Middle East peace remains elusive after Warsaw summit
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Warsaw this week attending a conference to discuss “the future of Middle East stability and prosperity.” On the surface, the aims were noble, because the Middle East is replete with crises and the Trump administration’s policy of disengagement has certainly not helped.
However, when President Trump’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, set about organizing the conference, the aim was explicitly to bill Iran as the biggest stumbling block to the Middle East’s stability. This was eventually toned down at the behest of European allies, and the agenda was quickly expanded to include Israeli-Palestinian relations, the civil war in Syria and Yemen as well as Iran’s growing influence in the region.
It remains to be seen whether a two-day policy conference will be sufficient to lay down all the groundwork for a persistently elusive “peace” in the region.
There were plans to unveil a “deal of the century” to put an end to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That has been delayed until after elections in Israel on April 9, smearing the conference as an electioneering stunt for the embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election amid allegations of bribery and fraud. However, such a deal is already crippled by the fact that the Palestinian half is not speaking with the White House, while the Israeli half enjoys unfettered access and influence in the crafting of this “deal.”
This laser-focus on the Middle East peace plan comes at a time when the US is seeking to disengage in the region and lean more on regional partners. Israel and Saudi Arabia are the primary allies, but cooperation between them is hampered by the unresolved Palestine question. It remains to be seen how the Trump administration aims to draw in such diametrically opposed “partners” behind common goals. If the deal of the century is the ticket, then Jared Kushner, its author and Trump’s senior adviser, should have demurred in his praise for former Israeli President Shimon Peres’ early 1990s version of Middle East “peace,” which proved to be a dead-end.
Apart from its problematic duration, given the nature of the topics discussed, the conference was also beset by no-shows from prominent diplomatic figures. Some 60 nations were represented, but the EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, and officials from Russia, Lebanon, Palestine and Iran declined to attend the event. The conference came at an awkward time for Europe, given a recently announced creation of a special purpose vehicle by Germany, France and the UK aimed at facilitating trade with Iran. Russia, China and Turkey have also joined in similar sanctions-dodging initiatives. Should they succeed, it would go a long way toward blunting any US sanctions on Iran, robbing the White House of an economic stick in the face of growing Iranian hegemony in the region.
It remains to be seen whether a two-day policy conference will be sufficient to lay down all the groundwork for a persistently elusive 'peace' in the region.
Overall, these kinds of developments are characteristic of the complexities of Middle East involvement. While other countries elect for diplomacy and careful compromises, Washington dispensed with measured words and polite rhetoric. Comments by US Vice President Mike Pence and Washington’s top diplomat erased all illusion from the Warsaw Conference’s revised broader aims. According to Pompeo, “you can’t achieve peace and stability in the Middle East without confronting Iran.”
Iran’s presence in Yemen has not won the increasingly isolated state any friends. Its support of Houthi rebels in the civil war comes from the Hezbollah Al-Hejaz, a pro-Iranian militant organization active on the Arabian Peninsula, and the Liwa Fatemiyoun, a Shia militia backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Despite a December cease-fire that should have led to troop withdrawals and the distribution of critically needed humanitarian aid, the war still rages on. More than 10 million Yemenis are either starving or acutely undernourished while medical facilities are shutting down, despite the outbreak of swine flu.
A few days ago, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock had to issue a public plea to Houthi rebels in control of Hodeidah, where enough grain to feed 3.7 million Yemeni is stored and inaccessible. And now this grain from the World Food Programme is at risk of rotting. Even with these upsetting developments, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution on Wednesday to end support for the coalition backing the Yemeni government. House Republicans opposed the resolution, as they see US involvement as a bulwark against Iranian adventurism and the expansion of Al-Qaeda and Daesh on the Arabian Peninsula. It is likely that President Trump will veto the bill, should it pass the US Senate. However, in light of disengagements elsewhere in the Middle East, this bill may just offer the White House a quick exit from a highly contentious involvement.
Iran’s influence is also palpable in disputes from Afghanistan to Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon and even Morocco. Notably, Tehran has entrenched itself in post-civil war Iraq, after arming and inspiring Shia militia groups in the numerous battles to regain territories lost to Daesh. Some of the leaders of these anti-Daesh forces had extremely close ties to Tehran and the IRGC’s Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a notorious army division responsible for external military interventions and clandestine operations.
Presently, even though Iran-backed Hadi Al-Amiri lost in the 2018 elections, he is still the leader of the second-largest political party in Iraq and part of the Badr Organization, which runs the Iraqi interior ministry. This is eerily similar to how Hezbollah has gained influence in the Lebanese parliament, with two supporters of the Iran-backed group becoming parliamentary speaker and deputy speaker. In addition, 70 of 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament were won by candidates who back Hezbollah’s possession of arms.
Unfortunately, with the US in retreat across the Middle East, it is likely that Iran will be able to, and even eager to, fill the inevitable vacuum.
Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell