The Middle East: Where upheaval reigns

In December 1973, shortly after the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War, Israel’s director of central intelligence submitted a report about the performance of the intelligence community before the war. The report acknowledged an “intelligence failure.” The problem wasn’t the collection of intelligence, which the report deemed sufficient, but “errors of evaluation” attributed to “attitudes and preconceptions lying behind the analysis.” Israel failed in forecasting the Yom Kippur War, for reasons that are now — as we approach the war’s 40th anniversary — being debated more than ever before.  

Such debate is useful only if the conclusions drawn from it benefit not only historians, but also contemporary policy makers. They must remember that collection and evaluation are not always compatible; they must avoid preconceptions. 

In December 2011, a year and a half ago, Israel’s then-defense minister, Ehud Barak, estimated that Syria’s Bashar Assad fall would come in a matter of “weeks.” He was not alone in his estimation. A month or so before him, “Western diplomats” told Reuters that Assad’s fall was all but certain. In January 2012, a month after Barak, a spokesman for the White House explained that Assad “has lost control of the country” and it is inevitable that his “brutal regime” would fall from power. Yet Assad has persisted in defeating such expectations and refused to comply. 

By April 2012, observers began to realize that the tune had to change. “It might take more than we thought,” a senior officer said, and the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services, mockingly suggested that the Assad regime would outlive Barak’s party. As things turned out, this was an accurate forecast, one of few such successes.

Seven years ago, I wrote in an article for Slate magazine that “for the United States, Syria is a constant reminder of the limitations of a superpower.” Assad, I wrote in this long-forgotten article on Syria’s strategy for survival, “is a fine acrobat — a joy to watch — as long as he doesn’t fall. And he understands the ways of the tumbler, knows that the only way for him to stay above the rest of the crowd is to keep moving in the same direction. One stop, even a minor hesitation, will be the end of his journey.” In the past he was ridiculed as an imbecile. Shimon Peres derogatively called him “the son of a clever man.” Yet, as with Barak, Assad might still outlast Peres’ term as Israel’s president. A year or so to go.

Another intelligence failure then? The progress of the Arab Spring is tricky to predict. Just weeks before Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt, the head of Israel’s military intelligence told a Knesset committee that the Egyptian regime was stable. The predictions with regard to Syria are somewhat similar, but not all intelligence services repeated the mistake, or they attempted to correct the mistake of not foreseeing Mubarak’s fall with another mistake — hurriedly concluding that Assad stood no chance for survival. Some weren’t as quick as the Americans and the Israelis to bury Assad and the Syrian regime. Some also decided not to be subjugated to the role of bystander in this supposed forthcoming funeral. The Iranians were assisting Assad with weaponry, manpower and political support. Hezbollah fighters came to the rescue. Russia was blocking any attempt to use international forums to punish him and was insisting on keeping commitments related to the arming of the Syrian army. “Russia was simply calculating that Assad would be able to defeat the uprising in Syria and remain in power,” a former head of Mossad suggested. 

That Mossad chief is quoted in a paper by Noah Slepkov, foreign policy analyst and adjunct fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, but his is not the only possible explanation given for Russia’s conduct. Another reason given for Russia’s insistence on allying with the Assad regime is that “Russia wanted to send a strong message to its allies in the region that ‘if you stick with us, we won’t turn our back on you.’ ” That’s the sort of message — a bitter Israeli diplomat told me earlier this week — that the U.S. no longer can send in the wake of its abandonment of the Egyptian Mubarak regime. 

A protester opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi holds a defaced poster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi by the Tamarod (rebel) movement in downtown Cairo on June 6. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS

Last month, the Russians boldly let it be known that their surface-to-air missiles will be sent to Syria as planned. Disregarding Israeli warnings that such missiles would be destroyed, as well as American protestations, the Russian are betting on the Assad regime and its ability to survive, as well as on America’s lack of appetite for confrontation. Dangling the promise of a future peace conference on Syria — not in June, as “there is still a lot of work to do to bring a conference about,” but possibly in July — the Kremlin is running circles around an American administration yearning for a painless and cost-free solution in Syria. Discussions in Washington this week about possibly arming rebel groups might be too little and too late. If earlier the Obama administration could sit on its hands and assume that the rebels could succeed without the need of American intervention, it now has the opposite worry: whether it should buy into what might be a losing stake. 

The never-ending Arab Spring has put the Middle East under a constant cloud of chaos, through which only the far-sighted can see and only the determined can pass. U.S. influence is waning, and with it the trust of other nations in its reliability. And while the Syrian crisis was initially seen as a possible blow to Iranian influence and power, things are murkier today: If Assad survives, it will be a huge victory for the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Shiite axis. The Kremlin doesn’t much like the prospect of Sunni extremists taking advantage of a political vacuum in Syria. So, yes, the Russians seem to bet on the Shiites — Iran, Hezbollah and Assad’s Alawites — while the United States is, reluctantly, left with the Sunnis. That’s another peculiar result of the ongoing regional crisis, as the U.S. went to war in the Middle East, not so very long ago, to avenge and prevent further terror actions of Sunni extremists. 

