Last Thursday, General Mattis told the US Senate Armed Forces Committee that he believes a military confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria is becoming increasingly likely: “I can see how it might start, but I am not sure when or where”.
This should not come as any surprise. Anyone who can peer out through the gossamer liquid membrane of the western bubble, can see major dynamics ‘filling and strengthening’ in such a way, to close inexorably on Israel. It becomes ‘inexorable’: Not so much because Middle Eastern states desire war (they do not); but because Israel feels culturally compelled to tie itself to President Trump and his hawkish team, which effectively places Israel as prime collaborator in the US ‘war’ to put the China-Russia-Iran political, and trade project, on a diet, and to shrink it into an uncompetitive, starved, and enfeebled body.
The hawkish rhetoric of Pompeo and Bolton may seem like a heady elixir to some Israelis; but simply: The Middle East is not the place to be a collaborator in this American new hybrid ‘war’ against these new emerging dynamics. China, Russia and Iran are absolutely resolute. It is ‘inexorable’. Israel will be fighting against the grain of events, and ultimately, in being wholly at odds with the Middle East world, Israel will try to strike at it, and weaken it (just as we have seen last week with the attacks in Syria) – and ultimately, will be striked at: in return. And then we may see a wider war.
Whether one looks at the bold, red, East-West swath of China’s massive ‘Road and Corridor’ sprawling across Eurasia (see here); or, look at Russia’s vertical, ‘McKinderesque’, heartland of energy producers (see here), stretching from the Arctic, through Russia to the Middle East, supplying the consumers to the East on one side and to the west, on the other, one thing stands out clearly: Iran, and the northern tier of the Middle East, lie smack in the middle of both maps. But just to be clear: these may be articulated as mainly trade and energy projects – but they are primordially political-cultural projects too.
These two visions – the Chinese map and the Russian – are complementary. One highlights resource influence, and the other, its flows and the concomitant economic fecundity likely to arise from the flow of energy and the ebb of manufactured goods along this corridor. In this northern sphere of the Middle East, it is Russia that has diplomatic and security ‘heft’ – and not America. In this northern tier, it is China that has economic and influence ‘heft’ – and not America.
And ‘no’, this is not smoke and mirrors resulting from some imaginary ‘void’ created by America’s serial failures in the Middle East. These are real, transformative, dynamics at work here.
For some self-absorbed westerners (and Israelis), nothing of significance is to be seen at all. We are told, by Politico, for example, that:
‘… the new Cold War is not like the original Cold War because it lacks an ideological dimension … the current tension between the United States and Russia is a Seinfeldian fight about nothing: Putin has no ideological goal beyond the elevation of the Russian state, ruled by him and his clan; he is not seeking adherents in the West, and therefore has brought about no great contest between two systems … After all, Putin does not preach worldwide revolution, which was a key doctrinal element of Soviet communism.’
How come the West is somehow ‘culturally blind’ to the major changes underway? It is true that what is occurring in parts of the Middle East and Russia is not ‘ideology’ in the sense of one coercive utopian project, one global order, ordained to correct human flaws, pitted against another, seeking to reform the whole of humanity in some other coercive way. But what is afoot, is not ‘nothing’: It seems, because precisely they deny and run counter to the very notion of a single, global, cultural human rules-based order, these projects have become wholly invisible to the West.
In the case of Israel, we cannot be surprised. Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, in his book Der Judenstaat, the founding document of Zionism wrote: "For Europe we [the Jewish State] would constitute a part of the wall against Asia: We would serve as an outpost of Culture against Barbarism." In short, Israel was specifically founded as an European Enlightenment ‘Utopia’, and consequently, and understandably therefore, Israelis find it hard to imagine that others can culturally, or technologically ever challenge European Enlightenment ‘Culture and Science’. Hence Ehud Barak cancharacterise Israel as a ‘Villa in the Jungle’, with a clear deprecatory tone for the inhabitants of the jungle.
China, however, under Xi is portraying the Chinese Communist Party as the inheritor and successor to a 5,000-year-old Chinese empire, brought low by the marauding West, and seeking to define a Chinese identity fundamentally at odds with American modernity. The world which Xi envisions is wholly incompatible with Washington’s priorities – and therefore with those of Israel (on its present trajectory).
Russia, too, is trying to define a ‘way of being’ that is culturally Russian, in its own individual way – and not one that apes western European models, but rather one that tends to its opposite cultural and moral pole. Iran and Syria (and possibly Iraq as well) no longer look to the western model of politics, or morals, for emulation – or gives them much esteem.
The point here, is that in the upper tier at least of the Middle East (including Iraq), the 'Wahhabi head-choppers' that western, Israeli and Saudi intelligence services, have either facilitated or empowered against Assad, are not just discredited – they are loathed (by Sunnis as much as anyone). There is taking shape a slow detonation of ‘blow-back’ to these policies (still being pursued incidentally, by the US giving ISIS safe-haven, along the Syria-Iraqi border). This region ultimately is lost to western influence. The Russia-China-Iran axis is already the go-to power in the area, even for Gulf States.
