The Accidental Strategist 


Despite his best efforts, it’s just possible that President Obama accidentally stitched together the makings of a new Middle East favourable to Western interests. 

Let’s consider Obama’s record. During his administration: the distrust among Israelis and Palestinians became complete; Syria descended into civil war; Saudi Arabia and Iran began conducting a proxy war in Yemen; Egypt went from military dictatorship to Islamist ‘democracy’ to military dictatorship; Iraq went from mostly stable to failed state to Iranian client; the Islamic State rose out of nowhere and took over a third of Iraq; Iran became emboldened and free of UN sanctions (all the while continuing to pursue a nuclear option and missile technology), and is now openly supporting militias that defy Western interests in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Syria. So, yes, he left the region worse than he found it (which, given his predecessor’s record, is impressive), but the conditions Obama created in the Middle East are ripe for meaningful improvement. 

This is because a key gripe of US strategists—and Trump as candidate—is the assumed expectation among America’s partners that because the US guarantees their security, they need have little responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof). But Obama provided the Middle East with new assumptions. The lessons he imparted is that America is not trustworthy and can no longer be relied upon to guarantee regional security. This created throughout the Middle East a mood that actors would have to help themselves. A wise Trump Administration would not reverse this mood, but rather guide it—a carrot and stick approach along the lines of ‘we will help those who help themselves, but thwart all those who defy us’. 

In order to understand how this policy might work, we first need to understand the region’s strategic environment, as this will explain why each actor acts as they do. 

In a long process beginning with the First World War and culminating during Obama’s presidency, the Middle East coalesced into three main groups of interest. The first is an unofficial ‘Status Quo Bloc’, consisting of most Arab states (Qatar, Syria and Oman being the exceptions). The Status Quo Bloc is Sunni and Arab. It wants things to stay as they are—monarchical or military dictatorships whose security is guaranteed by the US. These states have long experience in swatting away clumsy Western attempts to improve their human and civil rights record, and increasingly accept Israel (which shares their objectives and enemies) as a proxy member. 

The second group is the ‘Resistance Bloc’. Although its members have different end-goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Shi’ite, Persian Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, Hezbollah and, until 2012, Hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly Arab, and most of its Arabs are Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq was allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for the US, given all the blood and treasure it spent from 2003). 

The third group is harder to define, which is why I describe it as the ‘Sunni Islamist Continuum’, rather than Bloc. The common end-goal among all adherents is the establishment of a Sunni caliphate over the Middle East and, eventually, the world. But that’s where the commonality ends—some want to start with internal religious reform, others with the ruthlessly-enforced imposition of new rules over areas obtained militarily. Some are willing to work with the West in the short term, others are not. Few cooperate with each other and some fight each other. However, their common end-goal allows us to place them on a continuum from non-violent, political Islamist groups like Hezb u-Tahrir, to increasingly strident groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Islamic State and its successors. Turkey and Qatar are also on the Continuum, and act accordingly. 

In a fascinating series of events sparked by the Arab Spring, this continuum almost coalesced into a genuine bloc. Turkey under Erdogan would like a Sunni Islamist Bloc to emerge, and so, after being snubbed by Assad in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, came out strongly against Syria and the Resistance Bloc. In the same period, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt. This saw Egypt leave the Status Quo Bloc. Sunni, Arab Hamas—part of the Resistance Bloc and based in Damascus—was so embarrassed by Syria killing so many Sunni Arabs that it pulled out of both Damascus and the Resistance Bloc. It had the courage to do so because of Egypt’s then-Sunni Islamist government. With Muslim Brotherhood control of Egypt (actively backed by Turkey) and Sunni Islamists on the rise throughout the region, it was thought by many that their time had come. 

However, in July 2013, the Egyptian military regained control of the country and re-joined the Status Quo Bloc. Turkey was on the outer (again) and Hamas realised it had lost badly, which is why it has become so reliant on Qatar. 

