The Collision of the Middle East Horns (Daniel)

The Saudi-Israeli Alliance Against Iran, Two Major Middle East Projects Are About to Collide

Israel has ineluctably allied itself with Saudi Arabia and Sunni Islam. So too, the US has taken Israel’s and Saudi’s partisan position against Iran. Both have their shoulders behind the Saudi king’s back – pushing him into leading a hybrid war against his powerful neighbor.

September 18th, 2018

Out from the ashes of the two mega projects of this expiring decade – i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) attempted Mideast take-over, and, contrarily, the Gulf project to rupture the MB – and to reconstitute hereditary, tribal absolutism (the ‘Arab System’) – two different oppositional ventures are arising. They are gaining greater mass and inevitably will vie with each other – sooner or later. In fact, they already are. The question is how far will the vying go?

One is the tying together of the northern tier of the Region through the diffusion of a common political ethos (based in resistance to the US insistence the region to accede to a revived American hegemony), and by the more mundane imperative to find the means to by-pass, and overstep, America’s financial war machine.

This latter movement had a major victory in recent days. Elijah Magnier, the veteran Middle East journalist, sums it up succinctly:

The US favourite candidate for the [Iraqi] prime ministership, Haidar Abadi, lost his last chance to renew his mandate for a second term when riots caused arson around the southern city of Basra and burned down the walls of the Iranian consulate in the city. While the inhabitants demonstrated for their justified demands (fresh water, electricity, job opportunities and infrastructure), sponsored groups with different agendas mixed with the crowds and managed to burn down offices, ambulances, a government building and school associated with al-Hashd al-Shaabi and other anti-US political groups. This mob behaviour forced Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of 54 MPs, to drop his political partner Abadi and to put an end to [the latter’s] political carrier. Moqtada sought to distance himself from the events in Basra in order to let the blame fall on Abadi alone. He has joined the side of the winning horse, that of Iran …

This combination of events led Moqtada to… take his 54 MPs to join the largest coalition. Overt sponsorship by the US, and the Basra events, have brought Abadi’s political carrier in Iraq to an end … The largest coalition is now expected to include many more than 165 MPs, and thus become eligible to choose the Speaker and his two deputies, the president and the new prime minister … The emergent large coalition will no longer need the support of the Kurds (42 MPs).”

The leader of this broad coalition of Shi’a and Sunni parties is likely to be Faleh al-Fayyadi, the head of Hashd al-Shaabi (the PMU). In political terms, therefore, Iraq now is prone for inclusion in the Russian-Iranian-Syrian led, northern partnership (though divisions within the Iraqi Shi’a camp remain a source of potential conflict). And if, as is likely, Iraq is embargoed by the US for failing to abide by US sanctions on Iran, then Iraq will be pushed – by the exigency of circumstance – into the evolving economic sphere that was the subject of major discussion at last Friday’s Tehran summit. That is to say, into an evolving series of economic frameworks for de-dollarizing and US sanctions busting.

The import of this miscalculation (instigating the violent protests) in Basra (a Saudi hand is widely suspected) has wider implications for the US. Firstly, it is likely to lead to American forces being told to quit Iraq. Secondly, it will complicate the ability of the Pentagon to sustain its military presence in Syria. The logistics for American deployments in north-east Syria, which traverse through Iraq, may no longer be available – and the US forces there, in Syria, inevitably will become isolated, and hence, more vulnerable.

Protesters storm and burn the Iranian consulate building in Basra, Iraq, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Nabil al-Jurani | AP

But a turnaround in Iraq also puts a spike into the balloon of President Trump’s aspiration to reassert US energy dominance over the Mideast. Iran – it was hoped – would ultimately capitulate and fall to economic and political pressures, and as the Iranian domino capsized, it would take with it, crashing down into political acquiescence, the Iraqi domino.

This scenario would leave the US with the main sources of ‘low production cost’ Middle East energy in its hands (i.e. Gulf, Iran and Iraqi oil and gas). On the face of this week’s events however, it looks more likely that these resources – or at least, the greater energy resources of Iran and Iraq – will end up in the Russian sphere (together with Syria’s unexplored Levant Basin prospects). And this Russian ‘heartland’, energy-producing sphere, may, in the end, prove to be a more than substantive rival to US (newly emerged as ‘the world’s top oil producer’) aspirations for restoring its Mideast energy dominance.

The other oppositional ‘dynamic’ gaining critical mass is the Kushner-Friedman-Grrenblatt objective to terminate the Palestinian people’s insistence that theirs, precisely, is a ‘political project’. The aim (from the details leaked so far), is to evacuate their claim’s political potency – through progressive salami-slicing away of the main planks that that constitute the claim to theirs being a political project, in the first place.

Firstly, by ending the two-state paradigm, to be replaced by a One State, Jewish ‘nation-state’ of differentiated rights and differentiated political empowerment. Secondly, by taking Jerusalem ‘off the table’ as capital of a Palestinian state; and thirdly, by attempting to dissolve Palestinian refugee status, by re-directing the onus of settlement onto existing host governments. In this way, Palestinians are to be pushed out from the political sphere, in return for the promise that they may become more prosperous – and therefore ‘happier’ – through following the Kushner recipe.

And, seemingly, drawing on their real-estate background for dealing with awkward tenant ‘stand-outs’ to any major real-estate development, the Kushner-Friedman ‘squeeze’ is on: de-funding of UNWRA, closing the PLO office in the US; cutting aid to East Jerusalem hospitals – and demonising Palestinian leaders as corrupt and inattentive to claimed Palestinian desires (for a materially more prosperous life).

