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?

Syria, in eight pages


To the uninitiated, the conflict in Syria, and what can be done about it, is very confusing. In recent days, a member of the Washington Institute made a statement to the US Senate, which you can read here. The eight page document is a succinct and cogent description of the internal and external actors, and policy options for the US. These options are founded in strategy—what are the US’s vital interests in the context of the way, and how can these be achieved. Well worth the read.

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.

Can Trump trump Iran?


Speaking of policy, here’s a suggestion for US policy in regards to Iran by a former bigshot at the CIA: don’t focus on what Iran does, and certainly don’t rattle the sabre, but focus on what hurts Iran. The article points out the three times (1988, 2003 and 2015) where Iran changed course. Two of those three times were because of intense pressure on its economy.

The sanctions that brought Iran to the nuclear negotiating table in 2015 should be incrementally put back in place, not to prevent nuclearisation, but to stop Iranian terrorist-supporting activities. The sanctions (and here I’m going beyond what the article suggests) need to have an out—’stop doing this, or we’ll put sanctions on you. And we’ll lift sanctions once you stop doing it’. The out is sponsorship of terrorism, of course.

The article talks about the need to engage with US allies. And that’s important. But I’ve been reading The Iran Wars, which describes the sanctions against Iran that brought it to the negotiating table in 2015. Those sanctions took the country to the precipice. And while there were increasingly strident rounds of UN Security Council-imposed sanctions (which require acquiescence from other countries that would probably not happen now), the sanctions that made all the difference were the Congress-imposed (i.e. not Obama-imposed) sanctions that prevented any company from doing business in both Iran and the US—companies had to choose, and they all did. By ultimately excluding Iran from the international financial system, Iran could no longer sell oil for cash, but had to barter exchanges (i.e. oil for goods). Things were so dire, they entered into negotiations with the Great Satan.

It’s possible, it’s been done before, and Congress would likely get on board. And while the purpose would be to make Iran stop supporting terrorist proxies, it might ultimately bring about a popular revolution.

They get it (sort of…)


While I disagree with their policy recommendations (to accept Iranian hegemony), the authors of this Foreign Affairs article at least understand the big picture as described in this blog for years: the existence of three groups of interest in the Middle East, the lack of US strategic thinking both now and over the last 14 years, the tensions between apparent allies due to different threat perceptions and more. Also discussed in the article is the rise of Iranian-backed militias, which I’ve never addressed. 

While it’s worth the read, it’s also worth rejecting their conclusion. The answer is not to accept Iranian hegemony, but to determine what US/Western interests are and unwaveringly support actors and actions that advance them, and resist actors or actions that undermine them. I wrote about that here.

Iran’s Axis of Resistance Rises

By Payam Mohseni and Hussein Kalout, Foreign Policy, 24 January 2017

In 2006, in the midst of a fierce war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously stated that the world was witnessing the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” She was right—but not in the sense she had hoped. Instead of disempowering Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran, the war only augmented the strength and prestige of what is known as the “axis of resistance,” a power bloc that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas in Palestine.

But the 2006 war was only one in a series of developments that significantly transformed the geopolitical and military nature of the axis—from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which first opened the door to greater Iranian regional influence, to the more recent fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014, which led to the proliferation and empowerment of Shiite militias. These changes have prompted a fundamental reconfiguration of the contemporary Middle East order. Arab elites, grappling with the consequences of an eroding Arab state system, poor governance, and the delegitimization of authoritarian states following the 2011 Arab Spring, enabled Iran and its partners, including Russia, to build a new regional political and security architecture from the ground up. With the support of Tehran as the undisputed center of the axis, Shiite armed movements in Iraq and across the axis of resistance have created a transnational, multiethnic, and cross-confessional political and security network that has made the axis more muscular and effective than ever before.

The most important issue that the new U.S. administration will face in the Middle East will be the rise of the Iranian-led axis. But given the deterioration of the regional security order and the empowerment of Iran and its allies, especially after the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, the question is what to do about it. So far, policy discussions have focused on single issues on a case-by-case basis: balancing power in Syria, engaging or pushing back on Iran post-nuclear deal, or managing an increasingly volatile Yemen, for example. But crafting a Middle East policy requires a more comprehensive approach, one that understands the nature of the axis and how it has fundamentally changed over the past several years. The axis’ ideology has evolved: From a primarily state-centered enterprise, it has transformed into a transnational project supported by an organic network of popular armed movements from across the region.

