Home inFocus Progress and Peril In the Middle East (Winter 2017) Threats & Opportunities in the Levant and the Middle East

Threats & Opportunities in the Levant and the Middle East

Seth Cropsey Winter 2017
Iraqi Armed Forces and Iranian-backed PMUs in Fallujah, 2016. (Photo: Mahmoud Hosseini)

After decades of leading the democratic world in the Cold War and more than a decade of multiple wars since 9/11, many Americans would like relief from world affairs. They would prefer to have nothing to do with foreign wars, with lands that breed jihadists or stagnate in corruption, or have populations that reject modernity or hate the United States. The preference is easy to understand, but it’s not realistic. The issue is not whether isolationism is desirable; it is whether it’s possible. To put the question more precisely: Can Americans preserve their security, prosperity and civil liberties without maintaining an active role in the world – and specifically in the Middle East and its environs? The answer is no.

Is Isolation Possible?

An American president can try to “pivot” or turn away from the region’s problems. But history teaches that ignoring problems magnifies them. The questions then are, what should be America’s strategic vision of the region and what are the organizing principles to increase security, stability and prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean? Isolation is not an option. The region’s wealth will necessarily influence interests around the world; and so will its pathologies. The West cannot be indifferent to the conquest of a country such as Saudi Arabia with large oil reserves and therefore large revenues.

Similarly, even though America and other Western countries tried to stay out of Syria’s civil war, the conflict’s harmful effects reached them in the form of terrorist murders and millions of refugees. Neither the Middle East (nor any other large region) can be quarantined. Nuclear or biological weapons developed there could strike anywhere and cyber-attacks launched from there can infect computers anywhere. Isolation is impossible in the world of Internet, easy travel and miniaturized means of mass destruction.

Technology aside, there’s the question of who will protect freedom of navigation on the seas? Since the sun set on the British Empire, the United States has kept the world’s seas open to commerce. No other country or alliance is ready and able to substitute. Without open sea lines of communication, much of the world’s trade would be in danger. If, in hopes of disengaging from the Middle East or cutting its defense budget, the United States were to relinquish this essential role, the harm to the global economy, including America’s economy, would be catastrophic.

Founded on liberal democratic ideas similar to those that America embodies, Israel has shared those interests wholeheartedly. No other country in the region has greater capability or willingness to contribute to their advancement through “hard” means, such as military, intelligence and cyber, and “soft” means, such as technology, culture and alliance building.

Regional Security Challenges

Iran: Iran is competing with its neighbors for regional hegemony as part of a Shiite-Sunni conflict for dominance within the broader Muslim world.

The Iran nuclear deal aims to constrain that country’s nuclear weapons infrastructure, and Iran has agreed to delay its development. The deal does not, however, require dismantling most elements of its nuclear program. Iran remains a threshold nuclear state. The deal promises to put massive financial resources at the disposal of the Iranian regime, which can be expected to use them to recapitalize its conventional military and Revolutionary Guard forces and to increase operations around the Arabian Peninsula (with or without Russian cooperation). Iran could also increase support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other proxies.

Over the past few decades, non-democratic regimes, including most notably North Korea, repeatedly violated arms control and peace agreements. Optimists continue to hope that North Korea will relinquish its nuclear weapons for a suitable set of incentives. Realists cannot take for granted that the United States will act promptly to apply sanctions against Iran if the Iranian regime either violates agreements or tests their bounds, as it has done with its recent missile tests.

Despite a long history of mutual distrust, Iran and Russia are now cooperating on Syria in ways that threaten interests of the Sunni Arab states, of Israel and of the United States. The implications for security in the Red Sea and Mediterranean are hard to overstate.

It is possible for the Iranian-Russian axis to use anti-access and area denial tactics in the Red Sea (Bab el-Mandeb Straits), Arabian Gulf, and Mediterranean to restrict U.S. and allied forces’ ability to operate. Or Moscow might use its assets in the Mediterranean to distract NATO in the event of Russian aggression elsewhere – for example, in Ukraine or the Baltics. Or it might exploit long-standing hostility between NATO members Greece and Turkey.

