At the end of 2015, the Middle East was settling into a relatively predictable, ongoing routine of high-tension rhetoric with sporadic “low-flame” outbreaks of violence:
The Sunni/Shiite civil war (aka: “The Saudi-Iranian-Russian-American-Turkish proxy war”) went on with no end in sight:
Assad’s Alawite forces, as well as ISIS and Turkey, continued to intentionally bomb civilian targets, while ISIS accelerated its barbaric ethnic cleansing of Christian, Kurdish, Druze and Yazidi villages in areas under its control. All this caused the growing flow of Syrian refugees into Jordan, Turkey and Europe to continue unabated.
The shrinking American-led coalition kept up somewhat effective airstrikes on suspected ISIS targets, while the U.S. tried unsuccessfully to recruit, train and support “moderate” anti-Assad Sunni rebels.
Pro-Assad Russia continued expanding its military presence in Syria, while launching effective missile strikes from the air, ground and sea against anti-Assad Sunni rebel forces (including ISIS and the groups the U.S. is supporting) that threaten Assad’s Alawite regime and Russia’s regional interests.
Iranian ground forces were deployed in Syria to help Russia and Hezbollah defend Assad’s regime, and to protect Iran’s over 100,000 long- and medium-range missiles deployed in Syria and Lebanon, but most were pulled out after suffering heavy casualties.
Israel, in coordination with both the U.S. and Russia, from time to time bombed targets in Syria to prevent the transfer of missiles and heavy military weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. One targeted attack killed several Hezbollah militants including convicted child-killer Samir Kuntar.
Egypt continued its war against ISIS and al-Qaida affiliated terrorist groups in Sinai, while relentlessly arresting and prosecuting Muslim Brotherhood leaders and organizations (including Hamas) throughout the country … ignoring U.S. requests to let them go.
In the region, the centuries-old bloody religious conflict between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran was, with the exception of the proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, more verbal than combative. This was mainly because last year the Saudis believed the “crystal clear” presidential promise: America will never let their mortal enemy, Iran, acquire nuclear weapons.
In Israel, 2015 ended with the almost daily tragic routine of “knife and car-ramming” terrorist attacks. Tragic because they usually ended with the victims being wounded or killed (22 killed, 283 wounded at the end of 2015) and the terrorists, most of them Palestinian teenagers, being killed, wounded or detained (142 killed, 90 of them attackers, 3,000-plus wounded and 2,400-plus detained).
So how did 2016 start worse than 2015 ended?
In just the first seven days of 2016:
Hezbollah terrorists attacked IDF soldiers patrolling inside Israel on the foothills of Mount Dov, on the Israeli Golan Heights. Israel fired rockets and artillery shells at nearby Hezbollah positions.
Even before this incident, tension along the northern border was rising. When military intelligence confirmed that Iran and Hezbollah are preparing rocket and infiltration attacks against Northern Israel from Syrian controlled areas of the Golan Heights, the IDF and local authorities started preparing for another Lebanon war.
As details of the watered-down, unenforceable and as-yet-unsigned JCPOA, the so-called “Iran Nuclear Agreement,” came out, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab Gulf States felt betrayed by the P5+1 negotiators…and especially the U.S.
Statements by Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, made it clear that Iran would neither sign the agreement nor fulfill its obligations to it.
The “robust and invasive anytime, anywhere” inspection regime of Iranian facilities by the IAEA, as promised by the U.S. last year, became a laughable self-inspection by the Iranians with no foreigners present.
In an obvious move to provoke Iran, the Saudi royal court ordered the execution of a convicted influential Shiite cleric, together with 46 mostly Sunni dissidents and terrorists.
Iranian demonstrators, encouraged by their leaders, took to the streets, broke into the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and set fire to parts of it. The Saudis responded by cutting diplomatic relations with Iran, and ordering Iranian diplomats and citizens to leave the kingdom.
While full-scale war is not foreseen at the moment, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. But with no movement yet on the JCPOA, nor any effective international inspection mechanism in place, Iran is still exactly as it was one year ago — having the ability and intent to “break out” with a nuclear warhead within 4-6 weeks, if it doesn’t have one already…
Which is why on Sunday, Pakistan, a Sunni Arab country with nuclear weapons, promised the Saudis “any assistance necessary” to repel or respond to an Iranian attack.
The year started with more knife and car terrorist attacks, but also with an alarming escalation: On Jan. 1, Nashat Melhem, a 29-year-old Israeli Arab, opened fire in a crowded bar in a lively area of Tel Aviv. A manager of the bar and a customer were killed. He then killed a taxi driver, also an Israeli Arab.
After a week on the run, he was found by the Shin Bet and police in his home village in the North. When they tried to arrest him he fired at them and was killed.
And this was just the first week of 2016.
Maybe we’re just seeing the last remnants of really bad policies from 2015.
Maybe world leaders have finally figured out what is going on, and what to do about it.
David Ben-Gurion always said: “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
With that thought, let’s “realistically” hope that maybe 2016 will, by some miracle, actually turn out to be better than 2015.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is president and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress and a Middle East analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at: www.swjc.org.