There are varying assessments on the factors that might trigger a large scale conflagration in the Middle East. There are those who believe that this major outbreak of hostilities may occur in May, when President Trump makes a final decision on the Iranian nuclear deal. Some argue that the overwhelming Iranian pressure on the borders of the Zionist entity from Syria and Lebanon will be the immediate factor behind an escalation. Israel has stated that it will not put up with the reality which Iran seeks to impose, such as establishing bases in southern Syria. Finally, some argue that the outbreak will be the result of Russia-US rivalry over Syria.
As regards rivalry, Russia is scoring ahead of the United States in terms of the territory possessed by its allies as well as the political and diplomatic forums it has created, such as in Astana and Sochi. Furthermore, Russia keeps acquiring more lands, as seen on the eastern side of the Ghouta and through the progress of its ally Turkey towards Afrin.
US-Russia sparring match
Nevertheless, the United States secured wide areas in eastern and northeastern Syria – areas which US’ Kurdish allies are in control of. The US has al-Tanf base and two other bases close to the Jordanian border. France and the US are both putting pressure on Russia over the humanitarian crisis in Ghouta and to investigate the Syrian regime’s use of chlorine gas again. Russia has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. This has led the Americans and the French to threaten strikes against the Syrian regime forces, if it is finally proven that they have used chemical weapons. Russia then said it would retaliate. Earlier this month, Britain accused the Russian intelligence of trying to assassinate a former Russian spy in England, along with his daughter. Britain has expelled Russian diplomats, and Russia has responded in the same manner.
In the second scenario that might lead up to an explosive situation is an Israeli attack on Iranians in Syria. Over the last two weeks, there haven’t been any Israeli raids. Yet Jordan had invited international observers look into the crisis unfolding on its borders as a result of the Iranian threat. Israel’s silence may be due to the fact that the United States is heading the diplomatic assault on Iran, both in terms of the nuclear deal or over the interference of Tehran and its militias in Arab countries. How and when will this confrontation manifest on the ground and whether Israel will have a role in it or not may be answered only in the coming weeks and months.
Will Trump scrap Iran nuclear deal?
What about the most pressing and the top priority issue i.e. the nuclear agreement with Iran? Trump threatens to scrap it, while Europeans while the Russians and Chinese that brokered the agreement wish to leave it untouched. Trump was pressured twice to postpone taking a decision on the matter; however, he will most likely make a decision in May. Some observers think that differences over the nuclear deal and the disputes over the declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel were behind the dismissal of Rex W. Tillerson from his post as Secretary of State. The Europeans tried to find middle ground with Tehran that could relieve Trump's concerns. The French foreign minister visited Tehran and talked to the Iranians about their ballistic missiles and intervention in the Arab region, but they refused to compromise on the two issues or to accept holding negotiations.
A spark neglected
If Trump decides to scrap the nuclear deal unilaterally, how would Iran react? Will it resume enrichment? Will it increase its movements in the region or will Hezbollah risk going to war with Israel? Will the pressure come from Hamas, which no longer has the same freedom which it enjoyed before strengthening its relations with Egypt?
Preventing the war is an onus to be borne both by Russia and the United States, and by the secret channels between their active militaries. Does that also include preventing their collision leading up to war?
The problem is that Russian-American tensions are increasing on all fronts and on a variety of other issues as well. The two countries or one of them may give their allies permission to try their luck at vengeance or deterrence. After all, even a small spark can bring the house down!
This article is also available in Arabic.
Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.