Dr Jonathan Schanzer oversees the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ research. He worked as a terrorism finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury, where he played an integral role in the designation of numerous terrorist financiers. Jonathan Schanzer is widely published, most recently State of Failure: Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Unmaking of the Palestinian State (Palgrave Macmillan), which argues the main roadblock to Palestinian statehood is not necessarily Israel’s intransigence, but the Palestinian Authority’s political dysfunction and mismanagement. During a visit to Australia sponsored by the Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, Jonathan Schanzer addressed The Sydney Institute on 12 February 2018

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION AND THE MIDDLE EAST

JONATHAN SCHANZER

Thank you very much for this kind invitation – it’s a pleasure to be here this afternoon. I have been planning – threatening – to visit Australia for some time.

I come to you this evening after news that has erupted in the Middle East. I’ve been asked a lot of questions about this and wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal today. So, I’ll talk about what’s going on in Syria before moving on to other topics.

The Syrian conflict is one that has experienced a sort of evolution in the thinking of Israeli defence and intelligence personnel. I visited Israel in the 2012, shortly after the Syria conflict erupted and after the Syrian people took to the streets to protest Bashar al-Assad and which then evolved into today’s conflict with many different players.

The Syrian conflict is one that has experienced a sort of evolution in the thinking of Israeli defence and intelligence personnel.

In 2012, one of the senior people associated with Benjamin Netanyahu advised me that it was a bit like the movie Alien vs Predator, where one bad guy is fighting another bad guy. From his perspective, this was Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, on the Sunni side, fighting against Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime. As he put it, the Israelis wanted to open up a bag of popcorn, put their feet up and enjoy the show because every day Israel’s enemies were fighting one another was a day Israel went without conflict.

I visited this same analyst several years later. I asked him how the movie was going. He said that he couldn’t wait for the movie to end. It had become clear that ISIS, the Islamic State, was losing ground. Al Qaeda was not going to win this war. But those gaining ground were Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Now Israelis were looking at Iran fulfilling its dream of hegemony in the Middle East.

While Iran already controlled its own territory, now it had expanded into Iraq. The Iraqi government had come under the sway of the Iranians and Shiite Muslims dominate Iraq.

While Iran already controlled its own territory, now it had expanded into Iraq. The Iraqi government had come under the sway of the Iranians and Shiite Muslims dominate Iraq.

From there we saw the Iranians begin to extend their presence into the Northern area of Kurdish Iraq, into Eastern Syria, into Western Syria. And, of course, if one goes as far west as the Mediterranean and Lebanon, you can see that Hezbollah has significant control. Not only of the Beqaa Valley, not only of Southern Lebanon or even the Beirut suburbs of Dahieh, but also significant political control over the country.

The Israelis will tell you quietly that Hezbollah now rivals most of the armies of the Middle East; it could be ranked within the top ten militaries of the world in terms of the hardware it currently maintains.

But the concern that we heard from the Israelis was also about the concentration in Syria of Shiite militias. Afghan Shiites, Pakistani Shiites and Iraqi Shiites had established a certain presence, a certain threatening presence to the Israelis. And it is in this context that we see the attacks that just took place on Saturday morning.

The concern that we heard from the Israelis was also about the concentration in Syria of Shiite militias. 

We have now learned that the Iranians dispatched a drone from an airbase they control inside Syria. The origin of this drone is extremely interesting to me. In 2011, the United States was flying a very similar drone built by Lockheed Martin. It was called the QR-170. It was downed by Iranian allies in Afghanistan, and they have spent the last several years reverse engineering and learning from the US technology. They now have a fleet of these drones that they have dispatched in Syria.

Last Saturday, they dispatched this drone – a stealth drone which begs the question whether the drone had been reworked to carry some sort of ordinance. As it flew into Israeli airspace it was met with a US-made Apache helicopter flown by the Israeli air force. The drone was destroyed.

What prompted the response, is still not clear. Hezbollah has sent Iranian-made drones in the past into Israel, but this drone was something different. The Israelis responded with force – they sent eight F-16s into Syrian airspace. They took out the base from which the drone was dispatched but they also ended up taking out roughly a dozen other targets, including some of the air defences that Syria had throughout the country.

The Israelis responded with force – they sent eight F-16s into Syrian airspace. They took out the base from which the drone was dispatched but they also ended up taking out roughly a dozen other targets

This was the largest incursion the Israelis have made into Syrian airspace since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. We have never seen anything like this in the modern era.

We know that the Iranians responded. They were able to knock one of the F-16s out of the sky. As we understand it, it was not the air defences, but it was actually the F-16’s inability to manoeuvre – there was something wrong with the aircraft. We also heard that perhaps one of the surface-to-air missiles exploded next to the aircraft. It didn’t actually intersect with it but then ultimately set off an explosion.

