diminish with the appointment of Hariri’s replacement Hassan Diab, who was hand-picked by Hezbollah.
In the last week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and its speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani both visited Beirut and promised financial assistance. But Iran is in no position to keep such promises. U.S. economic sanctions have dried up Iran’s coffers. The deeper Hezbollah is pulled into Iran’s wars in Syria and Iraq, the worse off Lebanon will be. And the worse the situation becomes in Lebanon, the less likely it becomes that Hezbollah will risk starting a war with Israel.
This then brings us to Iran’s frenemy, Turkey.
In a paper published last week by the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and Africa Studies, Turkey scholar Dr. Soner Cagaptay described how, over the past decade, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made and lost a series of strategic gambles that have diminished Turkey as a regional player.
Erdoğan views himself as a neo-Ottoman ruler and the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, at the outset of the war in Syria, Erdoğan bet on the Sunnis. With halting, lackadaisical U.S. support, he formed the Free Syria Army. The FSA was presented as a coherent fighting force with the will and capacity to defeat Assad and his Iranian patrons, but it was nothing of the sort. The FSA, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, was a hodgepodge of fighters with no coherent ideology or operational plan. Over time, it was eclipsed by Islamic fanatics who used the FSA organizational framework to form what became the Islamic State (ISIS).
Since Erdoğan supports Islamists, he placed no limits on the entry of foreign fighters to Turkey en route to Syria. From 2013 to 2015, the Turkish side of the Turkish-Syrian border became the logistical base and economic hub of ISIS in Syria.
International revulsion at the barbarism of ISIS compelled the Obama administration to send forces to Syria to fight it. The United States forged an alliance with the Kurdish YPG militia to advance this aim. The YPG is a spinoff of the Turkish Kurdish PKK, which the Turks consider an existential threat. The U.S. partnership with the YPG, forged as a consequence of Turkey’s indirect sponsorship and facilitation of ISIS, significantly strained U.S.-Turkish relations.
To fight the U.S.-allied Kurds, Erdoğan betrayed Washington and tried to make a deal with Russia and Iran at the Kurds’ expense.
Angered by Turkey’s embrace of Russia and by regime-incited anti-Americanism that fomented the arrest and judicial persecution of American pastor Andrew Brunson, last year President Trump imposed economic sanctions on Turkey that nearly destroyed the economy.
Today, Erdoğan is in a new mess of his own design. In the battle for Idlib, Turkish forces are pitted against their erstwhile Russian, Iranian and Syrian partners. The Americans have publicly sided with the Turks, but to receive more than rhetorical support from Washington, Erdoğan will be forced to undermine his own tenuous ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin still further.
Which brings us to the self-inflicted mess Erdoğan has created for himself in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Erdoğan’s Muslim Brotherhood sympathies made him the greatest supporter of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt in 2012. When the Egyptian military deposed the Morsi government in 2013, Turkish-Egyptian relations became openly hostile.
In part to undermine Turkish power, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has forged close ties with other Mediterranean Basin countries—and Turkish foes—Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Supported by the Trump administration, the burgeoning alliance between these four states has led to joint military exercises between Egypt, Cyprus and Greece on the one hand and Israel, Greece and Cyprus on the other. It also is the context in which Egypt signed a deal to import Israeli natural gas. The Israeli-Cypriot-Greek gas pipeline to Europe will bypass Turkey.
To extricate Turkey from the regional isolation he induced, last December Erdoğan signed a maritime cooperation agreement with the Tripoli-based Libyan government. The Tripoli-based government is at war with the Tabruk-based Libyan government supported by Egypt, the UAE and Russia. Today, Tabruk-based forces are advancing in their offensive against Tripoli.
To save his allies in Tripoli, Erdoğan will need Putin’s help. And if he receives it, it will further weaken his ties with America.
In other words, Erdoğan is boxed in and has no good options.
Then there is the Turkish economy. As a Chatham House report on the Turkish economy published early this week showed, Turkey’s government stimulus-induced inflation and cheap credit are positioning the Turkish lira for another collapse. The political implications of another economic meltdown, just two years after the last one, are self-evident.
Israel and the Sunni Arab states, as well as the United States, are enjoying the benefits of the Iranian and Turkish defeats. This owes in great part to the strategic priorities their leaders have adopted. Netanyahu, Trump, el-Sisi and the other allied leader have placed a premium on defeating and weakening their enemies. New leaders, with different strategic priorities, are liable to squander these gains and even reverse them.
During the Munich Security Conference last weekend, Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.) met secretly with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other Democratic senators reportedly also participated in the meeting. After the U.S. media reported that the secret conclave had taken place, Murphy acknowledged his participation. He argued that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure strategy is a complete failure—even as Iran’s regional position is collapsing in broad daylight.
Last year, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution committing the next Democratic administration to restore the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. All of the Democratic presidential candidates have expressed varying degrees of commitment to the pledge.
Since leaving office, Kerry has remained in contact with Zarif and has reportedly advised him about how to ride out the economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in order to survive into the next Democratic administration.
As for Israel, earlier this week, Blue and White Party leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid harshly criticized Netanyahu for maintaining close ties with Trump. Both men pledged to cultivate Israel’s relations with the Democrats.
Gantz’s top adviser, Yoram Turbovich, was Ehud Olmert’s chief of staff during his tenure as prime minister. Last week Olmert traveled to America as the guest of J Street, which in turn enjoys close relations with radical, anti-Israel Democrats. Gantz’s campaign strategist Joel Benenson served in the same role for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
If the next Israeli government prioritizes good relations with pro-Iranian Democrats over defeating Israel’s enemies, it will necessarily undermine the strategic windfall we are now experiencing. Nothing happens by accident. If the strategic processes now taking place don’t have the time to mature, they can and likely will be reversed.