Too Many Hegemons and No Real Leadership in the Middle East
US passivity in the Middle East has emboldened tyrannical aspiring hegemons to push on aggressively. In Syria, Assad is benefiting from the Turkish attacks on Kurds in the euphemistically titled operation “Olive Branch”, while also cynically using this splintering to launch additional chemical attacks.
Allegedly, Assad’s stake here is to restore order and unify the country, yet at this point, unity and stability will not restore peace or order, but rather give Iran greater control over the situation. Iran is paying lip service to criticize Turkey’s ongoing operation, yet has not put any real pressure for Turkey to end the intrusion, because the attacks on Kurds are playing into his hands. The best thing that could happen to Russia, Iran, and Turkey is the dilemma facing the US over how to deal with Turkey’s attacks on some, but not yet all of the Kurds.
Erdogan, seeing no pushback from the US, which wants to try to keep as many parties as much at peace as possible, is growing bolder, and increasingly disregarding any relationship with the US. The US is busy trying to fight battles closer to home: working with Argentina to reduce Lebanese Hizbullah’s influence in Latin America and keep China from taking over Latin American countries through its creeping infrastructure-focused influence campaign. Similar efforts in Maldives, and Pakistan has put China in control of these countries’ debts, and in some instances, ports, and other vital points. Having China turn Latin America into its sphere of influence is undesirable for the US, even less so if it is as willing to work with Iran and Russia on power-sharing, as it’s doing so elsewhere.
China is already a close trade and business partner with Iran; it likewise has learned to share influence with Russia in North Africa, focusing on infrastructure development, while Russia remains in charge of defense treaties. Iran and Turkey are likewise present in Africa, edging out Saudi Arabia, and making their way into influence through military deals, arms trade, and the use of soft power. US’s presence in Africa is limited to counterterrorism operations. It has has a more significant history in Latin American, but thanks to the withdrawal of the TPP, its power is waning. Other members of the TPP are creating a version that relies more heavily on China than on the US, and much as Secretary of State Tillerson can warn China away from imperialism in Latin America through words, de facto, US has no power to prevent other countries from engaging in independent trade agreements if the US is out of the picture.
US loss of leadership and influence is likewise seen in Asia, where Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and formerly US-aligned Cambodia are now more or less under China’s wings. The political standoff in the Maldives over the differences between the President and the Supreme Court, related to the fate of the imprisoned opposition have been yet another political surprise for the US – not that it has made any headlines in the Western media, preoccupied with domestic matters. The Maldives events are seen to be a blow to India, which appears to be more pro-Western than China – and for that reason, the line of events where the Maldives falls increasingly under China’s influence is undesirable to the US. China has likewise become increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea, and its build-up of its artificial islands is more brazen. Most recent development where China has moved approximately 30, 000 troops closer to North Korea is alarming, as is the fact that Kim Jung Un basically pulled a fast one over the US by having a strings-free agreement with South Korea to march under the same flag in the Olympics. The US is increasingly seen as a meaningless dupe, that barks loud, but has no bite. Increasingly, US allies and adversaries alike maneuver around the US, where in the past they would have been dependent on it for guidance, resources, support, or permission. That leaves the US with increasingly fewer options for determining a strong line of policy where it truly matters.
The Middle East is by far the most striking example of that play. Iran, though apparently a central concern for the US, and many of her allies, remains essentially untouchable. Although President Trump threatened to reimpose sanctions if the JCPOA is not reformed in the 120-day period since the last evaluation, the European Union is deeply invested in Iran and is not inclined to take any action that would endanger that relationship. Just how deeply Europe is involved with Iran was illustrated by the recent media discovery by Jerusalem post that a German company was selling technology to Iran that was used to launch chemical attacks on civilians in Syria. The company issued a statement claiming to be shocked at this turn of events, but given that Germany is the same country that is selling tanks to Turkey, while its journalist is languishing in a Turkish prison.
