When the dust settles on the Trump presidency, historians will try to assess Donald Trump’s reshuffling of the Obama legacy toward the Middle East. Indeed, the Middle East of 2020 is far different from the one left in 2016 by the Obama administration.
At the epicenter of this new realignment, one can point to the following transformations:
• An aggressive approach towards Iran, in deep contrast with the Obama administration’s cajoling attitude towards the ayatollahs’ regime. This approach included the assassination of Iran’s most admired senior military officer, Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the notorious nexus of all the proxy legions fighting on behalf of Iran in different areas of the Middle East conflict.
• Continued political pressure to contain, isolate and destabilize Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, together with imposing economic sanctions that had a deep impact on Iran’s economy, financial leaders and industries involved directly or indirectly in the financing of terrorism. Unlike the Obama administration, which favored and signed the nuclear treaty with Iran, Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and vowed to derail the Iranian nuclear and ballistic program by diplomatic and economic pressure.
• Intervention in areas of potential conflict, for example mediating between Egypt and Ethiopia in an effort to reach a deal on the issue of the “Renaissance Dam,” which, if left unresolved, could threaten the flow of the Nile River and the very existence of the fertile Nile Valley. Lebanon was also another focus for the Trump administration, which succeeded in convening the Israeli and Lebanese commission to discuss the resolution of their maritime border dispute. The meeting was the first since the multilateral meetings held in the aftermath of the Madrid Conference in 1991, which were stopped after the signing of the Oslo accords between the PLO and Israel on the lawns of the White House in September 1993.
• A unique and unprecedented U.S. activist policy in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts, some of the highlights of which were the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, the presentation of the “Peace to Prosperity” plan, which, while recognizing the two-state solution as the preferred option for the U.S. administration, designated to Israel 30 percent of the territory of Judea and Samaria, including most Jewish settlements in the area.
• Under Trump, the United States abandoned the theory that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is dependent on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, the Trump team believed that normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel would help lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that the Palestinian Authority rejected the approach and refused the U.S. peace plan did not prevent the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan—with the encouragement and support of the United States—signing peace treaties and normalization agreements with Israel. The active intervention of the United States also cleared the way for commercial Israeli flights to traverse Saudi airspace, a first since the establishment of the Jewish state.
• Ambivalence toward human rights abuses committed by U.S. allies in traditional Arab states, and a failure to heed calls to boycott and punish those regimes accused of disrespect for human rights and freedom of speech. The administration voluntarily lowered its profile and muffled its declarations relating to failures to hold “democratic” elections in those countries, concentrating instead on business deals and American economic interests.
The Middle East is more polarized than ever
Four years after taking the Washington stage, President Trump is leaving behind a fractured Middle East. COVID-19 did not play a significant role in the foreign policies of any of the parties involved in the region. The pandemic has only exacerbated internal social tensions in Arab countries, between rich and poor, between corrupted leaders and impotent citizens unable to catalyze change. At the regional level, the Middle East is more split than ever between the pro- and anti-Iran coalitions, between Sunnis and Shi’ites, between those who favor a rapprochement with Israel and those who fight it and between the stable (albeit still shaky) regimes and the failed states of Libya and Lebanon.
In those four years, no Arab regime has fallen to the Islamic jihadist wave, and those who witnessed a change produced a seemingly more democratic government. Such was the case with the military coup that toppled Sudan’s corrupt ruler, Omar al-Bashir, and the popular upheaval that brought down the Bouteflika regime in Algeria. However, most Arab states still suffer from internal weaknesses and are plagued by subversive activities carried out by extreme Muslim fundamentalist opposition groups or by Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups. New rulers have replaced deceased ones in Bahrain and Oman, while others, such as Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority, await a natural transfer of power because of the old age of their leaders. In other places, such as Lebanon, the constitutional process may impose the election of a new president in 2022.