Recently, the Kushner team have been floating an old idea (outlined in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahoronot by Sima Kadmon, 7 Sept 2018) which Abu Mazen did not directly dismiss when approached). It originated with the Israeli General, Giora Eiland, in January 2010, in a paper that he wrote for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. In it, Eiland wrote:

The solution is to establish a federative Jordanian kingdom that has three ‘states’: the East Bank, the West Bank and Gaza. Those states, in the American sense [of the word], will be like Pennsylvania or New Jersey. They will have full independence on internal affairs, and they will have a budget, government institutions, unique laws, a police force and all other outward symbols of independence. But, similar to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, they will have no responsibility for two issues: foreign policy and military troops. Those two areas, just like in the United States, will remain under the purview of the ‘federal’ government in Amman.”

Eiland opined that there were clear advantages to Israel in such a solution, instead of the two-state solution. “First of all, there’s a change in the ‘story.’ We’re no longer talking about the Palestinian people living under occupation, but a territorial conflict between two countries, Israel and Jordan. Secondly, Jordan can be more compromising on some of the issues, such as the territorial issue.” Adding that “In the Middle East, the only way to ensure the survival of the regime is by means of effective security control … therefore, the way to prevent unrest in Jordan that will be fed by a future Hamas regime in the West Bank is Jordanian military control over that territory [plus a demilitarised West Bank on which Israel would insist]”.

Jared Kushner watches a ceremony where Donald Trump was presented with The Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh. Evan Vucci | AP

Putting this all together, the Palestinians in Gaza (according to reports) will be settled in Gaza/Sinai (and ‘policed’ by Egyptian Intelligence), whilst what Palestinian enclaves remained in West Bank would be policed by Jordanian officers, under overall Israeli security control. And a complaint ‘Federal’ government in Jordan would be held responsible, by Israel, for the whole.

Of course, this may be no more than a kite flying exercise by Kushner et al. We do not know what will be in Trump’s Deal of the Century (it has repeatedly been delayed), but what seems clear is the intent to extinguish the notion of any Palestinian political potency per se, and to render the Palestinian people docile, through severing them from their leaders and offering them material gain. The Palestinians presently are weak. And no doubt, the US and Israel working in common cause, may succeed in eviscerating all opposition to the ‘Deal’. Jerusalem will be ‘given’ to Israel. The Palestinians will be politically de-fenestrated. But at what cost? What will ‘be’ then, for the Gulf kings?

The Oxford scholar, Faisal Devji, in a NY Times opinion piece has observed Saudi Arabia’s conundrum:

After World War I, the American Navy replaced the British, and oil turned the kingdom into a crucial resource for Western capitalism. But its religious and economic centrality was contradicted by Saudi Arabia’s continuing political marginality, with Britain, the United States and even the Pakistani Army responsible for its internal stability and defense from external threats.

Today, Saudi Arabia is ostensibly countering Iran, but its claims to dominance are also only made possible by the decline of Egypt and the decimation of Iraq and Syria. Turkey remains its only and as yet ambiguous rival, apart from Iran.

… Prince Mohammed’s kingdom is looking more like a “secular”, than a “theocratic”, state in which sovereignty has finally been wrested from clan and cleric to be claimed directly by the monarchy. But Saudi Arabia can assume greater geopolitical power only by putting its religious status at risk… [Emphasis added].

The project to make Saudi Arabia a politically, rather than religiously defined state, is likely to demolish the century-old vision of a [Sunni] Islamic geography, which has always been premised upon Arabia constituting its depoliticized center … Mecca and Medina will still receive their pilgrims, but [Sunni] Islam may finally … find itself at home in Asia, where by far the largest number of its followers live, and toward which global wealth and power are increasingly shifting.

But this is directly not the case for Shi’i Islam, which has been succeeding in combining political power with a revived religious status – as witnessed in the extraordinary flourishing of the Shi’a centre of pilgrimage at Kerbala – and Iran’s success in countering Wahhabi jihadists in both Syria and Iraq. (For Saudi Arabia, by contrast, the conflict in Yemen has undermined both its political and religious credentials.)

Popular Mobilization Units, (Hashd al-Shaabi) descend on western Mosul in northern Iraq to help route ISIS from the city. Photo | Reuters

And yet … and yet, despite the contrasting trajectories, this is where a collision may occur: Israel has ineluctably allied itself with Saudi Arabia and Sunni Islam. So too, the US has taken Israel’s and Saudi’s partisan position against Iran. Both have their shoulders behind the Saudi king’s back – pushing him into leading a hybrid war against his powerful neighbor.

Alon Ben David, an Israeli military correspondent, writing in the Hebrew language daily Ma’ariv (7 Sept 2018) exemplifies the Promethean Israeli narrative celebrating its successes (thanks mainly to Trump’s unqualified support): “The IDF, which was several years late in spotting the potential threat from Iranian expansion, realized that it had to take action … this week the IDF revealed that more than 200 air strikes have been carried out in Syria since early 2017. But if you look at the sum of the IDF’s activities, mostly covert, in the context of this war—in the past two years, the IDF has carried out hundreds of different types of cross-border operations. The war between the wars became the war of the IDF, and it has been waged day and night … Thus far, Israel has come out stronger in the direct war with Iran …. when we hit Iran, our power of deterrence grows stronger.”

Well … that is a matter of (high risk) opinion.

Top Photo | Protesters storm and burn the Basra Government building during a protest in Basra, Iraq, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. Nabil al-Jurani | AP

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat, and founder and director of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum.

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