As the Hamas-Israeli conflict renewed, Denys Kolesnyk, a French consultant and analyst, had the privilege to discuss it, as well as the Middle East and the US approach to this region, with Dr. Michael Doran, an American analyst of the international politics of the Middle East and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
For the past few years, we have witnessed the Arab-Israeli normalization processes in the Middle East. For instance, in 2020 the US’ efforts made possible the so-called Abraham Accords. But, recently, Hamas carried out a large-scale attack against Israel. How can it impact the normalization process in the region? What are the possible implications of this attack on the regional dynamics?
One of the goals of the attack was to derail the Saudi-Israeli normalization and the Abraham Accords more broadly. I think it is important to stress that we should not be framing this as a Hamas attack on Israel but as an attack on Israel by Iran and Hamas since Iran is the strategic enabler of Hamas.
Hamas and Iran had four or five goals. One of them was to elevate Hamas and its ideology within intra-Palestinian politics, undermining Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority, undermining Fatah. Ultimately, the aspiration of Hamas is to be recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. They want to take over the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). And this attack is a move in that direction.
Secundo, Iran and Hamas wanted to destroy the process of normalization in the region that was underway.
Tertio, Iran and its proxies want to weaken Israel because Tel-Aviv is the major rival to Iran concerning its nuclear program and influence in the region. Israel is the only power in the Middle East capable of challenging Iran about their nuclear program. If the Iranians can either weaken Israel or wrap it into a major war, driving a wedge between Israel and the rest of the world, would be a great victory for them.
Quarto, Teheran wants to put the Palestinian question on the top of the international agenda because it will help them achieve all the previous goals that I have just mentioned. And it will also distract attention from Ukraine.
Quinto, Iran and Hamas want to undermine the American order in the region. It is worth noting that the United States is historically weak in the Middle East, and Washington is confused about its role there. Paradoxically, it is simultaneously building up Iran and containing it. And it constitutes a massive contradiction in US policy. The idea is to exploit this contradiction in an effort to undermine the American order and pull Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states toward Russia, China, and Iran.
Since you have just mentioned China, it is interesting to note that Beijing announced sending a special envoy, Zhai Jun, to the Middle East to push for peace talks. China’s appetite for mediation signifies growing interest and ambitions in this region. In your opinion, what is the role and place of China in Middle Eastern affairs?
We need to look at the world as a contest between the United States and Russia, China, and Iran. Those three states are in alignment, and in some ways, they are even allies. For instance, Russia is clearly the ally of Iran and Syria in the war against Ukraine. They all share a desire to weaken the United States, while China openly wants to supplant it as the dominant power in world politics.
The Middle East is an extremely important arena of competition between the United States and China. But the Biden administration does not acknowledge that fact openly and probably not even privately. And if the Biden administration recognizes it privately, most likely it doesn’t receive the importance it deserves.
They tend to see Chinese interests in the Middle East as primarily commercial. They do not perceive Beijing as a geostrategic rival in the region. And it is a big mistake, in my opinion.
China has a huge interest in becoming the dominant power in the Gulf. That begins with its concern for energy security. As long as the United States is the dominant military power in the region, then in the event of a war with Taiwan, Washington could interrupt the supply of oil and gas that either comes from the Middle East or transits through it. And we should remember that the majority of the imports of China are either coming from the Middle East or going through it. In other words, the American position threatens Chinese energy security.
But beyond that, China wants investments from the Middle East. Beijing wants dollars that are in the sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar. China wants to supplant the United States as the leader and to create a Sinocentric global economic system, but it cannot do that since the US is too dominant. And the West is too dominant in the global economic system. Therefore, as an intermediate goal, China wants to create a Sinocentric global economic subsystem. It is impossible to do on the basis of the Chinese currency because it can’t make the yuan convertible. After all, that would lead to a significant capital flight from China.
Also, China is in the midst of an economic crisis. Hence, they want the investments from the Gulf states. They are using the conflict between Iran and the United States, Iran and Israel, and Iran and the Gulf states to push the Gulf states toward China.
They are all hedging toward China because the United States doesn’t understand the game, and it is not giving its allies the security they need. Therefore they are hedging toward China.
The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine highlighted a trend for an independent, non-Western-oriented foreign policy in the Middle East. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia didn’t follow the West on Russia, navigating the Russo-Ukrainian war to reap profits and benefits for the Kingdom. Moreover, Riyadh emerged as a strong regional leader with global ambition for leadership. How could you characterize the role of Saudi Arabia in the region? And what could be the ways for Riyadh to achieve its geopolitical goals in its bid for a bigger role on a global scale?
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would like to be solidly within the Western camp, the American camp. But the United States, the Obama and Biden administrations to be more precise, has shown a deep ambivalence about Saudi Arabia. And in addition to this general ambivalence, the US has shown a complete unwillingness to counter Teheran. Iran is a rising power despite all its domestic weaknesses.
