The reason for the most recent developments in the Middle East is still not entirely clear, but the lines connecting them are beginning to take shape.
Within a week there was a mysterious airstrike against Shi’ite fighters near Syria’s border with Iraq, a bombing that sources in the U.S. administration attribute to Israel. Also, a massive Saudi attack has begun in Yemen, with the support of the United States and European countries, against a bastion of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unexpectedly visited Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman, and the airlift of American and Russian envoys touring the region continues.
In the background is the battle by the U.S. axis, which to some extent is shared by Israel on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the other, to curb Iran’s influence in the region. This is a direct continuation of the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal between the big powers and Tehran, which is exacerbating the economic crisis in Iran.
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These are dramatic trends, and only a small percentage of the events related to them are clear so far. We also have to take this into account when we discuss Israel’s priorities in light of the government’s hesitant handling of the arson in the fields near Gaza, caused by the incendiary-kite attacks orchestrated by Hamas. Tuesday night saw a renewed escalation on the border, with some 45 rockets being fired from Gaza toward Israel in response to Israeli strikes on Hamas targets.
The attack in Syria on Sunday was unusual in terms of location and scope. The bombing took place near the city of Al Bukamal in eastern Syria, very far from previous attacks attributed to Israel, most of which took place in central and southern Syria. The Syrian regime first blamed the attack on the United States, which vehemently denied it. Later CNN reported that the assailant was Israel, more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) from its border.
Israel, as usual, refused to discuss the claims. Syria reported dozens of dead, Shi’ite militia fighters linked to Iran. The attack on such a distant site, which is nevertheless in the range of Israeli planes and some drones, could attest to an urgent operational decision (striking at arms smugglers or military reinforcements), or to a strategic signal.
Israel has been warning for over a year against the creation of an Iranian land corridor via Iraq and Syria reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon. Netanyahu also often declares, most recently at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, that the Israel Defense Forces will act to remove Iran’s military presence everywhere in Syria, even if that requires activities deep inside the country.
The prime minister’s insistence is a matter of principle (Iran has completed its role in defeating the opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime is now very stable), but also practical (a partial evacuation won’t prevent Iranian missiles deep inside Syria from striking at targets in Israel).
The unusual bombing took place against the backdrop of Russia’s effort to achieve a new arrangement in southern Syria. The optimistic assessments in Israel about the possibility of an agreement – linked to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s visit to his counterpart Sergei Shoygu in Moscow two weeks ago – have yet to be confirmed.
The objective is to keep the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Shi’ite militias more than 60 kilometers from the border in the Golan Heights (east of the Damascus-Daraa highway). Netanyahu is demanding a complete evacuation of the Iranians, but even a more modest agreement, from Israel’s point of view, has yet to be achieved. The airstrike attributed to Israel in eastern Syria may be interpreted as complementary to efforts to achieve an arrangement in the south, or alternatively, as a return to the use of military force amid diplomatic efforts failing.
At the same time there has been increased diplomatic traffic in the region. A partial list from the past week includes Netanyahu’s visit to Amman, a visit by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to Moscow, the arrival in Israel of the commander of the Russian force that guards the borders, and the visit by Donald Trump’s envoys, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, to capitals in the region.
Kushner and Greenblatt are preoccupied mainly with preparations for presenting the president’s peace initiative in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but at the same time they’re trying to secure financial support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states for projects to rebuild the Gaza Strip.
From Gaza to a Yemeni port city
Getting the Saudis on board in Gaza isn’t divorced from broader events in the region. We can reasonably assume their willingness to open their wallets in Gaza is related to the U.S. administration’s determination to sideline the Iranians.
Meanwhile, the Saudis are acting on their own and, something uncommon, they’re enjoying some military success. Last week an assault by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates against the Houthi rebels began in the port city of Hodeida on Yemen’s west coast.
The region controlled by the rebels now includes the capital Sanaa and less than 20 percent of the country’s area. Most of the country’s supplies enter via the port that was attacked, but so did some of the missiles provided by the Iranians to the Houthis, who launch a Scud missile at Riyadh almost every week.
Hodeida is also of strategic importance for the other countries on the Red Sea coast because it’s not far from the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that controls the sea route from the Suez Canal to South Asia. The Saudi attack is being carried out with the support and limited military intervention of the United States, Britain and France.
When Iran’s leaders survey the situation in the Middle East, we can assume they’re less pleased than they were a few months ago. Since then the United States has pulled out of the nuclear agreement, and the expected economic sanctions are already taking a toll on the Iranian economy. (Just the value of the airliner deal with Boeing that will be canceled is estimated at about $20 billion.)
Also, the independent Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr won the Iraqi elections, and Tehran is now trying to reach a political agreement with him. Also, for the time being, Israel has halted Iran’s attempted military entrenchment in Syria, and the military pressure against the Iranians continues in Syria and Yemen.
All this doesn’t mean Tehran will withdraw from its plans in the Middle East. The Iranians probably have a lot of cards left to play. But the battle for regional hegemony has been renewed with great intensity, and this time it looks like Washington is willing to be more active than it has been in recent years.