I’m happy to be back from a few days in Israel as part of a Kennan Institute delegation to work with the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzliya to assess regional security concerns in light of Russian intervention into Syria and the war.
While I learned many interesting things during the workshop, what struck me most of all was the feeling that the contemporary Middle East bears more than a passing similarity to pre-WWI Europe. There are several simultaneous security rivalries happening — effectively three separate wars of Turks vs. Kurds, everyone vs. ISIS, and Hezbollah/Iran/Syria/Russia vs. Israel/US — and for all the participants, the costs of escalation are fairly low while the costs of deescalation are unbelievably high. It is no stretch to say that for effectively all of the actors in the region with the potential exception of the US, losing in any one of the conflicts means either existential demise or a setback to power and prestige that would last a generation or more.
For Israel in particular, our counterparts were very clear that the next war with Hezbollah will be the “big one.” As was put to us, Israel’s first war with them was in 1982 with Syria being an allied belligerent, the second war was in 2006 with Syria staying on the sidelines, but the next one will be “The War of the Northern Arena” as the Israeli intel/military jargon has it. In that, they anticipate that Hezbollah will attack Israel from Syrian territory, forcing Syria to join the fight and thus allowing Iran to join in.
The Israelis were doubtful that the Vladimir Putin would be able to constrain his allies, and they basically invited us Kennan people to assess Russian leadership intentions. We (very roughly) said that management of instability and tension burnishes Russia’s centrality to the rivalry. Actual conflict would oblige Russia either to commit real military capabilities against adversaries (Israel and potentially the United States) that would actually shoot back, or to acknowledge the limits of their capabilities and intentions in the region. The former is fraught with huge strategic implications and the latter would identify the actual limits of Putin’s power, which would have huge domestic political consequences in Russia itself.
Lastly, it was interesting to have the Israelis ask about Donald Trump. They all said that they were initially very excited to see Obama go and then have a US president who sees the issues from their perspective. Yet they’re unsure what Trump actually wants and is willing to do. They’re encouraged by tough talk against Iran and the JCPOA, but are unsure what Trump will do about that. While Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, they’ve grown concerned that if neither Obama or Trump are willing to do much to contest that entry, this will lead even further to Iranian encroachment and the “War of the Northern Arena.”
Without unambiguous signals from Washington, the Israeli fear of the coming war was palpable and what reminded me of German fears ahead of WWI. The Germans in 1914 were afraid that a growing Russia allied with France and potentially England would be unstoppable by 1918 or 1919 but could be successfully challenged now or within a year. The Israelis see an Iran that complies with the JCPOA and will have arms sanctions eventually lifted as increasing their conventional capabilities sufficient to challenge Israel. Hence, it might be better to fight now than wait for the adversary to grow in strength.
Yuval Weber, Ph.D., joins the faculty of Daniel Morgan Graduate School as the inaugural DMGS-Kennan Institute fellow. Most recently, Dr. Weber taught at Harvard University, where he was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department on Government and a Kathryn W. and Shelby Cullom Davis Research Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
Dr. Weber joins DMGS on leave from National Research University–Higher School of Economics, where he is a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs. He has additionally served as a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center and the New Economic School in Moscow and completed his post-graduate education at University of Chicago and University of Texas.
Dr. Weber is working on a project on the sources of liberal and anti-liberal dissatisfaction for powers in the international system and the strategies they employ to stake their claims for revising the international order. The first manuscript from that project is about the tension between demands of economic modernization and the security state in Russian political economy (Agenda/Columbia UP).
His work has appeared in Problems of Post-Communism, International Studies Review, Survival, Cold War Studies, Orbis, and the Washington Post.