During an interview with Mr. Răzvan MUNTEANU, Hosam MATAR a prominent Lebanese researcher specialized in International Relations at the Consultative Center for Studies and Documentation from Beirut, offered his perspective regarding the future of Middle East afther Arab Spring regarding the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a main topic.
R.M: How does the Middle East look after the Arab Spring?
H.M: As a great chaos, many new emerging actors took advantage of the power vacuum. Many actors try to increase their role in the region. We have a geostrategic competition over who will take the lead and fill the power vacuum left by the fall of the Arab regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya in addition to the Americans’ new strategy of leading from behind. This chaos generated a competition between regional and international powers, we observe a new Russian role, a new regional role of Saudi, Iran, Turkey, Qatar. We also have the non-state actors, for example Al Qaeda, Nusra, ISIS, Hezbollah, and Al-Houthi in Yemen. This conglomerate competes in order to fill the power vacuum and generated a state of chaos, civil wars, witnessed in Syria and Iraq and the idea of the nation-state in the Arab World is threatened and weakened. This is reflected in the economic and humanitarian crisis and in the increasingly feeble human development. What appeared as a spring transformed into a hell.
R.M: Do we have proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran taking place in the Middle East?
H.M: The Saudis perceive the events of the Arab Spring to be against them. They lost Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, they failed to change the regime in Syria and they feel the American strategy is changing in the region, while the survival of the royal family depends on the international protectors-first there were the British, followed by the Americans. Now they feel this security umbrella is changing and they are losing their allies, witnessing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Turkey- both challenging wahabbism and Iran has just come out from the sanctions. Saudis feel a real threat and a shift of power in the making, they decided to skip negotiations and political settlements, chosing to go militant, through using sectarian hate, sectarian discourse, supporting ISIS and Al Nusra and by trying to capture the leadership of the Sunni world, presenting themselves as the leaders of the Arab world, changing its meaning, in a way that enables them to construct the meaning of arabism, with Iran becoming the enemy instead of Israel. The final step in this re balancing is to promote relations with Israel, France and Turkey to change the balance of power
R.M: What will happen to Iraq and Syria on the long run? Is it possible to have a Kurdish State in the future?
H.M: I do not think it is possible to happen, because the national interest of the major powers in the Middle East is not to have a Kurdish state, we speak about Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey who will not approve of such a move. However, the Kurds are gaining more power, because their neighbors are exhausted in the civil wars, almost everyone needs the Kurds to fight ISIS and will probably lead them to gain more power, more administrative independence, but not to the extent of having a State. They will improve their situation, the will fill their agenda, but they cannot establish a State of their own, because the four concerned major powers will not allow it. When it comes about Syria, it is hard to predict on long term. On the short term, we will not have a political settlement, the war will continue in Syria, the Americans and Russians are trying to build a new political framework, by pushing a Constitution, if they succeed to do it, by September, before Obama leaves the White House, the Constituion will act as a guarantee, will control the level of the hostilities. The Americans and Russians want to put certain guarantees in order to contain war, so whoever violates that Constitution will be considered a terrorist. This might happen and Syria will reach a phase of cold war, but the fight will continue, maybe we will see an escalation because the Saudis and the Turks want more control in the region to balance the Iranian presence. After Obama leaves they can do it and they can act on it until the agenda of the new American president becomes clear for Syria and for the Middle East. In this period, we will witness escalation. The Saudis think they can put Hezbollah and Iran under pressure, since they spend physical and material resources, whereas Saudis only spend money. I don’t see a political settlement, maybe the crisis will be in a status quo where Iran and Russia will succeed to prevent the opposition (to Assad government) regaining the momentum. As for ISIS in Syria, they will face losses in the coming months, due to the Americans and the Russians, especially Americans are very serious about this, because Obama wants to leave with a good record. The Americans want to isolate ISIS in Syria, it might happen by the end of this year. Al Nusra will expand more in Syria, maybe allies of Al Nusra will try to expand as well and they will fight for territory. There is information that Al Qaeda wants to establish an Islamic Emirate in Northern Syria. For the future of Syria we hope for a Constitution with international legitimacy, a low level war, this is the best scenario, but a political settlement is not foreseeable yet.
R.M: Is it possible to construct new States within Syria or Iraq? For example a Shia State?A Sunni State?
H.M: This thing is as fragile as a domino. Once it started in one area it will not stop there. Saudi Arabia can be split, Yemen may be split, even Iran. In Turkey there are 20 million Kurds, 5 million Alawites that can be split in different States. We will continue to have weak and tribal States in Syria and Iraq
R.M: Will we have a solution?
H.M: It is possible to have something between federations and unitary states- Weak states that transfere more administrative power to the local divisions. If one establishes a federation it will be again a domino game- we reach weak central governments with unstable periphery regions, against central government. I would argue for a political settlement, where State should grant more power to local divisions, more executive power, such as elected councils for provinces. This is a comprise that is accepted and it can be done.
