US’ mystifying position on Iraq, Lebanon protests 

US’ mystifying position on Iraq, Lebanon protests 

Demonstrators argue with Lebanese army soldiers during ongoing anti-government protests at a highway in Jal el Dib, Lebanon. (Reuters)

Anti-government protests reached a critical climax in Iraq and Lebanon this weekend, and Monday marked a fresh drive in the popular uprisings that have rattled the ruling political classes for weeks in both countries and beyond. For now, there seems to be no end in sight to the all-encompassing, largely leaderless and defiant movements, despite the success in bringing down Saad Hariri’s sectarian-based government in Lebanon and the declaration by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi of his readiness to resign once a successor is named. Nothing that the ruling class in either country has offered so far has mollified the protesters.

There are two crucial external components that are relevant to the ongoing uprisings. One is the serious and unprecedented challenge to Iran’s influence and hegemony in Iraq and Lebanon, directly and through its proxies, and the second is the Trump administration’s apparent complacency in reacting to a seismic regional event. 

Tehran’s reaction has been predictable. The regime, which has for decades employed its resources to spread its revolution and extend its regional grip, is now facing an across-the-board popular backlash. Nothing underlines this more than the scenes of angry anti-Iranian Shiite protesters in Karbala and Najaf this weekend. Similarly, Lebanese Shiites have joined others from all sects and religions in calling for the downfall of the ruling class and an end to the quota-based political system that has crippled successive governments and provided a fertile ground for massive corruption and rampant cronyism. 

But, while paying lip service to the protesters’ demands in Iraq and Lebanon, the US has stopped short of putting pressure on the Baghdad political elite to adopt genuine structural reforms that would not only undercut Tehran’s influence but also put the failing country on the road to recovery. Even more astonishing was the White House’s decision last week to freeze all military aid to the Lebanese army, including a package worth $105 million that both the State Department and Congress approved in September.

This decision — against the recommendations of both the State and Defense Departments — plays directly into the hands of Iran, Hezbollah, terror groups and even Russia. Of all the political players in Lebanon today, the Lebanese army is the only multi-sectarian and functional organ in an otherwise polarized political landscape. During the demonstrations, the army has shown constraint and refused to be dragged into a bloody confrontation with the protesters. As the country goes into a state of paralysis, the Lebanese army — trusted by all Lebanese — can and should play a major role in guaranteeing a peaceful transition from the current impasse. 

It is therefore puzzling why the Trump administration would seek to weaken the only neutral and credible force in Lebanon today. Putting pressure on the Lebanese army will not force it to take sides, especially in confronting Hezbollah, as Israel and some hawkish Washington strategists are hoping.

The only way out of the current predicament is for the Lebanese factions to work out a political road map that would deliver on the people’s demands of a non-sectarian, democratic and transparent system. 

In Iraq, Washington has both military and political sway, not to mention a moral obligation to rid the country it invaded in 2003 of the ills of an ethno-confessional system that has proven catastrophic for Iraqis on all fronts. But it should tread carefully and apply soft pressure on all players in order to push for a new political deal that is supported by the people. In both cases, it is the people who now challenge the political elite and, by extension, Iranian intervention. 

Doing nothing in Iraq in the hope that the revolt will break Tehran’s grip over Baghdad is a dangerous ploy that could throw the entire country into an endless sectarian war.

It is puzzling why the Trump administration would seek to weaken the only neutral and credible force in Lebanon today.

Osama Al-Sharif

The cases of Iraq and Lebanon underline the Trump administration’s messy approach to complex regional issues. The sudden US withdrawal from northern Syria was whimsical at best, leaving Turkey to carry out what could have turned out to be a bloody invasion had it not been for Moscow’s stern intervention. US troops abandoned bases, only to return to them days later, and Donald Trump’s flip-flopping over his goals in Syria — now he says he will stay there to protect the oil fields — has left both allies and foes wondering what his next step will be.

If the US is serious about abandoning the Middle East, as Trump has insinuated on more than one occasion, then it should do so slowly, smartly and in coordination with regional and other world powers. It cannot claim to want to undercut Iran’s regional outreach while adopting erratic policies that deliver the opposite result. Leaving a weakened and polarized region to its fate will create a dangerous vacuum — one that Russia and China, not to mention Turkey and Iran, will be more than happy to fill.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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