Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 6 – 13 December 2013

Conflicts Forum

The tempo of the regional dance of diplomacy has been heightened over recent days. Karzai, Maliki and Lavrov all have visited Tehran in recent days, and Prince Bandar has again called on President Putin.  Many balls are in the air — Geneva II, the escalating violence in Iraq, the future of Afghanistan, and the futures of the GCC and Lebanon — and it is plain that Russia, China and Iran are coordinating carefully their response to America’s intent to dis-invest from the Middle East.

What Jimmy Carter began, President Obama is ending.  When Obama’s national security adviser tells the New York Timesthat the president refuses to “be consumed 24/7 by one region” and intends to reassess U.S. Middle East policy “in a very critical and kind of no-holds-barred way,” it is clear that the US is operating to a new mode: idealistic aspirations are to be surrendered to vital interest; and what is merely desirable is being rooted out to give place to hard-nosed realism.  As Andrew Bacevich has noted, the US no longer enjoys the comfortable surfeit of power – or the public appetite – necessary to pull the Middle East into conformity with its perceived mission civilisatrice.

The American Administration plainly is now engaged in a rear-guard ‘action’ designed to allow the residue of the Carter structures and doctrine to be wound down gracefully.  Some of the preparations for this are both considered and deliberate (for example, the signing of the Geneva Accord with Iran); but perhaps other measures are being embarked on more in response to the uproar caused by the shock of it all or, perhaps prompted by the old colonial rule-of-thumb, that when departing a place, it is always best to leave behind two matched rivals seeking to fill your void, as this often gives a departing power more room for maneuver.  (It is not so sure that such Kissingeresque balance-of-power strategies however will be effective in the melée which is today’s Middle East where ‘dynamics’, in any case, are not under the influence of the regional ‘powers’, whether they be balanced or not).

In any event – ever eager to reassure Saudi Arabia that the United States remains a partner (in spite of America’s tentative rapprochement with Iran) – the US has opted to back a Saudi initiative that would effectively establish the kingdom as the region’s military superpower and first line of defence, whilst allowing the US to downsize its commitment to the region.  But, in laying out a series of measures that together combine to put the GCC as an single entity – in which Saudi Arabia is by far the most powerful member-  rather than individual Gulf states – at the centre of US defence policy, Hegel indirectly endorsed Saudi demands for Gulf states to merge into a single unit. Union has been long sought by Saudi Arabia, but periodically rebuffed by Gulf states, unwilling to surrender their autonomy to a Saudi hegemony.

Unsurprisingly, Saudi officials were delighted, enthusing that Hegel had understood the kingdom’s needs – and in so doing was supporting their effort to achieve a Saudi-led, Gulf union. “This fits our agenda perfectly,” one official noted. But in a rare public reproof, Omani minister of state for foreign affairs Yousef bin Alawi Al Ibrahim, retorted, “We absolutely don’t support Gulf union. There is no agreement in the region on this …. If this union materialises, we will deal with it; but we will not be a member. Oman’s position is very clear. If there are new arrangements for the Gulf to confront existing or future conflicts, Oman will not be part of it,” he said.

Clearly the summit was a testy affair.  Saud al-Faisal struggled to shut off – even before they might begin – any potential avenues of member state discussion with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz disputed islands (after the Iranian FM’s recent Gulf tour), by laying down a maximalist and inflexible GCC posture: to dissuade Sheikh Hamad of Fujarah, one of the emirates, to shun all dealings with Tehran – and was sharply at odds with the leaders of  Oman, UAE and Qatar:  Faisal accused Oman, and Qatar in particular, of continuing to channel funds to the Muslim Brotherhood – which Saudi Arabia is intent on destroying.

The Omani minister’s remarks rejecting unity are likely to be shared by other Gulf states – albeit they are not voiced so publicly.  Sultan Qaboos, who did not attend the summit, is reported to be so aggrieved by the Saudi outpouring of anger at him for hosting the secret talks between US and Iranian officials that he has hinted to other Gulf states his readiness to resign from the GCC.

Plainly, the smaller Gulf states are worried about how to respond to America’s new posture: there are no obvious ‘great power’ substitutes to offer such a comparable, and unqualified, guarantee of continued monarchical survival to that of the erstwhile US pledge.  These states’ main concern is to guard their independence and survive – and in a non-polar (or anti-polar) world – security requires more the keeping an array of good relations (particularly with any emerging regional powerhouse), rather than being co-opted into an increasingly militarized, neighbour’s quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Hence there is increasing divergence between these GCC states and Saudi Arabia – both on Syria and on how to treat Iran, post Geneva Accord – especially as Iran is so vigorously inviting these states to open a new chapter in its relations with them.  There are several reports that all Gulf states want the Saudis to meet the Iranians – in spite of the fury flowing from Saud al-Faisal’s ministry.