R.M Can you details the Iraqi case for us?
H.M: The problem of these States is that they are weak States, with corrupted elite, in Iraq there is a problem of integration of the Sunni population in the political power sharing, adding economic challenges and the ISIS challenge. There is some progress in the integration of Sunni in Iraq, the problem is that the Saudis are trying to use Sunni tribes in order to challenge the central government whom they think is an ally for Iran. Sunni tribes revolt against government, support ISIS- the majority of ISIS fighters in Iraq are Iraqi, this led to a kind of a civil war. So for the time being, we have the challenge of Al Mosul, the Americans want the Sunni to be part of the political system and they want them to have rights in order to have a veto power in the political process. Americans use ISIS and deepen the relation with Sunni tribes in order to balance the presence of Iran within Iraq. The great challenge is the corrupted elites of Iraq and that this country depends almost entirely on oil, oil price being down, the State almost crashed. The future of Iraq is that ISIS is losing ground, isolated in Al Mosul but the State needs many resources to rise again. There are other problems- Kurds clash sometimes with the central government, so do the Sunni tribes and we have the clash within the Shia themselves, because this country lacks the culture of democracy, of state-building. For the defeat of ISIS we need a viable political system, which we do not have. But who pays the higher price is the Sunnis in Iraq, because they refuse the results of the elections, until now they refuse Shia in power, they want back the era of Saddam Hussein, for this reason they supported ISIS. The Shia side failed at the political level, they still belive that another Saddam will rise again and remove them from power, they lack any strategic thinking, they are learning at a costly pace. Overall, the level of stability is depending on the relation between Iran and USA.
R.M: What is the role played by Al Sistani, the Shia clerics ?
H.M: Sistani does not interfere much in the political process, when he intervened he felt he failed, so he decided to take a step backwards, because he is not achieving anything good and people would make him responsible and usually the Iraqi religious institutions are not part of the political process, contrary to Iran. The most prominent step he took was when he declared jihad against ISIS and asked Iraqis to fight ISIS after ISIS took control over Al Mosul. He tries to say they need reform, but the chaos and the tensions between Shia powers themselves prevented the reform to take place and he knows how the economic and social situation is very bad in the Shia areas and he thus chose to stop intervening
R.M: What about Lebanon? Is there a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
H.M: In the whole region, it is the most peaceful confrontation, because the internal balance of power for the sake of Hezbollah prevents Saudi Arabia allies to use the military option. The competition plays out in media and political discourse, but not at the security level.
R.M: What is role of the Future Movement in Lebanon?
H.M: They face many challenges, mostly because they lack a strong leadership, after Hariri was killed, Saad (his son) being very weak and not talented he lost cohesion. In addition after the Arab Spring, more religious Sunni groups appeared and challenged the Al Mustaqbal movement, we have now many leaders and many centers of power challenging Saad Hariri
R.M: Can you give us some names?
H.M: Sure! Fouad Sanioura, former prime minister ; Ashraf Rifi- popular in Tripoli; Nouhad Mashnouq- minister of Internal Affairs and we should mention Salafi groups- Muslim Broterhood (MB), Jamma al Islamya are expanding and some extremist clerics are getting popular. What Saudis are doing now is that they stopped to control only Al Mustaqbal as a voice against Hezbollah, they have a open policy, they talk with all Sunnis, to attract them away from Hezbollah, they do not maintain good relations only with Hariri. They are talking with Najib Miqati, for example, some of them are friends with Hezbollah. They are trying to isolate Sunni from Hezbollah.
R.M: What happened with the Hezbollah leader killed in Syria? Was he killed by Israel or by takfiri?
H.M: If he was killed by Israelis, Hezbollah cannot hide it. Hezbollah is trying to show deterrence, that they are ready for war
R.M: OK, but is Hezbollah capable to fight both with takfiri and Israel?
H.M: If it is obliged yes it can do it, because military and human resources are enough for Hezbollah in order to deter the Israelis from winning the war. If Hezbollah went only defensive, it is a victory that can be achieved. The most important is that balance of power is regional, not Hezbollah-Israel, you should take into consideration the Iranians. If there is a war and Hezbollah needed help from Iran, Iran will intervene and settle the balance of power. This is preventing a new war from 2006 until now. The Israeli can destroy and cause great harm to Lebanon but Hezbollah according to missile power can cause critical harm to Israel. This reality makes war irrational choice and makes South Lebanon stable.
R.M: How does the central government see this- Hezbollah stabilizing and controlling South Lebanon? Could we say that the politicians are not happy with Hezbollah having the reigns of power?
