Can Trump channel Kissinger?

 

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?

Turkish troubles


It’s not without a small amount of schadenfreude that I read this article about Turkish trevails:

Throughout his political career, Erdogan has boldly zigzagged between his Islamist and pragmatic selves. But he has now been enslaved by a nation that is pressing him for more confrontation with Turkey’s enemies. They include basically the entire non-Muslim world, plus Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Muslim Kurds, and all the Shia in the Middle East.

The context is the Turkish position on the Middle East’s strategic triangle of Status Quo Bloc, Resistance Bloc and Sunni Islamist continuum. Erdogan has always chafed against the status quo, because the status quo relegates Turkey to outsider, and favours the Arab states.

Under Erdogan, Turkey dallied with Iran in the Resistance Bloc, but that didn’t sit comfortably, either. Iran is not Turkish, not Sunni and, as leader of the Resistance Bloc, would, again, relegate Turkey to second fiddle. Turkey, imagined Erdogan, was destined for greater things.

Erdogan saw an opportunity in 2011 and leapt into the unknown, but the gamble backfired. It is for this reason that Turkey is now largely friendless. The opportunity was the emergence of the ‘Arab Spring’. What Turkey saw was the overthrow of the Status Quo Egyptian government, and its replacement with a Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government. Likewise, it saw the disintegration of Syria (member of the Resistance Bloc) and the rise of a myriad of Sunni Islamist militias. It also saw Hamas (a member of the Resistance Bloc) leave Syria (and thereby effectively leave the Resistance Bloc) because Syria was killing so many Sunni Arabs, in order for Hamas to identify with Sunni Islamists.

Turkey saw the emergence of a Sunni Islamist Bloc (as did, it must be admitted, this author), and thought it could become its leader. It threw itself behind the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government, and threw itself against Syria, all the while maintaining the rage against Israel. Had the Sunni Islamist Bloc successfully emerged, it would have been a good gamble. But the Bloc didn’t stick.

Having over-reached, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown by a popularly-backed coup (Egypt is now once again a Status Quo dictatorship). The Syrian civil war dragged on, with no decisive victory by a Sunni Islamist militia (indeed, the most successful militia in Syria internationally gave Islamists a bad (well, worse) name. And Hamas, having seen its allies in Egypt fall, has slowly retreated back into the folds of the Resistance Bloc.

Turkey has been left out on that limb all alone.

What should US MidEast policy be? 


The Trump Administration is reviewing US policy toward Iran. Good. But reviewers should keep two things in mind. First, US strategic policy in the Middle East should not be binary. Second, the US needs to work out how its strategic vision (once adopted) fits in with the interests of other parties, and use that to US advantage

Two years before the US election, I made a policy recommendation about what US policy in the Middle East should be. Those recommendations haven’t changed. What has changed, however, is that Iran has become stronger, and Arab countries more vociferously worried by that—and all because of poor US policies under the Bush and Obama Administrations.

In short, in Trump’s rush to label Iran as the evil empire, he should not lose sight of the fact that there are three groups of interest in the Middle East—the Status Quo Bloc, the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist continuum—the last two of which are inimical to Western interests.

The strategy of the West should be to defeat (eventually) these last two blocs. This strategy will be achieved by choosing tactics that undermine any and all parties or policies that represent or bolster the last two blocs, and strengthening or supporting any and all parties or policies that bolster the first bloc.

Iran needs to be sanctioned heavily, just like in the years before the nuclear negotiations, due to its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah. A concrete goal of ending such support should be the trigger for lifting sanctions.

Countries like Israel that want to undertake espionage in Iran, including things like cyber attacks that damage the regime (as opposed to the people) should be allowed to do so. Countries like Saudi Arabia, which fears Iran, must play their part, by keeping down oil prices, by reducing discrimination against Shi’ite subjects, and by defeating Iranian proxies in Yemen. (The US should start advising the Saudis on how to defeat the Houthis, because current Saudi tactics aren’t working.)

Russia needs to be encouraged to abandon Iran. Russia is transactional (as, happily, is Trump). If Russia is assured its naval infrastructure in Syria will remain and, more importantly, if Russia is 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 a Poland and the Czech Republic, it will allow the US to have its own privileged sphere of influence in the Middle East.

But the issue isn’t merely Iran. The public and private support for groups on the Sunni Islamist continuum—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. The US has a lot of leverage over the Arab states—not least the promise of concrete action against Iran. 

As for Syria, it’s time for Arab countries to get involved. Coordinated and, if necessary, led by the US, Arab country troops need to operate in Syria. All groups associated with Iran, including Hezbollah, Iranian soldiers (if they don’t pull out) and the myriad ‘Popular Mobilisation Fronts’, must be fought. 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. But it would not involve a precipitous withdrawal or a prolonged occupation of US troops. Arab troops would occupy the country. The outcome would not be excellent, but it would be better than the situation as it is, or the situation we are currently drifting towards, where the Iranian bloc wins and sets up permanent control.

