THE US CHOICES THAT INFLAME THE MIDDLE EAST
US Administration’s fresh approach to the Middle East, as directed
by President Donald Trump, is already producing its first effects,
albeit negative ones. As the killings in Gaza testify, the United
States have abandoned a traditional policy of equilibrium,
moderation and of balancing the different and often conflicting
aspirations of regional actors in favor of an unbalanced support
Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, the cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal, the unquestioning support to the Israeli army’s “right” to shoot on protesters in Gaza or of attacking targets in Lebanon or Syria, so much as Tel Aviv’s “right” to claim that Iran should not obtain a nuclear weapon, when Israel has built over a hundred bombs without any international oversight or the signing of any international deal, is definitely a break with the past.
And so are the results. A fresh Palestinian revolt. And, at the same time, the new sanctions against Iran that have pushed the regime towards a radical stance on its nuclear projects. And to break the encirclement, the Iranians will continue to support all those forces that fight Israel (Hezbollah and Hamas), or any other US ally in the region, such as Saudi foes in Yemen (the Houthis), the Shia dissidents in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and to strongly back the Shia government in Iraq.
Following the Arab Spring and the conflict in Syria, the Middle East is still looking for a new balance of power. The civil war in Damascus is still ongoing, ISIS has not been totally defeated, the Hezbollah still dictate their agenda in Lebanon, while the Iraqis are still struggling to find peace among Shia, Sunni and Kurds. What the region badly needs is stability, not fresh hotbeds of conflict.
A traditional broker
By choosing to side with Israel, and only Israel, the United States have lost the traditional role of power brokers they played in the past. Despite the meagre results, the US played the referee in the Middle East. Even the huge sale of weapons, worth some 300 billion dollars, to Saudi Arabia goes in the direction of antagonizing Iran.
The one true winner of this new scenario is Russia. When it intervened in Syria, Moscow showed that is could be a reliable international partner. Vladimir Putin stuck to his promises with an historical ally in Damascus, but also showed a good dose of ductility with other actors in the region. Putin speaks with Israel (and that is why Benjamin Netanyahu attended the May 9 parade on the Red Square to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis), talks with Saudi Arabia (and that is why King Salman paid a historical visit to Moscow in October 2017), and is in good terms with both Iran and Turkey.
Russia has become the new go-to-guy in the region replacing the United States. The talks in Astana over Syria prove that peace will have to through Moscow. And the more the US choose to side with just one actor, the more Russia will be the region’s new peace broker.
Unilateral decisions, continuous provocations, a bullyplomacy based on threats rather than negotiations, the lack of respect for the opinions of traditional allies. This is Donald Trump and his foreign policy. After over a year in office, there is a wide range of examples. Take trade (duties and tariffs even against Europe), or neighboring countries (the wall with Mexico and the tirade against Canada) and, of course, the Middle East. The latter is one of the globe’s most unstable regions where being prudent makes more sense than playing with fire. But Donald Trump loves fire.
Not only that. He wants to establish a personal legacy. And, as is the case in the Middle East, wants to undo everything his predecessor Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, did during their mandate. If Obama gave Netanyahu the cold shoulder, Trump has become his best friend. If Obama signed a deal with Iran, this has to be cancelled. One could define this as infantile diplomacy, only to find that it’s the world’s biggest super power acting like a child.
But there are also other, impersonal, reasons to act as Trump does. One of them is the arms lobby. One of the largest contributors to his presidential campaign, they want a “warrior” president that will boost military expenditure, arms sales to friendly States and support targeted operations against foes that are worth millions of dollars of missiles at every strike.
Trump’s voters are, after all, deeply rooted in the alt-right. His main advisors are always characterized for their extremist views. A naturally conflictual personality as is Trump would have needed a bunch of moderates by his side. Trump is nonetheless extremely coherent. He is coherently enacting what he promised during his campaign.
A very tough future
Trump’s moves in the Middle East risk fueling more tensions in the region. The US President believes he can unilaterally dictate the unfolding of events in the area. But reality is often different from wishful thinking and for two basic reasons.
Firstly, the region is so contort, articulated and ever evolving that there is never a clear cause and effect. An initiative hardly ever delivers the expected result, unless the wished outcome is chaos. Furthermore, when navigating the Middle East with Donald Trump’s relational bullying, he underestimates the Arab pride that wakes up when provoked.
Secondly, there are other actors playing in the same playground. And when they go by the name of Russia, China and Turkey they should be accounted for. Shared solutions to complex problems should be they way forward. Unilateralism as now practiced by the US has isolated the United States, not the contrary. If and when Israel decides to attack Iran with the United States’ tacit or open participation (a very realistic hypothesis as things stand), they could have to deal with a reaction from Russia, China and Turkey.