Kissinger speaks

This blog frequently refers to Kissinger’s machinations in the Middle East during the 1970s. Kissinger recently delivered a speech about the state of the world, including commentary on Russia, China, the Middle East and the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance. In the speech, he urges the West to create a strategic vision. Because, if it doesn’t, others will fill the vacuum, and we might not like the consequences. I couldn’t agree more.

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?

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.

Trump is having a positive impact

Don’t get me wrong—I’m no fan of Donald Trump and, given his ego- and anger-driven foreign policy-by-Twitter, much could change. But… Trump policies are having a positive influence in the Middle East.

Take this article from an Egyptian daily, for instance. It shows that Arab media are recognising that Israel is not the priority of Arab states; Iran is. It also shows that Egypt will be halting its rapprochement with Iran, and that Trump recognises Egypt as a Middle Eastern leader. This should help shore up the Status Quo Bloc, especially given the announcement that US troops will soon fight in Syria. It shows that the US is no longer retreating from the region. It’s this perceived retreat under Obama that created the vacuum allowing for Iran and Russia, in particular, to become bolder.

Another Iranian victory

I’ve long argued that the Saudi-led, years-long effort to keep down the price of oil was supported by America to damage the economies of both Russia and Iran. (Others have argued the policy was a Saudi effort to bankrupt the American shale oil industry.)

But in a November decision, both OPEC and non-OPEC members voted to decrease oil supply, thereby pushing up the price of oil. But the decision doesn’t apply to Iran, which will benefit from increased oil prices without having to cut production.

Saudi Arabia had been paying heavily for the policy, burning through its cash reserves. It was somewhat inevitable that the Saudis would have to drop the policy, especially since Iranian diplomatic and economic isolation has all but ended, thanks to an apparent American reversal of the policy of isolating Iran.Why, I’m sure the Saudis asked themselves, should they continue to pay heavily for a policy designed to isolate Iran, when their chief partners in that policy—America—appeared to want to bring Iran out of isolation. 

I wonder also whether Russia, which will also be a big winner from increased oil prices, might have whispered sweet nothings into Saudi ears. What did the Saudis get from Russia that the Americans can’t or won’t provide them with? Something to do with Yemen? Maybe promises of nuclear technology?

Backing a strong horse

To paraphrase Osama bin Laden, it feels as if Turkey and Egypt are backing the strong horse in softening their opposition to Syrian President Assad (and Russia). This New York Times article has the details. 

For those without the time or inclination, the article essentially says that in the face of a strong and apparently determined Russian intervention in Syria, and a weak Obama Middle  East policy, Turkey and Egypt are softening their opposition to Syria, whereas once they were both staunch opponents.

What the article doesn’t say is that the Turkish and Egyptian leaders—both strongmen with decreasing democratic credentials—are fickle, compared to the much more strategic vision of the Saudi leadership, which is maintaining its opposition to Assad, because of Assad’s principle backer, Iran.

That fickleness is interestng, because both might come back to the American fold, should the latter start showing some spine (and results). And, come 20 January, that might happen. 

And that, to me, is the reason the Syrian and Russian onslaught in Aleppo has ramped up so significantly in the last few weeks; both want tangible and irreversible gains in the key city before Trump takes power. What this indicates is that Russia is actually apprehensive of a Trump presidency (well, aren’t we all?!). Many of the naysayers have stated that Trump and Putin will get along famously (or that Trump will let Putin do what he wants in the Middle East and Europe—which is ironic, since that’s what Putin has been doing during the Obama Administration!) 

I’m no fan of Trump, but the Russian actions in Syria show that they’re worried. I bet they’ll be a significant calming of the Aleppo situation or or immediately before 20 January.

On not learning history’s lessons

An article from Mike Doran, effectively summarising his new book, and applying it to Obama’s Middle East policy. I’ve bought the book already, and am looking forward to getting into it—it’s next in my pile!

Over the last five years, President Obama has tacked away from the U.S.’ historic allies in the Middle East – Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – to create a space for the Russians and the Iranians in the regional security architecture. The Iranian nuclear deal was supposed to usher in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations. Instead, it has spawned a Russian-Iranian alliance that is well on its way to building a corridor of subservient states stretching from Tehran to Beirut.

Obama is not the first American president to make such a gamble on a longstanding adversary. In 1953, when President Eisenhower assumed office, he, too, sought to stabilize the Middle East by co-opting the leading anti-Western power of the day – Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Believing that the association of the U.S. with Zionism and British imperialism was poisoning American relations with Middle Eastern Muslims, Eisenhower worked to prove to Nasser that the U.S. would help him achieve his nationalist goals, even if those came at the expense of British and Israeli interests.

Sixty years ago, when, at the climax of the Suez Crisis, Britain, France and Israel launched coordinated attacks against Egypt, Eisenhower’s opposition to his allies was extreme and they buckled under the pressure. Eisenhower’s policy handed Nasser the victory of his life, and the Egyptian leader repaid America by becoming more radical, more anti-Western and more pro-Soviet.

