An old cliché holds that “anything can happen in the Middle East,” because everyone knows Arab leaders aren’t familiar with the Western concept of “rationality”; they make decisions from the gut or, even worse, obey God’s dictates. But the Mideast now seems to have an unbeatable rival in the White House, one who is constantly trying to demolish rationality even more thoroughly.
Last week U.S. President Donald Trump left his aides and cabinet secretaries agape when he said America was “coming out of Syria very soon.” Just a few days earlier, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the exact opposite, declaring that America would be in Syria indefinitely. Senior American officials made similar statements last month, explaining that America’s presence was necessary until a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war was found.
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What pushed Trump, who also used the occasion to freeze $200 million in aid for Syria’s reconstruction, to make this announcement? Apparently, his conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made him conclude that there’s nothing Washington can do in Syria.
Granted, Mohammed said in an interview with Time magazine that it’s important for American forces – some 2,000 combat soldiers and trainers – to remain in Syria to block the spread of Iranian influence there. But in the same interview he said of Syrian President Bashar Assad, “Bashar is staying. But I believe that Bashar’s interest is not to let the Iranians do whatever they want to do.”
If Trump’s announcement was a U-turn in America’s Mideast policy, the prince broke the rules of the game entirely. Saudi Arabia, the last Arab state to stand firm against the possibility of Assad remaining in power, is now coming down from the ramparts and effectively admitting the failure of its Syria policy, a direct continuation of the failure of its efforts to reshape Lebanon’s government.
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The American president and the Saudi prince evidently have only one card left to play in the region, and it isn’t a terribly impressive one – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They still agree that Trump’s “ultimate deal” is a treasure. But this treasure is so secret that nobody knows what it includes, aside from leaked crumbs of information and unrealistic ideas like establishing a Palestinian state in which Israeli settlements would remain comfortably, and with its capital in Abu Dis, outside Jerusalem.
They also see eye to eye on the weekend’s events in the Gaza Strip and the question of Hamas’ status. Last Friday, the United States opposed a Kuwaiti motion in the UN Security Council to condemn Israel for the violence. Riyadh did its part by refusing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ request that it convene an emergency Arab summit to discuss the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. The kingdom gave Abbas the cold shoulder, saying the regular Arab League summit would take place in a few weeks anyway, so no additional summit was needed.
The disinterest Mohammed and Trump both showed in the events in Gaza, combined with their capitulation to reality in Syria, reveals a clear American-Saudi strategy by which regional conflicts will be dealt with by the parties to those conflicts, and only those with the potential to spark an international war will merit attention and perhaps intervention.
An example of the latter is the battle against Iran, which will continue to interest both Washington and Riyadh because they consider it of supreme international importance, not just a local threat to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Syria, in contrast, doesn’t interest the world, and to the degree that it poses a threat to Israel, Israel’s 2007 attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor and its ongoing military intervention in Syria show that it neither needs nor even wants other powers involved.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also no longer seen as a global threat, or even a regional one. Therefore, it’s unnecessary to “waste” international or pan-Arab effort on it. If Egypt can and wants to handle the conflict from the Arab side, fine. But for now, that will be it.
Russia and Iran, which in any case have managed the Syrian conflict between them for some time now without American or Saudi involvement, will derive practical conclusions from this policy. The competition between Tehran and Moscow over control of Syria’s meager resources has waned since Russia took over Syria’s main oil fields and most future contracts to exploit them. Iran will make do with the status of Assad’s strategic guest, and will apparently retain permanent military and political access to Lebanon.
The Kurds realized weeks ago that Washington won’t stretch out its neck for them, after it let Turkey invade and conquer the Syrian town of Afrin. Now they won’t receive the full amount of American aid they were promised, either.
Once again, Ankara has proven more important to Trump than the Kurds, who, as far as Washington is concerned, had finished their job once the Islamic State was defeated. So, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the “local” conflict in Syria, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict will take place between the parties, without U.S. involvement.
In the absence of American and Saudi backing and involvement, Syria’s rebel militias are also likely to recalculate their path, understanding that they can no longer recruit either the superpower rivalry or the Saudi-Syrian one to obtain diplomatic gains. Russian dictates will be the only game in town.
And this last, perhaps, nevertheless provides some good news for Syrian civilians, who are still being slaughtered by the dozen every day.