BICOM Briefing: The Middle East in 2017


On Tuesday, 17th January, BICOM hosted a conference call for journalists with BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow Brig. Gen. (Res.) Michael Herzog on our 2017 Middle East forecast. Herzog served as chief of staff and senior military aide and advisor to four Israeli ministers of defence. He was previously the head of the IDF’s strategic Planning Division, and has participated in nearly all of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians since 1993. He is also an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Below is an edited transcript.

Michael Herzog: 2017 is going to be exceptionally interesting because it will be the first year of the Trump administration and there are huge uncertainties about his policies. The new administration in the US is facing total turmoil in the Middle East and major question marks about the global order. In the Middle East, the traditional state system is weakening and in some cases collapsing and sub-state and non-state actors are being empowered. There is a real challenge to the global order given the American retrenchment under Obama, an increasingly aggressive Russia (e.g., in the Ukraine, Syria and the US elections), and an assertive China regarding its territorial and commercial interests. The future of the European Union is at stake following Brexit; Europe is suffering an identity crisis at the same time it faces an increased threat of terrorism and large waves of refugees. Overall, this is an era characterised by populism and nationalism in the US, Russia, Europe and the Middle East. It is wise to expect the unexpected in this era.

The big unknown in the Middle East is Trump. Much of what is said about his upcoming policies is speculation. However, there are recurring themes in what he says that must be taken seriously, and I will highlight these briefly. A general challenge will be how Trump navigates between his instinct for isolationism and the need to be assertive internationally as part of the bid to “make America great again”. He has questioned the traditional order, especially regarding NATO and traditional alliances. Generally his approach is business-like, focusing on what the US gets in return for its commitments. A key recurring theme is anti-Islamism. Importantly, for Trump it is not only jihadism but also political Islam that is the issue. His anti-Islamist policies currently focus on the defeat of ISIS but it is likely we will see a harder stance against the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood in the future.

A major theme in what he has been saying is the desire to find common ground with Russia. It is likely that Trump will seek a grand bargain with Russia perhaps as a basis for a new global order. This may include the possibility of lifting sanctions on Russia, a new arms control deal, and accepting Russia’s dominant role in Syria, in return for Russia accepting a more assertive US policy vis-à-vis Iran both in the Iran nuclear deal and regionally. The big question is if there is a deal to be had between the US and Russia in which Trump will succeed in driving a wedge between Russia and Iran. Many analysts are sceptical about this. It depends what exactly Trump wants to do with Iran. It seems to me unlikely that he will unilaterally abrogate the deal. However, I do expect a more assertive US policy vis-à-vis Iran. This will include more monitoring, verification and enforcement when it comes to the nuclear deal, more deterrence as relates to the future when limitations on the Iranian civil nuclear programme are lifted and more assertiveness vis-à-vis Iran in the region. If he wants to push back on the Iranian role in Yemen or in Syria, or get the Iranians to stop the supply of weapons to Hezbollah it is not impossible that he will find some common ground with Russia. In any case, it may be that ultimately we will see cooperation alongside competition between the US and Russia. US policy towards Iran also raises the question of whether and to what extent Trump will reinstate the traditional alliances that the US has in the region with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.

One area where I think we should expect a lot of movement in 2017 is the war on ISIS. It is likely ISIS will be defeated territorially in Iraq and Libya. I think the fight in Syria may take longer, but the ultimate territorial (unlike ideological) defeat of ISIS is within view.

The territorial defeat of ISIS will bring about several consequences. First, we should expect additional waves of terror and refugees hitting Europe. ISIS will do its utmost to hit the West as it falls. Second, as the ISIS activists who fight today in Syria, Iraq and Libya return home, they will pose a serious security challenge. There are thousands from Europe but also thousands from several Middle Eastern countries such as Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia who will return and potentially destabilise their home countries. After ISIS is defeated territorially in Iraq, Syria and Libya the only functioning territorial stronghold they will have is in the Sinai. We can therefore expect the relocation of ISIS elements into the Sinai. There has been a war going on in the Sinai for several years with the Egyptians unable to defeat ISIS, and this movement will pose an increased challenge for the Egyptian regime and potentially for Israel.

Once ISIS is defeated it is unclear who and what will fill the void. This is likely to open existing sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Syria and Iraq. In Syria it will definitely open the Kurdish question as the Kurds are trying to establish and enhance autonomy, while the Turks fight against it. Ultimately (beyond 2017) I think in Syria it is more likely we will see some kind of decentralised system with al-Assad’s regime remaining in power controlling what they call essential Syria, namely the urban spinal cord in the Western part of the country.

