Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- The Middle East of 2020 is far different from the one left in 2016 by the Obama administration. The Middle East is still suffering from the same illnesses as before. A lot has changed, and a lot is much of the same.
- Unlike former U.S. administrations, the Trump team did not champion the theory from the past that normalization of the relations between Israel and the Arab neighbors is dependent on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, the Trump team professed that normalization of the relations between Arab states and Israel would put the latter at ease for further concessions to the Palestinians.
- The Middle East is more polarized than ever between the pro- and anti-Iran coalitions, between Sunnis and Shiites, 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 Lebanon, Hizbullah’s secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah shed tears on the news of Qassem Suleimani being killed, but not even one drop for the hundreds killed and thousands injured by the blast. Today, Lebanon is being emptied by its elite and by those who can afford to pay for the crossing of the Mediterranean to the European shores.
- Turkey is projecting itself more than ever through its political stance and readiness to deploy military forces in areas of conflict. A long time absent from the limelight, Turkey has become a central player in the Middle East that cannot be ignored today.
- The chaotic situation in the Middle East has been an opportunity for Iran to continue its relentless efforts to consolidate its positions in the area. In the last four years, Iran has become a significant player in the Arab Middle East, using its surrogates of Hizbullah and foreign legions of Shiite militias organized under the shield of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s “Quds” Force to further deepen its political presence in the area.
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. Still, the Middle East is suffering from the same illnesses as before. A lot has changed, and a lot is much of the same.
At the epicenter of this new re-alignment, one can point at the following transformations:
Championing an aggressive approach towards Iran, in deep contrast with the Obama administration’s cajoling attitude towards the Ayatollahs’ regime. This includes the targeting and killing of Iran’s most admired senior military officer, Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the “Quds” force, which is the notorious nexus to 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 Hizbullah, together with imposing economic sanctions that had a deep impact on Iran’s economy, financial leaders, and industries in the country and elsewhere in the Middle East, which were 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 with Iran and vowed to derail the Iranian nuclear and ballistic program by diplomatic and economic pressures. Trump even contemplated at the end of his mandate, as reported by the American media, the use of force to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities. He continued weekly sanctions to be applied until January 20, 2021, thus raising barriers for the Biden administration to rescind them or brush them away by means of presidential executive orders.
The United States did not relinquish its interests in the area and leave them to the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish “predators,” nor did it rescind its commitments towards its traditional Arab (and Israeli) allies. Four years later, even after President Trump’s November 2020 decision to cut troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq, and maybe in Somalia, the United States will still be militarily present in northeast Syria, in the Kurdish-held territories under the shadow of Turkish ambitions, as well as its military presence in Iraq and Kurdistan despite calls, protests, and terrorist operations conducted by pro-Iranian opposition forces to force the United States to withdraw from Iraq.
Intervening in areas of potential conflict such as 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 multi-lateral 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.
The unique and unprecedented U.S. activist policy in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian and to the Arab-Israeli conflicts whose highlights were the transfer of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel, recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, the presentation of a peace plan called “the Deal of the Century,” which, while recognizing the two-state solution as the preferred option for the U.S. administration, designated to Israel 30% of the territory of Judea and Samaria and the inclusion of most Jewish settlements in the area under its sovereign borders.
Unlike former U.S. administrations, the Trump team did not champion the theory so many times enunciated by American officials in the past that normalization of the relations between Israel and the Arab neighbors is dependent on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, the Trump team professed that normalization of the relations between Arab states and Israel would put the latter at ease for further concessions to the Palestinians and would favor a quicker and smoother resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The fact that the Palestinian Authority rejected the approach and refused the “deal of the century” did not restrain three Arab states, the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan – with the encouragement and support of the United States – to sign peace treaties and normalization agreements with Israel. The active intervention of the United States also cleared the way for Israeli air carriers to fly over Saudi territory, a first since the establishment of the Jewish state.
The Trump administration displayed ambivalence toward the human rights abuses committed by U.S. allies in traditional Arab states and failed 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 with a fractured Middle East behind. Covid-19 did not play any significant role in dictating foreign policy to any of the parties involved in the Middle East. The pandemic has only exacerbated internal social tensions in each Arab country and polarized their societies and the differences between rich and poor, between corrupted leaders and impotent audiences unable to catalyze change and corrections. The Middle East is more polarized than ever between the pro- and anti-Iran coalitions, between Sunnis and Shiites, 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 el-Bashir, and the popular upheaval that brought down the Bouteflika rule 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 await a natural transfer of power because of the old age of their leaders, such as in Saudi Arabia or the Palestinian Authority. 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 relating to Syria, characterized mainly by a condescending attitude towards the conflict and the declarations 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 the northern part of Syria. As a result, there is today a de facto partition of Syria, divided into three main areas: the Kurdish region in northeast Syria 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. Bashar Assad is not yet close to seeing the end of the civil war since he cannot impose an end to the civil war 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. Syria is almost half-empty of its original population, with practically six million refugees in neighboring countries and Europe waiting to return to their homes. The destruction is so colossal that it will take a whole generation to reconstruct and rebuild Syria’s infrastructure.
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 Shiite Hizbullah movement has paralyzed the Lebanese body-politic to such an extent that every issue of governance cannot be solved if it is not agreed upon by Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah 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 asking for political reform, punishing the corrupted political class, and establishing a new non-sectarian government.