The existence of three distinct groups of interest both explains regional actions and the confusion of those commentators that appear to assume the region has only two main blocs, typified by Iranian–Saudi tension. 

The Status Quo Bloc sees the Resistance Bloc as an existential external threat, but the Sunni Islamist Continuum as an existential internal threat. The Status Quo’s diplomatic actions against Qatar is not so much because of Iran, but because Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and al-Jazeera, which is intent on highlighting the Status Quo dictatorships’ myriad shortcomings. (If Qatar’s isolation continues, look for Hamas to seek to re-join the Resistance Bloc and Iranian patronage.) 

As above, as a direct result of Obama’s choices, such as pressure on America’s friends (e.g. Israel), a deliberate lack of pressure on America’s enemies (e.g. Iran in 2009 and the nuclear talks), the pivot to Asia, no help to friendly regimes in need (e.g. Egypt in 2011), and entirely hollow threats (e.g. over chemical weapons), America’s enemies learned that they could defy American interests without consequence. And America’s friends learned that that would have to learn to take care of themselves. 

Iran’s undisguised activity in Iraq and Syria is the most obvious example, as is its missile testing and the recent admission—after years of obfuscation—that it was arming Houthis in Yemen all along. Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s military intervention in Yemen, to thwart Iranian interests, is another example, as is their willingness to countenance attempts to create an ‘Arab NATO’. The isolation of Qatar has provided Fatah (a Status Quo Bloc member) with the perfect opportunity to squeeze Hamas—hence the recent cessation of payments for Gaza’s electricity and the thousands of people still on the PA’s payroll ten years after Hamas kicked the PA out of Gaza. 

So, what is to be done? The new can-do spirit in the Middle East only works in our interests if those so doing are doing things in our interests. A Middle East strategy needs to be developed, one based on a realistic understanding of the Middle East, what our interests there are, and who helps us advance them (and who doesn’t). To put it bluntly, America and the West must thwart our enemies (the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum) and help our friends (the Status Quo Bloc and Israel). 

I know it’s not a popular view, but I think Trump is on the right path, mostly. He expresses support for those countries willing to act, and pressures those countries intent on defying America’s will. But he needs to refine this policy, and quickly.  

Take Syria. The West’s focus has been defeating Islamic State. But IS is a symptom of the wider Sunni Islamist Continuum, not the cause of instability. Remove IS and others will step up to the plate. More importantly, the Resistance Bloc is heavily involved in Syria, and is the group most likely to achieve its objectives there. Like it or not, the West’s long-term priorities are to thwart Iranian activities in Syria (and Iraq), not kill a few thousand bloodthirsty jihadis. While Trump (and Congress) are placing diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, it’s all rather ad hoc. I’m not advocating regime change, but a strategic-level policy of thwarting—diplomatically, economically, and militarily (preferably by proxy)—as many Iranian actions as possible that are against US interests.  

Further, the current and unprecedented (though under the radar) security, intelligence and economic cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc is an unintended outcome of Obama’s policy of turning his back on America’s friends. Trump must be very careful that, as he demonstrates that America is once again engaged in the region, the Status Quo Bloc doesn’t become so comfortable as to hate Israel again. 

Likewise, Trump has to make sure that by rewarding good behaviour, he does not accidentally recreate the conditions where countries in the region once again become ‘free riders’, and head back to the position they were in before Obama stuffed things up / created the pre-conditions for a new Middle East. When America’s friends defy American interests (such as with unwanted settlements or funding yet more Wahhabi mosques), America must use its considerable leverage to put them in their place. 

This is all rather difficult to pull off, but Trump has two things in his favour. First, despite his personal erraticism, his Secretaries of Defence, State and Homeland Security, appear—mostly—to have the correct strategic view of Middle Eastern realities. Second, Trump appears to have the will to implement policies that aren’t domestically or internationally popular. If convinced the strategy outlined above would make America great again (and they would), he just might put them into action.  

In and out: Hamas and the Resistance Bloc

hamas_logo_by_juba_paldfIn 2012, with Allawite and Shi’ite bombs raining down on Sunni Syrians, hamas, which is Sunni and was based in Syria, faced a real dilemma — it was aligned with the Allawites and Shi’ites. It wanted out. That turned out to be a poor decision. Now it wants back in again.

Hamas was a member of the Resistance Bloc, a regional grouping of mostly-Shi’ite countries and militias led by Iran and in competition with the Status Quo Bloc.

Egypt was a major player in the Status Quo Bloc (indeed – a symbolic leader). In mid-2012, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt on the back of Arab Spring protests, which felled the 50-year military dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power marked what looked liked the beginning of a third bloc in the Middle East. This third bloc was the Sunni Islamist Bloc.

It was different from the (Sunni) Status Quo Bloc in important ways. The Status Quo Bloc leadership (despite pretensions) are corrupt and secular. They look to the US for security and want America to retain its presence in the Middle East. They want a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel. They epitomise an acceptance of realpolitik. The Sunni Islamist bloc want the opposite in all these thing; religious leadership and society, no US presence in the Middle East and for a Palestinian state to replace Israel. Like the Status Quo Bloc, however, the Sunni Islamist Bloc was suspicious of Iranian hegemonic ambitions, and generally didn’t like Shi’ites.

The coalescence of the Sunni Islamist Bloc was the result of numerous, concurrent regional occurrences. First, all Arab Spring protests that resulted in elections saw Sunni Islamist governments come to power (most significantly in Egypt, long the symbolic leader of the Arab world). Second, Sunni Islamist militias were (in mid-2012) beating back all other Syrian opposition groups as well as Syrian Government-backed forces. For those looking for such an outcome, it seemed only a matter of time until the government was overthrown and all Syria was under Sunni Islamist control.

Qatar and Turkey, both long on the fringes of the Resistance Bloc (due to their competition with the Status Quo Bloc) saw in the nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc a movement they really agreed with. They became card-carrying members. Hamas thought the nascent bloc was ascendant (and an answer to its discomfort over its Shi’ite and Allawite partners killing Sunnis) and leapt. Doing so meant no longer receiving funds, arms and training from Iran and Hezbollah, but it thought the shortfall could be made up by friendly governments in Cairo, Doha and Ankara.

It was all going swimmingly until the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown by a (popular) coup. The military in Egypt was (and is) firmly back in control. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership was arrested and many sentenced to death. The border between Egypt and Gaza was closed, and Egypt worked to destroy the dozens of tunnels underneath that border. In recent weeks, Egypt has moved to raze all buildings within a kilometre of the border (on the Egyptian side), leaving thousands homeless.

The hamas-Israel war of July-August 2014 was launched because hamas was in trouble, and needed the international attention (and subsequent aid money) the war brought to rescue itself from real financial troubles. It didn’t work out as well as hamas hoped – it’s still in need of money and friends.

Facing reality, hamas has reached out to Iran for help. In what must have been a humiliating mea culpa, hamas has been looking to patch things up. A series of friendly, coordinated statements about hamas have been released by Iran and hezbollah in recent weeks. Hamas has issued a statement saying non-violent opposition to the Syrian government is justified (that is, everyone should just let the Assad Government retain power). Expect a visit by hamas leader Khaled Meshal to Iran in the coming months. And, around the same time, a grovelling hamas statement that Assad isn’t so bad after all, and all opposition to him is a Zionist conspiracy.

What it means, in short, is that hamas will be welcomed back into Resistance Bloc, and will receive much-needed funds and arms (given the lack of tunnels, it might have trouble receiving them). But the reason it left in the first place – discomfort that its Allawite and Shi’ite friends are killing Sunnis – won’t have been resolved. It’s not a great position for hamas to be in and will cost it friends on the ‘Arab Street’ (in the Arab palaces – that is, the power centres of the Status Quo Bloc – hamas is detested).