THE RISE OF POPULAR ARMIES

Prior to the Arab Spring, with the exception of Hezbollah and Hamas, the axis of resistance was a partnership of states—Iran, Iraq, and Syria—that largely assumed the quintessential markers of the modern Weberian state (notwithstanding the militant challenges Iraq faced after 2003): centralized decision-making, official state borders, and militaries with a near monopoly over legitimate means of violence, meaning that the state had the sole right to enforce domestic security and wage war externally. In ideology, they were united in their call for an independent regional order and their resistance to Israel and to what they saw as U.S. imperialism.

After 2011, Arab states gradually lost their monopoly over the legitimate means of violence when the Arab Spring protests erupted, civil war broke out in Syria and Yemen, and jihadist groups like ISIS began establishing their own administered territories in Syria and Iraq. Consequently, with the failure of the modern nation-state project in the Arab world, modern armies contracted due to the inability of political elites in obtaining the loyalty of soldiers willing to die for the state. In Iraq, the national army trained by the United States melted away in the face of an ISIS assault on Mosul, while inside Syria countrymen quickly turned on one another and significant segments of the Syrian army defected. Power within the axis devolved to the many nonstate actors and militias that rose up to fill the security vacuum in an indigenous process of “state building” that moved beyond the Weberian state, and they rallied not only against their traditional enemies but new ones too, such as Sunni extremists like ISIS. These new militias include the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Syrian National Defense Forces (SND), as well as foreign groups such as the Afghan Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Zaynabiyoun brigades operating in Syria. They encompass a rich mosaic of ethnicities and confessions, totaling hundreds of thousands of combatants. And they receive broad popular support, as they are often the military arms of social movements that emerged within critical segments of societies in war-torn countries.

Despite the diversity of beliefs and motives among the armed groups, the Iranian influence over them is clear. They are modeled after the Basij, the Iranian paramilitary that mobilized millions of people during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Indeed, the Arabic name for the PMF, Hashd al-Shabi, carries the same meaning as the Basij—both the Arabic word hashd and the Persian word basij, meaning “mobilization.” The pluralization of military and security forces, trained and organized by Iran, has revitalized and localized institution building and patronage from the bottom up, giving way to new elites with mass support from across Iraq and Syria, and even more recently, from Yemen. In Iraq, for example, the security vacuum left by the failure of the Iraqi state and the fall of Mosul to ISIS gave rise to multiple armed movements, particularly following a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ali Sistani in 2014 calling for armed resistance against the militant group. Notably, Sistani’s decree paralleled the order that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gave in 1979 that established the Iranian Basij. Recently, the Iraqi parliament ratified a law legalizing the PMF on November 26, 2016, immediately following Basij Day in Iran, which celebrates Khomeini’s founding of the paramilitary group.

Today, the new Shiite militias, such as Kata’ib al-Imam Ali and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, have evolved beyond their predecessors. The older Badr Brigades and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, were not as reliant on mass mobilization, did not have a coherent strategic vision of their role in the region, were more hierarchical and conservative, and were usually associated with a political party. And as the controversial cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated, these older militias often had a tense relation with the clerical establishment in Iraq. In Sadr’s free-wielding Mahdi Army, for example, younger and senior clerics clashed over political and military strategy. Moreover, there was much friction between pro-Iranian militias committed to the velayat-i faqih (the theocratic model of governance in Iran) and those that championed Iraqi nationalism or were dismissive of clerical governance.

Today, the rise of ISIS and insecurity in the region—as well as greater clerical authority and the issuing of authoritative fatwas—have made the new militias more cohesive and strategically minded. Indeed, not only does the clerical establishment have a higher degree of control over the militias but it has also narrowed the differences between the clerics who are critical and sympathetic to the idea of velayat-i faqih. The protection of Shiite holy sites is also much more paramount today than in the past, as ISIS has threatened to attack the holy cities of Karbala, Najaf, and Samarra in Iraq and the shrine of Lady Zaynab bint Ali, the sister of the prominent Shiite Imam Hussein ibn Ali, in Damascus, which are the geopolitical and religious nexus of the axis groups. Historically embedded within the social fabric of these shrine communities and centers of pilgrimage, the clergy and clerical institutions therefore serve as the ideological backbone to enable the transnationalization of popular armed movements throughout the axis’ domains of power by providing meaning, symbols, and strategic focus to these groups.

