The war in Ukraine is well into its third year and the one in Gaza may complete its first. And the latter may as well degenerate into a wider conflict.

War dynamics are overshadowing other considerations. Winning or not losing are predicated on likely battlefield performance influenced by the level of support from farther afield. They are not contemplated as how an approximated deal should look like. Restraint and reflection are not the key words here.

Each warring party sees itself as the victim which is only trying to secure or restore its entitlements. Therefore, any suggestion other than the use of sheer force keeps falling on deaf ears. It will likely be the case until wide enough cracks for one or the other side open on the battlefield.

But where are the villains? Or should it be said that a victim can also be a villain? History is replete with such examples, and us humans’ proclivity to carry on that dubious tradition seems infinite. Moreover, people fight each other not only for their differences but also to make their similarities look less obvious.

Let us begin with the war in Ukraine. Territorial perpetuity has been at the core of Russia’s perception of state and security through its Tzarist and Soviet history. Ukraine was considered an inner asset. Putin has reinstituted the doctrine. But this time Russia has a more profound concern.  Because Ukraine is considered part of the national space, its democratic vocation represents a direct threat to the regime from within. This imperial and imperious perception about the distinct, sovereign Ukrainian nation and the resultant aggression cannot be simply talked away by concern over “West’s advance towards Russia”.  So, here the picture is clear.

Further south, less so. The brutal rampage of 7 October 2023 by Hamas will forever be a day of infamy in Israel. The event broke Israel’s protocols of history and state. It at once compromised “never again” and the state’s obligation to protect its citizens on the sole soil considered safe for Jews. And its consequences have been incomparably more devastating and potentially far reaching than of any previous conflagration in the history of the dispute. Israeli officials and many in the public maintain an exclusive link between 7 October and the aftermath. They are informed by that breaking of protocols and are in no mood to remember that the current war too has its origins in the unresolved question of Palestine, and its continued occupation, and remain blind to the mass killings of Palestinians and the utter devastation in Gaza.

So, what do you make of it? Let us begin with the victims. Insofar as the ongoing war is concerned, they are the Israeli citizens and third country nationals killed, maimed or abducted on 7 October, and the Palestinian civilians killed, maimed or  imprisoned in Gaza and the West Bank since that day. And those responsible? The immediate ones are Hamas and the Israeli Government. Hamas, for converting the question of Palestine -a cause for national independence and human rights- into a campaign for Islamist dictatorship and aligning with destabilizing patrons and partners, all the while putting Palestinian people in harm’s way to aggrandize its own agenda; and the Israeli Government, for indiscriminate shelling and bombing -or deliberately targeting civilians- in the name of going after Hamas, starving the population, and availing itself of the opportunity to make life even more unbearable for the Palestinians in the West Bank. Some in the Israeli cabinet present Biblical argumentations for the practice.

However, the list grows when the dispute is put in its fuller perspective. It includes everyone who played a role -big or small- to keep the issue at the back burner.  It is true that it was Israel which reduced the dispute to a security matter associated with Hamas in Gaza and devoured more territory in the West Bank through settlement  activity, and it was Hamas which celebrated this larger-than-life attribution to its existence. But Arab governments saw no fundamental problem in this state-of-affairs. So long as Hamas was kept at bay and Palestine did not loom large, especially after the battering they sustained during the domestic and regional upheavals, and as they could benefit from Israel as an asset in the face of Iran’s resurgence, America’s repositioning and Asia-Pacific’s rise, a moribund, hamstrung Palestinian Authority in Ramallah even looked like a good option. The U.S. under Trump -and Biden- did not miss out on the opportunity. The Abraham Accords were the combined function of this outlook. The European Union and individual European powers meanwhile remained either happy or -more typically- out of range.

7 October came as the inflection point. Israel at once abandoned its policy of benefitting from Hamas’s compressed challenge. The Palestinian Authority -hence Fatah- can no longer nestle itself in the intra-Palestinian division. West Bank is on edge. As for the Arab countries, the question of Palestine is making a glorious comeback. And this occurs against the backdrop of the smoldering resentments of their peoples whose cry for dignity, freedom and better bread was brutally crushed over a decade ago. Popular discontent continues because the old bond with the state is broken, and the dire conditions have since become more acute. Now, the human catastrophe in Gaza is galvanizing the restive Arab street. Governments are concerned.

But the picture has even broader underpinnings. The Arab world, as we commonly refer to that vast geography, is not intact. Its diffusion along the east-west axis was already recognizable in the 2000s together with global power shifts. Now it is accelerating. Its east gravitates towards the Indo-Pacific, and its west towards the Mediterranean, even as China makes new inroads to the region.

Enter Iran. Iran is once again approaching the recurring paradox of its long history. Its domestic fortitude wanes as it spreads out. There is a connection. Since its establishment, the Islamic regime’s drive for regional influence has been molded in the compulsion to satisfy its existential priorities. The old imperial imperative has been replaced by ideological necessity. The regime’s ideological scope is broader than Iran. But, as a system, it stands alone. It must have a certain following abroad to reinforce itself on the home front. Moreover, domestic unrest has become cyclic, poking its existential fears. Hence its increasingly more aggressive regional posture. The introduction of the new, direct confrontational stage between Iran and Israel should be assessed especially in this light. Iran cannot overwhelm militarily, short of a nuclear arsenal, but has yet again shown its mettle in disrupting businesses it dislikes.

