Middle East set for bumpy ride following US withdrawal

Middle East set for bumpy ride following US withdrawal

Donald Trump withdrew 1,000 US military personnel from Syria’s border region with Turkey. (AP Photo)

If it wasn’t clear already, it should be now. We are watching the political geography of the Middle East being reshaped before our eyes. It’s a historic moment. Whether you think that’s a good or a bad thing rather depends on where you sit. If you’re in Moscow, Tehran or Damascus, you probably think it’s good. If you’re in London, Paris, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, you don’t. In Washington, it seems to depend on whether you sit in one of the think tanks off Dupont Circle, on the Hill or in the White House.

And that’s the big problem. Historically — certainly at any point since the early 1970s, when President Anwar Sadat expelled the Russian advisers on whom his predecessor had relied — if you wanted to resolve a conflict in the Middle East, you called Washington, which meant the White House. To be more precise, it meant calling the national security adviser, starting with Henry Kissinger, whose successors (perhaps with a partial exception under the Carter administration) continued his highly pragmatic, power-based approach. In those 50 years, the US was the offshore balancer in the region, a role that Britain had played from the beginning of the 19th century — starting in the Gulf — until it was replaced sometime between 1952 and 1967.

Things really started to change, though we maybe didn’t see it clearly enough at the time, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Where Kissinger had balanced (in the tradition of his hero, Klemens von Metternich), George W. Bush gambled. The gamble wasn’t whether the US could destroy the Saddamist regime, which it clearly could, it was whether the US could build something enduringly better out of the rubble. The answer to that has been an emphatic no. This is not because the current system in Iraq is more oppressive (though some might think it is equally so, in a different way). It is because taking down Saddam Hussein opened the door not to democracy and an open, vibrant economy delivering for all Iraqis, but to corruption and Iran.

President Barack Obama seems to have thought the answer was to believe not in the force of arms but in the improving arc of history (the intellectual equivalent of the tooth fairy). He wanted to reduce US commitments in the Middle East, partly because he saw endless conflicts there as a drain on the nation’s resources, but also perhaps because he thought the US was part of the problem and therefore couldn’t be part of the solution. 

Donald Trump has simply tested this theory to destruction. Except that he doesn’t seem to think what happens in the Middle East is necessarily a problem for the US. It’s a long way away. US energy production is booming. It costs a lot of money — and lives — to try to resolve distant conflicts. There are no obvious domestic political benefits. And it sucks up a lot of energy, a lot of patience and a lot of creativity. The Trump White House doesn’t obviously have that skill set. When it comes to the Middle East as a whole (so not just Iran), I’m not persuaded the Obama White House had it either. And the Department of State, which under Obama probably still had it, has been marginalized. 

And so we are where we are. On the basis of a single telephone conversation with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 6 — the culmination, to be fair, of a protracted campaign of nagging, veiled threats and maneuvering on the ground — Trump agreed that about 1,000 US military personnel who had been working with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mixed Kurdish-Arab troops associated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish political movement with links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey regards as terrorists, would be withdrawn. Turkish forces were given a free hand to create an extensive buffer zone along the eastern end of the Turkish-Syrian border, in what had been the proto-Kurdish mini-state of Rojava. 

The Turks claim to want to resettle in this space at least some of the 3.6 million refugees, mostly from elsewhere in Syria, currently in Turkey. Erdogan says this is for humanitarian reasons. Others think it is simply designed to neutralize the Kurdish threat by ethnic cleansing. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced. There has been heavy shelling and air strikes in built-up areas. There have been reports — and some disturbing footage — of atrocities already committed by irregular Arab forces associated with the Turkish advance, including the brutal murder of a Kurdish female politician, Hevrin Khalaf, and the summary execution of civilians. There is clear evidence that, among these forces, are people previously associated with some deeply unpleasant groups inside Syria, including some which many observers believe Turkey has been cultivating for years.

The international and, more importantly perhaps, the domestic US reaction to the initial Turkish advances seems to have led Trump to change his mind — a little — and threaten Turkey (in a letter I initially thought was a hoax: It reads like the sort of thing Tony Soprano would write, if he ever wrote letters) with sanctions if it didn’t call off its attack dogs. Vice President Mike Pence visited Ankara and Turkey agreed a temporary cease-fire of some sort — but only if the Kurds withdrew their forces, which is what Erdogan wanted all along. Erdogan and Vladimir Putin subsequently agreed a deal that will see Turkey and Russia oversee the Kurdish withdrawal and start joint patrols along the border. Russian forces have taken over some formerly US bases. The Iranians — doubtless rubbing their hands with glee — made statesmanlike noises while reinforcing their positions on the Syria-Iraq border at Al-Qaim and in Mayadin, to the southeast of Deir Ezzor.

It’s a big mess if you believe in and value the sort of order we have seen in the region for the last five decades. This was an order guaranteed by the US, with Israel, Egypt and the Gulf states as the chief beneficiaries. There will be no equivalent replacement for the US, as there was for Britain when her moment in the Middle East ended. Russia has emerged as the power broker in Syria and now perhaps also between Syria and Turkey (and maybe between Iran and Israel). Russia is also building up its political capital elsewhere. Putin will try and leverage this to secure gains in Ukraine, for example. But the chief regional beneficiary will be Iran.

A Turkey focused on its own borders and deeply divided domestically is not a rival, especially when Erdogan owes Putin so much. The Arab Gulf states do not have the same equities or capabilities as Iran — built up over 40 years — in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. In Iraq, the government’s response to the recent demonstrations, fueled by popular and non-sectarian anger at corruption and incompetence, has been straight out of Tehran’s playbook. If reports are to be believed, Iranian advisers have been helping direct the response of the security forces, supported by elements of the Popular Mobilization Units, since the unrest began. Bashar Assad needs Iran now more than ever, which is why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has so easily been able to effectively annex the key border crossings into Iraq. Lebanon is bankrupt and increasingly controlled by Hezbollah. And Iran will also always have Yemen as a useful means of applying pressure on Saudi Arabia, unless that war is closed down soon.

President Barack Obama seems to have thought the answer was to believe not in the force of arms but in the improving arc of history.

Sir John Jenkins

If you were to ask me what I think we (meaning Europe and the US) should do about this, the first thing I would say is that we need to recognize reality. Creeping Iranian hegemony over a space from Pakistan to the Mediterranean is a threat to the Arab states of the Gulf and the international alignment of the greater Levant, something that has concerned policymakers in Western capitals for a century. The Turkish turn toward Russia — and its growing dependency — is a threat to NATO. If Europe had the capacity, then I would also say we needed to develop a counter-strategy — based on hard power not soft wishes — pretty quickly. This would involve greater military support for the Arab Gulf; a concerted effort to roll back at least some of the gains Iran has made in Iraq through effective support for better governance, militia demobilization and better economic and political integration with its Arab neighbors; a program of economic support for Lebanon and Jordan; and a strategic security partnership with India. There is probably scope for greater joint work on ways to combat asymmetric warfare and new forms of combat. I don’t actually think Europe as a whole has this capacity, or the collective will. But some individual countries do, including Britain (I hope, especially when we emerge from the current political chaos) and France. They should work together, not in competition.

But this still leaves a gigantic hole where the US used to be. Over the last decade, trust has been lost massively — and not just among the Kurds, whose sense of historic betrayal has always been profound. Unless Washington rethinks its international position very soon, the moment for repair will pass. This will increase the stress on all manner of important relationships and alliances. And, in a Middle East full of rivals, without a natural point of equilibrium or a natural hegemon (whatever Tehran may imagine), the future will almost certainly be more conflict. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride.

  • Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015
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