The formation of the PMF in 2014 as an umbrella organization also critically changed the nature of the militias, centralizing power through a ruling committee and unifying their strategic and operational objectives. Importantly, the PMF is seen as legitimate by many actors—Iraq granted the group legal status and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad formally invited it to fight alongside him in the civil war. The fact that these militias now exercise “legitimate” means of violence suggests that there will be far-reaching consequences for the Middle East, one of which is that they will have important roles to play in the post-conflict period, whenever that is achieved.

SECTARIAN IDENTITY WITHOUT SECTARIAN IDEOLOGY

In the 2000s, the axis was first and foremost marked by its resistance against Israel and the U.S. regional order, and its push for independence and against anti-imperialism. Today, the axis has also turned into the center of resistance against jihadismand Sunni Wahhabi extremism, which has widened its appeal to non-Islamic religions and minorities in the region, such as Christians, the Druze, Yazidis, and Kurds, as well as to secular regimes, such as Egypt’s, as an attractive partner for fighting terrorism. This axis shift has given greater prominence to Shiite identity but not to a sectarian ideology: while Shiite self-assertiveness and Shiite pride are actively cultivated, anti-Sunni rhetoric is actively discouraged (except against the Wahhabi doctrine of takfirism, or excommunication of different religions or Islamic sects, particularly Shiism). This does not mean that Shiite groups in Iraq are innocent of abusing or discriminating against Sunnis. But the overall policy of the axis has continued to be supportive of pluralistic religious and ethnic identities, especially in comparison to the rise of fundamentalist movements in the Muslim world.

The Shiite and religious minorities also now have greater shared interests with secular, Arab nationalist regimes. In Syria, for example, Assad and many of his top military-security officials are Alawi Shiites, but the Syrian state is staunchly secular and pan-Arab. The majority of the Syrian Arab Army is Sunni as are the geographic areas under the control of the Syrian government, such as the strategic urban cores of Damascus and Aleppo. Further, a range of minority groups including Christians and the Druze have rallied around the Syrian state and joined the various pro-government militias. The National Defense Forces, established explicitly in conjunction with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and based on the Basijmodel, are more than 100,000 soldiers strong and have mobilized Christians, Druze, and Sunnis opposed to extremism. In Lebanon, too, the axis has effectively incorporated leading Christian political parties, and there has been outreach to the Kurds as well, both in Syria and Iraq.

With the increased radicalism and fundamentalism of fringe Sunni groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda ally Jabhat Fath al-Sham (formerly the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front), vulnerable minority groups have come to view Iran and its allies as moderate, reasonable, and as a source of protection. This is a far cry from only a few years ago, when Iran was viewed as radical, and the Saudi and Gulf states portrayed themselves as the “moderate” regional allies of the United States working to contain Iran. In addition, Iran’s support for Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, has been a key feature in spearheading pro-resistance and pan-Islamic solidarity. The spread of conspiracy theories that the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia worked together to create ISIS and other jihadist groups has also downplayed religious sectarianism and contributed to the axis’ resistance narrative.

A STRONGER REGIONAL POSTURE

Since 2015, Iran has been amplifying its anti–Saudi Arabia rhetoric—yet another policy change within the axis of resistance. That year, Tehran officially questioned the ability of the Saudis to manage and secure the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca—a critical pillar of Saudi legitimacy—after the Hajj Mina stampede in Mecca that year killed hundreds of Iranian pilgrims (and thousands overall). And over the last year, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sought to delegitimize the Saudi state by refusing to acknowledge its official name, referring instead to Saudi Arabia as the land of “Hejaz and the Najd.” This war of words has been fueled not only by the perception that the Saudis back ISIS and other extremist groups such as al Nusra Front but also by the broader geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tensions rose with the regionalization of the civil war in Syria, after Tehran blamed Saudi Arabia for the death of Iranians during the hajj, and then again when Riyadh executed the leading Shiite Saudi Ayatollah, Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, in early 2016.

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 has also significantly altered the standing and power of the axis. Moscow has deftly exploited the gradual decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East and the strengthening of Iran and its allies, especially following the Iranian nuclear agreement. Not only have the Russians helped tilt the military balance in Syria in favor of Assad, but Russia is now an important regional actor—from its participation in an intelligence sharing base in Baghdad (comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah), to its improved bilateral relations with Iran (providing Tehran with the all-important S-300 air missile defense system).

