As we continue our cycle of interviews with Western experts, Denys Kolesnyk, French Consultant and Analyst, had a chance to discuss with Michel Wyss, Strategic Analyst and PhD Candidate at Leiden University, the recent attack of Hamas against Israel and the implications for the region.
For the past few years, the Middle East has known a period of relative stability with efforts towards normalization undertaken. What are the interests of the key regional powers in the region and beyond?
I’m not sure whether we can talk about relative stability, even though the situation has become better in Iraq and Syria, there are still military operations carried out by Turkey against Kurdish forces in both countries. Fighting between the Assad regime and rebel groups also continues, albeit at a lower intensity. The conflicts in Yemen and Libya are ongoing. The overall situation is indeed somewhat better compared to 5 or 6 years ago, but I’m not sure stability is the right term to use. More to the point, I would argue that many of the Middle Eastern powers are vying for more regional influence against the backdrop of the United States gradually withdrawing from the region.
One such player is Iran. The Iranians have strategic interests with regard to maintaining and expanding their influence, and, for example, both Iraq and Syria are important for them in terms of delivering weapons and other materials to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which plays a huge role for Teheran. They have similar interests in Yemen vis-a-vis the Houthis. Their thinking is guided by threat perceptions regarding the United States and Israel interfering with their strategic interests (including an attack on their nuclear program). And especially, they were significantly afraid of the general normalization process between Israel and some of the Gulf states, the so-called Abraham Accords.
As for the main developments in the Middle East, I would say the Abraham Accords dominated the regional dynamics. The rapprochement between Israel and some of the regional capitals, especially the Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, even though not yet official, there were clear efforts in this regard.
And this is one of the key interests of the Israelis. Israel wants to have an environment that is friendly toward them. Their main regional adversary is Iran and, to a lesser degree, Syria. And, then, obviously, there are the non-state threats such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Hence, for Israel, the Abraham Accords were an important undertaking. And this normalization process also goes together with the role of the US in the region. Washington has been trying to pull out from the Middle East under the Obama administration since as early as 2009, but it still hasn’t happened yet.
Another regional actor is Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is becoming a more assertive player, more independent from the US. And the same applies to the United Arab Emirates. They are asserting their influence in the region because, up until now, they were significantly dependent on the United States. In order to decrease their reliance on Washington, those countries are also trying to get closer to China and Russia in some instances.
I think what we see right now, and what was also interesting in recent months, is that there was this rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and other Gulf states. But at the same time, some of those Gulf states also got closer to Iran, which we could also observe. For instance, here I think about the meetings between Saudi Arabia and Iran that were facilitated by the Chinese, trying to play a constructive role in the Middle East. But a lot still depends on the US presence in the region. And if the US pulls out of the Middle East, even though I cannot see it happening yet, I think this would create a lot of additional dynamics.
In early October, Hamas carried out a massive attack on Israel. In your opinion, why did the Israeli security services miss this attack and appear completely unprepared? And what will be the implications of this attack on the Israeli-Arab normalization, for instance, on the Abraham Accords?
Well, it was a massive punch in the face to the Israeli security services. We all know that the Israeli security services have a certain pedigree, but they have somehow failed this time.
But we also have to bear in mind that a lot of things are still unknown to us and remain to be uncovered in the course of many investigations that will happen. Some of them will be public, some of them more private or not known to the public.
I think a couple of things seem clear, and the faulty assessment, especially regarding Hamas’ intentions is one of them. In my opinion, it was probably one of the biggest problems. The Israelis were aware of certain Hamas capabilities, not only because of their own intelligence assets but because Hamas put a lot of videos on the Internet where they showcased that they were training for a confrontation with Israel, including urban combat, that they had drone capabilities, rockets, naval units etc.
But I think what Israel got wrong was their intention, and the factor that may have participated in it, is the fact that in Israel many things are politically motivated. There was this notion that Hamas was more interested in keeping their power in Gaza, and at least some of the elites of Hamas, wanted to continue filling their pockets with money. Israel didn’t expect Hamas to carry out such an attack. The Israeli government didn’t expect that they would be ready to look for a confrontation of such scale because in such a confrontation they risk everything that they have, and it is obvious.