Eisenhower came to realize that Israel was the U.S.’ truest friend in the Middle East and that courting adversaries is a very risky business.

What will the post-America Middle East look like?

In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Martin Kramer makes the argument frequently made here that American dominance in the Middle East is rapidly waning. 

But Kramer believes that this is on purpose:

The United States, after a wildly erratic spree of misadventures, is backing out of the region. It is cutting its exposure to a Middle East that has consistently defied American expecta­tions and denied successive American presidents the “mission accomplished” moments they crave. The disengage­ment began before Obama entered the White House, but he has accelerated it, coming to see the Middle East as a region to be avoided because it “could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.” (This was the bottom-line impression of the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to whom Obama granted his legacy interview on foreign policy.)

If history is precedent, this is more than a pivot. Over the last century, the Turks, the British, the French, and the Russians each had their moment in the Middle East, but prolonging it proved costly as their power ebbed. They gave up the pursuit of dominance and settled for influence. A decade ago, in the pages of this magazine, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that the United States had reached just this point: “The American era in the Middle East,” he announced, “. . . has ended.” He went on: “The United States will continue to enjoy more influence in the region than any other outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was.” That was a debatable proposition in 2006; now in 2016, Obama has made it indisputable.

The question to ask, then, is what’s next? Kramer doesn’t believe the US will be replaced by any single outside power. Rather, numerous powers will have greater or lesser influence. 

He’s right. The trend in the Middle East will continue to be that which has prevailed over the last decade. The Status Quo Bloc (i.e. with dictatorial and Sunni (though non-Islamist) leadership) and the Resistance Bloc (i.e. led by the Shi’ite Islamist Iran) will continue to compete through proxy conflicts (e.g. Yemen and Syria) and terrorism sponsorship. 

The third main influence (which almost, but never quite congealed into a bloc), the Sunni Islamist continuum, will continue to mount considerable challenges through war and terrorism (e.g. Islamic State et al), and non-violent movements (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood). Turkey, the only Sunni Islamist country, will continue to be frustrated by the fact the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs are more powerful than it and the various Sunni Islamist non-state actors reject Turkey’s leadership pretentious. 

An outcome of the US shift from the Middle East is the increasing cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc—both have realised that they need each other in the face of less American support and a resurgent Resistance Bloc and Sunni Islamist continuum. Nothing is overly public, of course, but few are denying it. 

The more important consideration is how outside players act. 

Barring a turn-around in US policies after the January inauguration of a new president (some adjustment will happen, but the US public doesn’t have the will to stomach what would be necessary to repair US fortunes in the region), the US will continue supporting, through arms sales and soaring rhetoric, Israel and the Status Quo Bloc. However, it will largely allow the region’s players to fight it out themselves. 

This allows Russia, in particular, to increase its influence in the region. Russia is a country that ruthlessly backs its friends, and isn’t put off by their sloppy human rights records. It also acts only according to what it perceives as its own interests. It backs Syria, not because of an ideological commitment to the Resistance Bloc, but because it has extensive Russian naval infrastructure in Syria, and because Russia does not like the principle of a government being overthrown by its people (given how unpopular rule-from-Moscow is in many of Russia’s far-flung, Muslim-majority areas). While Russia finds itself on the same side as Iran over Syria, this doesn’t mean Russia is wedded to the Islamic Republic. Israeli officials have visited Moscow on multiple occasions over the last little while, as have Egyptian officials—proof that Russia is enjoying the perceived lessening of American skin in the game. Still, despite warming ties, Russia and the Status Quo Bloc are wary of each other, due to the latter’s still-close ties to America, Russia’s ties to Iran, and the financial support of Islamist groups in Russia’s Muslim-majority border regions.

China has been taking an increasing interest in the Middle East, as it seeks to expand its economic empire and sources of oil. It has developed good ties with Israel, the Status Quo a Bloc and the Resistance Bloc, and is unlikely to take sides. Still, its huge reserves of money buy it influence, and it’s a cheaper market for offensive and defensive weapons than the Americans. This recent article about China’s Middle East interests is worth a read.

India has recently become close to Israel, on account of Israel’s impressive defence export potential, its willing to trade in nuclear technology with India, and that both countries face a determined Islamist terrorist threat. It is this fear of Islamism which sees India in favour of supporting the secular dictatorships / monarchies in the Arab world, as it (correctly) fears that greater democratisation in the Middle East will lead to increased instability and the rise of Islamist governments or terrorist movements. And it’s distrust of Pakistan is shared by Iran, which helps the India–Iran relationship. Like China (and the entire world economy), India wants stability in the Persian Gulf, to allow the continued and reliable flow of oil; Indian policies will, more than any other priority, reflect that one.

So, what’s the answer? The Middle East dynamic will continue to be shaped by the Status Quo–Resistance–Sunni Islamist dynamic, with each looking for supporters outside, and outsiders wary, though willing to use their influence.