The future of the Eastern Mediterranean

Tarek Osman
Wednesday 10 Apr 2019

Conflicts with far-reaching and long-term consequences are on the horizon in the Eastern Mediterranean

There is a growing view that after seven years of multi-faceted wars, the Eastern Mediterranean is returning to stability.

Four factors lend credibility to this view, but their impact will be merely in the short-term. What will really shape the future of the Eastern Mediterranean are two realities that are also major harbingers of conflict.

Let’s begin with the factors that imply upcoming stability.

First, the war to topple the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria was lost. The Gulf states that backed the rebel groups have adjusted to this reality and are gradually re-establishing links to Damascus.

The Al-Assad regime and its allies have pacified almost the whole western and central parts of the country.

The US will likely succeed in finding an accommodation that ensures for Turkey the security zone it wants in the north-west and a safe, effectively independent region for the Syrian Kurds in the north-east.

The US will also succeed in coordinating the distribution of influence in the economically attractive parts of the country with Russia.

All of this indicates that Syria will reach relative stability in 2019.

Second, there will be an easing of the refugee crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. Most of the ten-million-plus Syrians who have left in the past seven years will settle in the countries they have gone to.

But some of the around three million Syrians who have been living in Jordan and Lebanon will gradually return to southern and eastern Syria in the coming years where the regime’s control is less pronounced.

International donors, aware of the socio-political pressures that their presence creates in Jordan and Lebanon, will prioritise their funding of the reconstruction of Syria to these areas.

Plus, the reconstruction that will begin in the parts solidly under the regime’s control will require labour and will create economic spill-overs that will incentivise more Syrians in these two countries to return.

The lessening of the refugee crisis will strengthen the return-to-stability narrative.

Third, Iraq is finally arriving at a grand deal between its social constituents that has a real chance of bringing stability.

This will open up even more significant economic opportunities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Iraq is a populous country with a relatively high average disposable income.

It has a diverse economy anchored on oil, but with serious agricultural and industrial potential.

A return to relative normalcy there would be a huge boast to the Jordanian and Lebanese economies, would link the Gulf’s surplus investment capital with opportunities in the Eastern Mediterranean and would absorb significant numbers of displaced Syrians into the colossal reconstruction work that will appear there.

Fourth, there is a conviction, particularly in Washington, that a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians could be reached.

The view here is realistic enough to recognise that any such deal will not end the century-old conflict.

But the assessment is that both sides have incentives to accept a deal that can survive well into the foreseeable future and that unlike the measures that were introduced after the 1993 Oslo Accords this time real improvements in the economic conditions of the West Bank and Gaza could materialise, which would strengthen buy-in for the deal.

These factors combined have seduced many observers into thinking that economics can amend what politics has destroyed in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, they are wrong.

Two key realities in the existing strategic landscape of the region augur for conflict.

First, along with the approaching stability in Syria, there has come an unprecedented Iranian political and military presence in the country.

This Iranian presence in Syria builds on an already existing power centre in the region, Hizbullah, which is the strongest, richest, best-managed political player in Lebanon and though a Lebanese force is part of the Iranian Shia Islamic power structure.

Iran is in the Eastern Mediterranean to stay. Strategically, it correctly sees its expansion in the region as leverage in its confrontations with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

There is also a historical, or even theological, reason. The Shia religious-political establishment sees its expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean as a return of Shiism to one of its key domains. Indeed, Shiism has always had a prominent presence in the region, and communities there centuries ago made important contributions to the development of Shia thinking before they were persecuted by successive political regimes.

However, a permanent, strong Iranian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean is a threat to the Israeli security framework.

The Israeli military establishment sees Israeli national security as resting on having unrivalled power relative to all the players in the region.

Over the past 15 years, Iran has succeeded in significantly strengthening its political and military capabilities, despite repeated attempts by the US and Israel to weaken it and destabilise its regime.

Thus, a strong Iran, effectively on Israel’s border, is not a reality that Israel’s military establishment will accept. Israel will wait, assess and calculate. But it will attempt to change that reality.

At that moment of confrontation, Iran will be neither alone, nor willing to retreat.

A key outcome of the seven years of war in Syria is that the close cooperation between the Al-Assad regime (commanding the official Syrian army), Hizbullah and the Islamic Republic of Iran has evolved into a strong alliance and a united front.

As a result, in Israel’s future attempts to significantly weaken Iran’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean it will face the combined military capabilities of these three players.

This confrontation will be extremely bloody, highly disruptive to civilians (including in Israel), and devastating to infrastructure. This is why it is being postponed. But it is nevertheless inevitable.

The second reality in the region today is that the dynamic that has prevailed over the last 15 years between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has come to breaking point.

Since the disappearance of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Israeli view has been that the political structure that succeeded him would sign a deal that Israel finds acceptable and be extremely cooperative with Israel in stemming security threats from the Palestinian territories.

Neither of these things materialised.

As a result, Israel came to the conclusion that it must change the dynamic: support the transition to a new Palestinian leadership, find a solution to the fact that Gaza is now a demographic time-bomb that is out of the control of the Palestinian executive power in the West Bank and curate a new deal (a must, given the swelling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank).

At the heart of these elements, there is an Israeli conviction of the need to entrench the separation between the West Bank and Gaza.

However, the Palestinians have also come to the conclusion that they need a new dynamic.

The Palestinian Authority realises now that any deal designed in existing circumstances will reflect Israeli’s absolute dominance and so will not be acceptable to the Palestinian public.

It has also now realised that it can neither subjugate nor marginalise the Islamist Hamas group that rules Gaza, and the latter in turn has realised that it can neither replace nor defeat the Palestinian Authority.

A new deal between the two leading Palestinian factions is needed. And that deal must politically reconnect the West Bank and Gaza.

The fundamental difference between these Israeli and Palestinian conclusions means that not only will there be no grand deal between the two sides in the foreseeable future, but also that there will be a political struggle to force through the separation versus reconnecting the West Bank and Gaza.

Given how central this point is to Israel’s security assessments and Palestinian national aspirations, the struggle will likely involve violence.

There are different views on how these two realities will affect the Eastern Mediterranean’s strategic scene. The region might see a respite from the multi-faceted wars it has over seen over the past seven years, at least for a time.

What is certain, though, is that conflicts with far-reaching and long-term consequences are on the horizon.

*The writer is author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam, (Yale University Press, 2017). *A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The future of the Eastern Mediterranean

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