November 2017 has seen dramatic developments in the Middle East. For the last few months, indications have been that the region has finally gained the upper hand in its three-year war against the self-styled “Islamic State” (referred to as Daesh or ISIS), after the liberation of both Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the capital of the so-called “Islamic State.”
In Iraq, the central government has demonstrated enough political will to project its authority throughout Iraq in the context of the Iraqi constitution. It has successfully, and wisely, dealt with the Kurdistan referendum of September 25, 2017, and forced Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan, to beat a retreat from announcing an independent Kurdistan.
In Syria, the government of President Bashar Al Assad has been regaining steady control over Syrian territories, with the help of Russia and Iran.
With these successes, the Middle East turned a very destructive page in its modern history, and it seemed that a post–Daesh era was about to create relief for the parties concerned. The post-Daesh era would have meant that the policies and the alliances borne out of these failed policies that characterised the last seven years would come to an end, and that a new vision, or, at the very least, new approaches would be adopted by the main belligerents, to deal with the disastrous consequences of those years that have saw the near disintegration of major Arab powers.
4 November 2017 took everyone by surprise. It was an irrefutable proof that the Saudi-Iranian confrontation—that was one of the main drivers for the mayhem in the Middle East in the last few years—is here to stay, and with vehemence, as if the fight against Daesh had put under the carpet the confrontation by proxies, be it in Lebanon, Syria, or Yemen.
The Saudis, after they had received the Iraqi prime minister and decided to return their ambassador to Baghdad, opened up a new front against Iran in Lebanon. They invited the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri to Saudi Arabia and less than 24 hours after his arrival, he read a letter of resignation from his post, accusing Hezbollah of creating “a state within a state” in his home country, saying that Iran is interfering in the domestic affairs of various Arab governments. What was more surprising in his speech was his promise to “cut” Iranian influence in the Middle East. The same day, and according to official Saudi sources, the Riyadh International Airport was targeted by a ballistic missile from the northern part of Yemen populated by the Houthis, Yemen’s Shiites.
Saad Al-Hariri, only returned to Lebanon 17 days after his sudden resignation.
He flew to Paris on 18 November, based on the invitation of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who has been playing a significant role in untangling a regional dilemma. Al-Hariri tweeted on 15 November that he would return to Lebanon a few days later. Michel Aoun, the Lebanese president had said on 18 November that Al-Hariri would be back in Lebanon by 22 November to attend the official celebration of Lebanese independence. Al-Hariri indeed arrived in Beirut the night before the celebrations.
On the eve of Al-Hariri’s departure to Paris, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, in a joint press conference with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday, 16 November in Riyadh, said that there is a “consensus” within the” world community “that Hezbollah must be” dealt with one way or another.” Al-Jubeir added that it is a “terrorist organisation par excellence, and it must disarm.” Furthermore, he left no doubt that his government is trying to form some kind of an international alliance against Hezbollah, and, indirectly, against Iran, its main regional backer.
One major ally in this confrontation with Iran is Israel. For the first time, Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot gave an interview to an online Saudi news outlet, published last week, in which he said that Israel is prepared to share intelligence information regarding Hezbollah with Saudi Arabia. The two countries share common interests in containing Iran and the pro-Iranian proxies. In this unprecedented interview, the Israeli chief of staff said, “we [Israel] certainly recognise the destabilising influence of Iran. We recognise this …Saudi Arabia recognises it….”
A new chapter is opening in the Middle East, and it is too early to say, whether it would bring security, stability, and prosperity to the region.
Where does Egypt stand in relation to the coming storms in the Middle East?
That is a question that I will deal with in my next article.
Hussein Haridi, Egyptian ambassador and former assistant foreign minister