In recent weeks, a debate has been growing over the extent to which the Syrian war is becoming a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, following his short visit into Syrian territory, said last week that “a sectarian battle line is being drawn through the heart of the region — with Sunni extremists, many allied with al-Qaeda, dominant on one side, and Iranian-backed proxy forces dominant on the other.” McCain also declared “the entire Middle East is now up for grabs.” That is, the Syrian war is no longer about Syria. At stake: fragile Iraq, terrified Jordan, tense Israel, nervous Turkey, miserable Lebanon. 

The Syrian flag is seen as people watch Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaking to supporters via live broadcast during a May 25 event in Bekaa Valley, Resistance and Liberation Day,  which marks the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Photo by Sharif Karim/REUTERS

This is not “a war that is being fought by nation states. Borders are being erased. Borders are becoming liquid in a way,” Robert Malley, program director for Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group said last week. 

The crisis is bubbling through the region by way of religious osmosis. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on June 9 warned of “a storm passing through the region.” Al-Maliki’s Shiite government is facing a Sunni opposition, so he knows what he is talking about as he warns of “a brutal sectarian storm.” The split in Islam is old — almost as old as Islam itself. Having originated with a battle for dominance among some of the followers of Muhammad, the result was different and at times contradicting interpretations of Islam’s teachings. At times, these branches have coexisted peacefully; at other times, competition and emotions have run high and war ensued. 

In Syria, Islam’s major strands have taken sides against one another. The Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil states have been sending arms to Sunni rebels. Sunni organizations, some linked to al-Qaeda, have been dispatching fighters to the front. On the other side, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah were bolstering Assad’s forces. 

The rhetoric gives an indication of a wider war among Muslims that was ignited at the high temperatures of the reactor core that is the Syrian conflict. Egyptian cleric Sheik Mohammed el-Zoghbi on June 7 called on “young men in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen” to go to Syria to fight. “We must all go to purge Syria of this infidel regime, with its Shiites who came from Iran, southern Lebanon and Iraq,” el-Zoghbi said. Influential Yusuf al-Qaradawi branded Hezbollah — literally, “the party of God” — as the “party of Satan.” The image of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, not long ago the most popular leader on the Arab street, is waning. But he was right to declare that the war is now entering “a completely new phase.” 

Also waning is any short-term fantasy about a better Middle East. In recent weeks, the war in Syria went viral and spread through the region, while at the same time, the model for a better region — Turkey — is wracked by protests. In fact, any conceivable model leading to stability and calm is fast disappearing from this area of the world. 

Fadi Kerkoz mourns next to a body of his brother Shadi Kerkoz, who was killed in a battle against Syrian forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, in the Syrian town of Qusair, near the Lebanon border, on June 2. AP Photo/Qusair Lens

Borders are no longer a guarantor of national coherence, as religious emotions play a growing role in the way battle lines are drawn. Political arrangements collapse: The autocratic yet stable model of Egypt lost to the street, and the Democratic-Islamist model of Egypt doesn’t quite work. In early June, an Egyptian court sent dozens of NGO workers to prison for working in an organization not registered with the government. Two years after Mubarak’s fall, the Pew Research Center found that “Egyptian public mood is increasingly negative.” The public wants democracy but thinks that law and order is getting worse, along with a loss of personal freedoms and a declining standard of living. “While they endorse democratic principles, most Egyptians say they are dissatisfied with the way their new democracy is currently working. 

The once exemplary model of Turkey — hailed by some as the “road map” for other Muslim countries striving to have a democracy — is also in trouble, as recent events in Istanbul’s Taksim Square demonstrate. Early on June 11, as protesters in Turkey were pondering the meaning of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supposed agreement to meet with their leaders, police forces stormed Taksim Square, using tear gas and prompting many of the protesters to flee the area. And while the ultimate result of the recent Turkish strife is far from clear, one thing clearly happened in Turkey: the façade of a liberal democracy was torn away, leaving the reality of a problematic regime exposed in the town’s square. All this suggests long-term instability. A nightmare for any intelligence agency attempting to make predictions and a mixed bag for Israel. Surviving in an unstable and violent region is hardly a blessing for Israel and ensures that the coming years will be filled with twists and turns. It also ensures a growing demand for investment in military and defense measures and in keeping up with all the other costs associated with the maintenance of what was once tagged by Barak as a “villa in the jungle.” And of course, also looming is the very serious problem of Iran’s nuclear program, threatening to void all other predictions. On the other hand, that Israel’s enemies have to busy themselves with fighting one another probably makes it less likely that they will have the energy or the resources to launch a war — that is, the good old conventional type of battle — against Israel. They can harass Israel, they can attack it with missiles or terror, but they are hardly likely to find time to plot a strategy that will defeat it on the battlefield. 

A sprinkle of sugar in a boiling, bitter dish.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at