A top Israeli intelligence official put it this way when describing a highly complex set of security threats and challenges confronting a Middle East in turmoil.
Rather than dealing with upheaval in black and white, he said, the region was grappling with “50 shades of grey”.
Viewed from Jerusalem in the days before a new American president takes office, it is clear that a new administration will be obliged to deal with a region in the process of remaking itself in ways that are ripping apart assumptions about an indispensable US role.
Indeed, the Israeli official, who stands at the pinnacle of his country’s security and intelligence establishment, used the phrase “Pax Russiana” to describe new circumstances in which Moscow – via its involvement in Syria and in alliance with Iran – has implanted itself in the region.
That observation may be premature, but it does encapsulate a new reality.
Russia is back.
Not since the early 1970s when the then Soviet Union lost its privileged foothold in Egypt and thus its ability to influence events more broadly in the region have we witnessed Russian engagement on the ground in the Middle East in ways that mean no calculations about the way ahead can ignore Russia’s involvement.
Avi Dichter, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee and a former head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, half joked in an exchange with a visiting Australian delegation that a Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin understanding on what might happen next in the Middle East could involve a re-run of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 that laid down the boundaries of the modern Middle East.
This observation provides a flavor, however far-fetched, of the sort of expectations that might be entertained in a region that is being torn apart by sectarian conflict.
No-one can predict what might transpire, given the certainty that whatever happens various genies have escaped from their containers and will not easily be returned.
The town of Mosul in ISIS hands has yet to be liberated, nor Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in eastern Syria. These will be bloody moments in the short and medium term, deepening a sense of Middle East crisis as a new administration takes office.
Terrorist strikes are certain to accompany whatever happens in Mosul, Raqqa and elsewhere.
Costs of the destabilisation of the region that flowed from the rush to war in Iraq are incalculable, and should serve as a reminder that pulling a thread from a Middle East tapestry can have all sorts of unforeseen consequences – including a complete unravelling.
We should hope the new Trump administration, replete with advisers – including the president elect’s designated national security adviser – who have issued bloodcurdling threats to take on militant Islam, will have learned lessons from the recent past.
And proceed prudently.
Trump himself defined his presidential bid by criticising the Iraq war, but he will find himself under considerable pressure to reengage in the Middle East in ways that Barack Obama resisted. The outgoing president has been severely criticised for leaving a vacuum to be exploited by Russia and others.
Trump’s initial responses to terrorist events in Turkey and Germany over the past few days, in which he called for the eradication of Islamic terrorism, does not suggest restraint.
Vastly complicating an already complex set of circumstances is Iran’s role. Tehran is supporting Shiite militias in Iraq, in Syria where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is helping to bolster the Bashar al-Assad regime and in Lebanon where it has poured billions in cash and arms into building up Hezbollah to the point where that organisation has its own well-developed military.
As a consequence of the Iraq invasion and installation in office in Baghdad of a Shiite-dominated government with Iranian support, Tehran’s influence across the region has spread to the point where it has become the dominant regional player.
The Israel intelligence official describes Iran’s ascendancy as a “very important element of the strategic architecture of the region”.
This might be regarded as an understatement given the “geopolitical continuum” Tehran has established from Iran to Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.
Sunni regimes across the region find themselves under enormous pressure from an evolving Iranian hegemony. This particularly applies to Saudi Arabia, which is battling to contain Iranian-backed rebels in neighbouring Yemen.
That broken country has a profound strategic significance given its control of the approaches to the Red Sea.
How Russia plays its newly-strengthened hand in the Middle East remains to be seen, but Moscow’s short-term aims are fairly transparent.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has seized an opportunity in Syria – created by American reluctance to become more involved – to reassert what Moscow perceives as its historic role in the Middle East.
In the process, he has secured warm water berthing facilities on the Syrian coast under a 49-year agreement and, in conjunction with Iran and Turkey, appears in the process of establishing a diplomatic bloc that will have a hand in whatever happens next in Syria and further afield.
A fragile Russian economy’s dependence on oil and gas means that Moscow has more than a passing interesting in the petro-politics of the Middle East. Its role in Syria means it has dealt itself back into a regional game.
Oil prices are central to whatever happens in the wider Middle East.
From an Israeli perspective Iran looms largest in its security concerns.
Officials want the Iran nuclear deal to be renegotiated, or abandoned altogether, but they recognise the difficulties. They are hard put to suggest an alternative course.
In the Middle East, there are no easy choices for a new Trump administration. A wild ride is set to continue. Not much can be taken for granted beyond Russia’s determination to assert itself, and Iran’s expanding role.
Tony Walker participated in the annual Australia Israel UK dialogue sponsored by Melbourne businessman Albert Dadon.
Authors: Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University