THE DILEMMAS FACED BY US FOREIGN POLICY IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Middle East is a geographical entity in perennial transformation.
The status quo is long gone, ideologies have been wiped out, while
conflicts and wars break out and intersect continuously. US
Foreign policy is faced with a tremendous task when asked on what
the best reply to each evolving scenario is given the volatility
of the regional picture.
In the past, and especially during the Cold War, everything was much easier: there were two blocks, each country had picked which side to play on and each superpower knew who to help and who to fight. Now the situation is totally different. Given the lack of any ideological background dictating the choices of those on the ground, each and everyone basically acts on the basis of their individual convenience. This is the biggest problem the US is faced with because they are incapable of drawing a line between what is good or bad in the Middle East. It is unclear who's a friend or a foe and whether my foe's foes can become my friends and, if so, for how long.
Should we stand by democracy? Well, it is pretty difficult to find one in the region. Washington's historical allies, like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, are not democratic regimes. They were allowed to behave undemocratically several times in the past and not a word of condemnation was pronounced. It is pretty clumsy how the United States initially supported the Arab Spring and the first cries of a nascent democracy in the region. And then made a u-turn.
Are those ideals gone? Not necessarily, at least on paper, but security and national interests are more important. In Egypt, for instance, Washington initially stood by the Muslim Brotherhood when it toppled Hosni Mubarak's military regime, but then approved the restoration of the ancien regime when General Abdel Fattah al Sisi took over. The United States realized that democracy produces instability and that terrorism thrives and spreads during unstable times. It is thus better to cooperate with an undemocratic and authoritarian regime rather than to allow terrorism to spread.
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu
The historical ally?
Should we stand by those regimes that fight terrorism? Yes, in theory. But it's more difficult in practice when it comes to assessing which countries are reliable and which are not. Can the US count on its historical ally in the region, i.e. Israel? Yes, in theory. But apart from a lack of chemistry between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, is it always a wise choice to stand by a man who stated during his electoral campaign that he is against a two-states-solution for the Palestinians? And if this is the same guy who, in November 2014, passed a law that defines Israel as the land of the Jewish people, thus spelling out the preparations for a potential future discrimination against the 20% of Israelis that are not Jewish, is this still the best thing to do? The Israeli Prime Minister is also the same man that proposed a bill allowing the Israelis to withdraw the residence permits of any Palestinian and their families involved in acts of terrorism in Eastern Jerusalem. There are about 300 thousand people that could be evicted from their properties if found to protest against the Israelis.
Never a Palestinian State?
The clash between Obama and Netanyahu is also over the negotiations with the Palestinians. The issue has been dragging on for over 60 years and just as any unresolved issue it is a potential vehicle for unrest. The Palestinian diaspora could soon decide to opt for an armed struggle instead of waiting endlessly for a useless negotiation. Palestinian terrorism could resurface once again under the banner of Hamas, the Islamic Jihad or of other radical PLO factions that could join forces with other regional extremist movements. Will the United States be capable of continuing to block the UN Security Council from condemning Israeli colonies?
For or against Assad?
Apart from the historical low in the US-Israel ties, the headaches for the Americans lie elsewhere. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the United States stood by the rebels and against Bashar al Assad's regime. Four years later, Assad is still at the helm and he is not the real enemy anymore, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi's ISIS is. His menace is fought both by Iran, allied to Syria, and by Syria itself. And here lies the first American dilemma: should we continue to fight the Syrian regime or should we somehow cooperate with it to defeat the Caliphate?
John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, indirectly replied to this question when, during an interview on the CBS, stated that the US should negotiate with Assad a political transition in the country, possibly by returning to the Geneva negotiations that were halted in 2012. In other words, what Kerry is trying to say is that it is time to negotiate with Syria, not to wage a war against it. Such a pragmatic change of strategy is dictated by the fact that the ISIS is now the biggest threat.
Iran, a rogue State?
“Rogue States” were those countries part of the Axis of Evil as defined by Anthony Lake, then US National Security Advisor, in 1994. Iran was one of them. But now Teheran stands by Damascus, is fighting the ISIS and is politically and militarily supporting the Iraqi regime. This makes for two pros and one con. The reason the US are talking to Iran is based on the fact that the war against the ISIS cannot be won with aerial bombardments alone, but with ground troops. The United States are not willing to get their boots on the ground again after the negative experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means someone else will have to carry out the dirty work against the ISIS. During the operations to retake Tikrit, the Americans bombed and supplied intelligence to the Iraqis while they advanced on the ground together with Shia militias, Iranian volunteers and the advice of Iranian General Soleimani.
This strange alliance between the US and Iran poses a problem to the Saudis and the countries of the Gulf, but also to the Israelis. The threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program was at the heart of Netanyahu's electoral campaign. The now Israeli Prime Minister used words such as holocaust to emphasize the dangers of having another nuclear power in the region. This is one of the reasons why Obama and Netanyahu are not getting along.
Definitely such an unholy alliance is dictated by the current conflict against the ISIS. Foreign policy has no room for ethics when problems have to solved, and especially those of a military nature. If we were to take a picture of the alliances or synergies that the US have recently developed in the Middle East, we would see that the entire picture has changed if compared to a few years ago.
Any move on the checkerboard causes a reaction. If the relationship with Iran improves and the fight against the Syrian regime is not a priority anymore, how does this affect the behaviour of other actors in the region?
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Barack Obama
Turkey, a key member of the NATO?
Turkey wanted the fall of Bashar al Assad and still believes this is the top priority, not the fight against the ISIS. Ankara is a member of NATO, but did not grant the use of its bases to US bombers to strike the ISIS. Turkey is also hostile to al Sisi's Egyptian military regime, while the US are now supporting it to fight Islamic extremists in the region and especially in Libya. Ankara still fails to accept its historical responsibilities on the Armenian genocide, while the US Senate has recently approved a resolution on the matter. Turkey refuses a solution to the Kurdish issue, while the Kurds are overtly supported by the US. Lastly, Ankara supplies weapons to the radical anti-Assad factions.
It is probably too early to assess where this will lead to: a collision between Ankara and Washington or a redefinition of the Turkish role in the NATO, although Turkey will always maintain its strategic role in the Middle East. Yet, we cannot ignore Ankara's ambiguity in dealing with the ISIS, since it allows flocks of volunteers to transit on its territory and allows illegal shipments of oil to support Al Baghdadi's finances.
Always with the Saudis?
Saudi Arabia, just like several other countries in the Gulf, is worried about the ISIS, but not as much as it fears the rise of Iran. They support the military synergies against al Baghdadi, but, at the same time, they have a problem with fighting alongside Iran. The Ayatollah's regime is an historical enemy of the Saudis, both for religious and political reasons. What is giving the Saudis a headache is the fact that if Iran is welcomed back on the international scene, if the relationship between Teheran and Washington improves, the United States could decide in the future to shift their allegiance and pick a different key ally in the region.
Without the privileged relationship with the United States, the Saudi kingdom would not survive. The Saudis know that their oil is not as crucial as it was in the past and cannot be used to pressurize the West anymore. Even the US are now self sufficient when it comes to their energy supplies.
The United States are faced with a series of difficult choices, events are dictating their foreign policy, not the other way around. Each choice will have its pros and cons, while one choice is made, another one will turn up. What is more difficult to assess at present is whether what may seem as a good choice today could turn out to have been a bad one tomorrow.