By Riad Kahwaji*
Over the past two decades, the world watched the United States manoeuvre inconsistently on many international issues, especially those related to the Middle East, as a boat with many captains sailing in a high sea. Foreign officials and analysts visiting Washington nowadays return home with more questions than answers. The sense of loss within the American leadership is quite strong, and is prompting many friends and allies to seek alternatives and new ways to ease their anxiety over what the future could be hiding for them. America’s allies abroad, especially in the Middle East and Asia, anxiously await Washington’s guidance and assistance as threats mount from rogue actors like Iran and North Korea.
If one of the U.S. allies today asks in Washington a simple question as: Who is our common enemy? There will not be a unified answer. Many would call this a symptom of a “democratic system.” But others would call it loss of vision. In the twentieth century, the U.S. Administrations – from both parties – were unified on issues like Fascism and Nazism and Communism as being sources of threat to the free and democratic world and hence branded the states that adopted them as enemies. During the Cold War era, the U.S. would not tolerate any sort of activities by communist movements on its home front and across the globe. Today, America’s enemy is not clearly defined.
One clear example on this is Washington’s policy towards Iran. Is Iran an enemy or a friend? If it is neither, then how one can deal with it or expect his allies to keep up with swings in position? At a time the U.S. Administration accuses Iran of supporting terrorism, Tehran’s lobby is very active in Washington trying to counter or undermine the policies of the U.S. government. This is very hard for a foreigner to understand. Same could be said today about Russia. Is it an enemy? Is the Cold War back? If not, then how one can explain what is happening in Ukraine, the Baltics, Syria and many other places?
So, the problem here is that either the U.S. officials are failing to communicate their policies properly and successfully to the rest of the world or their allies are yet to comprehend the changes America has been going through, and how much they affected it. Maybe it is both. To better understand the situation, one must review the major developments that have impacted the political scene inside and outside the United States and which subsequently led to the current status quo.
The U.S. emerged from the last Cold War victorious and asserted itself in 1990 as the sole super power and the world became unipolar. America’s economy was strong with hardly any debt and its military was superior to all. When Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. came to the rescue of its small Arab Gulf ally a large number of countries where happy to answer Washington’s call to join the alliance to liberate Kuwait, and the operation was swift and decisive. When the U.S. home front was targeted directly by Al Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001, almost the whole world sided with America and followed it in a global war on terrorism.
However, the two consecutive invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the exhausting efforts – to the very day – to deal with the consequences of the occupation and rebuilding of the two countries while fighting terrorists and maintaining unity of the land have taken their toll on the United States on all levels. Since 2001 until today the U.S. has lost over 5,000 soldiers in both countries and the war bill reached trillions of dollars, placing the country under debt. While the U.S. continues to maintain a strong military posture in the Middle East and other regions, its readiness and willingness to pursue policies that might lead it into wars has been greatly reduced and the appetite for military adventures no longer there.
The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have helped remove two regimes that were arch foes to Iran. This opened the way for Tehran to extend its influence into these two neighbouring countries and beyond. Uncovered documents from Al-Qaeda leaders and flow of events in the region since 2003 revealed the level of deep covert cooperation between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Jihadist groups – an alliance between Muslim Sunni and Muslim Shiite militants that was said hard to achieve and still doubted by many observers. This alliance allowed Tehran to wage a coordinated proxy war against the United States and its allies on many front in the region (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen).
All the Shiite militias that fought the U.S. forces in Iraq were trained and armed by Iran – a fact confirmed by all American government and military agencies that operated in Iraq before 2011. Al-Qaeda fighters who engaged U.S. troops in Iraq mostly came through Syria – Tehran’s main strategic ally in the region. Both countries were anxious of U.S. military presence on their borders and wanted it out. So both cooperated and collaborated with Sunni and Shiite proxy groups to engage the United States in a very costly war of attrition that proved very rewarding to Tehran, which is today the main hegemonic power in the Middle East with an ambitious ballistic missile program and a promising nuclear program. Burdened with trillions of dollars of debt and high casualty toll the United States opted to call it quits and pulled out of Iraq during President Barrack Obama Administration that also sought to eliminate the main reason that could force it into another war in the region by signing the nuclear deal with Tehran and adopting a policy of de-escalation with Iran that allowed the IRGC to spread its influence regionally to the wide extent seen today.