The question then is, what will the Israelis do next? Will they continue to take out Syrian targets or Iranian targets inside Syria? Will they try to strike Hezbollah, which has been amassing rockets in neighbouring Lebanon. Right now, the estimate is that there are 150-180 thousand rockets facing South at Israel at this time, mostly Iranian-provided, and of course very threatening. Consider the paralysis that set in within Israel after a 50-day war where Hamas fired a near 3-4 thousand rockets. Imagine the scale of a Hezbollah barrage where they have 180 thousand rockets at their disposal.

The question then is, what will the Israelis do next? Will they continue to take out Syrian targets or Iranian targets inside Syria?

So, there’s a question of whether Israel goes on an offensive, whether they launch a pre-emptive attack to take out some of these assets or whether they wait again for yet another incursion. There is also a question of how Israel will deal with Russia.

Russia, as everyone knows, now has an established presence inside Syria. In fact, the attack, the counterattack, the reprisal that Israel launched on Saturday morning was likely done without the knowledge of Russia in advance. And there was actually a risk on the part of Israel of possibly taking out Russian targets because we know that the Russians have been located at the air base from where that drone was launched. There was a chance that Israel could have provoked the ire of the Russians and yet, at this point, we don’t know whether they did.

Russia, as everyone knows, now has an established presence inside Syria. In fact, the attack, the counterattack, the reprisal that Israel launched on Saturday morning was likely done without the knowledge of Russia in advance.

The Israelis are determined to control the skies over Syria. It does appear that Israel has the full support of the United States government right now. We have heard from the Trump administration, we’ve heard from the State Department as well as the Pentagon and the White House, that Israel has the right to defend itself and that Israel has the right to respond to Iranian aggression. And this of course is welcome news to the Israelis. It’s essentially a green light for the Israelis if they want to take out more of Iran’s assets in Syria. Again, it’s unclear whether they will want to do that or whether they wait for another incursion.

In the meantime, this does come at an interesting moment for the Israelis. The Trump administration is now conducting a full review of its Iran policy. This starts with a review of the Iran Nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA. This is the controversial Iran deal that was signed in 2015 and Israel has real problems with it, primarily because within four years of its signing – basically in 2020 – comes the end of the arms embargo.

The Trump administration is now conducting a full review of its Iran policy. This starts with a review of the Iran Nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the JCPOA.

This means that Iran will be able to buy and sell weapons on the open market in ways that it could not before. It means that these weapons will come into their hands and give them a more formidable military including their ability to project power into places like Syria. It also means that once they purchase those weapons they may be able to share them with some of their terrorist proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas, and also with regimes like the Assad regime in Syria or perhaps the Houthis in Yemen. This is a problem that must be addressed.

In addition to the arms embargo, there is the question of the ballistic missile restrictions that will be dropped by Year 8. Of course, Iran is already firing ballistic missiles and testing them on a regular basis and no one seems to be doing much about it. This is something that is frowned upon by the United Nations. UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the one that enshrined the nuclear deal, calls upon Iran not to fire ballistic missiles, yet they’re doing it anyway. The question is, can anything be done before Year 8 to prevent this from happening on an ongoing basis?

In addition to the arms embargo, there is the question of the ballistic missile restrictions that will be dropped by Year 8. Of course, Iran is already firing ballistic missiles and testing them on a regular basis and no one seems to be doing much about it.

Then there is the problem of what we call the “sunset provisions”, which is roughly around Year 10 to Year 12. That’s when all the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will begin to melt away. This means that Iran will have a patient pathway, a glide path, to a formal nuclear program. These are problems in addition to the fact that our military inspectors are not getting into the sensitive military sites.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to spin advanced centrifuges, just on a much smaller scale. In other words, they are preparing to go nuclear. We have just kicked the can down the road by roughly a dozen years. The Israelis are upset but so is the United States. The Trump administration believes that it was one of the worst deals ever cemented by any administration and the President appears determined to try to change some of it.

President Trump has now decertified the nuclear deal with Iran. Many in the press internationally have suggested that this means that the United States is walking away from the deal. Of course, his was what the President threatened to do throughout his election campaign. But in fact, that is not true. The deal right now remains intact but in limbo. The President is asking for Congress to identity new red lines. If the Iranians go beyond those red lines then the United States will walk away. In other words, the United States is now determining its parameters for fixes to the deal.

The deal right now remains intact but in limbo. The President is asking for Congress to identity new red lines.

At the same time, we are also hearing that the Trump administration is calling on its allies – Canada, Australia, Britain, New Zealand and all of the Europeans who are parties to the deal – to reconsider some of the concessions that they have made to the Iranians. A number of European and other foreign countries have engaged in significant business deals with the Iranians, which has helped Iran bounce back economically. This is in addition to the $150 billion that the US provided to the Iranians which is undoubtedly funding its war effort in Syria, its missile provisions to Hezbollah and beyond.

We are watching these changes take place. Of course, the Israelis are cheering. And there’s an interesting wrinkle to all of this. Others are cheering, too. Notably, the Arab states.

Primarily Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, the Egyptians, the Jordanians — the so-called moderate Arab Sunni states — are on board with this. This is prompting a fascinating potential realignment of the region.