The bloody “red lines” in Syria
The Trump regime inherited the Obama approach to Syria, characterized mainly by a condescending attitude and the declaration of “red lines” that were never enforced. The Trump administration embarked on behind-the-scenes negotiations with Russia and Turkey to stabilize the situation in northern Syria. As a result, there is today a de facto partition of Syria, into three main areas: the Kurdish region in the northeast under the U.S. umbrella, the jihadist enclave in Idlib under Turkish military protection, and the rest of Syria where Bashar Assad rules with the active assistance and involvement of Iran and its proxies.
Assad is not yet close to seeing the end of the civil war since he cannot impose an end to it without the Iranians, Iranian proxies and Russian bayonets. They are not able to complete the mission they began seven years earlier because of the realities on the ground and because of geo-strategic considerations. Meanwhile, Syria has been almost half-emptied of its prewar population, with practically six million refugees in neighboring countries and Europe waiting to return to their homes. The destruction is so colossal it will take a whole generation to reconstruct and rebuild.
Hezbollah ascendant in Lebanon
Lebanon, which hardly recovered from its long civil war (1975-1990), is again under attack. The sectarian regime agreed upon at the end of the civil war cannot contain the inter-communal tensions. A coalition agreement signed in 2005 by the president’s Christian party and the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement has paralyzed the Lebanese body politic to such an extent that no issue can be dealt with without the agreement of Hezbollah and its allies. Disagreement means stalemate in the election of the president, the formation of governments and the appointment of senior officials in state organs.
The fact that Hezbollah now controls Lebanese politics pushes away former allies and contributors (mainly Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states). They boycott Lebanon’s financial system and deny Lebanon the generous financial assistance given in the past, thus generating in 2019 a severe and unprecedented economic crisis that led to the outbreak of a popular movement demanding political reform, the punishing of the corrupted political class and the establishment of a new, non-sectarian government.
Suddenly, Hezbollah found itself under attack and on the defensive. Still, with the assistance of its ally, the ersatz Lebanese president, Hezbollah has succeeded in turning a chaotic situation into an even more chaotic one and denied any possibility of real change. The United States has threatened to withhold aid as long as Hezbollah ministers are part of the government, and sanctions imposed on Hezbollah and prominent Lebanese personalities have further destabilized the situation. Hezbollah even refused to accede to French conditions necessary to trigger an international effort to solve Lebanon’s unprecedented economic plight.
The Aug. 4 devastation in Beirut’s port, which resulted from negligence, corruption and poor management and maintenance, destroyed large parts of the capital but did nothing to change the stalemate. Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, shed tears at the news of Qassem Soleimani’s death, but not a drop for the hundreds killed and thousands injured in the Beirut blast.
Today, Lebanon is being emptied of its elite, in fact of anyone who can afford to pay for the crossing of the Mediterranean to European shores (in October 2020, more than 400 physicians left Lebanon to Europe and the United States). Lebanon has become, as a former prime minister confessed, a failed state.
Libya is torn in two
Libya has remained divided, with competing governments in Tripoli and Benghazi, each allied with international players—Turkey sided with the Tripoli government; Egypt, Russia, and France opted for the rebel leader Khalifa Haftar in the eastern part of Libya. Because of its chaotic nature, Libya has been the stomping ground of jihadist movements, a fact that has focused international attention on containing the threat of terrorism spreading to the Sahel and on stabilizing the country to allow the flow of oil to resume, even partially.
Four years on, the other North African Arab countries continue to struggle for stability. Tunisia is fighting Islamic parties (with some success) trying to impose their way of life, foreign to Tunisia’s long secular legacy. Meanwhile, Algeria is in search of a new political structure to replace the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale), the historical founding party since the independence of modern Algeria. The Algerian government continues to fight the jihadist organizations still active, mainly in the southern part of the country.
Morocco has also witnessed social tensions that endangered the monarchy, triggered by an economic slump and with pressures coming especially from Berber/Imazighen social groups that demand greater autonomy. The recent tension and military confrontation with the Algerian-backed POLISARIO forces will weigh on the monarchy’s stability in the foreseeable future.
The Trump administration has continued the fight against jihadism in the Middle East and Africa. Although Islamic State has been defeated in Iraq and Al-Qaeda is on the run, Muslim fundamentalism is still alive in most Arab countries. Despite France’s and the United States’ efforts in fighting jihadism in Africa, Muslim radicalism has found a haven in the Sahel belt (Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, North Cameroon, Central Africa, Sudan, Chad), where it is prospering and extending its long arms into Europe and to additional countries with Muslim communities, such as the countries of the Horn of Africa and northern Mozambique. Islamic State has not recovered from its military defeat, but it is still alive, and its potential danger has not waned.
On the outer perimeter of the Middle East, Turkey is projecting itself more than ever, both through its political stance and readiness to deploy military forces. Long absent from the limelight, Turkey has become a central player in the Middle East. As a result of its growing involvement in Arab conflicts, Turkey has decided to flex its muscles in areas which were never considered Turkish turf. Ankara has sent weapons, equipment, mercenaries and advisers to Libya who saved the Tripoli Government of National Accord (GNA) from being defeated by the self-proclaimed Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar and his Egyptian-French-Saudi-Emirati coalition.
In return, Turkey signed an agreement with the GNA on their common economic maritime area in the central Mediterranean, an agreement that has jeopardized the maritime interests of Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and Greece. Turkey’s aggressive attitude was also illustrated by its decision to send to the Eastern Mediterranean oil exploration and drilling ships in open conflict with the European Union. Adding insult to injury, Turkey has threatened to encourage Syrian refugees on its territory to cross into the European territories.
Turkey has also defied the United States by acquiring a sophisticated air defense system from Russia, despite Washington’s objections. Turkey has been fighting Kurdish rebels in Iraq and has even established military bases deep in Iraqi territory. In Syria, Turkey decided to defend the Idlib perimeter, which also harbors a plethora of jihadist/Al-Qaeda organizations, while signing agreements with Qatar and Somalia that allow Turkey to maintain military garrisons in both countries.
With the toppling of the Bashir regime in Sudan, Turkey seems to have lost a precious outpost in the Red Sea, the island of Suakin (also known as Suwakin), which was leased by Bashir to Turkey on an open-ended basis. Hundreds of years ago, the island housed the headquarters of the Ottoman fleet in the Red Sea.
Egypt’s pivotal role
Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi is facing Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and Ethiopia’s confrontational policies with regard to the Nile River. In response, the Egyptian army has undergone an unprecedented restructuring, with modern, German-made submarines (purchased following Israel’s acquiescence), French Mistral helicopters carriers and sophisticated air force and air defense systems.
Moreover, Egypt has just finished the inauguration of a mega-base in Berenice, on the Red Sea shores, which could serve to project Egyptian power toward the Gulf (facing Iran), the Red Sea. and toward Ethiopia if the issue of the Renaissance Dam is not resolved peacefully. East of Cairo, near the new huge capital city under construction, Sisi has given the green light for the building of the “Octagon” (along the lines of the American Pentagon), a behemoth-like building intended to become the next General Headquarters of the Egyptian armed forces.
On the internal front, Sisi has been relentlessly pursuing the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadist organizations operating in the Sinai Peninsula and inside Egypt—at the expense of personal liberties and freedom of expression, for which he is has been criticized by human rights organizations. The jihadists and Muslim Brotherhood still represent a menace to the stability of the regime and force Sisi to devote much of his time consolidating his grip on power. The regime has zero tolerance towards its critics and does not hesitate to incarcerate those who confront it. The judicial branch of the regime is at Sisi’s disposal, and he succeeded in convincing parliament to alter basic constitutional laws to allow him to serve as president until the year 2030.
On the thorny Palestinian issue, and especially the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, Sisi has shown his readiness to mediate between Hamas and Israel, with whom he maintains special relations. Sisi seeks to prevent the conflict from spilling across Egypt’s northeastern borders, and has expressed dissatisfaction towards Palestinian leaders who ignored his directives. Last year, Ismail Haniyeh, chief of the Hamas political bureau, visited Turkey, Iran and Qatar against the advice of the Egyptian authorities, and even delivered a eulogy at Qassem Soleimani’s funeral. As a result, he has been denied re-entry to Gaza and has lived in Qatar since January 2020.
