Amidst the different factors causing turbulence in the Eastern Mediterranean, observers ought to know where to look. Five factors merit thinking about, for they will shape the Eastern Mediterranean in the foreseeable future.
IRAN IN SYRIA AND LEBANON? It is not certain that at the core of the confrontation between, on the one hand, the US and Israel, and on the other hand, Iran, it is not just Iran’s nuclear capability, but also its strong presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, that the former see as threatening Israel’s national security.
Other players, such as the large Sunni Arab countries (most notably Saudi Arabia), as well as institutions such as the Maronite Church in Lebanon, see in Iran’s strong presence in the region a major disruption of the traditional balance of power between the different sects.
For Iran, however, building this strong presence transcends projecting power and gaining prestige. It is compelled by its history as well as by geo-politics to look east. And the undying spark of empire in its soul, as well as elements from Shia history, have always ignited in Iran a desire to have and to exert influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
There will not be a US-Iran confrontation anytime soon. But the war of wills between the two sides on ejecting Iran from, versus entrenching it in, the Eastern Mediterranean will be crucial to the evolution of the region in the coming years.
ISRAEL AND IRANIAN PRESENCE: Israel has been bombing Iranian targets in the Eastern Mediterranean for several years now, but these strikes have so far been surgical. This is because Israel has been waiting for (and trying to influence) the outcome of the war of wills between the US and Iran.
But if the outcome turns out to be an entrenched Iranian presence, anchored in enhanced military capabilities (directly in Syria and indirectly through the Shia group Hizbullah in Lebanon), Israel will not tolerate it. A strong line of thinking within Israel’s security establishment sees any enhanced Iranian presence as a threat to its national security.
Thus, Israel will escalate its strikes, targeting key military nodes of the Iranian architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean. This could result in a major war with exacting costs for Syria, Lebanon and Israel and far-reaching consequences for the region.
SYRIA’S FUTURE: The regime led by Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad has won the war to topple it. But a major international power, Russia, has also now entrenched its position in Syria, and this has consequences.
Russia now sees its military bases in northern Syria as crucial to its interests in Eastern Mediterranean gas, to its stemming of the threat of militant Islamism in the region (all the way to its southern borders), and to its ability to influence the interests of others (the US, Europe and Turkey). All this means Russia wants a stable Syria in which the costs of its presence in the country are limited.
Russia will likely orchestrate the emergence of a new political order in Syria that is a continuation of the nationalist idea that the Al-Assad (Baath Party) regime has always put forward. But it will also be an order that is more congruent with the demographic realities of the Syrian population, so as to avoid future flare-ups, especially given the immense amount of blood that has been spilled in Syria over the past decade.
A key milestone here would be a political transition aiming to balance the power of president Al-Assad with that of an elected parliament. In this case, Syria would undergo a process not only of reconstruction, but also, and crucially, of reconciliation.
This would be of the utmost importance to the future of the Eastern Mediterranean because Syria is the biggest demographic concentration in the region, the historical and cultural seat of Sunni Islam in the Levant, and the centre of gravity of important constituencies, such as the Sunnis of Lebanon as well as various Palestinian groups, which are naturally attracted to it.
EGYPT AND THE LEVANT: From the early 19th century and until the early 1970s, Egypt had a major political presence in the Levant. Since then, Egypt has been missing from the Levant’s socio- and geo-politics.
However, as Egypt seems to be resuscitating its older engagements in different parts of its neighbourhood, the Levant will increasingly feature more prominently in its thinking. This is because whereas Egypt’s interests have historically extended south (to Africa, especially to where the Nile originates) and west (to Tunisia and Morocco, from which some of the most influential Islamic movements in Egypt’s history have come), its most compelling interests have always been in the east (the Levant).
Whether during Pharaonic, Christian, early Islamic, Ayyubid, Mameluke or modern times from Mohamed Ali and his son Ibrahim Pasha in the early 19th century, Egypt has seen and pursued opportunities as well as threats in the Levant. Today, there are forces in the region that miss Egypt and want it to return to the Levant – for example, many Lebanese who believe in the centrality of an Arab identity to the idea and identity of Lebanon.
Other forces, however, do not want Egypt in the region, either fearing its potential influence, or seeing the Levant as already too crowded for another regional behemoth to enter. Yet, if indeed the Levant exerts its traditional pull on Egypt, the country’s return will change many power dynamics there.
TURKEY’S AMBITIONS IN THE LEVANT: Turkey is an established power in the Eastern Mediterranean. But since the late 19th century, its reach has been primarily maritime in the areas around its southern shores. Its decisive influence in Levantine politics came to an end when Egypt’s Ibrahim Pasha chased its army out of the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1830s, and Turkey has never showed any real interest in returning to the region since.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Ottomans effectively ceded control of the Levant to Britain and France. In the 20th century, the Turkey of Ataturk and his followers never looked south. Even under the currently ruling AKP Party, Turkey has primarily focused on ideological struggles in the Arab world, especially for and against Islamism.
However, Turkey has now begun to establish a land presence in the north of the Eastern Mediterranean, and it seems interested in expanding that presence southwards, at least through political influence, especially within some Sunni Muslim communities. This remains a nascent trend, however, and it might be linked to security concerns as opposed to a strategic drive. But if it turns out to be the latter, it will affect all the previous four factors.
One elderly commentator from the region once remarked that “la terre” – the land, or the earth – in this part of the world has absorbed much love, joy and creativity, as well as much blood. For the sake of generating more joy and creativity, and avoiding more bloodshed, the people of the region will need to navigate the tricky dynamics that will arise from a combination of the five factors above.
*The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly