V’nahafoch Hu…A Journey Through a Region Turned Upside Down

FaginThe story of Purim is the story of v’nahafoch hu—literally, of events fundamentally and profoundly reordered. It is a story of carefully made plans turned topsy-turvy by Divine intervention; of plots, and subplots; of hopes unrealized and destiny fulfilled. It is a story of miraculous transformations, accomplished at breathtaking speed. Such is the story of today’s Middle East.

I was recently privileged, together with OU President Martin Nachimson, to represent the OU on the recent mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to Turkey, Egypt and Israel. The ten-day mission, thoughtfully conceived of, and led by, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference Malcolm Hoenlein, explored the tectonic forces that are currently reshaping the Middle East region with a speed and a ferocity that is truly extraordinary—with the disintegration of several nation-states; multiple insurgencies; and various proxy conflicts that have drawn regional and global powers and broken down—probably permanently—the entire post-World War I regional order that carved up the Ottoman Empire and that has essentially dictated the map of the Middle East for the past century. These forces include:

1) The demise of independent nation-states with recognizable borders (including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen);

2) The disproportionate role of Iran in the region, and the concomitant alignment and realignment of the state and non-state actors within the region on the pro or anti-Iran side of the divide;

3) The long-range threat of a nuclear Iran and the non-nuclear consequences of billions of dollars of sanctions relief. (It is clear that delay of the Iranian nuclear threat has hardly eliminated it; it is equally clear that growing Iranian-North Korean cooperation in missile technology and nuclear capability is hardly receiving the attention it deserves.)

4) The Russian-Iranian alliance and its replacement of the US in the Mideast region;

5) The formation of new alliances, and the weakening of historic enmities between various regimes and Israel, which now stands as a formidable bulwark against Iranian hegemony;

6) The substantial withdrawal of American military power and influence from the region, to the consternation of longtime allies;

7) Religious sectarian struggles (including Shiite-Sunni, Alawite-Sunni, and intra-Sunni sectarianism, pitting “modern” Sunnis against the traditional Muslim Brotherhood); and

8) The impact of the Syrian refugee crisis (one-fifth of the population of Jordan are Syrian refugees; one-quarter of the population of Lebanon)

In Turkey, our delegation met at length with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and with Prime Minister of Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu. In Egypt, we spent almost three hours with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

While in Israel, we were given high-level briefings by a wide variety of Israeli officials and analysts. These included: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked; US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro; President of the State of Israel Reuven Rivlin; Minister of National Defense of Greece Panos Kammenos; Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, director, Political-Military Affairs Bureau, Ministry of Defense; Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, executive director of the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University; Maj. Gen. Hertzi Halevy, head of the IDF Military, Intelligence Directorate; Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat; Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely; Dr. Michael Doran, senior fellow, Hudson Institute; Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, project director, Regional Middle East Developments, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon; Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan; Chairman, Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid; Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein; Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition; Amb. Jeremy Issacharoff, vice director general, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Minister of Education, Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Chairman of the Jewish Home Party Naftali Bennett; Commander of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel; Deputy Police Commissioner Maj. Gen. Zohar Dvir and literally dozens of others from the foreign policy and security establishment in Israel, as well as senior representatives of the Israeli and foreign press.

Our delegation also traveled to the Syrian and Lebanese borders, where we were briefed by Brig. Gen. Yaniv Asor, Northern Division commander, at the Har Bental Strategic Overlook (Syrian border) and by Lt. Col. Avraham Cantor at the Mitzpeh Benaya Strategic Overlook (Lebanese border) on the current situation in the Golan and in Southern Lebanon. We had the opportunity to meet with a number of young men and women in the IDF who are heroically defending Israel’s northern borders. May Hashem bless them and watch over them.

Our meetings in Turkey, Egypt and Israel revealed complex and interlocking forces at play within the region. Here are some of the highlights:

Turkey
We had the opportunity to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Our meeting with President Erdogan was frank and wide-ranging. His primary message to us was that the Islamic terrorist threat was hardly unique to the US; it is a global problem cutting across geography, culture and religion. Combatting terrorism is a common problem, and the threat unites the community of nations.

. . . Purim . . . is a story of carefully made plans turned topsy turvy by Divine intervention; of plots, and subplots; of hopes unrealized and destiny fulfilled. It is a story of miraculous transformations, accomplished at breathtaking speed. Such is the story of today’s Middle East.

Other subjects were prominent in the Erdogan dialogue as well: Turkish anti-Semitism (“Turkey has a zero tolerance for anti-Semitism”; “there is no difference between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia”); negotiations regarding the blockade of Gaza; developments in Syria and the Turkish-Syrian refugee crisis (there are 170,000 Syrian refugees currently in Turkey); Cyprus; and natural gas.

But it was clear that President Erdogan’s emphasis was on the evolving alliance between Russia and Iran, an alliance that Turkey views with growing alarm. The map of the Middle East is being redrawn—literally by the day. Northern Syria, and northern Iraq—both critical to Turkey’s security—are the scene of Russian and Iranian advances, and Turkish responsive actions. The Russian offensive, supported by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, has brought Syrian government forces to within fifteen miles of Turkey’s southern frontier. And the Kurdish military wing, the YPG militia, long deemed hostile by Turkey, has likewise stepped up its campaign and exploited the collapse of various Syrian rebel groups to extend its presence along the Turkish border. In short, Turkey is infuriated by the expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Syria, fearing it will encourage separatist activity among its own Kurdish population. The YPG, which Ankara considers a terrorist group, controls nearly all the territory along the Syrian-Turkish frontier. Turkey has threatened ground action in Syria, but is unlikely to make good on the threat without a clear indication of US support, which surely will not be forthcoming.

Significantly complicating matters is US support for the rapidly advancing Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, long seen by the US as the best chance on the ground to combat the Islamic State forces in Syria. Turkey, on the other hand, views the YPG as a terrorist organization and fears it will stir even greater unrest among the sizable enclaves of Turkish Kurds, portrayed by Turkey as Russian pawns. Indeed, just last week, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed a Syrian-Kurdish militia fighter for a suicide car bombing that killed twenty-eight people in Ankara. He vowed retaliation in both Syria and Iraq. Davutoglu said that the attack was clear evidence that the YPG is a terrorist organization and that Turkey, as a NATO member, would expect cooperation from its allies (presumably including the United States) in combatting the group. The YPG, for its part, denied any responsibility for the bombing. Davutoglu also accused the Assad regime of complicity in the bombing and issued a warning to Moscow—whose sustained airstrikes in northern Syria have paved the way for YPG advances—against using the Kurdish militant group against Turkey. In a clear sign of escalating hostilities with Russia, Davutoglu threatened: “All those who intend to use terrorist organizations as proxies should know that this game of terror will turn around like a boomerang and hit them first.”

The shifting alliances between nation- states and multiple non-state ethnic and religious splinter groups are bewildering and staggeringly complex. My own view is that America’s virtual invisibility in the region is due, at least in part, to a fundamental inability to articulate, in a simple and coherent fashion, precisely what our interests are (other than the defeat of ISIL) and to explain in readily understandable terms who are the good guys and the bad guys. The answer is simply too complex. Consider the following example, which illustrates well the web of conflicting and shifting alliances that plague the coherent formulation of American foreign policy in today’s Middle East: Recently, Saudi Arabia (an ally of Turkey) dispatched fighter aircraft to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to assist the Turks in their fight with the Kurdish-Syrian militia, YPG. This is the same air base where US fighters are stationed, flying sorties in support of YPG’s actions against ISIL. Confusing . . . to say the least.

This US-Turkish tension (a clear sub-text in our meeting with Erdogan) threatens to significantly weaken the NATO alliance, and places the United States in the perhaps untenable position of managing its strategic relationship with Turkey, while simultaneously seeking to check Russia’s influence in the region, and undermine ISIL, without the commitment of ground troops.

Despite these virtually irreconcilable dynamics, the small Jewish community in Turkey appears to feel reasonably safe and secure. We had the opportunity to spend a full day visiting with representatives of the Turkish Jewish community in Istanbul. There are approximately 17,000 Jews in Turkey, about 15,000 of them in Istanbul. The relations with the government are cordial (as was evident during a dinner hosted by the mayor of the Istanbul district, which houses the bulk of the Jewish community, and his wife). There is solid community infrastructure: a Jewish school with over 600 hundred students which we had an opportunity to visit; a number of active shuls; kosher food; an old age facility; and a number of social, cultural and educational programs. Yet, two bombings at Istanbul synagogues over the past number of years keep the community on high alert, and minimize outward signs of Jewish identity. Our group was specifically advised not to wear yarmulkes outdoors. Finally, and despite the community’s contagious optimism about its future, the predominantly aging population (only 3,500 of the community’s members are under thirty) poses a significant demographic challenge; a number of post high school students leave for college opportunities abroad and do not return; about 150 community members make aliyah annually. While not high in absolute numbers, these departures represent a large percentage of the younger generation and continues to erode the viability of this once-flourishing community.

In sum, our visit to Turkey was a study in contrast between Turkish government policy and the feeling of the Turkish “street.” Without doubt, the government seeks a widening rapprochement with Israel, and greater security and commercial relations. Over $5 billion in trade is currently carried out between Israel and Turkey. Eleven flights a day connect the two countries. On our flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul, there was barely an empty seat. Nonetheless, the attitude of the street has not kept pace. Anti-Semitism remains the most common form of racial or religious prejudice. Sixty-nine percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, according to a 2014 ADL poll. However, in a possible sign that the public thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations may be slowly trickling down to the masses, the Jewish community held a much-publicized public menorah lighting this past Chanukah—the first since the founding of the modern Turkish republic over a century ago. Perhaps this will signal an evolution in Turkish public opinion and attitudes. The view of our group was that Erdogan’s message could not have been clearer—in calling for the protection of the Jewish community, and in denouncing both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as war crimes.

OU Executive Vice President Allen I. Fagin greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Avi Hayun

OU Executive Vice President Allen I. Fagin greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Avi Hayun

Despite the gracious reception from both President Erdogan and Prime Minister Davutoglu, and their warm and embracing statements regarding rapprochement with Israel and the normalization of economic and security arrangements, we should not anticipate a rapid or fundamental change in Turkish-Israeli relations in the short run. We were, for example, baffled—shocked is perhaps a more apt description—at Erdogan’s cavalier description of the Gaza terror tunnels as nothing more than convenient mechanisms for the transport of goods into and out of Gaza. Whether these comments were an aberration in the context of an otherwise positive and upbeat exchange or whether they reflect the long-standing (and continuing) Turkish support for Hamas was hard to discern. We learned that, in the convoluted dynamics of Middle Eastern culture, there are no absolutes; no straight lines to connect the dots, but instead a bewildering array of curves and intersecting lines that are the surface manifestation of shifting alliances and evolving friendships and enmities. Our Western sensibilities may chafe at the inconsistencies and reversals, but they are a part of the fabric of the contemporary landscape in the region.

Egypt
On February 11, we participated in what must be characterized as a historic meeting between representatives of the Conference of Presidents and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the Presidential Palace in Cairo. The meeting, which lasted almost three hours, covered a wide range of domestic and international issues, including US-Egyptian and Israeli-Egyptian relations; regional strategic alignments and threats (especially those posed by terrorist organizations and their supporters); and Iran in the post-JCPOA environment.

Sisi put aside his prepared remarks to address us for well over an hour before taking questions. He is personable, indeed, charming—and was remarkably frank. He was pointed in his criticism of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood (“they cannot co-exist . . . they either rule or will kill you.”) And he was equally insistent on quality education, free of incitement or the tolerance of hate (“no Divine religion can instruct its followers to kill others”). He was harshly critical of Turkey for its support of Hamas, and for permitting Hamas terrorist training camps on Turkish soil.

Over and over, Sisi referenced—and applauded—the growing cooperation between Egypt and Israel, particularly on security matters. He dreams of enhanced cooperation in the future in economic development, tourism, energy and water. Three times during his remarks he emphasized that past hostilities with Israel were at an end. He expressed an almost gleeful excitement at the profound change in relations from the situation that pertained just several decades ago. “If thirty years ago I would have said to you that 1,000 Egyptian tanks would be deployed in the Sinai, and Egyptian warplanes would fly along the Israeli border, without anyone worrying about a stray bullet, would you have believed me?” There was simply no doubt that common, proximate enemies—Hamas and ISIL in Sinai—were fostering a new era in Israeli-Egyptian cooperation. But the Sisi regime has a tenuous hold on Egypt. The Egyptian economy is in shambles, tourism (in light of various terror attacks) is at an all-time low, and Egypt faces growing concerns about various terror groups, including in Libya, Yemen and the Sudan. Most importantly, the Egyptian fight against Hamas in Gaza and Sinai poses unique threats and saps its strength. The Egyptian army is suffering significant casualties from Hamas militias and armed ISIL Bedouin supporters. It is therefore not surprising that the unmistakable message of the Sisi visit was the need for far greater American support for the Sisi regime, including economic assistance and far greater American involvement in the region.

We came away from our visits to Turkey and Egypt with an abiding sense of possibility—that conditions exist for profound changes in the relationships between large segments of the Muslim world and Israel, with potentially transformational opportunities for cooperation in regional security, technology, energy and commerce.

It was likewise clear that Israel recognizes and welcomes this growing rapprochement with large segments of the Arab world. As Prime Minister Netanyahu told us: “Major Arab countries are challenging their view of Israel. They don’t see Israel anymore as its enemy, but they see Israel as their ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam and its two fountainheads, militant Islamists led by Iran and the militant Islamists led by Daesh.”

Syria
The five-year old Syrian civil war has wrought destruction on an unprecedented scale. More than 300,000 are dead and more than 10 million have been displaced from their homes and are refugees. Millions have ended up in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and almost a million have fled to Europe—changing the ethnic and political balance in each country that has received them. The sheer size of the catastrophe is difficult to describe. As I write this piece, 1 million more Syrians are considered under siege and will likely join the exodus of refugees shortly.

The landscape of Northern Syria reflects the bewildering, kaleidoscopic array of competing forces that are defining and redefining the colliding realities of today’s Middle East. The defining, organizing principle is the de facto Russian-Iranian alliance, with each fulfilling complementary needs in the conflict. The Russians, reluctant to become (yet again) bogged down under a large-scale commitment of ground troops, have contributed significant air power to the conflict. The Iranians, for their part, have committed (or supplied and financed) a mosaic of sectarian, Shiite inspired paramilitary proxies as ground forces—including their own Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah fighters, the Iraqi Shi’a Badr Brigade, the Afghan Shi’a Fatemiyun, in addition to the Syrian Army of Bashar Assad. This expanding Russian-Iranian alliance has been made possible by the deliberate absence of the United States from the arena—much to the chagrin of erstwhile allies like Turkey and the Saudis. The Obama administration appears strategically committed to being virtually non-existent in the region. While some slow progress is being made against ISIL, the strong consensus is that west of the Euphrates the United States is irrelevant to the regional realignments that are unfolding. This state of affairs leaves the Sunni regimes, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with a Hobson’s choice: give in, and face the defeat of the Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria; or risk a frontal confrontation with the Russian-Iranian alliance, with no guarantee—indeed, with little prospect, of US support. It is, in my view, a conundrum that has “Made in America” stamped on its face.

“Major Arab countries are challenging their view of Israel. They don’t see Israel anymore as its enemy, but they see Israel as their ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam and its two fountainheads, militant Islamists led by Iran and the militant Islamists led by Daesh.

Throughout most of the civil war in Syria, Israel has maintained a consistent, essentially aloof, “bystander” policy, consciously avoiding being sucked into the controversy. Yet, in light of the recent successes of the Assad regime, buttressed by Russian and Iranian assistance, Israel’s approach to the Syrian conflict seems about to change. While Israel will not engage militarily, it will place renewed emphasis on protecting vital security interests (including acting to stem the flow of advanced military equipment from Syria to Hezbollah—Hezbollah weaponry now includes advanced radar systems, surface-to-air missiles and over 100,000 short and long-range rockets—preventing an Iranian land link with Hezbollah, and cultivating local rebel Sunni militias). The five-year conflict has served Israeli interests by sapping the strength of the Syrian military. And Hezbollah has devoted between a quarter and a third of its armed brigades to fight for the Syrian regime, and is losing dozens of fighters monthly. In contrast, the Israelis hope that the US will more fully engage, and offer greater support to the Sunni rebels and the Kurdish militias—in the process, diminishing the likelihood of a Hezbollah or Iranian presence on the Syrian border with the Golan.

One of the more fascinating panels at our conference was a dialogue with Dr. Michael Doran, a former national security advisor in President George W. Bush’s administration and currently a senior fellow of The Hudson Institute, a prestigious think tank. Doran shared a panel with Professor Eyal Zisser, a leading expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and moderator Steve Linde, the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. Doran eschewed the niceties of political and diplomatic discourse, and was blunt and to the point: If the Assad regime wins the civil war and Iran ends up controlling the Syrian-Golan border, Israel would have difficulty in defending itself. Doran warned that the Syrian situation could “worsen quickly.” He reserved particularly harsh comments for current US policy in Syria, noting that President Obama “represents a trend in the national security elite which sees Iran as a natural ally of the US.” Professor Zisser echoed Doran’s pessimism: If Assad is victorious in the civil war, he may conclude that power is the only thing that can ensure his survival, and mount an aggressive campaign to rebuild his army with Russian support. “It will be a different Syria,” said Zisser. “Assad will no longer be the driver, but under Russian and Iranian influence.” And what of American power in the region? Says Zisser: “The US is clearly not a regional power anymore.” In short, we have abandoned the field to a coterie of proxies, rendering our current influence in the region marginal at best. It is unlikely—at least in the short term—that we will see any major shift in American policy on Syria (notwithstanding Turkish and Saudi pressure). Time will tell what the consequences of this policy will be on Israel and its security, and on other vital American interests in the region.

Greece, Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean
The recent summit between Israel, Greece and Cyprus, and the resultant cooperation treaty between them, foreshadows the creation of a new and potentially significant economic and strategic alliance between various states in the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt has already made clear its desire to participate in such an alliance (as President Sisi told us: “I’m already in it”), and other countries may join as well. Part of this nascent alliance will see Israel as an energy exporter.

Israel and the Peace Process
The recently received French peace initiative (which calls for an international peace conference and, failing agreement, the unilateral recognition by France of a Palestinian state) has caused consternation among senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials with whom we met. No one could clearly articulate the likely French motivation in floating this proposal at this time. Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to it as “strange,” noting that peace talks would face certain failure absent adequate assurances that would prevent Hamas, or ISIL (or both), from acquiring territory from which Israel might withdraw—assurances that could hardly be given at this time. Netanyahu received helpful, albeit perhaps unexpected, support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel who acknowledged that the current situation was hardly conducive to meaningful dialogue. Merkel’s pragmatic approach—acknowledging that “this is not the time for progress,” while at the same time seeking to lay the groundwork for renewed negotiations at some, undetermined, time in the future—was very much in keeping with the position of the Obama administration.

Mr. Fagin presents a gift to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the Forty-Second Annual Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Leadership Mission to Israel. Photo: Avi Hayun

Mr. Fagin presents a gift to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the Forty-Second Annual Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Leadership Mission to Israel. Photo: Avi Hayun

Even opposition leader Isaac Herzog has adopted a more realistic view with regard to renewed negotiations. Both the governing coalition and the Labor opposition now oppose creating a Palestinian state under prevailing conditions. In contrast to a strident, almost shrill tone when he addressed us last year in the run-up to the elections, Herzog was calm, forceful and statesman-like in his remarks, noting that while a two-state solution was not dead, it certainly was not on the current agenda. On the other hand, speaker after speaker noted the need to eventually deal with the Palestinian issue—from the perspective of international opinion and BDS implications; from the perspective of demographic imperatives (40 percent of Israel’s population is currently non-Jewish; in ten years it will be 50 percent); and from the perspective of the potentially disastrous consequences of a political void that would be left by a collapsed Palestinian Authority (as one Israeli diplomat told us, “Without the PA, we would have to reoccupy the West Bank”).

V’nahafoch hu; let us hope and pray that current conditions in the Middle East be turned from hostility and terror to peace and security for the State of Israel and for the region.

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This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2016.
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