Iran and Turkey key to Mideast chaos : Jonathan Spyer to AIJAC Webinar

July 9, 2020 by  
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In the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC)’s latest webinar, Middle East analyst and author Dr Jonathan Spyer discussed the “war over the ruins” of a chaotic Middle East and particular regional flashpoints, with several economic and military dynamics exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19.

Jonathan Spyer

Spyer divides the regional competitors of this regional war up into four key blocs: Iran and its allies; Turkey and its allies; Salafi-Jihadist groups; and the loose coalition of so-called status quo powers, including Israel, Egypt, and some of the Gulf States. “The Iranians are running the most cohesive and centralised of the regional blocs,” Spyer says. In the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’(IRGC) expeditionary wing, the Quds Force, “Iran possesses a body uniquely well-suited to the confused and fragmented nature of the strategic situation at the present time because it’s an organisation specifically geared towards the creation and management of proxy organisations in neighbouring states.” However, countering Iran in areas where it is weak, from economics to intelligence to airpower, are effective means of mitigating the IRGC’s strength, he argued.

Turkey’s “very very aggressive and ambitious…foreign policy” requires more attention and concern than it receives, Spyer said. In Libya, “what we’re witnessing is a new Turkey, a Turkey which is no longer in any way… bound by the well-known traditional contours of Turkish foreign policy, pro-Western, pro-NATO,” Spyer added. This new approach “combines a degree of Ottoman-era nostalgia and nationalism with of course the well-known Sunni Islamist proclivities” of the current Turkish government.

The Salafi-Jihadists, most prominently Islamic State, remain a potent force, Spyer argued, despite the destruction of their Caliphate in Syria and Iraq last year. For Al-Qaeda and ISIS networks, “chaos and fragmentation are their natural habitat,” and terrorist groups can capitalise on the current anger and disenfranchisement in the Sunni world.


The final bloc of “status quo countries” isn’t really a formal partnership, but can be grouped together as pro-Western countries and movements, including Israel, concerned with US disengagement from the Middle East over the last decade that try to work together to hold back both the Iranian and Turkish blocs as well as Salafi-Jihadist insurgencies, such as in Egypt’s Sinai. Security and economic cooperation between Israel and Egypt and the UAE has noticeably increased behind the scenes.

Spyer also discussed relevant regional flashpoints, first and foremost Israel’s potential decision to annex areas of the West Bank as stipulated in the Trump administration’s peace plan, causing some tension within the ‘status quo’ bloc. Partially as a result of the uproar, “the ambitions for this annexation, so-called, gradually began to be whittled down to something much smaller.”  According to Spyer’s sources, Israel is waiting on the US to make a decision one way or the other, and because the US and Israel are both distracted with internal crises, including COVID-19, it’s unclear how much attention will be given to the issue.

Furthermore, Spyer argued, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is not “a typical ideological politician. He is, rather, a deeply cautious manager,” and “a major sudden strategic move on the West Bank would be quite out of character.”

In Libya, the Turkish-led bloc is competing with the UAE and Egypt and their allies for control of the country. “This is a very, very incendiary situation in Libya right now,” Spyer says. “Right now, a real possibility [exists] of potentially even kinetic action between two very major, notionally Western-aligned powers,” Turkey and Egypt.

Spyer pointed to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs as another flashpoint, especially given the several explosions in Iran in recent days, including at the Khojir missile facility and at an advanced centrifuge production facility in Natanz that some sources claim set back Iran’s nuclear program by a year or more. Spyer said the prime suspect, at least in the Natanz explosion, must be Israel, which has been engaged in a tit-for-tat cyberwar with Iran that has escalated since an attempted Iranian cyberattack on Israel’s water infrastructure in April.

The main regional flashpoint for all the regional players remains Syria. Spyer argues that “quietly effective” US economic pressure, especially over the past year, has prevented Bashar al-Assad and his backers from properly consolidating power despite military victories. The regime needs hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, but “as of now, the Americans and their allies are determined that Assad should not be permitted to get his hands on that international money and rebuild Syria according to his preference.” The lack of money, Spyer says, has succeeded in fanning new protests in various regions and exacerbated splits between Assad and loyalists like his cousin Rami Makhlouf.

According to Spyer, Syria represents the likely future of American power projection in the Middle East. “There’s not going to be any more major US military deployments on the ground, I think we can say with some confidence. But what there does appear to be is a willingness now to use America’s economic muscle to try to bring about policy objectives, or at least to disrupt the attempts of adversaries to achieve their objective.”

Despite the instability and worrying Iranian advances, “we can see there’s a great deal of weakness and vulnerability also in the enemy, certainly the Iranians, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Syria. The commonality in all three of those cases right now is that it is economic weakness which is severely disrupting the freedom of activity of those players right now.”

This is particularly true in Lebanon, which is experiencing “quite stormy demonstrations against the Hezbollah-led” government, Spyer noted. Lebanon is in the midst of a severe economic meltdown that has transitioned into a humanitarian crisis. Despite the collapse of the State, Spyer argues it’s unlikely to change Hezbollah’s effective control of the government. “Lebanon today is effectively a colony of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is the Iranians, via their Hezbollah proxy, who have the key and final decision with regards to governance in Lebanon, and their desire for Lebanon is to turn it effectively into a kind of launchpad for potential aggression against Israel at some future date of their choosing.”

In order to maintain this situation, Iran requires the cooperation of Lebanon’s dysfunctional, corrupt, deeply entrenched political class. “Any real reform would threaten that reality,” Spyer asserts, as it “might lead to the question of why exactly Lebanon permits itself to be occupied by a hostile force that has its own army.” In Spyer’s view, “as long as Iran remains desirous of maintaining the status quo in Lebanon,” the situation is unlikely to change.


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