In theory, a fatah that had the trust of the Palestinian people would be well-placed to take advantage of hamas’s misfortunes. But fatah still lacks strategic direction, is hopelessly corrupt, and doesn’t have the support of its people. So not much will change on that front in the foreseeable future.

Advice for the incoming president

is-barrack-obama-a-bad-presidentA new US president is two years away. The current president’s Middle East policy is significant for its repeated failures. Here, I offer advice for the next president. Before doing so, I would point out that globalisation has impacted on the Middle East, too, and few problems there can be analysed or resolved in isolation from broader Middle Eastern and external actors and influences. Second, the basic wants and needs of major players in the region will remain as they are now. This lets us plot a Middle East strategy for an incoming president.

America’s strategic interests
American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.

These interests have not changed in decades. What has changed over time is the priority placed on these interests by different administrations and circumstance, and the consequent willingness and ability to pursue these interests. In recent decades, Iran and those parties it sponsors have become the principal challenge to US interests. The US should challenge Iran on as many fronts as possible. Russia has also re-emerged as a challenge to US interests in the region.

I would argue that a new president (either Republican or Democrat), together with a Republican-heavy Congress, will face the right strategic circumstances to stitch together a grand bargain.

Over a period of 12 to 18 months, quiet but intensive diplomacy and action should send strong messages to key regional players. America will demand concrete actions from friendly parties (and tie these demands to implied or stated threats of withheld American financial or military assistance), but will also make numerous promises to key parties.

What do the major players want?
Israel

  • Security, with or without the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza

The Status Quo Bloc (in particular, Egypt and Saudi Arabia)

  • No threats to their internal stability
  • To see Iran weak and contained
  • A reversal of fortunes for organised Islamist groups, including Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Islamic State
  • No independence or autonomy for non-Arab Sunni religious or ethnic minorities anywhere in Middle East (e.g. Kurds)

Iran

  • No threats to its internal stability
  • To be the regional hegemon
  • To export its revolution to Shi’ite majority countries / areas
  • To see Israel weakened and destroyed
  • To see America exit the Middle East
  • To see organised Sunni Islamist groups emboldened in or adjacent to countries at odds with Iran (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
  • A reversal of fortunes for Islamic State

Kurds (noting they are divided)

  • Independence or autonomy in areas where they are the majority (e.g. Parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria)

Palestinians – Fatah

  • Political survival, maintenance of control of Palestinian Authority
  • Re-establishment of authority over Gaza / weakening of Hamas
  • Palestinian state in West Bank and Gaza regardless of concessions made, though with an eye on political survival (which requires no concessions)

Palestinians – Hamas

  • Expanded unrest in West Bank, Jerusalem and rest of Israel
  • Weakening of Fatah

Islamic State

  • Expansion and consolidation of its control
  • Recognition by increasing number of jihadi groups

Muslim Brotherhood

  • Popular dissatisfaction of rulers in Sunni countries

What America should demand from each party
Israel

  • Act forcefully to stop settler ‘price tag’ attacks
  • Free, without pre-conditions, a few dozen Fatah prisoners
  • Announce that it will only allow building in areas it believes it will retain in a final status agreement with the Palestinians, forcefully prevent building in all other settlement areas
  • Transfer some parts of the West Bank under full Israeli administrative and security control (Area C) to Area B (i.e. to Palestinian administrative control)
  • More building approvals for East Jerusalem Arabs
  • A publicly expressed willingness to meet with Arab officials or leaders to discuss the Saudi peace initiative
  • An expressed willingness to recognise the ‘State of Palestine’ in a reciprocal arrangement for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the ‘Jewish state’

The idea is to provide Fatah with some victories as a result of diplomacy, not violence

Fatah

  • No more incitement or implied encouragement of violence in Government-owned media
  • No more implied encouragement of lone wolf or any other attacks against civilians (including settlers) or soldiers by anyone paid a wage for or by Fatah
  • No more unilateral actions vis-a-vis the UN and other multilateral organisations
  • Renewed attempts to fight corruption, including within Fatah
  • A positive reply to the Israeli suggestion of mutual recognition

