Diplomacy is a juggling act, an endless struggle to keep all the balls in the air. There are times when dropping one ball to keep the others going may seem like the prudent thing to do – and at other times letting them all drop and starting over again makes more sense. The United States faces this predicament in the Middle East. Perhaps there are too many balls in the air, when the focus should be on the few that are really important.
While everyone was focused on what US President Donald Trump had to say on Friday regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as the Iran deal), what got overlooked is that he also unveiled a brave new Iran strategy for the post-Islamic State era.
In a rare gesture, King Salman called Trump on Saturday to express his delight over the latter’s resolute strategy and aggressive approach toward Iran. Salman welcomed Trump’s leadership role in the Middle East in recognizing the magnitude of the “challenges and threats” posed by Iran and stressed the need for “concerted efforts.”
Trump responded warmly, appreciating Salman’s support and expressing keenness to work together on issues relating to world peace and security and also enhancing the countries’ bilateral ties.
Trump’s Iran strategy is a dream project for Saudi Arabia and the UAE – and for Israel. It may seem like a relaunch of the old enterprise to contain Iran, built around an alliance system involving the US and its regional allies. But the circumstances today are different. The US and its allies stare at defeat in the Syrian conflict and are circling their wagons to stave off an ignominious rout with long-term consequences. Faced with Iran’s surge, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are willing to proclaim a convergence of interests with Israel.
Clearly, Moscow surmising that the US-Saudi strategic relationship has weakened is premature. The axis with Iran is the only show in town for Russia on the Middle Eastern chessboard – whether or not it is Moscow’s preferred choice. President Vladimir Putin is heading for Tehran on November 1.
The Iran deal will not be in jeopardy in the foreseeable future and, arguably, Tehran’s dependence on Moscow on that front is not critical. On the other hand, Britain, France and Germany have drawn together and mooted a proposal that their heads of government articulated in an extraordinary joint declaration on Friday to “constructively engage” with Iran to address their shared concerns over its regional policies.
Tehran will be open to a constructive engagement with Western powers to comprehensively address mutual security concerns, although how enthusiastic the Trump administration will be about such a process remains to be seen
Tehran will be open to a constructive engagement with Western powers to comprehensively address mutual security concerns, although how enthusiastic the Trump administration will be about such a process remains to be seen. If Europe’s engagement with Iran over issues of regional security and stability gains traction, the country’s integration will take a great leap forward, and that is something Tehran desires.
Enter Turkey. The Turkish deployment to Idlib province in northern Syria was seen as a move toward implementation of the Astana accord on setting up a “de-escalation” zone in that region with tacit Russian and Iranian backing. But Turkey’s number one priority appears to be to pre-empt a westward expansion by Syrian Kurds toward the coastal region of Latakia to establish a contiguous “homeland.”
Turkey hopes to outflank the Kurds and thereafter push back at their canton in Afrin. Turkey seems to be planning a prolonged military presence in northern Syria. This must be causing disquiet in Moscow. The exceptionally strong denunciation by Damascus on Saturday of the Turkish deployment to Idlib must have been made with Moscow’s approval.
However, what Moscow cannot take for granted is the deep chill in Turkish-American relations. Much depends on the new phase of the Syrian conflict beginning now, after the defeat of ISIS in its capital Raqqa and the capture by Syrian government forces (and allied militia with Russian airpower) of Mayadin on the Euphrates River (adjacent to the rich oil fields of al-Omar in Deir al-Zour province.)
The US faces a Hobson’s choice. It has the option of extricating itself from the Syrian conflict at this stage, claiming victory in the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa. But this would mean abandoning its Kurdish allies to their fate. Of course, if the US exercises this option, it paves the way for mending relations with Turkey.
But then, the flip side is that it also means a seamless expansion of Iranian influence in both Iraq and Syria and a possible Iranian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. That, of course, would make a mockery of the tough strategy announced by Trump to counter Iran’s regional policies.
On the contrary, if the US intends to play a greater role in Syria following the capture of Raqqa (such as blocking Iran’s land route to Syria), it would require substantial, open-ended troop deployment to delay and harass the expansion of Iranian influence. Clearly, this is what the US’s regional allies – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – are hoping for and what Trump’s new Afghan strategy promises to do.
However, a continued US military presence means ongoing dependence on the Kurdish militia. This could spell doom for US-Turkey relations and even prompt Ankara to build an alliance with Russia and Iran – a shared agenda to create conditions on the ground that force the US at some point to cut its losses and withdraw from Syria, as happened, for example, in Lebanon in 1983.
Trump’s Iran strategy infinitely complicates the geopolitical repositioning of the US in the post-ISIS era. He added one more ball at a juncture when his juggling act was already looking improbable.