The neighbourhood is changing. Right now, the Israelis and these Arab states are looking at many of the same challenges through the same lens. They’re thankful for Trump as he continues to try to rework the Iran challenge. They are looking at Hezbollah as a challenge. They look at Hamas as a challenge. They’re not particularly fond of the Qataris. They’re not particularly fond of the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, they share the same threats regionally.

They’re thankful for Trump as he continues to try to rework the Iran challenge. They are looking at Hezbollah as a challenge. They look at Hamas as a challenge. They’re not particularly fond of the Qataris. 

What that means is that they are really no longer the enemies that they once were. No one is calling this “peace”; no one is suggesting that the Saudis or the Emirates will be celebrating Hanukkah in Tel Aviv next year. This is not where we are. But what they are saying is that this is a new “regional architecture”. It’s at the very beginning but it is being built.

There are now possibilities for peace, or cooperation, that didn’t exist before. We just marked the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, where the entire Arab world was unified in joy at the prospect of destroying Israel. Fast-forward to today, and the Arab states are looking to Israel as a possible saviour from an aggressive Iran. They understand that the Israelis have the most advanced military, the most advanced cyber capabilities, the most advanced tech in the region, and this could ultimately help shield them from their sworn enemy, Iran.

The joke in the Middle East right now is that Barack Obama received his Noble Prize in 2009, but he probably should have got it instead in 2015 when he signed the nuclear deal. Not because he ended up stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon – we all know he’s kicked a can down the road on that. But what he did do is draw unlikely enemies together to potentially become allies — the best thing that the Iran Nuclear Deal achieved.

What he did do is draw unlikely enemies together to potentially become allies — the best thing that the Iran Nuclear Deal achieved.

The real question here is what are the limitations for this? We know the history, we know that the Arabs and the Israelis have typically not gotten along. There have been multiple wars since Israel’s creation in 1948. The question is whether the Palestinian issue can be solved or addressed on some level.

The Arab states right now are beginning to question whether the Palestinian issue is in fact their national issue. Is it in their national interest to insist that the Palestinians and Israelis finally reach some kind of a peace agreement, when they need the Israelis on so many different fronts, and don’t really need the Palestinians?  The Palestinians standing in the way of security will not help them achieve their national interest. There is some recalculating going on.

In the meantime, Donald Trump is, in his own, unorthodox way, laying the foundation for some potential changes on the Palestinian/Israeli front. We have seen already that the president has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Obviously, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It was still not taken very well in some Arab capitals. Yet, the prediction that it was going to turn into a mass uprising in the streets, that people were going to be burning American flags at every corner and so on did not happen. Instead, we saw relative quiet.

In the meantime, Donald Trump is, in his own, unorthodox way, laying the foundation for some potential changes on the Palestinian/Israeli front.

It appears that the Arab states, while they weren’t happy, weren’t willing to challenge the president over this. Again, because it was probably not in their national interest to do so.

In the meantime, President Trump is looking at the refugee issue. It’s one of the most intractable issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There are five million Palestinian refugees, according to the Palestinian leadership. Until they are settled, there will not be peace. But when one looks at those numbers it gets very interesting. The UN Relief and Works Agency, otherwise known as UNRWA, is now under the microscope in Washington. In the early 1950s, there were about 800,000 refugees. UNRWA took those refugees in but did not try to settle them.

What they did was actually insidious. They began to recognise the children, the grandchildren and the great grandchildren of those refugees. Instead of 30 to perhaps 40 thousand refugees that are still alive from the original war between Israel and the Arabs, the number of those classified as refugees has grown to five million. In other words, UNRWA has perpetuated and exacerbated a problem. That is something the Trump administration is looking to address.

Instead of 30 to perhaps 40 thousand refugees that are still alive from the original war between Israel and the Arabs, the number of those classified as refugees has grown to five million. 

UNRWA currently has 30,000 employees, which is roughly the same amount of refugees still alive from that original conflict. They have committed fraud. The Trump administration now is trying to address this along with other key issues – previously intractable issues – in an attempt to soften the ground for negotiations.

This includes looking at the funding of the Palestinian Authority, the way that the Palestinians have used money to fund the salaries of people who are sitting in Israeli jails for carrying out terrorism or supporting their families while they are in jail. Trump appears to be softening the ground for what he calls “The Ultimate Deal”.

Trump seems to have nominal Arab support, or at least they are not getting in his way right now. You don’t see public challenges to any of this. Trump is hard to read. I don’t think he knows what his policy will be a few days from now but he does have a certain common sense about him as we have seen him address the key challenges in the Middle East. Whether it’s defeating ISIS, rolling back Iran, sanctioning Hezbollah, supporting Israel, these are key pillars of a Middle East foreign policy that, amidst all the other chaos we’re seeing in Washington, seems to have a logic.

Trump is hard to read. I don’t think he knows what his policy will be a few days from now but he does have a certain common sense about him as we have seen him address the key challenges in the Middle East.

What happens after this? I can’t tell you. But the Middle East does seem to be on an interesting course right now and it’s not entirely bad.

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