The Russian economy depends on high world prices for energy so Middle Eastern instability serves a paramount Russian interest. This is not the case with the United States. Nevertheless, Russia is not necessarily in a zero-sum game with the United States on every issue. Even during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union found common ground, for example, in opposing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Syria: Syria is now a failed state; much of it is ungoverned space. The resulting power vacuum has drawn in ISIS, other Sunni extremist groups, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The Kurds may aim to break off pieces of Syria for an eventual Kurdish state.

Asad appears to have won the upper hand against his Sunni extremist opponents, which is a victory for Russia and Iran, both of which aided him militarily and diplomatically. Asad’s demise, however, if it favored rebels loyal to ISIS or al-Qaeda, would hardly serve Western interests.

As Russia pours air and naval assets into Syria, otherwise increases its Eastern Mediterranean presence and retains its hold on Crimea’s naval ports, the Putin regime will become a key factor in the region’s maritime and general security. Russia has been delivering advanced supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles for over five years. Such missiles could find their way into Hezbollah hands, which would further endanger Israeli maritime interests.

Russia continues to bolster its regional naval presence in the Syrian port of Tartus and its air capabilities at Syria’s Khmeimim base, near Latakia.


Prudent military planners will assume – and mitigate the risks – that any weapons system in the region could get into the hands of terrorist organizations. Risks of WMD proliferation in the Middle East are increasing. In reaction to Iran’s nuclear program and for other reasons, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others in the region may use civil nuclear programs and dual-use technology to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons or try to acquire nuclear or other mass-destruction weapons by other means.

Dissuasion was long recognized as important to non-proliferation policy, but recent history tends to encourage proliferation, highlighting the advantages rather than disadvantages of pursuing WMD. Would-be proliferators undoubtedly contrast the overthrow of the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi regimes with the survival of the North Korean and Iranian regimes. They may conclude that the key to survival for rogue regimes is having – or reaching the threshold of – WMD.

Coordinated U.S. and Israeli policies should include increased intelligence cooperation, maritime and air interdiction activity, generating options for military strikes, and efforts to establish international cooperation. As noted, the United States and Russia share an interest in preventing WMD proliferation and worked together even in the Cold War for that purpose.

Cyber security

Cyber risk applies to every element of society, civilian and military and favors offense over defense. Cyber operations – to collect confidential information or to disrupt, deceive or destroy – are not the province of only a small number of highly skilled experts in a handful of technologically advanced countries. They are universal. They are part of ISIS’s war in Iraq and the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as the activities of the Chinese, Russian and Iranian military and intelligence services.

Israel has become a world leader in the technology of cyber defense. But the cyber domain is, by and large, strategically and legally uncharted territory. There is no general agreement on what constitutes aggression or what would be a proper response to various types of intrusions.

Refugees and Migrants

Large numbers of Middle Eastern and African refugees and migrants are trying to enter Europe, many through Turkey and Greece. Some are traveling overland. Many are taking boats across the Eastern Mediterranean. Throughout the continent, many people view the refugees sympathetically. Numerous others, however, view them as a time bomb of social instability and political violence. Finding them homes in the wealthy Gulf States would improve the chances of their assimilation, overcome the language barriers of resettling in non-Arabic speaking lands, and fulfill a moral obligation of their co-religionists.

Turkey-Israel Relations

Turkey’s once-proud boast of “no problems with neighbors” is now a bygone. It is fighting a revived domestic Kurdish insurgency and has suffered attacks from ISIS, in Syria and at home. Its armed forces have also lately clashed with Syrian government forces and with the Russian military. Turkey has been quarreling with European Union officials about what it sees as purposeful delays in processing Turkey’s application for membership. Disputes with the United States and Russia over their Syria policies have increased Turkey’s sense of isolation, and it is still too early to know how the summer’s coup attempt will affect Turkey’s foreign and defense policies.