Speaking of the military aspect, Iran is a rising power. Not simply because of the nuclear program but also because of the growing power of its disruptive military capabilities. And here I mean the different types of missiles, including ballistic missiles and drones. Teheran has shown that it can combine them in strike packages that can overwhelm the defences of any country, including the United States.
The Saudis understand that all of their national critical infrastructure is within range of the Iranian military capabilities. Riyadh does not have a good answer to it because it is impossible to counter the Iranian capabilities with purely defensive measures, which is all the United States will offer.
As a result, the combination of the vilification of Mohammed bin Salman by the left in America and some elements on the right, combined with the unwillingness to provide the Saudis with the security they need, they have no choice but to hedge.
It is worth reminding that the United States did nothing to oppose the rise of the Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria. And this is going back to 2015. It resulted in every ally of the United States in the region, the Turks, the Israelis, and the Saudis, having to start accommodating Mr. Putin because they had no choice. And they all started being much more respectful of him out of necessity because the United States refused to counter Russia and the Iranians.
And those are the main reasons for the hedge toward China and Russia. Even though we cannot negate that Saudi Arabia also had economic interests in working with Russia. I have no doubt about that. It would be much easier to come to a common view with Saudi Arabia on economic matters if we stopped vilifying it, and if we worked with Riyadh on its security questions.
In other words, the need for Saudi Arabia to maintain more independent policies somehow comes out of the inaction of the United States in Syria, and the inability or unwillingness to provide more security facing Iran. Is it correct?
Yes, it is correct. And that’s the number one reason. Mohammed bin Salman is a man in a hurry and there’s no doubt about that. He’s impatient as a quality, whereas there are also very serious pressures on him. For instance, a very youthful population and its growth, and a large country. He needs to find a place in the international economy as the economy is changing for that, to accommodate his workforce.
In addition to that he doesn’t have time to wait for the United States, and he is not inclined to do so by the nature of his personality. The time is pressing, since he has to develop the economy. The Crown Prince is going to try to do that in cooperation with America wherever possible, but where it’s not possible, he will turn to China.
Just to say, the UAE is already halfway to China. Saudi Arabia is about a fifth of the way there. The UAE is already out in the middle of the Indian Ocean somewhere, steaming toward China.
Let’s discuss another player — Russia. In 2015 this country invited itself into the region by intervening in the Syrian civil war. But since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, its military capabilities have significantly decreased, as well as the perception of this country as a strong leader, able to challenge the US. In your opinion, what role does Moscow currently play in the region and how will it evolve?
Their capabilities are still significant. And Syria teaches us that it doesn’t take a large military to have an outsized geostrategic impact. The Russian military turns out to be much less powerful than we thought it was, much less effective, particularly when fighting against an effective foe. But the Russians still have the ability to project power.
Look at the string of _coups d’états_ in Africa. France and the United States are incapable of countering a weakened Russia in Africa. That is to say that we shouldn’t look at the challenges and the military vulnerabilities that the war in Ukraine demonstrated. We shouldn’t look at them and think that we’re sitting pretty at all in terms of geostrategic competition.
In fact, we haven’t. The Russians have not lost the war in Ukraine, they may yet win it. And what does winning mean? For Moscow, winning the war in Ukraine means turning Ukraine into a failed state. If Russia manages to block exports from Odesa, or at least the reliable flow of exports from Odesa, then they’ve turned Ukraine into Mongolia, into a landlocked country. And it will turn it into a ward of the West forever. Already we’re seeing that in the United States, the willingness to pay the bills is decreasing. So I’m not convinced they’ve lost.
And the other thing, Vladimir Putin, whatever his weaknesses, whatever his mistakes, he is a more sophisticated and intelligent practitioner of geopolitics than just about anybody else on the planet.
Very interesting point. But what about the role of Russia in the Middle East?
They still can offer some security assistance there. Russia still has its position in the UN and in global politics, and that’s useful. They offer, together with China and Iran, an alternative to the West, which is increasingly disappointing to a lot of American allies.
And as you mentioned before, they can be a partner with the petroleum exporting countries in terms of managing the global energy markets. The Western, American policy, focused on renewable, is a completely pathological strategy that is handing power to China, Russia, and Iran. And Moscow can capitalize on that.
We see that the sanctions are not working. Their oil is reaching the market. They manage to dodge sanctions via certain Gulf states and a number of my friends who work in this field predicted that this would happen.
That is to say that Russia remains an important player in the region. And they’re determined. And there is a direct connection between the Ukraine war and the Middle East and Syria. And I’d like to stress that without the annexation of Crimea, there would be no Mediterranean policy for Russia.
Speaking of Syria, it seems the main regional powers have agreed that Assad managed to remain in power, obviously not without Russian and Iranian involvement. Hence, the reintegration of this state into the Arab League was brokered by the Saudis. But, besides the appetite for normalization in the region, what are other main regional dynamics and key actors behind them? And what is Iran’s place in this normalization, if any?
