The Middle East has never been a simple place. Yet nowadays, this region is especially turbulent — with waves rocking several countries, so big that their effects are being felt worldwide, including Europe.
It’s not like this uneasiness is concentrated only in one country, or all for a common reason. There’s Islamic extremism, tremendous political turnover in many countries across the region, faltering oil prices and, let’s not forget, age-old sectarian tensions that are contributing in different ways in different places to the tumult.
In an interview with Vocal Europe, Seth Frantzman, the Oped Editor of The Jerusalem Post, expresses his take on some of the critical challenges in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel and their impact on the region.
Vocal Europe: Israel joined the US in quitting UN heritage agency over ‘anti-Israel bias’. Do you think Israel would have done this by itself or were they influenced by the Trump administration? What consequences will this have?
Seth Frantzman: Israel has not officially withdrawn from UNESCO and the US threat to withdraw doesn’t take affect until next year. Israel already severed relations with UNESCO in October 2016 after a resolution that appeared to downplay Jewish connections to Jerusalem. Since that time relations between Jerusalem and UNESCO have worsened because of a vote at UNESCO to recognize Hebron as a Palestinian Heritage site which also downplayed the Jewish connections to the site. Thus the Israeli connection to UNESCO is not influenced by the Trump administration, but rather the Trump administration’s decision was influenced by Israel and UNESCO actions in 2016 and 2017. It is likely Israel will not completely quit UNESCO.
Vocal Europe: We’re about one year into the Trump’s presidency: how do you think the relations between the US and Israel changed?
Seth Frantzman: Israel’s closest ally in the world has been the US since the 1960s. That alliance is based on several layers, including military relations, intelligence relations, pro-Israel communities in the US and Congress. However, when it comes to day-to-day relations with the US President Israel found it got the cold shoulder from the Obama administration. Obama’s diplomats explained this as “tough love,” saving Israel from itself. Under Trump Israel believed it would get a kind of blank check to do what it wants. This would include an end to US pressure on settlement activity and Jerusalem hoped the US embassy would be moved to Jerusalem.
However, a year after the election the Trump administration has only gone so far in terms of drawing closer to Israel. While Ambassador David Friedman is very pro-Israel and so is Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, there is evidence the White House will want to have a real peace plan in place in the next years. US envoy Jason Greenblatt will be Trump’s point-man on this and he is likely to eventually bring pressure on Israel. In the end that will mean things have not changed very much. Washington wants a peace process and Jerusalem does not.
Vocal Eueope: Resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, on November 4, has sparked a political crisis that is escalating longstanding conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the major contenders competing for strategic influence in the region. Some analysts consider that this is a critical moment for Middle East, which might result in further confrontations. How Israel would be affected by further escalation of the Lebanon crisis?
Seth Frantzman: Israel is concerned about chaos in Lebanon because it knows that an unstable Lebanon could lead Hezbollah to make an aggressive choice to attack Israel in order to deflect from Beirut’s crisis. Israel also fear the role of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria, especially on the Golan. However Israel also wants the US and Saudi Arabia to recognize the threat of Hezbollah and put pressure on Lebanon to reduce Hezbollah’s influence. The resignation of Hariri is part of that pressure. From Israel’s point of view a careful balance must be struck between pressuring Hezbollah and not de-stabilizing Lebanon.
Vocal Europe: The Lebanon crisis might trigger three main scenarios on short term: i) it might result in new proxy wars; ii) it might escalate a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which would upend more lives in the region and would trigger severe economic consequences; iii) it might be solved through a grand geopolitical bargain involving the main players in the region. In your opinion, which of these scenarios seem most likely to unfold and why?
Seth Frantzman: I doubt anything will change in Lebanon. Too many countries have an interest in not allowing Lebanon to become unstable. This includes Saudi Arabia, Iran and France. And Lebanese do not want a civil conflict.
Vocal Europe: What is your take on the recent independence referandum of Iraqi Kurdistan? Why did it fail? And, why is Israel the only country in the region that supported the independence aspiration Mr Barzani?
Seth Frantzman: Kurds have sought political rights for 100 years since European colonial powers decided to divide the Middle East with arbitrary lines and not consult the local people. Kurds suffered under the genocide of Saddam Hussein and have attempted since the 1990s to create an autonomous region in northern Iraq. During the war with Islamic State the Kuristan region and its Kurdistan Regional Government was largely cut off from Baghdad. It sold its own oil and ran its own airports, functioning as a kind of quasi-state. This led its leadership to believe they could have a referendum for independence and they would receive support from several countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel.
However the US and other countries pressured the Kurds to back off their referendum. That pressure was brought to late in September for it to be effective and the KRG’s leaders had already promised people a vote. They miscalculated by holding it in the disputed territories and they didn’t put enough ground work into the US and other allies before hand. This resulted in major repercussions. Israel and the Kurds have traditionally shared many similar enemies and Israel supported Kurdish resistance against Iraqi nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. This historic relationship meant that Israel supported the Kurdish right to hold a referendum.
Most other states, including in the West, hold on to colonial and orientalist views that don’t think people in the Middle East have the same rights to a referendum that Scottish people do or others and they opposed the referendum. Many Western states believe that referendums and such rights are only for western states and they also believe that Western countries should get to decide where new states will be born, so that means they supported the breakup of Yugoslavia and the independence of Kosovo but not Kurdistan.
Vocal Europe: How do you see the post-ISIS era in Iraq and Syria? Do you see that the Iranian sphere of influence is expanding both in Iraq and Syria whilst the ISIS is vanishing? If yes, why?
Seth Frantzman: The war against ISIS has distracted the US from the Iranian threat to the region. This is particularly true where the US has partnered with Iraqi forces and ignored the expanding role of the Iranian-backed sectarian Shia militias. However this is also due to Iran’s long-term strategy in the Middle East and changing US strategy. Under Obama the US sought to heal relations with Iran and saw it less as a bad actor in the region. The Trump administration thinks the opposite.
The defeat of ISIS usheres in a new era in the Middle East as it coincides with the slow process of reduction of anti-Assad forces in Syria and cements the Iranian-Turkish-Russian role in the region. With ISIS defeated the US will have to decide what its strategy is and this also involves working with Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as Iraq and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces of eastern Syria. Iran has filled some of the space left by ISIS and the sectarian nature of Iran’s role means that the grievances that helped fuel the rebellion in Syria and insurgencies in Iraq will likely remain.