12 June 2019

Continuity and unpredictability in US’s interference in the Middle East

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

All about values, interests and electoral campaigns• Middle East: three foreign policy files- two to be redrafted and one to continue what Obama started. More or less• The fight against terrorism was transferred to militaries’ responsibility• Maximum, permanent and constant pressure on Iran• The peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians• There are two closed mailers left.

Image source: Mediafax

All about values, interests and electoral campaigns

You know the story about the three mailers received by someone that is assigned for a new position? The first one has a note saying “Blame the one before you”, the second one, has another note, saying “Criticize yourself”, and the third one says “Set up three mailers”. The problem with these mailers is that they must be opened at a certain point, when things get more complicated than everyone expected (first mailer), when blaming the one before you is no longer a solution (the second mailer) and when your resignation is around the corner (the third one). Candidate Trump jumped the gun and opened the first mailer months before the elections, when he started accusing, out-of-touch and unaccountable, Washington’s political and diplomatic elite for making US’s foreign policy permanent, which proved to be a complete and total disaster, also making a tautological call on US’s deep crisis in terms of international relations.

He used the first note in the electoral campaign, but also in the first half of his mandate. And, although most of the analysts think that Trump’s Administration approach on the US foreign policy is not that well prepared, the same analysts say that this approach is totally realistic allowing the direct processing of some difficult international files. And this approach relies on four pillars:

  1. International relations ask for competition;
  2. Foreign policy is not philanthropy;
  3.  All nations are promoting their individual, mainly selfish, interests;
  4. The foreign adventures, whose costs are bigger than the benefits, are “dumb”.

The same analytical circles are also saying that Trump knew how to take advantage of his previous experience as investor, because he brought a better understanding of how the economic relationships work and which are the leverages that could be used in the field to influence the political decisions. Here are some examples to that end:

  • The pressure on US’s NATO allies to spend more on defence;
  • Blaming the useless costs on national construction programs in places like Afghanistan;
  • Calling China US’s long-term competitor, but also claiming that Beijing will not stop using illegal commercial tactics if asked nicely;
  • Understanding that Russia’s demonization will get it get closer to China (things got complicated for Trump here, with the so-called “Russia Gate”).

If these new approaches had some positive consequences in the fields we have listed above,  which are, however, continuing, some of them, the ideas created by the previous administrations, US’s foreign policy in the Middle East had many “surprising” effects, many changes of direction and, indeed, a long negative reappraisals list. The exceptions, in fact, the exception, confirms it. This evolution towards discontinuity, in a region wherein the political common laws and diplomatic rules lasted for decades, happened thanks to administration’s most important representatives, starting with the former State Department Secretary, Rex Tillerson, to the former Secretary of Defence, general James Norman Mattis, as they had the privilege of knowing the region’s issue really well.

Middle East: three foreign policy files- two to be redrafted and one to continue what Obama started. More or less.

As promised during the electoral campaign, Trump’s approach is different than his predecessor’s one, having some continuity keys:

  • He encouraged US’s allies to share more of region’s security responsibilities;
  • He resisted the temptation of sending more troops in the “hot” areas;
  • He tolerated, alike Obama, the Saudi intervention in Yemen, going even against some of US’s Congress resolutions (like the recent use /16th of April of the veto right for blocking a bipartisan resolution for US’s exclusion of this conflict);
  • He changed the Washington-Riyadh relations, being now closer than during Obama’s administration;
  • The same happened with White House’s connections and the Israeli government, especially prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu;
  • An extreme move was the withdrawal from the 2015 Agreement (which was a priority for the previous Administration), of five of the UN Security Council’s members, plus Germany and EU, Iran, known as Join Comprehensive Plan of Action/JCPOA, and re-imposing economic sanctions to Teheran.

The latter, together with US’s withdrawal from diplomatic mechanisms after measures taken in the field, which were including Palestinians’ participation at the peace negotiations with Israel, were, according to many experts, negative evolutions that affected not only the region, but also the US relations with European partners.

If when talking about the four pillars the White House’s foreign policies approaches rely on we can say that there is a certain coherence for the strategic level, when it comes to Middle East, the approach is the same as the political act’s level. It is sometimes abrupt and undocumented, matching operations’ tactical level in the military domain. Besides the foreign critics, this approach gets questioned and analyzed especially for its disputed aspects, by the media, diplomats and the analytical field, many of them being close to the previous administration. A relevant example is the former White House counsellor, Dennis Ross, who is rhetorically asking whether “president Trump has or not a policy for the Middle East?”, then answering, like the rabbi: “does, does not, I am not sure. I agree with all the answers”.