Iran thrives on chaos
The chaotic situation in the Middle East has been an opportunity for Iran to continue its relentless efforts to consolidate its position in the area. In the past four years, Iran has become a significant player in the Arab Middle East, using its surrogates of Hezbollah and foreign legions of Shi’ite militias organized under the shield of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force to further deepen its political presence in the area.
An illustration of this new reality is the famous phrase “Iran controls four Arab capitals”—Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sana’a, all satrapies of Iran. The recent killing in Tehran of Al-Qaeda’s number two figure illustrates another face of the Islamic Republic: the readiness to cooperate with Sunni organizations with which it shares common interests. Shi’ite Iran coordinates, trains, arms and funds Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as Al-Qaeda and possibly the Taliban.
However, the most critical link in the Iranian chain remains Hezbollah with its 130,000 missiles and rockets aimed at Israel, which serves as Iran’s operational arm in the Middle East. Iran has focused on destabilizing the Gulf States and primarily Saudi Arabia. In the past year, Iran launched missile and drone strikes against Saudi oil installations via its Yemeni Houthi militia, an act that disrupted the global oil market.
Finally, for the past four years Iran has continued to push forward with its nuclear program, ignoring U.S. sanctions despite the resulting financial devastation and domestic instability, and despite attacks on some of its nuclear facilities. Iran has not hesitated to confront the United States militarily on several occasions, the last being a salvo of missiles fired at an American airbase in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani.
On the Palestinian-Israeli front
The Arab-Israeli conflict, and specifically the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are still brewing. However, on the Arab front, Syria and Lebanon are busy with their internal problems and are in no position to devote time and effort to Israel. Having said that, one should not ignore the Iranian contribution in arming Hezbollah with sophisticated weaponry and precision-guided missiles and in deploying its militias on the Golan front facing Israel, actions that carry the potential of a military confrontation if Israel’s interests are harmed.
On the Palestinian home front, the scene has been dominated by Trump’s peace initiative and the P.A.’s refusal to cooperate and even to enter in a dialogue with the American administration. The meeting between Trump and P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2017 did not create the sequence needed to unblock the Palestinian refusal, and the rapprochement between the two was short-lived. All parties involved are waiting for the replacement of the Palestinian leadership by a more cooperative or at least a more realistic one.
The clash between Abbas and his exiled rival Mohammad Dahlan is just beginning to unfold, and could be accompanied by bloody clashes between their rival factions. The sudden policy shift by the P.A. in sending their ambassadors back to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, after withdrawing them in response to the two countries signing the Abraham Accords with Israel in September, may be a signal to the next American administration that the Palestinians will start with a new slate after accusing Trump of ignoring their rights.
On the Gaza front, the situation remains volatile—even though neither Israel nor Hamas wants an all-out military confrontation, one could happen anyway due to a Palestinian miscalculation.
Finally, the situation in the Middle East has led to a consolidation of Russia’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia, whose military intervention saved Assad’s regime, has emerged as the mediator and peacekeeper on the Syrian front and Israel’s counterpart in discussing Israel’s freedom of maneuver in Syrian and Lebanese skies. In return, Russia has received from Syria reassurances relating to its continued presence in the Tartus port and the Khmeimim air base, as well as promises for future contracts in the reconstruction of Syria.
Taking advantage of the Obama administration’s lack of interest in the area, Russia signed lavish military and economic deals with traditional U.S. partners and imposed itself as a major player in the Arab-Israeli conflict, offering mediating services and political arrangements.
At the eve of the changing of the guard, the Biden administration inherits a Middle East full of challenges and potential surprises. It is clear that all parties will be paying attention to what its first steps will be and seeking to test the new administration to understand what to expect from the new team at the White House.
IDF Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
This article first appeared on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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