Realizing the magnitude of Iran’s hegemonic role and its threat to the interests of the United States and its allies in the region, the new U.S. Administration decided to reverse course. However, President Donald Trump and members of his cabinet have made heated speeches against Iran, but with little action. They announced combating terrorism as top priority. The current U.S. approach in fighting terrorists is based on engaging them from the air and relying more on “local partners” or what might be commonly known as proxy groups, such is the case in Iraq and Syria. The objective is to have little or no boots on the ground to avoid losses amongst American troops. According to U.S. Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel the current U.S. strategy is now based on “by, with and through,” meaning the fighting will be carried out by local partners and U.S. forces will work with local entities and communities in engaging and ousting the terrorists and then control and manage freed areas through local civil and security administrations or governments. This strategy that was initiated during the Obama Administration appears to be continuing under President Trump’s.
However, if the U.S. wants to rely on local partners then it will have to prove to be a reliable partner, meaning it will not leave them to their fate once Washington’s objectives are met because this will undermine America’s credibility and will make it hard to find partners in the region or other parts of the world when needed. The U.S. Administration is facing today a serious test in Syria and Iraq where all are watching to see how Washington will deal with its local partners who fought on the side of American troops against the gunmen of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) once the enemy is defeated and all territories are liberated. ISIS fighters have been driven out of most of the territory they once occupied in Iraq and Syria and are on the verge of total defeat. While freed territories in Iraq are being turned over to the Iraqi government forces, the areas liberated by the pro-U.S. Syrian Democratic Forcers (SDF) are being turned over to local civil administrations that are looking after the needs of the residents and providing an acceptable level of law and order. The SDF is made up of an alliance of Kurdish fighters of People’s Protection Units (YPG) and local Arab tribesmen.
According to a well-informed source at the Pentagon the Trump Administration does not yet have a plan for the day after the defeat of ISIS in Syria. “There is no clear plan yet as to what to do, and whether U.S. troops in Syria will stay there to assist the SDF and along with our air assets provide cover against attacks by pro-Syrian regime forces or they will just pick up and leave,” the source who asked not to be named said. Nevertheless, U.S. officials also fear the prospect of an ISIS comeback due to the continued unrest and political turmoil in Syria and Iraq.
If the U.S. abandons its allies and their territories get overrun by pro-Syrian regime forces made up of predominantly Shiite militias led by IRGC officers, the civil war will continue in the country creating an environment that would permit extremist groups to re-establish themselves. Hence, the defeat of ISIS does not necessarily mean the war on terror in Syria and even Iraq is over. Only with a political settlement that leads to a transition of power in Syria and proper power-sharing in Iraq one can safely say the root-cause for the rise of terrorists groups there has been eliminated and war on terror in that part of the world is won. The U.S. is believed to have about 1,000 Special Forces troops in Syria and about 7,000 troops in Iraq. This is a much smaller footprint for the U.S. on the ground compared to what it had in Iraq before troops were pulled out in 2011.
Moreover, the Trump Administration has just broadened its war on terrorism to re-include Shiite extremist groups such as Hizbullah, the IRGC main power-projection force in the Arab world. Vice President Mike Pence recently reminded the world that America’s war on terrorism started when IRGC-Hizbullah suicide bombers blew up the Marines base in Beirut killing 241 troops. After the September 11, 2001, attacks the U.S. shifted its attention from the IRGC and Hizbullah to the Sunni extremist forces like Al-Qaeda and later ISIS. However, after Iran has successfully managed to use Hizbullah and other IRGC militias to spread its influence over various areas of the Middle East, the Trump Administration appears to have decided to refocus on Hizbullah and the IRGC. The Congress has passed a series of bills imposing sanctions on both entities, and is expected to impose tougher measures in the coming months. The Trump Administration refused to recertify the nuclear deal with Iran and referred the issue to the Congress, in a step seen by most observers as an escalation against Tehran for pursuing an ambition ballistic missile program and for its destructive “behaviour” in the Middle East.