A sensitive issue for Israel and Jordan is developments in southern Syria. The Syrian regime is already negotiating a deal with rebel groups that will enable the regime to regain control of the south. This may include allowing the Syrian regime’s allies – Iran, Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias – a foothold in the south which they have been striving to achieve. If these groups are able to deploy in and operate out of southern Syria, they will pose a serious challenge to both Israel and Jordan.

It is unclear how high a priority the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be for Trump, or indeed what exactly his agenda is. Trump often talks about his desire to make the ‘impossible deal’. However, talking about a deal between Israelis and Palestinians at this time runs against the current. The parties themselves do not believe in this possibility and there aren’t many in the region or internationally who really believe that the right thing to do at this point is to get the parties to sit down to the table and negotiate. There is a right-wing Israeli government in power, with the far right pressurising the government to close the window on the two-state solution. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is weak and dysfunctional, with the nearly 82-year-old leader Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] talking about departing the scene. There will therefore likely be succession issues in the PA in 2017. The meeting between these two actors and the Trump administration is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough. It could, under certain scenarios, take us into escalation between Israelis and Palestinians. Prospects for averting escalation or even a revival of the peace process would improve if the leaderships involved actively subscribe to the framework of a two-state solution, reject violence and refrain from incitement and from negative unilateral action, and if efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian arena involve major regional actors like Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states [who are ready to play a role]. Ultimately, it is important to focus on the first meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister and President Trump in the early part of this year for direction on this issue. The understandings reached between them could have a major impact on the course of events.

Turkey is a very problematic actor. On the one hand it’s a member of NATO. It is involved on the ground in both Syria and Iraq and is an important actor in the war on ISIS [with ISIS striking back inside Turkey]. Domestically, President Erdogan is now trying to amend the constitution and introduce a presidential system with executive powers to the president which will enable him to stay as the leader of Turkey at least for another decade. The big question is what the relations are going to be between the Trump administration and Turkey. On the one hand Turkey is an important actor in Syria, which will definitely play a role in the future of Syria and Iraq. At the same time Turkey is a big supporter of Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas which runs against Trump’s policies. I think Turkey will rely on a possible deal or understanding between Russia and the US on Syria. Turkey would like to wipe out the prospects for Kurdish autonomy. In northern Syria it is more likely that they will get the ability to prevent a contiguous Kurdish autonomous area but possibly not crush out this whole existing semi-autonomous Kurdish region. This is because the Kurds are essential in the war against ISIS in Syria and the US-led coalition relies on them in ultimately retaking Raqqa. It is therefore likely that the US and Russia will have to mediate between Turkey and the Kurds. I think we should also pay attention to the Turkish economy which is in dire straits after years of achievements.

Question: Given the hostility of both Assad and Sunni rebels to Israel, what scenarios is Israel considering in an end to the Syrian civil war that would be beneficial for peace?

MH: In Israel there is concern over the direction of things in Syria because currently it appears that Assad will stay in power. The issue herein is not Assad himself but the alliance between Assad, Iran and Hezbollah which is perceived in Israel as the biggest threat to its national security. Following the Syrian regime’s success in Aleppo, it is fixing its sights on southern Syria. The risk of Iran, Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias following Syrian regime forces down into southern Syria and threatening Israel in the Golan Heights is considerable. If the outcome of the Syrian civil war empowers Iran and Hezbollah, including in southern Syria, it will enhance the biggest military threat to Israel over time. If there is a deal between Russia and the US, which manages to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran and restrain the Iranian role in Syria, the Israelis would welcome that. It is important for Israel that any understanding between Russia and the US on Syria will respect Israel’s red lines in southern Syria.

Question: Is there a contender for the leadership of the PA that Israel finds favourable? What is the best outcome of a future Palestinian succession for Israel?

MH: There are several contenders in the running, and they are rivals to each other. There are people inside the PA like Jibril Rajoub, Marwan Barghouti, who is currently in jail in Israel, and the likes of Mohammed Dahlan who are outside the PA. The strong rivalries among the contenders create the potential for chaos on the “day after”. My expectation is that when Abu Mazen steps down the Fatah leadership will convene and elect someone to replace him. It is also possible that they will divide his responsibilities amongst several people. Abu Mazen is the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the president of the PA and the leader of the Fatah party. Power may become more diffused. Whoever succeeds him will definitely not enjoy the same basis of legitimacy. Abu Mazen is the last of the founding fathers of the Palestinian national movement and of Fatah and whoever replaces him will have to radicalise his position against Israel in order to consolidate his grip on power. I think it would be wise to consider a managed transition, but as far as I know Israel has no intention of actively intervening in the succession issue and it’s not for external actors to determine who will be the next Palestinian leader. This will certainly be a challenging period, particularly given the division between Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank, and the likelihood that Hamas will try and fill the void once he leaves.