IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 Fourth Plenary Session 
Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Middle East Security, IISS

As Delivered

Thank you, John, and good morning to all. I am going to offer some broad thoughts about the ongoing transformation of the Levant, about the fundamental and enduring ways in which the region, stretching from Iraq to Lebanon, is changing.

This is certainly a moment of chaos and brinksmanship in regional politics, and I do not think we have seen the end of it. I think in some of our discussions over the past day and a half there was a sense that perhaps, for instance, we were approaching an endgame in Syria. I would argue that this is still a bit of wishful thinking. I will explain this a bit more. I think the potential for more violence, for low-intensity and high-intensity conflicts, remains quite high in the region. Certainly, the 2003 Iraq war, and the 2011 Sunni uprising, both were followed by intense civil wars, have upended the regional and strategic balance. And the change is not just at the strategic level. It is a very structural one.

If you look at demographic change in those places, and particularly Syria, the country on which I focus, you see a massive sectarian engineering and re-engineering, a massive refugee crisis whose effects will be felt fully in a couple of years. It is already quite debilitating, but we are only at the beginning of that. A transformation in the war economy and the economies of those regions that appeal to new actors. We are also witnessing a reordering of regional relations, with some countries more involved and other countries less involved, largely depending on how well they fared on the Syrian battlefield.

I will talk a bit later about the whole Astana process and so on, but the key point here is that you have Russia, Turkey and Iran sitting at a table and managing their rivalries and their interests in Syria, and the Arab states are largely absent from that, or they are present largely by proxy.

Finally, on this point, is that we see a change in how international actors see and interact with the region. There is a level of fatigue, of desensitisation, of cynicism about the region that is shaping policymaking in quite significant ways.

So, I am going to focus on Syria here, which is at the same time a highly regionalised battlefield and a highly regionalised diplomacy, and highly internationalised at the same time. In a way, it is a much more complex picture than for instance Yemen, given the number and the complexity of interests at stake. I will get to this a bit later as well.

On the ground, the military balance is quite clear. I think the Assad regime and its allies have the political and the military upper hand, and it is very difficult to see what array of forces can challenge that in the short to medium term. It is not total victory, but it is good enough, and good enough is good enough for actors who do not define victory and do not have necessarily the same ambitions in terms of political stability, reconstruction of Syria. I do not think the Syrian government sees a need to offer any serious political compromise, despite the hope invested in the Geneva process or the Astana process, for that matter, or whatever the Russians have on track.

Militarily as well, in terms of the country, we talked a lot about de-escalation in some of the special sessions and the plenaries. We talked about how the battlefield is being managed to bring down the levels of violence, and certainly violence has gone down. But the Syrian government and its allies have adopted a strategy of selective de-escalation to better manage and deploy limited military resources, to reconquer territory in a manner and the time of their choosing and essentially shape the battlefield. And we see that this strategy is functioning pretty well.

A few takeaways here. The fight against ISIS: there is a sense of victory these days. Yesterday, Prime Minister Abadi declared victory. The Russians a few days ago issued a statement also talking about victory against jihadis there. Even in US circles, there is a sense of military achievement. It is undeniable that there is a military success against the caliphate. But I think one of the key reasons why there was military success against ISIS, especially in Syria, is precisely because of the absence of a political strategy, of a political track.

Essentially, political issues have been frozen or delayed for after. So, as everyone in the region, local and regional actors, understood that because ISIS was such a clear monster or villain, in fact going after ISIS was a way to assert their territorial and political interests. The campaign against ISIS essentially served as a cover, as a guise for local and regional players to advance and assert their competing interests. Capturing ISIS territory became central to the positioning for the post-ISIS landscape.