In international diplomacy and war, things are messy. Things are rarely black and white. Desired tactics are not always available. However, identifying strategic objectives is the first step. Once these have been identified, and once the courage is found to pursue them, the right tactics (or best of a bad bunch) can be chosen. But pursuing tactical actions without a clear strategic direction will always lead to failure.


Ehud Ya’ari is one of the few ‘must-read’ Middle East analysts. He writes well, with authority but without emotion, and he’s usually spot on. He’s written an article in Foreign Affairs about Iranian plans for the Levant, and ended it with concrete proposals for US policy:

In responding to Iran’s plan to secure influence in the Levant, the Trump administration should work with its regional counterparts to thwart Iran’s attempt to build these two corridors. Turkey, a NATO ally, should be encouraged to resist Iran’s efforts to dominate, through the corridors, the main trade routes serving large amounts of Turkish exports to the Arab world. The Kurds, both in Iraq and in Syria, should be provided military equipment to face the Shiite militias. Jordan should assist the Sunnis of western Iraq, as well as the Shamar Bedouin federation of the Syrian desert, which has traditional ties with the Saudis, in organizing their own forces. The United States should back Israel’s effort to prevent the Iranians from securing a foothold on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. But above all, the United States should continue talking with Russia and insist that sooner rather than later, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad will have to go.

Lumper or splitter?

Marc Lynch, of the Carnegie Endowment, has written an essay in which he divides analysts of Islamist movements between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. Lumpers, he writes, lump all Islamist movements into the same basket, and think the West is at war against them all. Splitters, on the other hand, analyse the many differences between movements, and see some (non-violent) Islamist groups as potential allies. Lumpers are wrong and splitters are right, according to Lynch.

On the face of it, I’m a lumper. I write often of a Sunni Islamist continuum. However, I think Lynch is too clumsy in his analysis; there are benefits to both approaches (it is important to know the differences between factions, even if you think they are all the enemy). Further, by lumping all lumpers into the same basket, Lynch does his analysis no favours.

Lynch appears to believe that lumpers see all Islamist movements as a coherent whole. This indicates he thinks lumpers think that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State, for instance, are in a grand, cooperative coalition—perhaps a Muslim variant of the Elders of Zion! While some might think that’s the case, I disagree. For a start, there is a difference between Muslim groups (i.e. Political groups that have Islam as part of their identity) and Islamist groups (i.e. Political groups whose objectives are defined by their interpretation of Islam). Membership of my Sunni Islamist continuum is determined by objectives: it consists only of groups that have the objective of establishing a Sunni caliphate. All Islamist groups that desire this goal, whether now or in 50 yeas, and whether violently or non-violently, are on the continuum and, despite the many differences between them, they are all the enemies of the West. This does not indicate that these groups are in cahoots, but merely they share a desired outcome. In that regard, I am a lumper, but that doesn’t mean I lump all Muslim groups into the one basket (and, certainly, Shi’ite groups or states like Hezbollah and Iran are in their own basket—what this blog and others label the Resistance Bloc).

(Further, Hamas has been wavering between membership of the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist continuum for years, as covered in other pages of this blog.)

But, of course, it is important to know the differences between the groups. Islamic State, for instance, can only be beaten with violence (although effective governance will help prevent the emergence of a similar group in the future). But the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan will be defeated through effective governance, secular education and increased civil rights. The tactics required to defeat each actor on the continuum are different, but the strategy is the same, to not only show everyone that being on the continuum leads to failure, but also that there are better options to secure health, wealth and safety for one’s country, community and family. Obviously, devining successful tactics and implementing them is hard, if not currently impossible, so the status quo will likely contnue for some time. But before we launch into implementing tactics—any tactics—we need to know what our strategy is. Does the West have a strategy? 

The Syria strike


On the radio this morning, Fran Kelly and Sabra Lane spoke, in their respective programmes, at length about the US strike on Syria. In this post, I want to discuss the Russian involvement in Syria, the purpose of the US attack and the supposed change in US policy vis-à-vis ‘regime change’ in Syria.

First, Fran Kelly asked a guest what would change Russia’s mind in regards to its backing of Syria. The guest said, correctly, that stepping away from Syria would be embarrassing and a significant back down vis-à-vis Russian–US relations. That’s true (and it reminds one of the Obama Administration walking away from its backing of Egypt in 2011), but the guest was wrong to leave it at that. 

Russia has a strategic relationship with Syria, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility for it to walk away from Assad. In the past, I likened the respective Russian and Iranian involvement / commitment to Syria as the comparison between a breakfast of bacon and eggs.

Russia is primarily motivated by its national interests. (So is the West, but sometimes the liberal elite forget that.) The Russian relationship with Syria has long served Russian interests, and only if the West can convince Russia that its interests lie in another policy will Russia change. The Russian interests are: a warm water port at Latakia; significant arms sales; an opportunity to show the lengths of unconditional Russian support in comparison to the West (especially during the Obama Administration, when US support for its traditional friends was purposefully diluted, but also generally, as the West likes to link its support to protection of human and civil rights, which Russia does not); and a Russian intolerance to internal or externally-driven overthrows of regimes.