Certain indications reinforced the Israeli assessment. I think it was in 2021 it was the last time when the Israelis fought against Hamas. The Israelis called it Operation Guardians of the Wall, where they also attacked the Hamas targets. And then afterwards, in 2022, there was some fighting. Even last May, there was also some fighting between groups in Gaza, but Hamas was not involved, and no rockets were fired at Israel. On the other hand, the Israeli Defence Forces didn’t target any Hamas infrastructure or its forces. And I think this reinforced the notion that Hamas is more interested in keeping the power instead of fighting against Israel.
And then, obviously, the question arises. For instance, was it a part of a big-scale deception manoeuvre by Hamas? And I think this contributed to the fact that Israelis were unprepared. In my opinion, there might have been certain politicized issues participating in the assessment. And here I mean the Netanyahu government that wanted to accept Hamas, to some extent, to keep them as a bogeyman vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank. At least certain media reports are suggesting this. Hence, there is a lot of speculation ongoing.
As for the implication of the attack, I think the situation gets more tense, even with countries such as Jordan and Egypt that have longstanding peace accords with Israel, and the normalization with Saudi Arabia for now is on ice.
And I think there is a certain disconnect in all those Arab countries between the political elites, more willing to engage with Israel than the Arab street, still caring very much about the issue of Palestine and the plight of the Palestinians. And the longer this war or operation, whatever we call it, is going on and the more civilian casualties will be there, the more complicated the relations will get and the more tense it will get.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has exacerbated the differences between the West and the Global South, including the Middle East. It seems that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia navigated this conflict to its utmost interests. What is Riyadh’s global strategy?
Well, I have already mentioned some of the elements. And here I mean assertiveness, the newfound assertiveness. And it is also somewhat tied to their concerns about the US leaving the region at some point, so they will have to find the right balance.
They understand that China will have a more significant influence in the future, and I think they will try to keep as many options as possible. They also try to benefit from the situation, for instance, with the oil prices, they try to use it to their advantage and put pressure on the West to a certain extent as well.
They feel that, in some instances, the West is somewhat hypocritical. For example, while talking about human rights and similar issues. Then, saying one thing, doing another thing. As a result, they don’t have an issue with using a situation like that to their benefit and their advantage. And I think, in general, they are trying to become a way more assertive player.
I think this is also very much tied, especially in Saudi Arabia, to the role of Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince who has significant ambitions and knows that the situation for Saudi Arabia will be extremely different. For example, in terms of natural resources, it also makes sense to use them as a weapon or use them to your advantage as long as you still can.
And what are the others like Turkey, you know, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, maybe some other regional countries? How did this conflict influence their stance or their approach?
I think many of them are trying to bounce it out. For many of them, this hypocrisy or whatever we call it plays a certain role. But they are telling themselves, look, again, on the one hand, the West is now talking about human rights, the violation of international law and whatnot, but at the same time, they invaded Iraq, they were in Afghanistan, etc.
Many of them also consider that the West will shift their focus away from the Middle East, and they will need to look for allies and backers. They need to find other ways to keep themselves safe via diversification of foreign policy. Not just being quasi-client states of the United States anymore.
And what is also interesting is that sometimes there are conflicts among themselves. Qatar was blockaded a couple of years ago by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And this country had a very negative experience at that time. Here we can add Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen, backing different factions there.
It is never monocausal, but there are a lot of considerations on the local level and the regional level, but also on a global level that is paying into that.
What is the place of Russia and China in the regional dynamics?
As for Russia, it is obvious that Syria is their main ally in the region. And there is also a historical aspect, given the ties between Syria and the Soviet Union. Syria also has Russia’s access to the Mediterranean Sea. They have some basing in Latakia and Tartus in Syria. Certainly, it is playing a main role.
And I also think that China and Russia are opportunistic. If they see that they can make inroads, that some of the Arab countries are dissatisfied with the United States or fear that the United States will pull back, they are going to try to insert themselves.
We have a good example of such opportunism in Africa. Where they are pushing the French and the Americans out, and they are moving in. But we are not going to talk about it since it is not the subject of our conversation.
Although at least right now Moscow’s main concern is probably still Syria. They are preoccupied with what is going on in Ukraine, of course. And I don’t think they have that much capacity to shape the dynamics in the Middle East due to their campaign in Ukraine. Nevertheless, whatever there are in terms of opportunities, they will try to use them.
And also obviously Libya. It is one of the countries where the Russians were active with Wagner and other groups. We will see how it is going to turn out.
With regard to China, its approach still very much lies at the diplomatic and political level. They don’t play an assertive military role in any way yet. They don’t have serious troop basing or anything like that. But I think this will probably come down in one or two decades down the road.