H.M: In Lebanon, the government is not neutral, is a national unity government, split between March 8 and March 14. March 14 have the same position, the same stance that weapons should be within the State and Hezbollah should drop its weapons, while 8 March keep the stance that Hezbollah prevents Israeli from waging war on Lebanon and they will surrender weapons to the State after a strong State is enabled. March 14 is shifting alliances, they are not sticking together. According to the balance of power, Hezbollah is a legitimate movement and no one can take its weapons. In the media, the issue of Hezbollah is almost absent. Within the Christian community some argue that due to Hezbollah they are still in their lands, they might not like the idea of Hezbollah’s weapons but they remain in their land, due to Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria. The tensions are marginalized now, but after the Syrian war ends, they may be on the agenda again. Hezbollah is perceived as a protector of minorities in Lebanon and Syria, not only as a resistance movement
R.M: How is the relation with Hamas?
H.M: Is a cold relation. The two parties have no intention to cut the relation, because of the mutual interest, but they have a low-level connection. Hamas now is more mature, they are preventing themselves from taking sides that might provoke Hezbollah, who accepted they are with Qatar and the Turks. They need each other. Hamas movement is very weak in Gaza, because after Morsi’s disposal, the new regime is closing the borders, preventing weapons to flow in, the last war almost destroyed Gaza, so Hamas is saying it will not take sides- even between Iran and Saudi Arabia- they are just a Palestinian resistance movement. For Hezbollah this is acceptable. The Iranians improved relations with Hamas, but not to the level of the past. Iranians feel disappointed about Hamas and MB, Iranian supported them because they are Muslims brothers and for the Palestinian cause. After the Arab Spring, MB and Hamas started a new rhetoric, sectarian one and new alliance, including with the Turks who are allies with Israel. The Iranians were surprised, they discovered they do not know MB well
R.M: How do you see Egypt- Saudi Arabia-Israel relation regarding Palestine?
H.M: Saudis have a new strategic direction. Saudis needs to promote their relation with Israel, in order to balance Iran, but the great obstacle is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They need to do something related to the peace process. Somehow the Egyptians are helping them because of money issues and because it is in their interest to have good relations with Israel. Can it happen in the near future? The Israeli community is very much leaning to the right wing and do not believe they are ready to have a peace settlement. Israeli are in a comfortable situation- their enemies are killing each other. Israel continue to promote their agenda of settlements, they do not want to return the Golan heights. Saudis need Israel to integrate them in a security strategy that can balance the Iranians, Saudis think Obama ignored them and this neglection will continue with the next President. Things might complicate if we witness during the next month the release of a report showing Saudi princes involvement in supporting Al Qaeda. This will generate great tensions between America and Saudi Arabia. Saudis want new allies, Israel is a powerful country they would need and Sissi is trying somehow to help them.
R.M: Why do you think that the Saudis took the two islands in the Red Sea? What is the interest?
H.M: To be part of the Camp David treaty, because these two islands are part of the Camp David treaty. Saudis can therefore have some connection and communication with the Israelis, while for Israel, these two islands are important. Saudis have something to present to Israel in order to exchange issues of mutual interest. The regime in Egypt took about 20 billion $ from the Saudi, so they are buying them land, fact that is threatening the legitimacy of the Egyptian regime. Egyptians are very sensitive that the leadership in the Arab world is not held by Egypt anymore, they are feeling intimated, just following the Saudi. The sustainability of the regime in Egypt is under question- Sissi cannot go like this for long, 50 000 MB members are in jail, journalists are under constraint, adding economic failure and Daesh in Libya at their border and Qatar and Turkey against him. If we witness chaos in Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, mother of arabism, with 100 million people, it will be a problem for the whole region and MB youth are thinking of violence, according to the idea that democracy is not working, let us use weapons
R.M: Recently there was a joint military exercise (Eager Lion) between the Americans and the Jordanian government and for the first time the Arab leaders were not present, what does it mean?
H.M: It a sign from the Saudis, who are upset about the Americans. They have the Islamic, the Arab alliance, they wish the Americans would contact them if they want a military action. Saudis want the acknowledgement of their role as leaders of the Sunni world. If they are upset, all the Arab brothers should be upset. Saudi Arabia is concentrated in being a regional power, as Iran and Turkey and the war in Yemen serves this idea. Without this legitimacy of arabism, the Saudi think they are weak and they are vulnerable, so they need an umbrella, represented by tensions with Iran, the Sunni should stand by them against the Iranians. Saudi provoke the Iranians all the time, as when they cut diplomatic relations with Iran, followed by the other Arab State who are either afraid or they take money from the Saudi. How many resources you can put at stake and for how long, you cannot give Sissi 20 billion $ yearly or to Sudan and Somalia. The Saudis are investing in the ignorance and poverty of the Arab World, in every failure in the Arab world just to mobilise Arabs against Iran. It is not just regional balance of power, but Saudi is not a State as we know other States, it is a royal family, with a very traditional way of governance. The internal competition is one of the variables that explains the Saudi foreign policy. You need to look at the Saudi political process. Part of the aggressive stance of Mohammed bin Salman is explained by the fact that he wants to be the next Saudi king (not Bin Nayef, the current heir).