The modern Middle East has been plagued by ruinous wars: country versus country, civil wars with internecine and sectarian bloodletting, and numerous eruptions centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But never in the last 70 years have they seemed as interconnected as now with Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for regional control, while Israel also seeks to maintain a military supremacy of its own.
Russia, the United States and Turkey make up the other powerbrokers in a region where not only wars but proxy battlefields within those wars are on a feverish and hostile footing.
The ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen, this week’s mass killing of Palestinians by Israel in Gaza, Turkish-Kurdish hostilities, and the potential for an all-encompassing war sparked by an Iranian-Israeli conflagration in Syria or Lebanon, all have tentacles that reach across borders and back again.
Suggestion in recent years of a Sunni/Shiite schism across the Middle East and Persian Gulf appears much less a factor than the jockeying of the key actors with the most military, financial and diplomatic muscle who are trying to shape the region in their image, or at least to the satisfaction of their national security and various leaders’ hubris.
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Here’s a look at each of the main power players, whom they are aligned with, and what their ultimate goals are.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: Direct conflict with Iran has been simmering and briefly looked like it might burst into full-blown conflagration after Israel launched a blistering bombardment of Iranian positions in Syria, killing Iranian fighters after an alleged Iranian rocket barrage toward its positions on the annexed Golan Heights. The exchange followed several earlier suspected Israeli strikes on Iranian positions in Syria.
Israel sees Iran as its mortal enemy and ‘existential’ threat. Conflict with Iran would likely drag in Tehran’s ally, Hezbollah. An Israeli-Hezbollah conflict could play out in southern Lebanon and northern Israel, with each side warning it will strike across the opponent’s country.
Israel is bolstered by unprecedented support from U.S. President Donald Trump. Israel is determined to suffocate the Iran nuclear deal; Trump withdrew from the accord and days later sent his daughter and son-in-law to preside over the U.S. Embassy move to disputed Jerusalem, a move that angered the Arab and Muslim worlds. Bloodshed at the Gaza border may have revived global opprobrium against Israel for use of disproportionate live fire against unarmed protesters, killing dozens; but Trump’s backing gives it reason to feel emboldened. Behind the scenes, Israel is building relations with Gulf nations also opposed to Iran.
WHAT IT WANTS: A much weakened Iran, the continuation of the Gaza blockade — which is also imposed by Egypt — with a ferociously controlled border, and no concessions to the Palestinians with regards to land for peace.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: The rapprochement with America under President Barack Obama is now ashes. Sanctions relief, running to hundreds of billions of dollars, is at risk, as Washington targets Tehran again, though a nuclear deal may be salvaged with EU nations, Russia and China.
Iran has built up alliances to counter Israel and Saudi Arabia. In Syria, the presence of its troops and allied Shiite militias has been critical to President Bashar Assad’s survival. In Yemen, it is allied to Shiite Houthi rebels battling Saudi-backed forces. Tehran strongly supports the Palestinian cause, though its ties with Hamas have weakened.
WHAT IT WANTS: Iran has pretty much accomplished a goal its officials have often trumpeted, building a corridor of power from Iran across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. In all those countries, it funds and arms powerful Shiite militias and has enormous political influence. It seeks a continuation of the nuclear deal with the other global signatories, hoping to bolster its financial coffers. There has already been discontent in Iran that sanctions relief was not flowing to the people.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: President Vladimir Putin has ruthlessly filled the U.S. vacuum in Syria, waging an air campaign that has left a trail of dead in Aleppo and Ghouta among other locations. Moscow’s support of Assad turned the tide of war in his favor when defeat seemed imminent several years ago. Russia is also allied to Iran. But it also hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for its Victory Day celebrations hours before Israel’s attack on Iranian positions in Syria, raising speculation the two were quietly coordinating so that Israel kept well away from Moscow’s forces and planes in Syria.
WHAT IT WANTS: Russia’s regional goal in is to sustain and build on the major foothold it now has in the Middle East, beyond Syria, notably where the U.S. might have once before.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: “Traditionally we’ve tried to play a role of fireman in the Middle East. Now we’re playing the role of arsonist,” says Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department and Pentagon official who runs the Mideast program at the Center for a New American Security. That seems to have plenty of currency in the region now, though some would also argue the U.S. has long played an incendiary role in the region, from reinstating the shah in Iran in the 1950s up to and including its wars in Iraq to the present day.
The Palestinians have essentially cut off contacts and say the U.S. cannot be an honest broker. So Trump’s promised “deal of the century” doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now. Trump withdrew from the Iran deal. He has by his side hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has advocated for attacking Iran and regime change. Trump can’t decide on Syria — to keep the U.S. presence or not? He doesn’t seem intent on ruffling Putin over Syria unless chemical weapons rear their head again, which prompted U.S.-led airstrikes last month. The administration is very closely allied to Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and seems set to continue following Riyadh’s lead on Yemen. Washington may get an unpleasant surprise if a heavily pro-Iran government emerges in Iraq after last week’s elections.
WHAT IT WANTS: The administration is in complete synch with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saber-rattling with Iran could escalate, and it shows no urgency in pushing for Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: Also emboldened by Trump, the Saudi crown prince is determined to make his mark. Riyadh is spending billions of dollars in the Yemen war, leading a Gulf Arab coalition against Iranian-allied Shiite Houthi rebels. Thousands of civilians have been killed by Saudi airstrikes and starvation in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Prince Mohammed has made vague threats that the kingdom will build a nuclear bomb if Iran starts its program again.
Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the single greatest threat to the region and its competition for the dominant role it wants for itself. The kingdom is closely tied to Trump, who chose it as the destination for his first overseas trip as president, and it has been back-channeling with Israel. At the same time, it has lost influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon after placing bets on losing partners or failed gambits.
WHAT IT WANTS: Emasculation regionally of Iran and to be the dominant power in the region.
WHAT’S AT STAKE: For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s almost exclusively about the Kurds, who in an alliance with the U.S. helped defeat the Islamic State group in Syria and in the process captured a quarter of the country. This has infuriated Turkey to the point it launched a military campaign seizing a pocket of northern Syria, and it threatens to attack Kurds all the way to the Iraqi border. The presence of U.S. forces among the Kurds is perhaps the only thing that’s held Turkey back this long. Ankara views Kurdish fighters in Syria as an extension of the Turkish Kurdish PKK, which it considers a terrorist group.
Turkey also gives vocal support to the Palestinians, while relations are at a nadir with Israel. Turkey has also offered to take in wounded Palestinians from Gaza for treatment.
WHAT IT WANTS: To break Kurdish strength and, above all, prevent a Kurdish autonomous mini-state in Syria along its border. It also wants some say in post-war Syria where it has supported opposition fighters and Islamist groups opposed to Assad.