The Middle East Seeks Alternatives as the U.S. Leaves and Iran Returns

In the new year, local alliances will replace international coalitions. The process dividing the region into American- and Russian-led blocs is falling apart

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A U.S. tank training with Kurd forces in Syria last month.
A U.S. tank training with Kurd forces in Syria last month. Credit: Baderkhan Ahmad / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The United States’ combat role in Iraq came to a formal end Friday. In reality, it already ended on December 9 with the U.S. declaration that all its combat forces had left. But as Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “This is a change in mission, not necessarily a change in physical posture.”

In other words, U.S. forces will act as trainers and advisers in Iraq but will no longer take part in ground combat. We can heave a sigh of relief. In contrast to the confused, hasty retreat from Afghanistan in August, the exit from Iraq was carried out coherently, in keeping with the Iraqi law requiring the government to bid farewell to the U.S. forces by the end of the year.

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But now that Joe Biden is completing the military withdrawals and ending his first year as president, the Middle East is no calmer. The conflagrations generated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have died down, U.S. troops have stopped firing. But the points of friction will remain in the new year, along with new variants of the coronavirus.

It will be a year when the strategic map, once clear and cogent, is bound to change. Local alliances will replace international coalitions.

The end-of-year summary includes the war in Yemen, which is entering its seventh year; the power struggles in Libya; the clashes in Syria; the crumbling of Sudan; a rerun of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan; fragility in Iraq; and Lebanon’s collapse.

And this is only a partial list. In all these places, the fading international involvement is discernible. The Middle East is withdrawing into itself, searching for alternatives to U.S. power and preparing for Iran’s active return.

Indeed, the change is already reflected in the Arab states' approach to Iran, like the agreements the United Arab Emirates signed with Tehran, including a deal enabling Emirati goods to pass through Iran to Turkey and on to Europe. This route will shorten the trip from about 20 days via the Suez Canal to a week.

The visit by the UAE’s national security adviser, Tahnoon bin Zayed, the brother of de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed, to Iran and the reports of an expected visit by the UAE leader there are breaking a five-year taboo. Even ahead of this, the two countries signed an agreement to protect shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf to prevent attacks by the Houthis in Yemen on Emirati targets.

UAE National Security Adviser Tahnoon bin Zayed, left, meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Shamkhani, in Tehran last month. Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP

These moves show that the UAE is no longer alarmed by the U.S. sanctions that prohibit economic and military cooperation with Iran. The Emiratis don’t intend to abandon their ties with the United States, but Washington’s suspension of the sale of F-35 fighter jets didn’t go down well with the UAE, which in December agreed to buy 80 Rafale fighter jets from France.

Saudi Arabia held two rounds of talks with Iranian officials in Iraq and recently held another meeting in Amman. Iran said these negotiations were part of its policy to revive relations with the countries of the region, and Riyadh and Tehran have a joint interest in setting oil prices and sharing their customers when Iran resumes full-blown production.

The Yemen war continues

The further the ties between the Gulf states and Iran develop, the greater the chance to end the tragic war in Yemen, where more than 100,000 people have died.

On this front the United States isn’t an active partner. The Arab coalition founded in 2015 by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which the Trump administration backed in its efforts to block Iran’s influence in the Middle East, no longer exists. The American and European pressure on Saudi Arabia to end the war hasn’t succeeded, the talks between the Houthis and the Saudis quickly collapsed, and Washington has no leverage to enforce a cease-fire, let alone a political solution.

Clearly, without an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, this war will preoccupy the region in the new year as well.

The solution to the Syrian civil war also doesn’t depend on the United States’ influence or involvement. Russia will be the main player here as well, at least militarily. Moscow’s efforts to forge a diplomatic solution following the talks on Syria in the Kazakh capital aren’t expected to bear fruit.

This isn’t only because of the hostility between the rebels and the regime. The disagreement between Turkey and Russia mainly over the Syrian Kurds is the most dangerous mine to defuse. These two countries have several joint strategic and economic interests, but quite a few disagreements as well.

For example, Turkey and Qatar supported the recognized Libyan government, while Russia still supports the separatist general Khalifa Hifter. Turkey helped Azerbaijan against Armenia in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, while Russia backed Armenia. Russia wants the Syrian Kurds to take part in the negotiations on Syria’s future, while to Turkey, that’s tantamount to negotiating with a terror group.

In this arena the United States is expected to continue watching from the sidelines. It did its part when in 2020 it imposed sanctions on Syria. But now it’s closing its eyes and even encouraging Egypt and Jordan to send gas and electricity to Lebanon via Syria, which will receive at least 8 percent of the value of the energy resources passing through its territory to Lebanon. More importantly, Syria, which was kicked out of the Arab League, may return in March when the League meets in Algeria.

Oman, Bahrain, Sudan and the UAE have already reinstated their embassies in Damascus, and Egypt and Jordan are also expected to support Syria's return to the Arab fold. This will give Bashar Assad at least regional legitimacy. Syria is a clear example of the way a civil war morphs into an international military and political conflict. A civil rebellion became a proxy war and then a campaign directly involving two states – Turkey and Iran – and one superpower, Russia.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus in November.Credit: SANA / AP

But the international interest in Syria has faded, and if the Arab states return Assad to the Arab League, the conflict in Syria is expected to shrink in 2022 to an internal one, as in Sudan or Yemen.

U.S. indifference

For two decades the American and Arab strategy was crafted around three points of friction: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – where the United States stayed too long – and the nuclear dialogue with Iran. Afghanistan was occupied in 2001, Iraq in 2003. The first war had international support after 9/11. The second was based on the false premise that Iraq was producing weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein was Osama bin Laden’s partner.

Taliban leaders at the presidential palace in Kabul after regaining control of Afghanistan in August.Credit: AFP

But even after Saddam was executed, and bin Laden was killed eight years later, Washington tried to justify its continued military involvement in those two Muslim countries. Washington’s desire to market democracy there was a pillar of George W. Bush’s policy. He passed it on to his successor, Barack Obama, who managed to kill bin Laden.

In 2014, three years after bin Laden’s assassination, the war against the Islamic State provided the ultimate reason for the massive U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Syria. The fact that in those years the Syrian regime butchered a few hundred thousand of its own people didn’t bother the United States and the rest of the West much. Washington was busy negotiating the Iranian nuclear agreement and feared that a massive blow to Assad's regime would convince Iran to suspend the talks.

The United States was indifferent to Syria, as if this were an internal dispute, or as Donald Trump referred to it, “It’s a lot of sand .... They’ve got a lot of sand over there.” This left the door open to Russia, which became Syria’s de facto landlord with Turkey as a minor partner. Together they chipped away at Iran’s standing.

The U.S. and European efforts to get out of the bleeding Middle East, which began in Trump’s term, intensified with Biden in the White House. Washington recalibrated its relations with Saudi Arabia – and actually with all Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey and Iran.

All told, the process that began in 2021 is likely to continue the following two years: a withdrawal of the United States and Europe from the Middle East without an alternative superpower to take their place.

On the other side, Russia may be Syria’s sponsor but the Arab states don’t see it as an alternative. China, which invests hundreds of billions of dollars in building its influence in the region, is wary about intervening in local disputes or taking part in the region's proxy wars.

The process dividing the region into blocs, pro-Western (American) and anti-Western (Russian), is falling apart. It seems their place will be taken by small local coalitions and alliances based on local interests, which may be more effective in solving some of the violent conflicts.

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