Jonathan Spyer briefs Sydney journalists

June 21, 2018 by J-Wire Staff
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Dr. Jonathan Spyer, Middle East expert and Executive Director of the Middle East Centre for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) and columnist at The Jerusalem Post briefed journalists on the current situation in the Middle East this week in Sydney as part of an AIJAC-sponsored visit  of Australia and New Zealand.

Jonathan Spyer speaks in Australia Photo: Henry Benjamin

According to Spyer, the period of grassroots-driven revolution, coups, and counter-revolution mislabelled as the “Arab Spring” has given way to regional and international powers jockeying for influence over the fragmented and failed states between Iran and the Mediterranean.

Spyer argued the competition can be broadly divided between two blocs. The first and far more concrete is the Iranian-led and dominated bloc encompassing the Assad Regime and associated militias in Syria; the Houthis in Yemen; Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza; Hezbollah in Lebanon and political-military networks in Iraq, such as the Popular Mobilization Forces. These are all an extension of Iran’s export of its revolution by way of the Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC.

Arrayed against these Iranian proxies is a far looser coalition of countries that do not always cooperate, nominally including Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Spyer argues that we may be seeing the beginnings of a comprehensive strategy by the United States as part of this coalition to “contain and roll back the Iranians.” This emergent strategy has three facets: economic, primarily via the biting sanctions re-imposed after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA; military, such as effectively supporting Israeli strikes on Iranian assets in Syria and the Saudi-led efforts against the Houthis in Yemen; and political, in which the US seeks to contain and even isolate Iran diplomatically.

Spyer assesses that in Yemen, despite talk of a quagmire, the Saudi-led bloc has managed to prevent Houthi expansion and very worrying Iranian control over strategic sea lanes carrying massive energy exports. Currently, the alliance is on course to retake the important port of Hodeidah. In Iraq, Spyer says the recent  elections, in which the Shiite party led by Moqtada al-Sadr, which is not intrinsically tied to Iran,did well shows that Iran does not have full control of the country, even though recent discussions of a coalition between Sadr and the Iranian loyalist bloc Fateh do not bode well.

With regards to Lebanon, Spyer finds it difficult to imagine competing with Iranian influence due to Hezbollah’s unchallengeable military role within Lebanon today.

In Syria, notwithstanding what seems to be a victory for Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies, Israel has exposed substantial divisions between Russian and Iranian interests and objectives. Playing on its relationship with Russia and the divergence of goals between Russia and Iran, Israel has managed to secure Russian acquiescence for its bombing of IRGC targets throughout Syria. While Israel can severely degrade the Iranian military presence from the air, Spyer says that Iran is settling in for the long term to build proxies and political influence and won’t be evicted by air power alone.

Speaking briefly on Gaza and the recent months of riots along the border, Spyer says they were essentially a desperate action by Hamas, whose asymmetric military capabilities in terrorism, rockets and terror tunnels have been negated by Israeli technology. Hamas’ relationship with Iran, their long standing backer, has also degraded considerably. Its failure to “reconcile” with Mahmoud Abbas in order to form a Hezbollah-like structure in Gaza under the facade of  Palestinian Authority political control has left it with few options. The protests, intending to channel much of the Palestinian outrage over Hamas’ ruinous governance towards Israel, themselves exposed the limits in mass mobilization efforts by Hamas, with far fewer than expected turning out to riot and trying to violently invade over the Gaza border or in the West Bank where there was very limited protest activity.

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