But given the messy alignments in the region, it is often difficult to determine who is a friend or foe of the axis as Russia and the United States are engaged in seemingly contradictory axis politics. For example, Washington is simultaneously supporting the Iraqi government’s campaign to oust ISIS from Mosul while also backing Syrian rebels to overthrow Iraq’s ally, the Assad regime. Iraq is an important marker for where relations between Iran and the United States will head as both countries have strong influences over Iraq. Washington’s interest in a centralized Iraqi state is also to ensure, in part, that Iran does not gain complete control of the country. Washington’s policy in the region will therefore be critical in determining the leverage it has in curtailing Russia and shaping some of the core issues facing the axis, such as power-sharing and governance, anti-terrorism and demilitarization, de-escalation of sectarian conflict, and, of course, engagement with Iran.

RECOGNITION OF THE RESISTANCE

In response to the axis’ staying power, particularly the unexpected survival of the Baathist regime in Syria, several states in the Middle East have shifted their policy to accommodate its rise. As one of the traditional leaders of the Arab world and the most populous Arab states, Egypt, for example, refused to back a Saudi-favored UN Security Council resolution on the Syrian civil war in October 2016. Shortly afterward, Egypt voted in favor of a Russian-backed resolution on Syria and surprisingly sent its oil minister to Tehran in November after Saudi Arabia punished Egypt by severing oil shipments to the country—an all the more unexpected development given the lack of full diplomatic ties between Iran and Egypt following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The Egyptians have signaled their cooperation over security as well as the fight against terrorism. Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk met publicly with Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo in October (his previous few visits having been conducted privately). And the leadership at Egypt’s al-Azhar, the world’s leading Sunni seminary and academic institution, repudiated the dominant Saudi discourse on sectarianism—the excommunication of Shiites—and strongly defended Shiism as a mainstream Muslim denomination. This behavior demonstrates that, despite the tactical partnership between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Egyptian and Saudi strategic visions are greatly at odds, and Egypt is moving to position itself as an independent actor between the pro-axis and pro-Saudi blocs. Further, as a secular pan-Arab state, Egypt is wary of Wahhabi fundamentalism and rejects sectarianism, which it considers a Saudi strategy to position itself as the leader of the Sunni world.
Similar shifts have occurred in Lebanon, a bellwether for the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In a reflection of the growing influence of the axis, in October 2016, the pro-Saudi Sunni Lebanese leader Saad Hariri endorsed presidential candidate Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah and head of the largest Christian parliamentary bloc. Hariri had originally endorsed Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces Party and member of Hariri’s March 14 Alliance, expecting the Syrian government to fall, but when that failed to happen, threw his support behind Suleiman Frangieh, a pro-Syrian ally and member of Hezbollah’s political coalition. It took nearly a year, but eventually Hariri was forced to accept Aoun—Hezbollah’s consistent choice for office since the beginning of Lebanon’s political stalemate. Hariri’s decision to cede to these pressures was influenced by the Iranian nuclear agreement, the changing status quo in Syria and the region, as well as domestic factors, including the emergence of other Sunni leaders that threatened to undermine his legitimacy. In the end, Hariri became the prime minister.
In Palestine, pro-Iranian factions of Hamas have now overtaken leadership of the Gaza Strip, following the opaque decision in September 2016 of senior leader Ismail Haniyeh to settle in Qatar, possibly to replace Khaled Meshaal as the head of Hamas’ politburo. (Hamas’ leaders typically live outside of Gaza so that they can travel freely.) The internal splits within Hamas are reflected in the military and political wings of the movement, the former having been historically closer to Iran and the latter to the Gulf monarchies, especially following the Arab Spring. Imad al-Alami, reportedly the new transitional leader of Hamas in Gaza, has been the group’s main link to the axis of resistance, having cultivated close ties to the IRGC and Hezbollah over the past few decades and traveling frequently to Iran.
Also partly in reaction to regional developments favoring the axis, Morocco appointed its first ambassador to Iran in October 2016, seven years after it unceremoniously cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran. Morocco is currently trying to diversify its political relations with international and regional powers, and is looking for opportunities to diminish some of its traditional reliance on Western powers and Saudi Arabia, especially given the perception in the Middle East that Washington had abandoned former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Further, Morocco, like Egypt, is concerned with the rise of the extremist religious threat within the Maghreb, which is largely perceived to be linked to Saudi patronage and funding.
THE MODERATION OF IRAN?
As the key player and lead state in the axis of resistance, and with the completion of the nuclear agreement and the possibility of Iranian “moderation” as a consequence of the deal, the question of whether Iran will shift its policies away from the axis deserves special attention. Will Iran moderate? And what would “moderation” mean in the current geopolitical context within the Middle East?
