Calmer horizon for Israel as Middle East burns

A protester cheers as an office of the Muslim       Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is set on fire in Alexandria, Egypt (Photo: Reuters)

A protester cheers as an office of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is set on fire in Alexandria, Egypt (Photo: Reuters)

Nearly three years into the upheaval that began as the “Arab Spring”, and both Egypt and Syria are undergoing turmoil that is unlikely to subside in 2014.

The killing of an Israeli officer last week by a “rogue” Lebanese army sniper at Rosh Ha’Nikra, a normally peaceful frontier post in the north-east corner of Israel, was a reminder of the possibility of violence on any of the country’s borders.

At the same time, the fact that the shooting did not escalate underlined the fact that Israel’s neighbours are currently embroiled in their own affairs and will have little time or ability to pose it a serious threat in 2014.

In Egypt, although the military is now very much in control after deposing the Muslim Brotherhood government and suppressing dissent on the streets and in the media, the onus will be on them to keep the country from chaos in 2014.

The war in Syria is bleeding Hizbollah, killing fighters on a daily basis

The economy is on the edge of an abyss and a referendum on the new constitution and elections are due. The military government’s task will be to somehow allow a semblance of democracy to return. Egypt’s de facto ruler, Commander of the army General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is widely expected to run for presidency — although he may field a proxy — and to win. For now, the army is popular with a majority of Egyptians. His challenge remains to somehow leverage that popularity, before it dissipates, into stability.

The fears in Israel of a new Egyptian administration severing diplomatic ties have abated for now. Quiet co-operation is healthy and the Egyptian army has acted forcefully — if not decisively — against the smuggling tunnels to Gaza and the al-Qaeda fighters in Sinai. Al-Qaeda will not be easily uprooted from the peninsula and remains a threat to Israel, but it is both manageable and a joint mission for the two countries.

The danger posed by Syria is also low. It is still unclear when the Geneva conference on Syria will take place, which parties will be represented and what effect it can possibly have on the ground.

Syria’s civil war is no closer to a resolution either way, and both the Assad regime, backed by Hizbollah and Iran, and the rebels, now mainly of the Salafist-jihadist flavour, have further entrenched themselves. Bashar al-Assad is going nowhere for now and, as the West cuts off most aid to the rebels for fear of equipping jihadists, his biggest problem comes from the Saudis and other Sunni Gulf states, who continue to arm the rebels.

Syria was regarded as Israel’s most threatening neighbour for 30 years. Now, it is in no condition to fight more than a border skirmish with the IDF and will not regain its force for years to come. Now that it has been forced to dismantle and relinquish its chemical weapons, it has lost also its capacity to strategically threaten Israel’s home front. Although the sporadic shootings and shelling on the Golan border from both rebels and government troops has risen in recent months, this little more than a tactical nuisance.

And Lebanon? Despite accusing Israel of assassinating one of its senior commanders in Beirut last month, Hizbollah still has not retaliated directly. In fact, it has not fired one shot towards Israel since the end of the Second Lebanon War, seven and a half years ago.

Hizbollah’s main fear has been inviting a devastating Israeli retaliation. This would weaken its position as a legitimate party of power.

But that is happening now anyway, without Israel’s intervention. Hizbollah’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War may be saving the Assad regime for now but it is bleeding the movement, killing fighters and commanders daily and causing a bloody response from Sunni groups targeting Shia neighbourhoods in Beirut. Hizbollah and the Palestinian terror organisations still active in Lebanon will continue to be sucked into the Syrian quagmire in 2014.

Last updated: 11:09am, December 23 2013