The economic aspect of the Chinese influence should not be disregarded, especially with all their development projects. Beijing is trying to show itself as a constructive actor, preferring diplomacy over brute force. And this was demonstrated by bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran again to one table. For me, it was interesting to see that they were the ones doing it, while the US took a backseat.
And I think the Chinese understand that the US would love to get out of the Middle East. And they will try to do whatever they can to replace some of the US influence. But again, most likely for now on the political and the diplomatic level, because nevertheless, the US still has a major military presence in the Middle East. And so far, the Chinese are not able and also not ready to replace that.
How could you describe the Iranian priorities in the region? They are active in Syria, they are supporting Hamas, etc. But at the same time, they had this normalization with Saudi Arabia facilitated by the Chinese, as you said. So, how could you explain their foreign policy regarding the Middle East?
What Iran lacks is military capabilities or conventional power projection, to be precise. They don’t have aircraft carriers, significant military cargo air capabilities, etc. Their form of power projection is using all those local groups, the Iranian proxies or whatever we can call it, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and to some extent in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
I would also like to note that some people make the case that Hamas is completely listening to or exists as a puppet of Iran. I think it is more complicated because even during the war in Syria, Hamas was on the other side. I mean, in Syria, Iran supported Assad, and Hamas escaped from Syria. Hamas weren’t on the side of the Assad government, they were more on the side of the rebels.
The Iranians have invested considerable resources since the war in Syria, forging those connections, those relationships, especially on the northern border of Israel in Syria, in Lebanon. That is also why I still think that right now they are not risking those assets in a war with Israel. Nevertheless, it still happened due to escalation dynamics.
In my opinion, this is the kind of Iranian forward defence that they wanted to use as a deterrent against Israel attacking their nuclear program because this was something they feared over the last 10 or even 15 years.
And then again, I think Iran also sees that the United States might be on the cusp of maybe not completely retreating but at least paying less attention to the region. And they see themselves as a regional power that wants to assert itself in the region. Teheran will try to use all the means at their disposal, be it diplomatic, by getting somewhat closer again to the Saudis or their military capabilities in the form of all those groups I have already mentioned.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, I think the Iranians will never genuinely trust the Saudis, especially in the war in Syria. Since there have always been these talks about ancient hatred, Sunnis and Shias have hated each other forever and have always been fighting against each other. Even though it is completely ahistorical, this was not the case.
Nevertheless, we cannot forget that Iran is the major Shia power. And the Shia are a minority in the region, so they always will have particular threat perceptions compared to or vis-a-vis the Sunni majority in the region.
Finally, let us talk about your country. Switzerland is famous for its neutrality. What is Swiss Foreign Policy towards the Middle East?
The official answer would focus on upholding human rights and international law, democracy and so on. I think Switzerland tried to play a constructive role, for instance, by trying to talk to all the actors.
But right now, we observe some political developments. For example, the Swiss are saying that they want to put Hamas on the terrorist list, but the problem is that we don’t have our terrorist list. We take the one from the United Nations. And until now, there’s only Islamic State and Al-Qaeda on that list.
Therefore, it is going to be difficult because the problem is as soon as you want to designate Hamas as a terrorist group, the Turks will come and bring up the Kurds issue.
Switzerland is not a big player in the Middle East. Bern develops humanitarian projects, but also to a lesser extent than other countries. I think probably, to some degree, our supply chains would be affected if something happens in some of those choke points in the region. But in the end, it is not that important to stimulate a country to play a bigger role.
Most likely, we will remain this neutral ground for negotiations, but not much beyond that. But this is probably becoming more difficult because even though Switzerland is famous for its neutrality, some political developments in Switzerland push the idea that neutrality only works as long as one can explain it to his partners. It is something that has become much more complicated, obviously, with the war in Ukraine.
And yes, we are still not delivering weapon systems to this country. And, by the way, there is considerable discontent in Switzerland, even within some political parties, saying that Switzerland has to help Ukraine militarily. But probably it will not happen any time in the future.
We will not abolish neutrality in one day, but there are some developments and certain processes. For instance, even the fact that Switzerland announced adopting more or less all the EU sanctions applied against Russia. It is something that probably would not have happened 20 years ago.
And I think there is that this development, what we saw with Ukraine, is something that you can also see to some degree now in the Middle East. At least in the sense that it was a clear rebuke of Hamas and what they did, which makes sense because it was horrific. But it is hard for me to tell whether this will last or not.
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