To mitigate these problems, Turkish officials have been working to break out of this isolation and improve their ties abroad, including with Israel.

Other Challenges

Weak governance in Yemen, the Sinai, and Sudan allows the growth of radical Muslim terrorist organizations that threaten the movement of world trade and transportation – for example, the downing of a Russian commercial jet over the Sinai in the fall of 2015. In Libya, the dangers of a failed state on the Mediterranean littoral arise, as in Syria.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has been weakened by losses in the Syrian civil war, but may be strengthened by the new funds Iran will obtain through the nuclear deal. Hezbollah’s rocket threat to Israel is growing. According to press reports, Hezbollah’s arsenal now exceeds 150,000 rockets.

Within Egypt, Salafist terrorists affiliated with ISIS continue to operate in the Sinai, despite Egyptian military operations to eliminate them.

Maritime matters are among Israel’s principal concerns. Controlling the sea lines of communication is vital to Israel’s security and economy. Coastal security has been a priority since Israel’s birth. New maritime security challenges have arisen as Israel’s offshore gas facilities have grown and the Red Sea becomes contested space among regional and global powers.

Regional Security Opportunities

Commonly viewing the region as split by a Sunni-Shiite conflict, officials in mostly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt see Israel as a useful partner against the combination of Iran, the Asad regime and Russia. Areas of common concern include terrorism threats, radical Islamist ideology, missile defense and Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Diplomatic progress with the Palestinians could make it easier for Israel to cooperate with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other states in the region. Lack of such progress in recent years, however, has not altogether precluded such cooperation.

Egypt and Israel share interests in containing threats from Hamas and in protecting their respective energy facilities and in combating Islamist extremist groups engaged in terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. A combined military front is required against the Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sinai. A different combined strategy is required for dealing with Hamas, which is functioning as the government in Gaza.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains ideologically hostile to Israel, but has practical reasons to improve bilateral ties. Turkish officials may want to buy Israeli natural gas to reduce Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas. Turkey also appears interested in increasing its diplomatic influence in the region and specifically in playing a role in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Israeli officials are considering a long-term cooperative arrangement with Turkey on gas, possibly including a pipeline.

Turkey has maintained a complex mix of policies toward terrorist groups. It has for decades fought an on-again, off-again battle against the Kurdish Worker’s Party, known as the PKK, a terrorist, separatist organization. Turkey under Erdogan, however, has also warmly supported the terrorist leadership of Hamas in Gaza. If Turkey is now willing to cooperate with Israel and Egypt in opposition to global jihadist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda, it would be worthwhile to explore the possibilities for a regional coalition.

In assessing the Syrian civil war, it is important to identify the principal strategic danger. Is it a victory by ISIS (and other Sunni extremists) or a victory by Asad and his Iranian patrons? But in the meantime, the civil war eliminates any conventional threat to Israel from that quarter. The civil war has also weakened Hezbollah, whose losses in Syria may have exceeded all of its losses against Israel since the early 1980’s. Hezbollah may now be more cautious about initiating provocations across the Lebanon border.

ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist groups reject the very idea of the nation-state. Hamas shares ideological principles with such groups. This can alter Palestinian education and politics, but how – and how it affects rivalries among Palestinian nationalists and Islamists remains to be seen.


Disengagement from the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean does not actually isolate the United States; it simply forfeits America’s ability to shape events. This is not an argument for any particular kind of engagement – it does not, for example, point to U.S. intervention now in Syria. But it is an argument against believing that non-intervention will spare America from paying a price for what happens in the region. Cooperation between the United States and Israel is one way to enhance the opportunities for increasing security and constructive engagement.

Seth Cropsey is Director, Center for American Seapower at Hudson Institute. He served as a member of a commission with experts from Hudson and the University of Haifa to assess Eastern Mediterranean security and energy and options for U.S.-Israel maritime cooperation. This article was adapted from the commission’s report.