Russia's Invasion of Ukraine Could Reshuffle Middle East Alliances

Shaul Mishal
Shaul Mishal
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An armored personnel carrier burns and damaged light utility vehicles stand abandoned after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine, February 27, 2022.
An armored personnel carrier burns and damaged light utility vehicles stand abandoned after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine, February 27, 2022. Credit: AP Photo/Marienko Andrew
Shaul Mishal
Shaul Mishal

We still haven’t woken up to thinking seriously about the strategic consequences, for Israel and the Middle East in general, of the Russian invasion. Will the Russians try to translate the momentum in Ukraine into an initiative for reinforcing their status and their involvement in Iran and Syria? And how will the United States react? Is it possible it will exploit the nuclear agreement with Iran to deepen ties with Tehran to the point of building a triangle of forces including itself, Iran and Syria?

Although under present circumstances that sounds like a bizarre development with no chance of coming about, but in our unstable world – in which what is unimaginable today becomes inevitable tomorrow – such a possibility should not be dismissed.

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U.S. interest in the Middle East in general and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular is declining steadily. The United States has its eyes trained on China and East Asia, where it sees its future. Middle Eastern oil has also lost its importance for the United States, which is no longer in need of it. Relations between the United States and the pro-Western Sunni countries, headed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, are characterized by differences of opinion, sometimes by crises, and are experiencing ups and downs.

Does Israel’s reliance on the Sunni axis of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries against Iran make Iran a strategic opponent of the Sunni camp that is as hostile as it is toward Israel?

Is Israel’s basic assumption – that the United States will prefer to be an exclusive ally of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni regimes in the Persian Gulf, and persist in treating Iran as an opponent that belongs to the Russian and Chinese anti-American camp – a solid assumption? Could a present-day ally change its stripes due to changing circumstances and dynamic interests, which are being redefined?

Israel seems to refuse to learn from past mistakes. Like our inner conviction about the supposed strategic alliance being formed between us and the Sunni camp, like we relied on the Maronites, with whom we formed a strategic alliance against the Palestinians on the eve of the Lebanon War in 1982.

That’s why we should adopt a skeptical approach regarding our relations with the Sunni bloc, which is based on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, and to a certain extent, regarding the American attitude towards us as well. That means we should not dismiss the possibility that what happened to us with the Maronites won’t come back at us like a boomerang in the case of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. Like what happened to us with the French on the eve of the Six-Day War – overnight we found ourselves ostracized, after being close friends.

The lesson that should be learned from such a development is the following: First, to internalize the idea that today’s ally could turn into tomorrow’s opponent and even a bitter opponent. Second, we have to rid ourselves of the idea that has become strongly entrenched among us – that a friend won’t turn its back and an enemy won’t change its stripes.

Third, we have to get rid of the tendency to see the nearby and distant world in black and white, and to be prepared for a situation where players assemble for a present need, and an ad hoc combination of interests dictates changes that are surprising and incomprehensible at first glance, as well as unexpected strategic developments.

Prof. Mishal teaches in the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University.

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