Suddenly, the potent Hizbullah came under attack and found itself on the defensive. Still, with the assistance of its ally, the ersatz Lebanese president, Hizbullah has succeeded in turning a chaotic situation into an even more chaotic one and denied any possibility of real change that would be interpreted as harming its interests. The United States has threatened to withhold aid as long as Hizbullah ministers are part of the government, and sanctions imposed on Hizbullah and prominent Lebanese personalities have further destabilized the situation. Hizbullah even refused to accede to French conditions necessary to trigger an international effort to solve Lebanon’s unprecedented economic plight. The August 4, 2020, devastation in Beirut’s port, which resulted from negligence, corruption, and poor management and maintenance, destroyed large parts of the capital, did nothing to change the stalemate. Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary-general, shed tears on the news of Qassem Suleimani being killed, but not even one drop for the hundreds killed and thousands injured by the blast. Today, Lebanon is being emptied by its elite and by those who can afford to pay for the crossing of the Mediterranean to the 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 with Competing Interests
Libya has remained divided with two competing and fighting 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 after, the other North African Arab countries continue to struggle in their quest for stability. Tunisia is fighting Islamic parties (with some success until now) trying to impose their way of life, foreign to Tunisia’s long secular legacy. Meanwhile, Algeria is in search of a new political structure that will 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 that are still active mostly 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 in Africa. Although the Islamic State has been defeated in Iraq, and Al-Qaeda is on the run trying to evade U.S. airstrikes, Muslim fundamentalism is still alive in most Arab countries. Despite France’s and the United States’ efforts in fighting Jihadism in Africa, the 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. The 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 through its political stance and readiness to deploy military forces in areas of conflict. A long time absent from the limelight, Turkey has become a central player in the Middle East that cannot be ignored today. As a result of its growing involvement in Arab conflicts, Turkey has decided to expose itself in the open by flexing its muscles in areas which were never considered as Turkish turf: Turkey has sent weapons, equipment, mercenaries, and advisors who saved the Tripoli (Libya) Government of National Accord (GNA) from being defeated by the self-proclaimed, former CIA operative, Field-Marshall Khalifa Haftar, assisted by 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 EU. 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 against all the objections expressed by Washington. Turkey has been practicing the right of hot pursuit in Iraq against Kurdish rebels 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/Qaeda organizations, while signing agreements with Qatar and Somalia that allow Turkey to maintain military garrisons in both countries. With the toppling of the El-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 Sudan’s strong man Omar el-Bashir to Turkey on an open-ended basis. Hundreds of years ago, the island once housed the headquarters of the Ottoman fleet in the Red Sea.
Egypt’s Pivotal Role
Egypt’s President Sisi is in a central junction. He is facing Turkey’s ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Iran’s hegemonic aspirations, and Ethiopia’s confrontational policies over the Nile. In response, the Egyptian army has undergone an unprecedented restructuring with German-made modern submarines (purchased after 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-maritime and airbase in Berenice, on the Red Sea shores, which could serve as a forward base to project Egyptian power toward the Gulf (facing Iran), the Red Sea in case danger arises threatening the freedom of navigation in the area, 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” (on 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 and at the price of being 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 rests 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’s deflagration on Egypt’s northeastern borders while expressing his 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 the Iranian 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 positions in the area. In the last four years, Iran has become a significant player in the Arab Middle East, using its surrogates of Hizbullah and foreign legions of Shiite militias organized under the shield of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s “Quds” Force to further deepen its political presence in the area. An illustration of the new reality in the Middle East is the famous phrase “Iran controls four Arab capitals” – Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Sana’a, all satraps of Iran. The recent killing of Al-Qaeda’s number two in Tehran illustrates another face of Iran: the readiness to cooperate with Sunni organizations sharing common interests with Teheran. Shiite Iran coordinates, trains, arms, and funds Palestinian Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as Al-Qaeda and possibly the Taliban.
However, the most critical link in the Iranian chain remains Hizbullah with its 130,000 missiles and rockets aimed at Israel, which serves as its operational arm in the Middle East. Iran has focused on destabilizing the Gulf States and primarily Saudi Arabia. In the last year, Iran launched, via its Yemeni Houthi militia, ballistic missiles aimed at civilian installations and swarms of armed drones and cruise missiles against oil installations, an act that disrupted the global oil market.
Finally, in the last four years, Iran continued to run amuck to reach its nuclear option, ignoring the Trump administration’s sanctions, despite the financial devastation on its economy and domestic stability, and despite attacks on some of its nuclear facilities. In these last four years, 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 the commander of the “Quds” force, Qassem Suleimani.
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 situation to devote time and effort to the territorial conflict with Israel. Having said that, one should not ignore the Iranian contribution in arming Hizbullah 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 Palestinian Authority’s refusal to cooperate and even to enter in a dialogue with the American administration. The meeting between Trump and 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 one, or at least a more realistic one. The clash between Abbas and the exiled Mohammad Dahlan is just beginning to unfold and it could be accompanied by bloody clashes between the two rival factions. The sudden policy shift by the Palestinian Authority in sending their ambassadors back to Bahrain and the UAE 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, and the potential of colliding courses between Hamas and Israel is there even though neither wants an all-out military confrontation, which could happen anyway because of Palestinian miscalculations of Israel’s response to Hamas or Islamic Jihad provocations.
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 Bashar 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 Tartous port and the Hmeimim airbase, as well as promises for future contracts in the reconstruction of Syria. Taking profit from the Obama Administration’s lack of interest in the area, Russia has signed lavish military and economic deals with traditional partners of the United States 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 look at its first steps and try to test the new administration to understand what to expect from the new team at the White House.