For Iranians, especially hard-liners such as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC, the roots of the regional geopolitical crisis—especially the conflict in Syria—are existential. In their minds, the Syrian conflict has less to do with Syria and more to do with the goal of the United States and its regional partners to undermine Iranian power. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Leader and IRGC will give up on Syria—or, more broadly, the axis of resistance.
Iran’s support for the axis also stems from its revolutionary ideology. The hard-liners wish, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, to be a cause, not just a country. For the Iranian Supreme Leader, support for the axis is a part of its revolution, and a drastic change would otherwise mean emptying the revolutionary regime and turning it into a “hollow tree,” devoid of values. For Khamenei and his faction, this is an unacceptable outcome given the ideological and revolutionary foundations of the state.
What does this hard-line worldview mean, then, for Iranian moderation, especially when moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif do not have full control over regional security files such as Syria? In this light, Iranian moderation does not mean that Iran will give up support for the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and its regional allies. Moderation entails the degree to which Iran will be willing to cooperate and work with the United States, the international community, and regional actors within the geographic territory of the axis of resistance, including collaboration on issues of power-sharing, counterterrorism, development and reconstruction, and other areas of mutual interest. Moderation might also involve bargaining with Iran to pull back from Yemen or Bahrain, which are beyond the main contours of the axis, for example, and pursue meaningful detente with the Gulf monarchies. Iranian moderation on these terms would still be significant given the potentially positive role it could play in stabilizing the Middle East.
THE PATH FORWARD
Growing Iranian power means that there is a real risk of the axis expanding across Shiite-majority Bahrain and into the Shiite eastern Arabian Peninsula where the main Saudi oilfields rest, or consolidating its position in Yemen and the Bab al-Mandab. However, the regional security order on which the United States has traditionally based its policies to contain and isolate Iran has unraveled, thus rendering obsolete and counterproductive Washington’s previous methods of containing and balancing Iran. Moreover, the challenge is not just limited to Iran. The new U.S. administration will be compelled to deal with a more resilient and autonomous set of actors within the axis.
At this point, dismantling the axis of resistance would be unfeasible. The clock cannot be turned back. There is a critical amount of social support behind the institutions and armed movements of the axis—many of its combatants are willing to fight and die for their cause. Without recognizing the changing facts on the ground and the means for credible engagement, applying greater pressure on Iran and the axis will yield marginal gains given they have thrived under decades of war or warlike conditions. This means that the United States must work pragmatically using the necessary tools of statecraft and diplomacy to negotiate and establish new rules to the geopolitical game and to manage the rise of the axis. This should involve demarcating the boundaries and zone of influence for the axis and engaging both state and nonstate actors.
In this light, dismantling or renegotiating the nuclear deal will be impractical, particularly if it risks alienating the United States’ international allies and the Iranians themselves. It would thus behoove Washington to retain allied cooperation in case it wishes to strike a larger bargain with Iran on a range of outstanding regional, military, and nuclear issues not dealt with in the nuclear agreement. Moreover, the United States has much to gain from axis players as well, such as cooperation over counterterrorism and providing stability in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and the Gulf states—in addition to counterbalancing Russia. And engaging the axis, especially in Iraq and Iran, will allow the United States to balance growing Russian influence in the region.
As the sectarian dynamics in the Middle East may jeopardize any U.S. efforts for engagement and regional integration of the axis, and have only empowered Iran and its allies thus far, Washington must first focus on deescalating sectarianism and mitigating the rising tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. To do this, Washington must work with Egypt, which is also opposed to sectarianism, to rebalance the region, and to actively work to reduce tensions when flashpoints occur, such as with the execution of Sheikh Nimr. Moreover, throughout this process, Washington must take care not to be seen as taking sides. There is tremendous transnational Shiite support around Iran, and the United States must seem balanced, not taking actions that might be interpreted as heavy-handedly pro-Saudi by the larger Shiite communities in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Otherwise, this will only empower Iran and radicalize the Shiite world. In seeking to stabilize the Middle East, Washington must also remember that the Gulf states rely on external security umbrellas while the axis of resistance has managed to create its own indigenous regional security structure against all odds.
In tackling these challenges, the United States must recognize that the axis of resistance has transformed in fundamental ways. It has, in spite of all odds, strengthened in the midst of raging conflicts that have otherwise torn the Middle East apart. It has grown more muscular through its transnational alliance of irregular militias and international backing from Moscow and more vocal in its criticisms of Saudi Arabia and its promotion of Shiism. In return, it has received greater support and recognition from key regional players such as Egypt and Lebanon. If Washington is to truly move forward in the region, it must acknowledge these new realities and engage with Iran and its allies to influence the emergence of a new Middle East.

