Old challenges, new rules – the Middle East as a metaphor for chaos

Dragan Sutanovac

An original article from Blic.rs

History teaches us that reality in the Middle East can change in the blink of an eye. Since the second half of the 20th century, the states of that region have been making maximum efforts to achieve political, military and economic dominance as well as territorial expansion.

Without a doubt, Israel and Iran are the most versatile actors in shaping the reality of the Middle East, a reality that in the previous ten days was based on the exchange of drones, missiles, air interventions and escalation threats.

Since its inception, Israel has been struggling to secure its freedom and legitimacy in the eyes of hostile Arab states, while Iran, after the 1979 revolution, is trying to secure absolute dominance in the region. Israel sees its support in security arrangements with the US and Western countries, while Iran is still weighing between the stretched Russian Federation and the increasingly active People’s Republic of China. Someone will say such issues should not affect our interests, but it should be remembered that during the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel supported the Republika of Srpska, while Iran supported the paramilitary formations that fought on the opposite side during the tragic conflict.

In this regard, the conflict between Israel and Iran is not only an ideological-religious one, but a conflict over dominance and geopolitical order in the Middle East.

Spring in the Middle East

On April 13th, Israelis were able to witness for the first time an Iranian missile and drone attack on their country. Encouraged by the experience of rocket attacks coming from Iran’s proxy allies – the terrorist organizations from Gaza and Lebanon, the citizens of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were spared major destruction due to successful interception by Israeli and allied air defense systems, while rockets were en route to targets in Israeli territory. According to data published by the Israeli military authorities, more than 99% of missiles and drones have been successfully intercepted, destroyed or simply have not successfully hit the targets. On the other hand, US officials informed the public that only five missiles managed to hit the Navatim Air Base, and damaged one transport plane.

Iran’s attempted attack on Israel not only demonstrated Israel’s superiority in military and security technology, but also brought sympathy to Tel Aviv in the eyes of public opinion for the first time in a long time. However, the fact that, during the attack, several countries in the region actively participated in the defense of Israel, even if their air defense systems and military aviation shot down rockets and drones, which is the case with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, attracts much more attention than the rocket fire itself in this limited conflict. Saudia Arabia, even helped Israel through the exchange of intelligence. Practically not a single country in the region, with the exception of the already listed terrorist organizations, supported the Iranian attack.

However, despite Washington’s advice not to respond to the unsuccessful Iranian attack, Prime Minister Netanyahu launched a proportionate counterattack, destroying several radar and S-300 air defense systems.

There is no doubt that Netanyahu’s response is the result of not only foreign political calculations in showing power towards Iran, but also internal ones – the main political rivals of the current prime minister, Benny Gantz and Yoav Galant, also demanded a counterattack.

Many question whether Israel even had the right to respond to the unsuccessful attack by Iran, bearing in mind that the direct confrontation was caused by the bombing of the Iranian embassy in Syria on April 1st by Israel, which killed several high-ranking officers of the Iranian revolutionary forces, diplomatic staff and paramilitary forces’ officers. Although it is considered that attacks on diplomatic missions represent a violation of international law, it should be taken into account that Israel and Iran are in a multi-decade “proxy” war, and that Israel is constantly the target of military formations that are indirectly or directly financed by Iran – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Houthis in Yemen and several other active formations that operate in several countries of the Middle East. Immediately, the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Forces in Syria cannot be seen in peacetime, because one of the reasons for the meeting in Damascus, according to reports, was precisely to organize an attack on Israel.

Israel’s response to the Iranian attack was the final act of direct confrontation between the two adversaries, but it will not constitute the end of this conflict. Israel will likely continue to carry out operations to eliminate Iranian operatives as they prepare and coordinate attacks on Israel. However, Israel, like the entire region, has a much bigger concern than the members of the Iranian military – and that is Iran’s nuclear program.

After the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, Israel is increasingly afraid of whether it will be able to stop Iran on its way to building a nuclear bomb. The closer Iran gets to acquiring nuclear weapons, the greater the possibility that Israel will use armed force against Tehran on a much larger scale, however challenging that military operation may be.

United fear of eternal rivals – China’s new role in the Middle East

Although relations between the United States and the Russian Federation have reached a historic low, the Middle East represents a diplomatic battleground where, despite the lack of joint action, the collective fear of their common great rival – the People’s Republic of China – is not far behind.

While the West engaged in complex and controversial foreign policy and military activities, from Afghanistan, through Iraq, Libya, Egypt, to Syria and beyond, the Russian Federation exploited the cracks that these activities left behind. The Russian Federation, by supporting the Libyan National Army of Marshal Haftar, managed to secure influence in Libya. In Syria, support for Assad’s forces turned the Russian Federation into a permanent player in the Middle East, which not only increased the influence of the Russian Federation, but also awakened nostalgia for the projection of power over the Middle East, as was once present with the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. 

Russia’s strategic penetration and influence in the Middle East are not yet solid and skilled enough to limit the potential damage to Russian interests that the conflict between Israel and Hamas produces. Military and diplomatic expansion of the Russian Federation on several fronts, with a primary focus on the conflict in Ukraine, opened the possibility of rapprochement between the Russian Federation and Iran in the form of military cooperation and support in international forums, ordered to avoid sanctions. Iran’s supply of missiles, artillery ammunition and drones to Russia is a solid support for further pressure of the Russian military on Ukraine, while on the other hand, the Russian sale of Sukhoi-35, Yak-130 and Mi-8 combat helicopters provides Iran with sufficient power to protect its own air defense space and limited “excursions” into the airspace of neighboring countries.

The complexity of relations in the Middle East also requires a thorough understanding of this area, which entails studying thousands and thousands of pages to understand the historical processes there, but also an area where fate, black swans and individual hasty decisions can change the wheel of history and the direction of all humanity.

It is up to Serbia to thoroughly observe the events in the Middle East and take appropriate decisions for the advancement and protection of its interests – every decision made in relation to the Middle East is also reflected in all the major capitals of the world, especially in Washington DC, where Serbia is already taking good steps in finding new allies in influential organizations such as AIPAC (Israel-American Public Affairs Committee).

It remains to be seen in which direction the wheel of history will turn in the Middle East and whether we will once again have another absolutely fragmented region.

Dragan Šutanovac

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