Normally, a strategy is an integrative vision, with an objectives list, one with directions to be followed in order to reach them, and another one with available methods to do that. Where there are obvious differences between these lists, plus temporary perspectives/options to accomplish them, the political strategy becomes only “politics”, or even “policies” if the ensemble is not that clear.

So, where can we place Trump Administration’s approaches for Middle East’s important political files? US’s three main regional foreign action directions, as developed by the new White House Administration, are:

  1. Combating terrorism;
  2. Combating/counteracting Iran;
  3. Increasing the efforts for an “agreement”/”final treaty” between Israel and the Palestinians.

These are involving political, diplomatic, economic and military actions in the region and not only, sometimes calling for US’s partners interference, as well as its enemies, because these three issues are not complex only by their local relevance, but also because of the international consequences they have. Solving just one of them would be an extraordinary accomplishment for any White House Administration. The stake is incredibly big, hence, the Trump Administration has even announced some great ambitions. Strategic ones, of course. What have they accomplished so far?

  1. The fight against terrorism was passed to militaries’ responsibility. The territorial defeat of ISIS (the most dangerous and active terrorist group in the Middle East) was made with the help of military actions, deployed on Iraq and Syria’s territories, especially with the support of the Kurdish groups. It followed, broadly, president Obama’s strategy.

The military approach has reduced ISIS’s occupied territory to a few enclaves, then occupied by forcing the fighters’ migration towards other regions wherein some of the terrorist franchises are still working (Sinai Peninsula, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan). It also reduced group’s call-up capacity, thanks to their military actions’ failure, which were previously gathering thousands of volunteers.

But ISIS is more than a movement, it is an ideology and ideologies do not fight the military force. Indeed, now militaries have less limits in terms of their actions than they were during Obama’s administration, their number was also bigger until the unexpected decision to withdraw them from Syria, but the issue here is that the military solution is not adequate for combating the ideological component. And it is not offering a solution for the post-ISIS victory period either. With no strategic approach, vacuum will emerge, alike the one that created ISIS, which came from Sunni people’s frustrations, who were politically and economically neglected and religiously marginalized.

In order to avoid these frustrations and the reemergence of another ISIS group, maybe even more radical, the local authorities, together with the US- the main antiterrorism contributor, should implement the plan to:

  • Rebuild the area controlled by ISIS, massively destroyed after the fights;
  • Secure these areas;
  • Ensure a governance that would call for all the decisional communities and the administration to be included.

All these three steps involve funds, billions of dollars. Does the Trump Administration have a plan for it? It seems that it does not plan on spending money for Iraq and Syria, but he would rather make the other states in the region do it. In December 2017, during a conversation with the Saudi King, Salman, president Trump suggested that Riyadh should actually pay 4 billion dollars for the reconstruction of Syria.  The King answered, months later, saying that Saudi Arabia has paid 100 million dollars.

Without money and, implicitly, without the reconstruction, it will be difficult to destroy group’s ideology. Iraq and Syria’s local regimes are dominated by representatives who are different than the Sunni communities. The US cannot interfere too much in here, because ideologically speaking, actions should be local. The ideological vacuum should be avoided, for the US to be able to offer support to those religious, moderated circles offering an alternative. Unfortunately, the one who seemed to bring a glimmer of hope to that direction, the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, promoter of innovative reforms for the Saudi kingdom, has at least two files to solve: the Khashoggi file and the war in Yemen. If ideology’s promotion will not start from the bottom, the radical clerics, supporters of the “four caliphs” model, will get the unconditional support of the young Sunnis from the communities that have no economic perspectives.

Hence, what Trump’s administration did in terms of terrorism combat, was:

  • It had a competent, yet limited, military approach;
  • It neglected the post-ISIS ideological period;

Iran fills this gap in Iraq and Syria, getting to worsen the Sunni communities’ frustrations.