And Iran will be a major player. The West has pushed Russia and Iran closer strategically and militarily, and – for Beijing – Iran is an absolutely key hub of the Road and Corridor. And, as Pepe Escobar notes:
“faithful to the slowly evolving Eurasia integration roadmap, Russia and China are at the forefront of supporting Iran. China is Iran’s top trading partner – especially because of its energy imports. Iran for its part is a major food importer. Russia aims to cover this front …”
“Chinese companies are developing massive oil fields in Yadavaran and North Azadegan. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) took a significant 30% stake in a project to develop South Pars – the largest natural gas field in the world. A $3 billion deal is upgrading Iran’s oil refineries, including a contract between Sinopec and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) to expand the decades-old Abadan oil refinery.”
In short, there are powerful forces arising in parts of the Middle East that are no longer sympathetic to western ‘priorities’ (nor are they particularly sympathetic to Israeli proxy-hegemony, which they see as disruptive of regional stability). These forces are already powerful, and seem destined to become more powerful yet. But America, under Trump’s MAGA vision, has declared these emerging forces as ‘revisionist powers’ or ‘rogue states’, and the US Establishment regards them as major ‘threats’ in their ‘forever war’.
It is an open question whether the US ultimately will find the means to accede to these emergent forces, or will conflict with them. This is ‘the’ question of our era. In the case of the US – if conflict be the outcome – that conflict may still remain hybrid; but for Israel, that option is unlikely: it can only move to ‘hot’ conflict.
But what is bringing the Israeli-Iranian conflict to a possibly imminent head is another major shift – one that potentially transforms Israel’s position in the Middle East. Not only is the region changing in a way that is incrementally incompatible with Washington’s ‘priorities’, but, the one quality which seemed to set the West apart – making it ‘exceptional’ – was its possession of technology — and that too now seems to be slipping away.
America’s quarrel with China is essentially about this issue: Trump asserts that China ‘stole’ America’s technology (together with American manufacturing jobs). Some technology may have been ‘lifted’, but the reality is that both jobs and technology were voluntarily off-shored to China in the interests of inflating US corporate profits.
In any event, China, Russia (and Iran) have made technology their own – and are now are either at the cusp of surpassing western defence technology – or already, are superseding it. The US will not succeed in its project to contain, or repress, China’s technological innovation, or that of Russia’s defence technology revolution.
So, as Israel looks out upon its neighbourhood, it does perceive the US incrementally disengaging from the Middle East, and the ‘revisionist’ and ‘rogue’ powers conversely, incrementally engaging in it — "a major strategic failure with far-reaching implications” asserts leading Israeli security expert, Ehud Yaari. And it knows that the western defence technology ‘lead’ has been slipping away, like sand, through western fingers.
No wonder those on the Israeli Right are saying that Israel’s situation, its ability to respond to its new situation, will only worsen with time: That there will never be a more unreflectively supportive White House; nor will Israel’s air superiority ever again be what it once was – as more, and more widespread, and better air defences deny Israel the air space it once took for granted Carpe Diem – Seize the moment, these politicians urge, find the pretext for escalation, and the US will follow behind – on our coat-tails.
But it is not a straight-forward affair: there are those within the Israeli security and intelligence echelon who are cautious: Israel cannot sustain a conflict for more than six days (General Golan’s estimate), particularly if it involves multiple fronts. Could Israel today repeat the Six-Day war experience (in which it destroyed the Egyptian air force within the first four hours)? It is by no means certain. Iran and Hizbullah have been contriving an asymmetrical answer to Israeli air power for the last twenty years, and trialled its elements successfully in Lebanon in the 2006 war. But today, there are new missiles in the north. Can Israel be certain that it still dominates the skies? Doubtful.
So where are we today? Secretary Pompeo visited Tel Aviv last week. It seems he authorised Israel to use the smaller dimension bunker-busting bombs (GBu-39s) against Iranian armaments on 30 April, that Obama gave to Israel. It seems that he also supported Israel unilaterally widening the latter’s ‘war’ to any Iranians, anywhere, in Syria. Israel is daring Iran – or Syria or Russia – to respond to these provocations, believing that they will not – at least until after 12 May (when Trump must decide whether to waive sanctions on Iran under JCPOA, once more).
President Putin is trying to keep the lid on war, but Pompeo’s green light to Tel Aviv is pushing the Russian President to the limits of patience. His military advisors are pressing him to activate the S-300 batteries against Israeli aircraft and missiles.
And after 12 May, and Trump’s decision (whatever it will be) … Well, Iran has already promised retaliation for the T4 missile attack of 9 April – timing and method yet to be determined.
The prospect for war is finely balanced: The Israeli Right want to seize the moment (and – probably – intend to go on, to annex the West Bank, in the fog of war). The Israeli military echelon (like their US military counterparts) is cautious. They are ones to pay the price.
And Trump? Ah … the domestic pressures grow. He must take Congress in the mid-terms (or, in his own words, the “Democrats will impeach him”). There will be few domestic electoral goodies now, waiting on the electoral conveyor belt for November (for the most part, the domestic goodies are behind him). Foreign Policy is where the mid-terms might be won (or lost). A lot hangs in the balance of American domestic politics.