Will there be a war in the Middle East this summer? It is a question that is frequently asked by pundits and laymen alike this time of the year, every year.
The Middle East is always a good candidate for an outbreak of regional or international conflict. For decades, the Arab-Israeli conflict was the friction point at the centre of hostilities. Lebanon and Gaza were the optimum battlegrounds. They still are today. But since Iraq’s ill-fated invasion of Kuwait in 1990, after an eight-year-long war with Iran, the focus of tension and aggression has been vacillating between the Gulf region and the Levant.
The first Gulf War, which coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fragmentation of the Soviet bloc, consolidated US military presence in the region. The September 11 terrorist attacks triggered America’s direct military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since then, Israel has waged war against Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008-9). If one adds the conflicts in Somalia, Yemen and Sudan, it will be safe to say that the Middle East has been in a constant state of war, in various types, throughout the last decade.
But this time the traditional question about the possibility of a new war erupting in the region is warranted. Since the start of the Arab Spring and the collapse of the Egyptian regime through a popular uprising, the geopolitical scene has witnessed considerable change. Israel has lost a key Arab ally in the form of the Hosni Mubarak, whose rule lasted for more than three decades.
Mubarak supported the peace process and the Palestine Authority (PA) controlled by the Fateh faction, and maintained an uneasy relationship with Hamas in Gaza. He also made sure that Sinai remained a weapons’ free buffer zone between Egypt and Israel. Now all this has changed. The victory by Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Mursi in Egypt’s presidential elections this week will further complicate Egyptian-Israeli relations.
Hamas, a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, expects to benefit greatly from its close ties with Egypt’s Islamists. Sinai has been witnessing a steady decline in law and order since the January 25 revolution. Hamas is believed to have infiltrated Gaza’s borders with Egypt to smuggle weapons into the beleaguered strip. There are signs that Al Qaeda is also active in the desert peninsula. On the eve of the second round of presidential elections, a rocket was fired from Sinai into Israeli territory. Israel accused Hamas of ordering the attack at the request of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s Islamists, including Mursi, have assured the Americans that they will honour the Camp David Peace treaty with Israel.
But the Muslim Brotherhood’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict is clear, at least to millions of their followers across the region. It does not recognise Israel and supports holy war to liberate Jerusalem and the occupied territories, which encompass all of historical Palestine.
This is one of the main reasons why the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt issued a supplementary constitutional proclamation on the eve of the presidential elections. It decreed that all matters relating to the armed forces will reside with SCAF and not with the newly elected president. Furthermore, while the president has the right to declare war, he can only do so with the consent of SCAF.
Sinai will remain a critical point of friction between Israel and Egypt. Since the collapse of the Libyan regime, huge caches of weapons have found their way from Libya into the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, the fact that Hamas has now access to new armaments represents a huge security challenge. It is a situation that neither Israel nor Egypt can control. The former may decide to carry out a preemptive strike against Hamas and loyal cells deep within Sinai. Such unilateral action could easily develop into a regional conflict.
Another burning fuse in the region is the Syrian crisis. So far, the international community has failed to agree on a path to end the conflict between the regime of Bashar Assad and his people. There are strong indications that the crisis has turned into a civil war involving the regime and its loyalists and the opposition which is now armed. Foreign powers are involved in the Syrian conflict, and the Syrian Free Army has secured weapons which turned a peaceful uprising into a military confrontation.
The danger of a spillover has never been stronger. It directly affects Lebanon and Jordan. But Israel has chosen to condemn the Syrian regime and this may prove fundamental in the near future.
Last year, the Damascus regime allowed hundreds of Palestinians to come close to the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights. It resulted in a bloody response from Israel. Syria has great influence over Hizbollah in Lebanon and it may choose to activate the Lebanon front this summer in order to get some much-needed relief.
Israel’s worst nightmare would be a twin rocket attack by Hamas in Gaza and Hizbollah in Lebanon against its southern and northern fronts. Such a scenario is not far fetched. But it will have dire regional consequences.
A third factor this summer will be the result of international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme. The latest round of talks was launched Monday in Moscow, under Russian auspices. Iran wants recognition of its right to enrich uranium and the removal of economic sanctions. The West has made an offer to supply Tehran with needed fuel in return for a halt to enrichment above 5 per cent. Iran faces further sanctions at the end of this month if an agreement is not reached.
While the possibility of going to war over the Iran case has receded in recent months, the danger remains. Israel is worried that Iranian wavering will only create a situation that will allow Tehran to arm its missiles with nuclear heads.
The Obama administration is now under pressure, from Republicans, to toughen its stand. The potential of failure is real and the possibility of military action against Tehran remains reasonable.
The common denominator is all three scenarios is Israel, but they involve other players like Hamas, Hizbollah, Syria and Iran. It is a complex situation that makes the odds for a renewed military conflict in the region higher.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.