In short, Hegel’s initiative to strengthen Saudi Arabia in the balance with Iran by espousing a unified GCC military configuration, may end by splitting the GCC members, rather than by strengthening them – or, perhaps Hegel understands this, and having (cynically) done the Saudis’ bidding – (and in the expectation of further defence contracts), has few illusions that the initiative is likely to wither and die, of its own accord.

Other aspects of America’s rear-guard actions (winding down military engagements is never without its risks) is most evident in Afghanistan, Syria, and Egypt.  In Afghanistan, the US literally is withdrawing, but wants to keep its ‘rear-guard’ force in position. It is not clear that this will be possible (the rift with Karzai is profound). Neither Iran, nor Russia, nor China want foreign troops to remain in this region.  Karzai, stripped of US support, is vulnerable, but not necessarily a ‘dead man walking’. Obama is looking for a safe exit from Afghan soil, and a security agreement: Tehran wants to see all foreign forces out of the region, as President Rowhani reiterated this week (Iran has a 1000 km border with Afghanistan), but Tehran nonetheless also understands the desire in the United States for a contribution by President Rowhani to the security agreement – and the safe exit of US forces from Afghanistan.  And Karzai badly needs friends – hence the visit to Tehran.  The Iranian president might well find the way to ease America out of Afghanistan.  If such an arrangement materialises, it could become one of the key points to a developping understanding between the two sides, arising from out of the Geneva Accord.

In Syria, the US is looking for a way to slide delicately out from its earlier regime-change posture, into having its major single focus on the objective of defeating Syrian jihadism, (which Obama now understands – largely courtesy of the Russians – to be a serious threat).  It seems – and here Prince Bandar’s visit to Russia – is significant: the possibilities here too are that a ‘deal’ is in the air (but emphatically is by no means certain).

Syrian opposition members are saying that there is an American-Russian understanding to let the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (the SNC) form the opposition’s delegation to the Geneva II conference. Other opposition sources have linked this development to Bandar bin Sultan’s visit to Moscow.  “If true, this will be a consolation prize offered to Saudi Arabia in order [to get them even to agree] to hold the conference – and the Saudis in return, will have to consent to Iranian participation”, the opposition leader said.  In support of this hypothesis that some ‘arrangement’ is being mooted, the leader of the FSA, General Idris shocked many recently when he said that SNC would accept that President Assad would lead any transitional government – adding that the FSA would probably then join the Syrian Army in the fight against the jihadists.

Clearly such an outcome (the moderate opposition joining with the Syrian army to defeat the jihadists) would please the US, but the White House is still suspicious of Bandar. It suspects that he has been consorting with conservatives in America, who oppose Obama, with a view to humiliating Obama’s Middle East policy in the US. This sense will have been strengthened by the recent overrunning by the Islamic Front (a Bandar creation) of the FSA’s western supplied weapons and material depots near to the border with Turkey. Such was the consternation at the loss of so much equipment and weapons (see here for list of weaponry lost) that the US and Britain have halted all supplies to the insurgents (at least for now).

Of course, such a deal – if that is what Bandar is touting – remains questionable.  It might offer the Saudis a ladder down (which is important) and bring in the Iranians (which is important too); but it would be unlikely to bring the conflict to an end – since most of the effective armed insurgents remain rejectionists.  Equally, many of the non-Islamist opposition will become ‘rejectionists’ too, if they perceive the SNC being cast as the Opposition.  On the other hand, the ‘implosion’ of the US and EU supported FSA under pressure from the Islamic Front might provoke the latter to move towards more open support for Assad remaining in power (this is already implicit in the agreements with Russia).  In any event, the course of Syrian events are more likely to be dictated on the ground in Syria than at Geneva.

In Egypt and Lebanon, America’s rear-guard action consists mainly in the search for stability.  Kerry has attempted (not verysuccessfully) to patch up with General Sisi (by making disparaging remarks about Morsi).  And in Lebanon, the US is fretting about the Lebanese Presidential election due in May next year.  The incumbent has little support for his efforts to remain as President; but at the same time, no one, be it an external or any local power, has the ability to impose a candidate.  This lacuna is in addition to Lebanon’s lack of a government.  In many ways, Lebanon’s predicament is acute, the Saudi king (and some domestic forces) would like the Lebanese Army commander to attack Hizbullah, whilst the western powers (and Syria) would prefer that the army be deployed against influx of jihadists into Lebanon.  Nothing seems likely to prevent the drift toward some form of sectarian clash, unless the Russia-Syria-Iran axis can find some entente with the Saudis.  America needs this, to ‘watch America’s back’ (and Israel’s naturally) – as it were, as its wind-down proceeds.

The exit from America’s travails in the region, Obama seems to be indicating, lies precisely with such hard-nosed working of ‘interests’.  Winding-down the US commitment in the region does not mean that all the area’s problems will be solved, but it does imply that the US will no longer be expected to resolve them all.  And after the initial heated reaction to the Obama shift, we may even find that it has de-escalated at least some of the tensions – though the turmoil of fundamental change, through which the region is passing, will create new ones, in place of the old ones.



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