First of all, the reintegration of Assad’s Syria was brokered by the United States. The Biden administration encouraged that. By the way, there was a recent interesting interview that Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic did with Jake Sullivan. It got a lot of play because it was about a week before the Hamas attack on Israel, and Sullivan was talking about how quiet the Middle East was, historically quiet, because of their policy of integrating the region.
Now, when they talk about integrating the region, they like to focus on the normalization process with Saudi Arabia and Israel, because that’s very popular in America and popular in pro-Israel circles. But among themselves, when they talk about integrating the region, they’re also thinking of Syria and Iran and so on. Even though they don’t advertise it, quietly they encouraged Saudi Arabia and the UAE to go ahead and proceed with it.
And besides this appetite for normalization, what are other main regional dynamics that you see? And what are the key actors pushing their agendas and shaping those regional dynamics?
The heart of Biden’s policy, and I think this sets the agenda for the whole region, is accommodation of Iran. And it’s unpopular in America, so they disguise it.
However, the attempt to resurrect the JCPOA failed. So, what we have now is a kind of JCPOA light. This is a series of understandings between Iran and the United States that are not acknowledged by the United States but are clearly what’s driving things. And everyone in the region can feel that.
That’s why I said there’s this sense that Iran is rising. Because of the pathological energy policy, and global energy policy, the Biden administration does not want to take Iranian oil off the market. It’s put Iranian oil on the market by lifting the sanctions. And it doesn’t want to take it off.
Here adds the unwillingness to confront Iran militarily, to carry out offensive countermeasures. There’s a purely defensive position that we can describe as hiding behind walls. And the Israeli example shows us that such an approach is not going to work.
When Hamas attacked Israel, the first thing the US administration said was that Iran didn’t have anything to do with that attack. But we can hardly believe they were not involved. It may well be true that the Iranians did not know exactly when Hamas was going to start the operation. And maybe they didn’t know every detail, but Iran is the strategic enabler. While the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was a partner of Hamas in the operation, and the PIJ is not a proxy of Iran, but an extension of Iran.
We can see after the fact that Hezbollah is cooperating with Hamas. Iran is cooperating with Hamas. The strategically significant fact here is that the Iranian alliance system has made a play to weaken Israel. And the United States is only allowing Israel to go after one of Iran’s attack dogs when there are three: Iran itself, Hezbollah and Hamas are all converging on Israel. The United States communicated to Israel that they could go after Hamas but only partially, without defeating it completely.
Once again American policy is strengthening Iran without intending to do so. But it’s managing to look with all these trips to Israel, with the aircraft carriers deployment to the eastern Mediterranean, and all these trips of senior officials to Israel. The US looks like it’s supporting Israel wholeheartedly but it’s actually restraining Israel. And forcing Israel to define the conflict in such a way that Iran gets away unscathed for what it’s done. Everyone in the region sees this.
And if Hamas wins this conflict and winning it doesn’t mean inflicting any more serious military defeats on Israel but remaining to fight again. We’re going to see a bigger hedge toward Iran and China than we’ve already witnessed.
Generally speaking, the US and the West seem losing their place in the Middle East, with China and its model being more attractive than what Washington can offer. At least it seems so. How do regional dynamics look from a short- and mid-term perspective?
From a short-term perspective, China is the only alternative to the United States. But Beijing cannot replace the United States as a full-spectrum security guarantor. It doesn’t do that for any country and doesn’t know how to do it. It is safe to say that for another decade China will not have such capability. And even then it’s not clear that it wants to play the same kind of role exactly in that way.
But it is the only power on earth that can moderate the Iranians in the way that the United States can. So, if you’re feeling exposed to the threat from Iran, from a rising Iran and the United States will not give you what you need, your only alternative is China. In other words, China has some things that are attractive too.
For instance, it can sell missiles and drones, and provide surveillance technology. Chinese can buy lots of your goods. Beijing has influence in Tehran as I have already mentioned. And it won’t hector you about your domestic policies, for instance, policy on LGBTQ rights or liberty of expression. In other words, anything to do with governance, hence it is attractive in certain respects.
However, the United States is still the most attractive partner by far. The regional countries want to be allied with the West. The problem is not that they reject the West, but that the West is ambivalent about them. The United States is ambivalent about them. So, in the short term, we will see a hedge toward China.
We’re not going to see a full-scale departure from the West. But we’re going to see that as we’ve already seen that the demands of the United States, the policies of the United States do not receive the respect, the automatic deference that we could have expected just a decade ago and especially during the Cold War. That’s all a thing of the past.
The only way we get this back is if the United States starts to actually compete with its rivals in the region. And so far we see no sign that it will happen.
Right. Moreover, some actors in the region perceived the United States’ response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as relatively weak. Does it also undermine the US credibility in the region?
Nothing succeeds like success. I mean, we are giving Ukraine just enough military support to survive and to be whittled down over a very long period of time. To be whittled down heroically, with applause. And we are about to do to Israel what we have done to Ukraine, but even less. You know, we applaud while they die.
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