With US President Trump about to embark on a Middle East tour, the conditions exist for a grand bargain, but does the US have the strategic vision to achieve it?
In the 1970s, US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger identified a rare alignment of the planets and re-ordered the Middle East. Consider the context; a Soviet-backed war against Israel in 1973 (the fifth such war in 25 years) was pushing the Jewish state to the precipice. The oil weapon, unsheathed by Saudi Arabia, produced the first great oil shock for the American economy. President Nixon, mired in the Vietnam and Watergate crises, was otherwise distracted. The American brand was in retreat across the world.
By the end of Kissinger’s machinations, Israel had decisively won the war, embarrassing the Soviets; Egypt had been plucked from the Soviet camp (the US’s biggest Cold War win) and signed a peace treaty with Israel; a balance of arms was established whereby the 1973 war became the last state-to-state Arab–Israel war; and the Saudis were on their way into America’s fold, allowing for the uninterrupted flow of oil, which has underpinned the global economic rise over the last four decades.
Now consider today’s Middle East. The policies of the last two US presidents have been dismal. Hundreds of thousands have died. The Arab Spring became an Islamist Winter, and at least four Arab states are currently either failed or nearly there. Countries that once relied on the US to protect their interests now have little trust in Washington. Russia, largely excluded from the Middle East because of Kissinger, has returned in dramatic fashion. Iran has risen from annoying supporter of global terrorism to the most important actor in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Its repressive regime faces little risk domestically. And, on top of that, it now has the license, signed by Barak Obama, to be a nuclear state in a decade.
But amidst this chaotic outcome of shambolic policy lies the seeds of a grand bargain. That’s because all the parties that have once or might again heed the US want something, and only the US can deliver. Let’s take a look at the main actors.
Saudi Arabia, most other Arab states and Israel want Iran contained. This includes less influence in Iraq and a defeat in Syria. Israel wants security from Palestinian terrorism (with or without a Palestinian state). The Palestinian Authority wants a state, though isn’t politically strong enough to deliver the minimum concessions, and it wants Hamas contained. Many Arab state leaders want a relationship with Israel, but cannot until the Palestinian question is answered. And the entire Arab leadership wants Islamists undermined, even though they offer little alternative.
Without being too prescriptive, here’s what Trump should be aiming for. Nothing can happen until the Iranian–Russian relationship is effectively severed. Russia is transactional (as, happily, is Trump). Russia should be assured its naval infrastructure in Syria will remain and, more importantly, it should be granted a ‘privileged sphere of influence’ in Eastern Europe, by stopping any hints of NATO expansion and removing support for Ukraine, as well as the removal of anti-ballistic missiles from Poland and the Czech Republic. In return, the US should make clear that the Middle East is its own privileged sphere of influence.
Iran wants to upturn the regional order and replace the US as regional hegemon. Its strategic objective, not its religion, makes it an ideological enemy of the West, and it should be countered, by sanctions, by proxy wars and by funding opposition groups. Remember, it wasn’t UN sanctions that brought Iran to the nuclear negotiation table, but a European Union decision (forced by American action) to exclude Iran from the SWIFT international finance regime.
Saudi Arabia and Israel each have a role to play in countering Iran.
The other group of interest ideologically committed to undermining the West is the Sunni Islamists. The public and private financial support for violent Islamist groups—including those fighting in Syria—needs to end. The Saudis have come a long way since September 2001, but they have a long way to go. By acting against Iran, the US will create considerable leverage over the Arab states to make demands.
On Syria, the US needs to realise that Islamic State isn’t the principle enemy, and needs to make clear that the only way to prevent an Iranian win is a Saudi-led Arab occupation of the country, with US support—a policy of ‘we will help those who help themselves’. With American assistance, Arab country troops should enter Syria and fight all groups associated with Iran, including Hezbollah, Iranian soldiers (if they don’t pull out) and the myriad ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces’. Syrian soldiers will stand down very quickly. Any other group, such as al-Qaeda, that fights this Arab–US coalition, must be swatted aside. Once stabilised—and it wouldn’t take long—the Arabs and the world would be in a position to determine what to do next while Arab (not American) troops occupy the country. The outcome would not be excellent by any means, but it would be better than the status quo, and it would mark an undeniable defeat for Iran by its principle enemies.
Despite finally getting some real aid from the US, the Kurds are drifting towards the Iranian camp, because Iran might give them want they want—independence, or at least greater autonomy in Syria. Kurdish support must be won to the West, and the West, notwithstanding Turkish objections, should promise the Kurds a homeland.
In exchange for action against Iran, Israeli settlement activity must be restrained, and some helpful unilateral moves (such as small withdrawals or issuing of building permits in Area C of the West Bank) should be encouraged. The Palestinian leadership lacks popularity for two reasons; peace with Israel has not brought tangible benefits and endemic corruption. With the threat of reduced aid, corruption must be made to end, and pressure on Israel to make the unilateral moves will help Abbas’s popularity. (But Israeli moves cannot be seen as occurring because of violence, as that will benefit Hamas and harden Israeli attitudes.) Official Palestinian celebrations of violence, such as naming youth events after suicide bombers, must end immediately.
Only the US has the ability to achieve these ends. Pursuing this strategy will not create Utopia. People will still be killed. The losers—Iran and its proxies—will respond with terrorism. But what the above represents is a strategy, not merely a collection of ad hoc tactics. What has been missing for the last 20 years is strategic vision in the US and the right constellation of events on the ground. The latter is now in place. Will Washington step up to the plate?