  1. The maximum, permanent and constant pressure on Iran. Following the model used with North Korea, the Trump Administration decided, after withdrawing from the Nuclear Treaty, to impose some strong, mainly economic, sanctions over Iran to force Teheran to accept the American conditions, which were not, according to Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that many, only 12. Among these there is also Iran’s withdrawal from its military participations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The problem with this approach is that the other JCPOA members do not share the same perspective with US’s one, and the European states are even creating an economic-financial mechanism to stop US’s sanctions over the European companies dealing businesses with Iran. It needs only one member of the group to be against the plan and the pressure is no longer the same. Of course, this mechanism does not apply to the big companies that are making businesses with US and whose losses would be huge if they would be subjected to those sanctions. But small companies and medium banks could actually use this mechanism. And, besides Europeans, China and Russia are involved in the agreement as well.

Teheran has few leverages that could make sanctions’ consequences bearable. Economy’s bad condition does not come only from sanctions, but also from its structural issues (the Revolutionary Guards are controlling 40% of the economy), quasi-general corruption and its wrong, uneconomic leadership. Even with all the improvisations, the Iranians will, probably, sell less oil than now, recording a decrease from 2,5 barrels per day to only 1 million. The state budget’s funds will be smaller in times wherein the massive depreciation of the national currency gets closer and closer.

 This policy’s coherence is having it bad also because, although the US wants to combat Iran’s presence in Israel’s neighborhood’s states, its concrete deterrence, especially the military one, was left on Jewish state’s hands. Especially when it comes to the Iranian targets from Syria. Israel’s possibilities to deploy military actions in Syria have also had some difficulties lately, all because of Russia. The US has diplomatically and politically withdraw from this field as well. If there was, in the previous decades, a certain “work division” between Israel and the US, Israel conducting all the battles and winning all wars, and US ensuring the diplomatic negotiations and ulterior international policies, lately, Jerusalem, especially the prime-minister Netanyahu, has committed in the regional confrontation with Iran, but also in negotiations with Moscow, for getting the necessary freedom of movement.

Consequently, the pressure over Teheran, although big, constant and permanent, it is also unilateral and it may even have some unwelcomed consequences, by restarting the Iranian nuclear program.

  1. The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. The Defence and Security Monitor has previously talked about this topic, hence, we will only approach some new aspects related to this matter. Trump’s Administration formula, in fact, the negotiation team led by Jared Kushner, was resumed to “outside in”, which means Sunni Arab states’ intervention, by accepting plan’s responsibility, through pressuring them. 

They relied on certain common point between these states and Israel, especially on their hostility against Iran. They also put their trust on the influence Saudi Arabia, mainly prince bin Salman, could have on the “cozy” relations between him an Israeli prime-minister Netanyahu. They thought the Palestinians will need an “Arab umbrella” to accept the plan, to receive guarantees that they are not alone in this risky move for their communities’ future.

There are no concrete data regarding this plan’s content, whose presentation was postponed for the beginning of June, after the Ramadan. However, two of Arabs’ conditions for accepting the plan are not foreseen in document’s provisions:

  1. The existence of a state with
  2. Capital to Jerusalem.

Besides these two extremely important provisions, there is another aspect the Arab states go for, which comes from the oriental negotiation common law: the possibility to make some changes to the plan. According to negotiators’ statement, the document follows the “take it or leave it” principle. There are no provisions to be integrated in the so called ZONA “Zone of Possible Agreement”, where there are accepted negotiations but also changes.

Including the Europeans in the process (EU, important European states, to have interests and experience in the Middle East region) could be helpful. Normally, the Palestinians are closer to the Europeans, and if EU, for example, would agree on this plan’s content, most likely the National Palestinian Authority would agree with it. However, this scenario was not something the negotiators thought of and neither was it in Trump’s Administration work algorithm. Its previous actions in the Middle East have actually confirmed it:

  • They do not go for the previous policies, the decisions are unilateral, unexpected (moving the capital to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights annexation);
  • The negotiator status, which keeps a certain equidistance, gets replaced with pressure-based negotiations, according to this peace plan, some financial or economic dividends.

Consequently, we cannot but wait for the end of June, when Jerusalem will have a new Israeli government, with a fifth time reconfirmed prime-minister, free than ever before in making decisions, when the Palestinians will also have a new prime-minister and president Trump will not have been to stretched by the new electoral campaign’s tension.

Both mailers remained unopened in a drawer at the bottom of White House’s office furniture.

Translated by Andreea Soare