Turkey is arming Turkish street gangs in Germany, and Erdogan engages in widespread human rights violations at home and war crimes in Syria, “shock” is not the correct word to use in this situation. Iran senses that it has enough of backing to be able to continue resisting US pushback. In Iraq, Iran-backed militias, such as Hashd al-Shaabi are calling for the expulsion of US troops. With ISIS continuing to remain a problem, and in fact, resurging in the occupied Kirkuk province, the US forces are not ready to leave, although the diminishment of troops is expected once the ISIS campaign starts to wrap up. Likewise, in Syria, Assad repeatedly called for US withdrawal from the region, although Secretary of Defense Mattis claims that the US troops are to stay there for as long as it takes to stabilize the country.
In Afghanistan, the past year has been a disaster, with Taliban controlling 70% of the territory and gaining, and an increase in terrorist attacks and civilian deaths. President Trump finally moved away from the policy of trying to bring Taliban to the negotiating table and focused on air strikes that are aimed at a complete elimination of its presence. Time will tell whether this will prove effective, but the presence of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Iran-backed groups, and various state actors fighting for influence (and some, including China, Russia, and to some extent Iran, lending some backing to Taliban), complicates the picture. How much the US can accomplish without a ground strategy in the mountainous, cavernous country where the enemy controls most of the territory is hard to predict. A combination of effective special forces on the ground and air strikes probably could have been helpful in clearing the ground. However, the US ground forces are currently playing only a limited auxiliary role, and the coalition overall seems ill-prepared to deal with the increasingly violent environment.
Similar lack of vision plagues US Yemen policy. Admittedly, coming in late into the game, the chaotic situation on the ground may seem overwhelming. However, limiting US focus exclusively to fighting off ISIS and Al Qaeda is inimical to US interests in countering Iran’s expansionism, preserving stability and security of strategic waterways, and defending her allies in the region. Indeed, the allies sometimes engage in questionable decisionmaking. Despite claims that Saudi Arabia and UAE are firmly united in their opposition to the Houthis and the backing of the internationally recognized government, in reality, it appears that the two leading countries in the coalition are playing out regional rivalries through proxies in Yemen, with KSA remaining behind the cornered government, while UAE is backing a group of separatists demanding their own land. Such disputes further erase credibility of the two countries, which have been widely and one-sidedly been painted as villains during the Yemen campaign by various human rights activists, Yemeni Shi’a, and Europeans.
Houthis, too, have suffered somewhat of a splintering – nevertheless, disputes among the Arab Coalition and daylight with the United States play right into their hands. To some extent, the Arab Coalition, which may be in the right on this issue, has displayed appalling PR strategy, which has undeservedly cost them in support among allies and skeptics alike. For instance, Al Arabiya reported that Arab Coalition forces leader Turki Al-Maliki confirmed further evidence of Iran’s supply of weapons to the Houthis through humanitarian aid ships the Arab Coalition has blockaded near Yemen. Additionally, he added, the Saudis were able to supply food and humanitarian aid to a significant portion of Yemenis.
Yet none of that important information ever reached the Western media, nor photos of these important developments were shared with the US community, in whose eyes Saudis remain self-interested villains and instigators. They have also made a fantastically poor case for what remains to be a central geopolitical concern – that regardless of Saudis’ own reputation, Iran’s expansionism remains a direct threat to global security. Houthis are now aggressively threatening the strategic Bab al-Mandab crossing, one of the world’s busiest waterways, as reported by Israel’s newspaper Ha’aretz. (“Iranian-armed Yemen Rebels Now Threaten One of World’s Busiest Shipping Routes, Israeli Navy Says”)
“We are dealing today with the most advanced systems being transferred to Houthis [in Yemen] and Hezbollah [in Lebanon], and this definitely constitutes a threat to Israel’s merchant ships and gas rigs.” – states an officer quoted in the article, further claiming that “We are dealing today with the most advanced systems being transferred to Houthis [in Yemen] and Hezbollah [in Lebanon], and this definitely constitutes a threat to Israel’s merchant ships and gas rigs.”
Bab al-Mandab is an extremely busy shipping route, not just for Israel but for anyone looking to do business in the Middle East or Africa. Yet legitimate security considerations for all involved have become of secondary importance to the reports of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, which despite Iran’s role in supporting the Houthi rebels, has been blamed largely on Saudis. The US should be taking immediate action to clear the waterways from Iranian-backed terrorists, regardless of its relationship with the Saudis, because Iran is a distinct danger to US’ own ship, as well as to its other regional allies, and global safety as such. Yet, lack of leadership has allowed the administration to be subsumed by dubious and irrelevant differences with the Saudis over their strategic approach and execution of the campaign against Houthis.
