Tensions are escalating in the Middle East. Faced with a regional dynamic in which systemic political change beckons, state and non-state actors alike are increasingly resorting to the use of force to defend and assert their foundations of power.
Because of the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, it’s best to examine each actor in turn.
Iran. In recent weeks, Iran has dramatically increased its assertiveness in the region. Just before the U.S. presidential election, Iran attempted to shoot down a U.S. surveillance drone that was flying over international waters. In legal terms, this was an act of war. So, what’s behind Iran’s actions? The answer is pretty simple: It’s the economy, stupid. Western sanctions are exerting extreme pressure on the Iranian economy and, as a result, Iran’s government is facing growing popular unrest. Iran’s leaders feel that they need to alter the status quo. So Iran is trying to force the international community back to the negotiating table. Threatening conflict also tends to drive up oil prices and improve Iranian government balance sheets. Because I don’t believe that Iran will be willing to give up its nuclear program, I expect the sanctions to continue and Iran to continue lashing out.
Syria. In the past few weeks, Bashar al-Assad has shown an increased willingness to test the patience of neighboring countries, especially Turkey and Israel. This is deliberate. With its foreign capital reserves running dry, the Syrian regime is running out of time to defeat the rebels. Assad needs a Hail Mary. By threatening neighboring states, Assad does two things. First, he discourages those states from supporting the rebels. Second, he sends a message to the West that he will not give up power without a fight — and that his fall would have major repercussions.
Hezbollah. Because Hezbollah is both an overt political party and a covert terrorist group, analyzing its activities is difficult. However, Hezbollah seems to be pursuing a more hardline strategy now than it has in the past. For instance, the group recently flew a drone over Israel, and it appears to have played a role in the recent assassination of a senior Lebanese intelligence officer in Beirut. I think there are two reasons for this. First, Hezbollah is trying to act as a counterweight to Western pressure on Assad — essentially, Hezbollah is seeking to support Assad by threatening violent regional instability unless the West backs down from its efforts against him. Second, along with Hamas (see below), Hezbollah is attempting to reinforce Iran’s threats.
Hamas. Over the last few days, Hamas has been indirectly attacking Israel with rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip (Hamas claims that Islamic Jihad is responsible for these attacks, but Hamas controls Gaza). Again, why? I believe that Hamas is attempting to push Israel into an over-reaction that would distract the region from Assad and Hezbollah, while also providing moral support to Iran’s increasingly aggressive strategy. Hamas may also be trying to consolidate its political support in Gaza.
Israel. Israel is faced with a multitude of increasingly hostile enemies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to deter those enemies by projecting strength. Netanyahu’s aggressive stance may also be motivated by domestic political considerations.
Because the stakes in contemporary Middle Eastern politics are so high, actors are desperate to shape the evolving political environment in their favor. This is driving them to pursue increasingly risky courses of action.
Tom Rogan is a blogger and writer. He recently completed a law course and holds a BA in War Studies from King’s College London and an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS, London. His blog can be found at TomRoganThinks.com. Follow him on Twitter.