The idea is to provide certainty to Israel that the Palestinian leadership has reconciled itself to Israel’s ongoing existence

Saudi Arabia

  • An announcement that it (preferably under a Gulf Cooperation Council or Arab League label) will open a trade office in (East) Jerusalem, to deal with the Palestinian Authority and Israel
  • A (secret) commitment to keep down oil prices

The idea is to provide a diplomatic umbrella under which the Palestinians can make concessions, and to place economic pressure on Iran and Russia

Egypt

  • A commitment that it is willing to transfer a small part of northern Sinai to Gaza to help over-crowding, but only as part of a final status Israel-Palestinian agreement

The idea is to hold out the promise of a viable Gaza Strip 

Status Quo Bloc generally

  • Statements welcoming a long-term US military presence in the Middle East as a guarantee against those parties that attempt to undermine sovereignty
  • Noticeably fewer anti-Israel resolutions in UN bodies, particularly the General Assembly and Human Rights Council

The idea is that in exchange for renewed American security commitment to the Middle East, Middle Eastern countries will not pretend to their publics that they do not want the US there, and to give Israel assurances of Arab acceptance of Israel’s permanency

Iraq

  • Constitutional reform to allow greater rights and influence of Sunni tribes in their regions
  • Removal of Iranian financial and military assistance, with the threat that all US assistance will be removed otherwise
  • Iraqi cooperation can also be obtained with an American threat to aid in secessionist movements (e.g. Kurds) if Iraqi cooperation is not forthcoming

The idea is remove Iraq from Iran’s sphere of influence and help prevent internal conditions that make it susceptible to internal or external undermining

What America should promise, either publicly or privately, as necessary

  • A renewed and forceful commitment that it will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons or ‘breakout capacity’, and that sanctions relief will come as a result of good Iranian behaviour, not as an attempt to elicit good behaviour
  • Renewed funding and training for Iranian human rights and democratic agitators
  • Diplomatic and military assistance for parties fighting Iranian-backed terrorist groups and militias
  • A willingness to look the other way (within limits) as Status Quo countries shore up internal stability by preventing organised Islamist groups (such as Muslim Brotherhood) from gaining ground
  • A renewed promise to Israel not to allow the UN Security Council and other UN bodies (the latter through threats to funding) to hurt Israel if Israel responds to attacks by Hamas or Hezbollah
  • A renewed commitment that America will prevent creeping recognition of Hamas’s permanency, with concomitant commitment that if Hamas accepts Quartet demands (recognition of Israel, renunciation of terror, recognition of past Israel-PLO agreements), US and Israel will accept it, trade with Gaza, etc
  • A renewed willingness to use American military power (including boots on the ground) to preserve or re-instate sovereignty of the region’s countries, but only in active (i.e. boots on the ground) cooperation with relevant militaries
  • An understanding with Russia to allow eastern Ukraine to secede from Kiev in exchange for cancellation of contracts with Iran in regards to the Bushehr nuclear reactor and air defence weaponry. NATO will cease expanding eastwards. Russian involvement with Syria, especially including its military presence at Lartaka, will no longer be challenged. A commitment that, once Iran is properly contained, the US will work with Saudi Arabia to raise oil prices

The idea is to weaken and contain Iran, to convince America’s friends that it will protect them while making clear it’s a two-way relationship, to allow Russia a renewed ‘privileged sphere of influence’ (à la the Cold War) while making clear the US sees the Middle East as its own privileged sphere of influence

Postscript – there is almost no mention in here of Syria. This is not an oversight. There is currently no party aligned with US interests that has a chance of winning. The US should only involve itself militarily to pursue its own interests, and should do so where the outcome and exit strategy is certain. Serious, boots-on-the-ground involvement should only occur in active cooperation with Arab states and, again, only when the outcome and exit strategy are clear and align with American interests.