This last point is important because Russia has plenty of restive areas that might dream of breaking away from Russia; Russia does not want them to think such actions will be successful or go unpunished. A successful Western Syria policy must involve Russia, and so must appreciate Russian interests. Russia cannot be handed a strategic defeat on this front; it must be co-opted.

Second, a reader pointed out that 59 missiles fired at an airbase won’t make much of a difference to the Assad regime. That’s true, but the missile strike wasn’t about making a difference, it was about sending a message. The message was to all countries around the world; before you do something, you have to consider the American reaction. Because America, under Obama, had essentially left the field, countries began to have a much freer hand in the Middle East. Russia and Iran became much more important players. And the Gulf states funded Islamist militias because no one on their side was doing anything. In Asia, China became more bullish as well. And so it goes. 

Which leads me to my third point, there is now talk about ‘regime change’ in Syria. I honestly do not think that the Trump Administration is contemplating direct military action to bring down Assad (though it might increase support to militias that are trying to do that). But it has come to the conclusion that the end game in Syria, whenever it is realised, should not involve Assad. That’s hardly a novel policy, but it is in direct conflict with what Russia wants, and so the statements are significant, given the friendly Russian-Trump relations until now.

But those that want Assad gone, using whatever means, risk losing sight of the fact that getting rid of him is a tactic, not a strategy. The Middle East requires a strategic view. This blog has put forward one such view, from the very first post and repeated ad nauseum since, that there are three groups of interest in the Middle East, and two are inimical to Western interests. They should be fought using diplomatic, financial and military means (the last, where necessary, and preferably through proxies).

Actions to achieve ends that do not align with a strategic objective (or, worse, in the absence of a strategic objective) will only end in further disasters.

Plan or coincidence?


I’m not sure if I agree with everything in this report, but it looks pretty interesting. It’s suggestion that a Russian-US-Arab (including Israel) axis is crystallising against Iran is a bit farfetched. For one, Russia would not join such an axis, but would cooperate with it (or, rather, stop cooperating with Iran) if it were to somehow serve Russian interests. Second, the Arab (including Israel) front against Iran crystallised quite a few years ago – the Status Quo Bloc that this blog keeps banging on about. The difference is that, at least according to this report, the US has recognised the strategic imperative of strengthening this bloc, and is acting on that need.

This is good news, as long as decent strategic thought has gone into it. And, given what we think we know about the Trump Administration, there doesn’t appear to be much strategic thought going on. So maybe this is just a happy coincidence?

A view from Saudi Arabia


A young academic in Saudi Arabia has written an impassioned and respectful open letter to Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Salman about the challenges he ought to address.

It’s worth a read, even if the remarks on co-opting Wahhabi Islamism to modernity is a bit hopeful, and he essentially avoids the third interest group in the Middle East—what this blog dubs the Sunni Islamist continuum (and that Sunni Islamist movements and militias obtain substantial private Saudi donations).

Still, the recognition that Saudi Arabia has to move away from an oil economy (and hints on how to do that), the need to confront Iran and entertain relations with Israel are all important.

Designating the IRGC?


This article, from a pro-Saudi source, explores the ramifications for Iran if the US designates the entirety of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation. While the article only focuses on the positive outcomes (for the West and Saudi Arabia), and entirely minimises the role the Saudis have played in cultivating Sunni Islamists across the region (which has culminated in Islamic State), it’s still worth the read.

I note that Australian law makes clear that any organisation that supports terrorist activity may be designated a terrorist group. The IRGC does that, and more.

But the negative ramifications of designating the IRGC should be kept in mind. Iran would seek to punish the US and its friends; cue attacks against Saudi Arabia and Israel, and on Jewish targets internationally, by Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. 

Iran would also use the move as an excuse to abrogate the nuclear deal, and quickly accelerate its march to nuclear capacity and weaponry. (Beyond a desire to export its Islamic Revolution and influence across the region, Iran’s rulers are also deeply suspicious and paranoid about Western designs on Iran; the nuclear option is seen as an excellent defence against such nefariousness.*)

* This has long been used as an argument by apologists for Iran that the West ought to cut down its aggression against the Islamic Republic. But no matter what Western policies are or have been, Iran since 1979 has seen them as being designed to attack Iran, so it makes no difference.

Worth watching


An article worth reading reveals Hezbollah fighters are growing tired of their Iranian overlords in Syria, and are causing problems upon their return to Lebanon. A way to fix the situation might be for the Hezbollah leadership to refocus the fight against Israel, as opposed to against fellow Arabs. Watch for increased anti-Israel rhetoric and maybe, if things from a Hezbollah perspective get bad enough, attempts to spark renewed confrontation with the Jewish state.