The fight against ISIS, I would argue, did not alleviate the old sources of tensions in the region. It either froze or delayed them, or actually it exacerbated them in a number of places. And so, we see this very vividly playing out in Syria today, and playing out in Iraq. What is related to this point is the massive uncertainty about the US role in Syria. A year plus into the US campaign down the Euphrates river valley, it is unclear if the US intends to stay or to leave. There are very conflicting signs there. And, if the US decides to stay, what would be the purpose of the US posture? Is it to counter Iran? If so, what is the broader strategy? I think most people in this room would agree that what we saw from the Trump administration in terms of their Iran strategy is quite unconvincing at this point, and the US force in eastern Syria is too small to matter, and I would argue quite vulnerable, if there is no sense of direction.

Is the purpose of the US in eastern Syria just to provide in the short to medium term a security cover to their Kurdish partners? Well, there is every indication that Syrian Kurdish forces are hedging these days, engaging in outreach to the Assad regime and to Russia, which exposes the lack of comfort and trust in Washington.

A related strategic development in the Levant is the rise of transnational Shia militias, which is a key driver of conflict today. The fight against ISIS, the focus on diplomacy with Iran, and the priority given to shoring up and supporting the government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad have distracted and delayed the recognition of this massive challenge, which is poised to reshape the northern Middle East. The Shia militias are essentially a network of large militias operating from Iran to Lebanon. They are state-backed; they comprise hardened fighters; they have command and control; they have supply lines that are quite easy to protect these days; they have strategic and territorial depth. When you see, just in the past few days, Qais al-Khazali, one of the leaders of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, was videotaped on the Lebanese–Israeli border. So, the same person who shows his face on battlefields in Iraq will also be seen in Syria, will also be seen in Lebanon, which gives you a sense of how fluid the flow of fighters has become. With the fighting receding in Syria and Iraq, it is fair to ask where and what next for this network. Do they focus on consolidating political power where they are? Or do they pursue broader strategic interests across the region? I think it is time to think analytically in terms of policymaking, very strongly, about the implications of all of this.

A related point has to do with the position of Iran in the northern Middle East. I would argue that Iran is a clear strategic winner in the northern Middle East at this point. It has deployed networks, expertise, experience and strategic patience in Syria and Lebanon, where it operates at a relative low cost with plenty of deniability, thanks to quite sophisticated asymmetric strategies. Iran is ahead in the game, and it is going to be very difficult to match it at that level, which is why I would argue that the Gulf states should not try to engage in proxy warfare, but rather focus on state consolidation, because that is probably the place where Iran has less of an edge.

Contrary to a lot of expectations, the relationship between Iran and Russia remains good, cordial, in large part because both have had a return on investment for their intervention, largely in Syria, that was better than expected. They have shaken the US guaranteed order in the region, so for the moment, and while there are certainly cultural, operational and political differences between them, the bigger return, the strategic returns outweigh any of those downsides.

Another aspect here is the transformation of the Israel–Iran dynamic in Lebanon and Syria, with large numbers of militiamen deployed and deploying in Syria at this point. We are talking about a much longer front line today, a much more complex one, that has doubled in Syria, if you add Lebanon. Syria has a very complex human and military terrain. It is going to be very difficult for the Israelis to maintain the kind of deterrence and balance that they have with Hizbullah in Lebanon. In addition, you have the increasing weakness of the Lebanese government vis-à-vis Hizbullah, which actually changes also, I think, Israeli calculations.

I would argue that the structural conditions for a massive war in the Levant are met. Now, let me be clear: I am not saying this is for tomorrow. These are sides once more, but both are ready, and both expected it, which is really enough to raise the alarm across the region and in Arab and Western and Asian capitals. If and when that happens, this is not going to be the 2006 scenario. Iran is much stronger militarily today. Israel has changed its fundamental assumptions about Lebanon. And there is real uncertainty about who manages the conflict. Is it the US? Is it Russia? Is there a possibility here for major international actors to control any escalation there and keep it in check? So, all in all, a very pessimistic assessment on my end, but that is what you get when you come to the IISS these days, I guess.

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