A word to the wise


Israel should not let itself be carried away by having Trump in the White House. Four years of unrestricted settlement growth will only produce an eventual backlash. Rather, now is the time to build ‘economic peace’.

The recent UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements provoked critical comments from the Australian government (which isn’t on the Council). The peace conference in Paris (for which Israel wasn’t present) provoked critical comments from the British government. And with the Trump ascendancy, there is now a pro-Israel administration in the US (though Trump may well prove to be unpredictable). 

The alignment of conservative governments in these three English-speaking countries (especially since the UK will be increasingly independent of EU foreign policy) has the Israeli government salivating, given the sustained diplomatic pressure placed on Israel during the Obama years.

Indeed, a day after the Trump inauguration, Israel announced hundreds of apartments will be built in east Jerusalem, with Netanyahu boasting he will be ramping up construction in the settlements.

But Netanyahu ought to be cautious, for a couple of reasons.

Although a large segment of the American public love Trump, an equally large section loathes him, as does much of the media. Polite society around the world find him a caricature, at best. If Israel seeks to do whatever it wants, protected by Trump, the popular hatred of Trump will be extended to Israel by association. 

Further, after a couple of years of international diplomatic frustration, the next US administration will pile pressure on Israel as a way to expunge memory of the Trump era, in much the same way that Obama immediately put pressure on Israel, after eight years of American support under Bush. (And there is little doubt, given the depth of feeling about Bush, Obama and Trump, that Trump’s replacement will be an anti-Trump, in much the same way that Obama was an anti-Bush and Trump is an anti-Obama.)

However, the Trump presidency provides an opportunity for Israel. Many, including myself, argue that sustained international pressure on Israel is counter-productive, since it convinces Israel that the world will not have its back when it comes time to make potentially dangerous concessions. Well, now a supportive administration is in place. I’m not suggesting that Israel withdraw precipitously from the West Bank, as this will only encourage terrorism. But Netanyahu and others have spoken in the past of ‘economic peace’, and of building up the Palestinian Authority as a responsible economic actor ahead of, or hand-in-hand with, further withdrawals. This doesn’t mean merely pressure on the Palestinians to curb corruption (though that is vital). It means Israel putting in place measures that really help Palestinian individuals, businesses and government. With Trump in the White House, and conservative governments in London and Canberra, Netanyahu has a unique opportunity to have the international community offer the right balance of carrots and sticks to the Palestinians at the same time Israel does. Will Netanyahu recognise and grasp this opportunity, or will he bow to populist tendencies, and reap the whirlwind in four years time?

The crack widens


I wrote back in October last year that a crack was appearing in the Status Quo Bloc, because of differences of opinion (and subsequent action) between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As I wrote at the time, the crack appeared because the Status Quo Bloc is not a traditional alliance, but merely a group of states brought together by shared interests. The Bloc was strongest when the Middle East’s only other real bloc was the Resistance Bloc, led by Iran. But the emergence of the Sunni Islamist Continuum has revealed divergent interests within the Status Quo Bloc. To the Saudis, the Resistance Bloc is the greater threat. To the Egyptians, the Sunni Islamist Continuum is the greater threat. 

There’s also mutual enmity between the Sunni Islamists and Resistance Bloc, typified by bloodshed in Syria. The Saudis have backed (some) Sunni Islamists in its proxy war with Iran, which has upset Egypt. Egypt has come to see the Resistance Bloc as an effective enemy of the Sunni Islamists, and so has taken some policy positions friendly to Iran, which has annoyed the Saudis.

Hence, the crack is widening, as this article describes.

About the only thing that will paper over the crack is strong Western (read: US) leadership. Because both the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist Continuum are inimicable to Western interests. With Trump in the White House, we’re in a new world. Who knows if he’ll be able to see the Middle East’s big picture?

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.