This sort of foreign policy pettiness is precisely the opposite of leadership. As a result, the US administration has gotten played by Baghdad, which was once dependent on US training programs and arms, by Russia, which has successfully played all sides, by Iran, which has been able to pass anywhere it wished to go without any resistance from the United States, by Assad, who after being personally responsible for the barbaric slaughter of half a million of his own civilians, somehow managed to emerge unscathed as the lesser of all evils in Syria, by Turkey, which has at one point supported and traded with ISIS, slaughtered her own Kurdish civilians, tortured anyone suspected of involvement in an attempted coup against Erdogan, shut down any criticism in the press, neutered the army, cast out thousands of professors, teachers, analysts, and journalists, and has now interfered in Syria, with a baseless attack on another US ally – local Kurds, all of which has been met with silence and impunity.
US has reserved much harsher criticism for some of her allies than for the adversaries, who, by taking advantage of the power vacuum, have been launching a campaign of domination and colonialism, right under the US nose, with no resistance whatsoever. China, Turkey, Iran, and Russia (and now, even Syria), have all been scoring points, gaining in influence, ruining lives, and creating problems for the entire region. Yet, to the US, all these problems still seem local. Houthis, emboldened by US indifference, have continuously launched attacks at the Saudi territory, just yesterday sending yet another missile which was intercepted by the military. How long till one such missile is finally successful and causes serious damage? The US has no answer.
But it continues to stay out of the fray while insisting on reserving its criticism of the EU to civil parlor discussions, while publicly criticizing the Arab mistakes for the humanitarian aid blockade aimed at stopping the weapons flow to Iranian proxies. Interestingly, the European Union lacks the interest in sparing feelings of the US and has attacked US policies publicly on multiple occasions, failing to support its diplomatic initiatives, national sovereignty issues, such as the announcement of the US embassy move to Jerusalem, or even lend support on common regional security issues, such as fighting Hizbullah or limiting Iran’s ballistic missiles activity and expansionist aggression.
The very same Germany that has sanctioned Saudi Arabia (but not Iran) for her involvement in Yemen, is heavily invested in Iran, remained silent as Iran arrested its citizens by the thousands (with some already tortured to death) for protesting its wasteful use of money towards foreign wars and terrorism, and even sold technology that contributed to war atrocities in Syria. Such allies, however, are never held accountable or are called out publicly by name. Somehow, despite advancing the agendas of US adversaries, and directly supporting some of the worst-behaving hegemons, they continue to enjoy US benefit of the doubt, trust, and respect, never being singled out for humiliating diplomatic depositions or threats of sanctions over their support of agents of chaos. Indeed, perhaps this complete lack of impunity only encourages the hypocritical and outdated view of US current relationship.
Lack of strategic understanding, short-sighted and obsessive focus on terrorist organizations to the exclusion of more serious state-backed threats, inability to discern the deeper underlying issues or even its own interests, lack of coherent policy or bold positions on central geopolitical matters are isolating the US and putting it in a disadvantageous position both with respect to economic and security matters. As aggressive hegemons are pushing forward with their agendas, buying off, threatening, or taking over any state, group, or entity that stands in the way, the US remains devoted to an arbitrarily circumscribed role of a carping curmudgeonly bystander, letting others take the blows and partake in the bloodbath, while hectoring at their shortcomings from a safe distance.
The current US allies are not perfect; for that reason, US should guide and help them, rather than abandon them to their own devices. If they are as incompetent as critics fear, there is no reason on earth why the US should let them handle security matters of vital importance to world stability without any backing. And if they are as well-meaning, promising, and deserving of assistance as they claim and optimists perceive, there is no reason for the US not to lend them full support in what would appear to be an important, perhaps even a noble quest of preserving the region and other areas of the world from takeover by malevolent forces. Either way, the US cannot afford to turn a blind eye to what is happening and to stand by idly as the world is burning, and her allies are desperately clinging to survival. If they are to fail, there will not be much left to lead, to follow, or to ignore.
By Irina Tsukerman