Iran and the Middle East constitute much of the southern part of the Eurasian central belt. And the entire belt where Europe and Asia progressively blur into one another is in flux and cracking open. This vast area boasts the unenviable reputation of containing many of the world’s intractable disputes and has been the backyard of big power greed and rivalry. Therefore, the push-and-pull effect of the global countervailing dynamics is most acutely felt here. The audacity with which Hamas launched its brutal 7 October attack onto Israel can be put into fuller perspective in this overall volatility where discontented parties see an opportunity and race against time. 

In its eastern and northern segments, the intercontinental belt contains Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asian Republics, the Caucasus, and yes, Ukraine, among a few more. Their current fragilities and conflicts -now including jihadi terror within the Russian Federation- even as they work to reconnect with the wider world in better terms, are known to all.  Maybe it was only a matter of time that war would revisit Europe in the form of Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine.

The spread of democracy elsewhere is also undesirable for Russia. This systemic element is unmistakable in Russia’s approach to the Middle East.  Maintaining Assad at Syria’s helm has evolved into a central concern, and its collusion with Iran in ensuring that has pulled the two regimes together as never before. Now, this fraternity of convenience extends to Ukraine.

But there is more to Russia’s linking up of the two hotspots. The overall stalemate on its western front is increasingly shifting Russia’s attention to the warmer south. It will remain in Syria, long term. On the wider scope, Russia is also working to undergird as tightly as possible North Africa, hence the Mediterranean, through the Sahel. It is already actively present in Libya. And Russia’s strategic coordination with the Gulf and Iran through OPEC+ is not an economic matter alone.

Russia’s activism in its immediate neighbourhood and in the Middle East has been facilitated by China’s growing profile as a countervailing force against the U.S. and its allies. Russia could hence more confidently focus on power gaps without having to look over its shoulder all the time. On the other hand, although the two countries boast a sizeable menu of commonality under their declared “no limits” partnership, we know they have limits. The content and the nature of their engagement with Europe and the U.S., and the means with which they approach the Middle East could not be more different. China is a 21st century power whereas Russia essentially rests on its 20th century laurels. The contrast between the two cannot look starker especially when their economies are compared.    

But this does not prevent them from rushing to each other’s real-time needs. China’s industrial support to Russia’s war effort with its dual-use products is only growing. Factor in North Korea especially considering Putin’s recent visit to its reclusive leader which may usher in a more precarious phase in the Korean Peninsula, Northern Pacific, and in terms of North Korea’s intercontinental nuclear capabilities, as quid pro quo to the boost Russia’s war effort in Ukraine will continue to get.

Where is Turkey in all this? The Islamist orientation of the current government and its recalcitrance towards the West are known to all. The government occasionally tries to make sense of shunning the West on systemic grounds -that is essentially democracy and the rule of law- by seeking inclusion in  loose groupings (like the BRICS), apparently without coherent assessment, and  which may contribute little to its regional or international standing and interests. The government also misreads the void it has thus created for its own security and can easily mind the transgressor in the name of balanced approach, as has been the case at the recent Ukraine peace summit.  But much of its current efforts are designed to keep itself afloat. For there are limits set by Turkey’s location, history, sociology, and economy (particularly in its current poor state), to such cavalier conduct, especially under the current overall strained environment. Turkey at once assumes interregional centrality and geographic continuity. This necessitates vigilance and interaction, 360 degrees. Just imagine the conflict spots since the end of the Cold War. They are dotted along that circular periphery. And today the two ongoing conflagrations are to Turkey’s north and south. The Anatolian Peninsula, together with the Sea of Marmara and Eastern Thrace, represents the intersection of three geopolitical ecosystems, namely the West Asian, the European, and the Mediterranean. Its east-west connectivity should not be disputed, disrupted, or overwhelmed. Hence the superficiality of the fears and the dreams of Turco-Russian cohesion. As for the ongoing conflicts, even behind the occasional vitriol of the government, the plea for calm and an end to human catastrophe remains the essential message. This is where Turkey coalesces with others who seek a legitimate and fair basis for settlement, be it in Ukraine or Palestine. Our Western partners will be well-advised to interact with Turkey on this premise.

The foregoing demonstrates that the two ongoing wars may be unrelated insofar as their causes are concerned but related by geopolitics and fluid environment. This must make all concerned ponder. In the Eurasian connecting belt, causing trouble is in fashion. New ones may well be in the offing. The current wars have shown their potential to spread. Because fluidity and the expansion of the matrix of interconnectivity helped them to erupt and may in turn serve them to ignite more.

The casual thinking that one can leave the Middle East behind should be put to rest once and for all. It comes with you. It is about time to start removing one of the most effective igniters of all time, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. All concerned but particularly the U.S. should acknowledge that the issue is bigger than its title, and way bigger than satisfying Israel’s maximalist plans. Sustainable security for Israel cannot be achieved at the expense of the Palestinians and their full-fledged statehood.

Now, the Israeli Government must decide and make public its plans for post-war Gaza. This will have a direct bearing on the duration and the efficiency of its ongoing military campaign too. But Mr. Netanyahu is behaving as if he does not want the “day-after” to arrive. If the objective is to end Hamas’s organizational, military and governing presence in the strip, then it must work together with the Palestinian Authority, without excuses, and with the international community, starting with those Arab countries intimately involved. There is already an emerging consensus in the Arab fold that Hamas’s time in Gaza must be over. It is time to focus on a political framework that will both replace the divided Palestinian status quo and reenergize long stalled negotiations. After 7 October, Israel may not wish to proceed accordingly, yet the two-state settlement remains the only viable option to precisely preventing the recurrence of similar calamities. Everyone knows there is no love lost between Israel and Palestine today, and no one knows if or when this mutual sentiment will change. Precisely for that reason too, the two-state settlement is about separation, and the terms on which it can live.

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