While Washington wants to use sanctions and other means of soft power to force Tehran back on the table to renegotiate the nuclear deal and include clauses related to its ballistic missiles and expansionist policies in the region, America’s allies want to see tougher action and possible use of hard power. Saudi Arabia and some of its Arab Gulf Allies as well as Israel share a heightened threat perception of Iran and want to see the United States take tougher steps, including use of military force if need be to compel Tehran to change its policies and pull out of its areas of control in the Arab world, especially, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Saudis have grown even more concerned recently when an Iranian ballistic missile sneaked to their Houthi allies in Yemen targeted Saudi capital Riyadh. Saudi leaders have grown more aggressive in their reaction and Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir threatened to retaliate against Iran directly in the future.
But the mood in Washington is not in favour of any hard approaches and certainly most of the leadership is not yet ready for another war in the Middle East, especially when the North Korean nuclear threat has substantially increased reaching the Administration’s top list of priorities. The United States is suffering from too much fatigue to prepare itself for two wars (Iran and North Korea). Its current political and economic conditions can permit it to deal with one crisis at a time and currently the North Korean crisis is more pressing and poses a strategic threat, while Iran is at the moment a security threat with the possibility of becoming a strategic threat in the future.
Therefore, the U.S. and its Middle East allies agree on regarding the IRGC and Hizbullah as a threat, however they are certainly not on the same page on how to deal with it. This will certainly affect the situation in the volatile Middle East region. Lack of U.S. action and leadership plus the continued heightened threat perception of Iran throughout the region will likely prompt America’s allies to take things into their own hands, which will increase the threat of a large-scale regional war breaking out forcing the U.S. to step into it in order to protect its vital interests there. Israel has escalated its air strikes against Hizbullah and IRGC in Syria and has sent out warnings to various regional and international powers that if the IRGC and Hizbullah continue to consolidate their military capabilities in Syria and Lebanon it will have to react at a certain point. Hence, today the Middle East could see a major regional war breaking out either from a reaction by Saudi Arabia or Israel against Iran and its proxies. In either case, America will find itself under tremendous pressure to intervene in one form or another.
To avoid being dragged into an untimely war the U.S. Administration must develop a solid and realistic policy. Making fiery statements against Iran and using sanctions as the only tool of pressure will not yield any results. On the contrary, it could lead to counter robust moves by Iran that will increase its control over the region and accelerate its ballistic missiles and nuclear programs. Tehran is not a player that one could easily bluff. Washington should either mean its threats to Iran or avoid making them at all because they will only increase Iran’s threat perception and push it to launch counter or pre-emptive moves.
So Washington has two choices: First, forget about its differences with Iran and accept it as the hegemonic player in the region – as the Obama Administration did – and provide limited support to its allies or help them to resolve their differences with Tehran. Second, pursue the current policy of escalation but according to a clear cut plan that includes a military dimension that will seek to contain Iran and its proxies and compel them to pull back and check their threats to the interests of the United States and its allies. By leading in a forceful manner with a clear vision, Washington could prevent the region from sliding into an all-out war and deliver a strong message to Tehran that the U.S. is back and willing to go all the way to protect its interests.
The Iranian regime is very vulnerable and cannot afford public humiliation in a military confrontation or even a war of attrition on its own territories. Therefore, Tehran will likely think twice before taking further action that will place it on a direct war footing against a super power like the U.S. Iran has been heavily investing in its proxy forces in order to avoid direct confrontations and because this policy has been rewarding. But if the U.S. was to change rules of engagement and confront it directly, Iran will very likely behave differently and be open for a peaceful resolution.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 28 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.