Caught in a Vicious Circle of Destruction
Thomas Hardy once said, ‘And yet to every bad, there is a worse’. In the current Middle Eastern crisis, when the world thinks the situation cannot get worse than this, callous leaders manage to outdo themselves in spreading destruction and mayhem. During the past some months, the Middle East has become the home of two of the gravest human crises on the globe. The game of musical chair continues as allies are turned into foes and coalitions are transforming into competitions. The very human lives, which should have been the prime propriety of a government, are least valuable to most regional and international actors in this part of the world.
After the capture of Aleppo – the last territory ruled by the Islamic State (IS) – Assad, now, wants the whole Syria under his rule. He is on top of his game and does not seem losing momentum against his opponents. He is trying to sell the idea that even after the defeat of the IS, Syria has not been cleansed of terrorists yet. On the other hand, Assad’s principal ally Russia also wants to end her military campaign and go out on a high note. Another Assad supporter i.e. Iran is also seeking a military relief in the wake of economic deterioration back at home and the raging public protests. Foe-turned-friend Turkey also looks forward to an Assad victory as it would end the marriage of convenience between Syrian Kurds and Assad – he is waiting for the extermination of rebels to an take Kurds head on. The United States, which has been fighting tooth and nail for the ouster of Assad, would now prefer stability over democracy in Syria.
With terrorists of Islamic State gone, all actors are in a hot pursuit of their own ‘imagined’ terrorists. For Assad regime, Russia and Iran, all rebels are terrorists. For Turkey, they are the Syrian Kurds. The US and her allies take Assad and her supporters – Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon’s Hezbollah – as terrorists. But, probably, they all have forgotten that it was violence and chaos in the Middle East in general, and in Syria and Iraq in particular, that created the Islamic State, in the first place. The defeat of Islamic State should not be misconstrued as the end of this menace – Al-Qaida remains very much alive even after getting decimated in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Assad regime is chasing terrorists in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. It is using indiscriminate bombing strategy that has already proved successful in the capture of Aleppo. Assad is bolstered by the inaction in Aleppo on the part of the international community. He knows he is in a better position now to shrug off international criticism. If he succeeds in defeating rebels in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, the continuity of his regime would become a ‘fait accompli’ for the post-civil-war Syria.
Turkey is hunting down its terrorists in the region of Afrin in north Syria. Turkey cannot afford battle-hardened Kurds, which had defeated one of the most ferocious militant organizations in the world, on her borders. In this campaign, she has the tacit approval of Syrian regime and Iran as they, too, do not want a strong Kurd autonomous federation whose secular outlook and explicit alignment with the United States – and an implicit one with Israel – may jeopardize their regional interests. Turkey’s action against Kurds under the name “Operation Olive Branch” provides Assad regime with a prefect alibi. Therefore, when the United Nations voted, on 24 February 2018, for a ceasefire in Syria, the revival of humanitarian aid and evacuation of civilians from war-torn areas, Syrian regime continued strikes in Eastern Ghouta by pointing at Turkey which also continued attacks in Afrin.
Saudi Arabia’s bravado is also backfiring; the war in Yemen is going nowhere as Houthis are stronger and defiant like never before. Their missile attacks have exposed Saudi military’s vulnerability and dependence on foreign support – military and technological. Saudi-supported rebels are in disarray in Syria. The diplomatic blockade has pushed Qatar closer to Iran and Turkey. Recent shakeup of Saudi military ranks is a sign of its disenchantment with high-cost adventures. Saudi challenge to Iranian dominance in the Levant has failed miserably. But, within the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia seems to lean towards compromise as she has indicated its willingness for reconciliation with Qatar. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had indicated that Qatar won’t be barred from the March 2018 summit of the Arab League in Riyadh. But Saudis remain adamant in the case of Yemen. As Houthi attacks inside Saudi Arabia are greater threat to Saudi hegemony than the Qatari intransigence, the Kingdom cannot afford a hostile regime with ballistic missiles in its backyard.
The muted response to an onslaught on Eastern Ghouta and Idlib should not be taken as Saudi acquiescence to survival of the Assad regime and the Iranian dominance of the Levant. Recent Israeli attacks in Syria can be seen in the light of Saudi failure in containing Iran. As her non-state assets are not proving worthwhile in Syria, the Kingdom is pushing Israel to lead an anti-Iran campaign in Syria. Already wary of Iran-backed Hezbollah at her borders, Israel is unlikely to tolerate the Revolutionary Guards at her borders with Syrian. However, an Israeli intervention in the Syrian civil war could be a ‘double-edged sword’. Saudis can benefit from the Israeli military power to drive Iran out of the region but action against Assad and Iran would provide them with perfect smokescreen as they would portray Assad regime as the last line of defence against Israeli hegemony. Turkey and Iran are already making inroads among Arab Youth by their valiant opposition to Israel and standing by with the Palestinians in their legitimate fight against the Israeli occupation. Israel’s jumping into the war, at the behest of the Saudis, would further complicate the matters as it may transform an intra-religion conflict into an inter-religion one. This development may also force the Palestinians to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some observers assert that it is already happening. Increasing alignment of Hamas with Hezbollah is worrisome for Egypt and Saudi Arabia as they are already wary of Hamas’s relations with Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. They tried to dilute this relationship by sponsoring reconciliation between Hamas and PLO in October 2017 but the agreement to that effect is already a lost cause, given the attack on Palestinian Prime Minister on 13 March 2018 during his Gaza visit which was blamed on Hamas.
But, Saudi conservative camp is not confronted by Iran alone; regional powers like Turkey and great powers like Russia also affront Saudi designs in the region. Russia blocked a resolution at the United Nations Security Council on 26 February 2018 that would have pressured Iran over the illegal use of Iranian-made missiles by Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Due to her role in the Qatar crisis and a volte-face in Syria, Turkey is no longer in good books of the Saudi Kingdom. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has described Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” along with Iran and hard-line Islamist groups.
The United States, under the isolationist Trump, seems to let Syria slip into the hands of Russia. The deafening American silence over atrocities in Eastern Ghouta is a black spot on the American stature of being a beacon of human rights. Trump administration has been vocal against Islamic State and other religious fundamentalists in Syria but its criticism of Assad regime has been mild and evasive. On 12 March 2018, the US pushed for a new ceasefire initiative in Syria and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that if the 15-member body failed to act on Syria, Washington “remains prepared to act if we must.” But there is no indication from Donald Trump of such a unilateral action to maintain a cease-fire in Syria. The allies and adversaries alike are bewildered by policy contradictions between Trump and his administrations. So, the international community cannot measure as to how much Trump is invested in Haley’s proposal.
However, one aspect of Trump’s vague Middle Eastern policy is obvious: its anti-Iran tone. From the campaign trail to the Oval Office, Trump has been spitting venom on Iranian nuclear programme and Iran’s quest for dominance in the Middle East. Trump’s most trusted allies in this region, like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, also contributed to his anti-Iran rhetoric. Trump’s relations with counter-Iranian forces go way back. Qatari officials obtained evidence of the UAE’s “illicit influence” on President Trump’s son-in-law and his Middle East advisor Jared Kushner, and other Trump associates including Qatar have information about a secret meeting in December 2016 – a month before the Trump’s inauguration, between UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Kushner, incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and incoming chief strategist Steve Bannon at Trump Tower which they decided not to share with US Special Counsel Robert Mueller due to fear of antagonizing the White House. It is also indicated with the expansion of Mueller investigation that UAE has collaborated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to influence American elections. This clearly shows how much Trump Administration owes the Gulf States and Israel and it can do anything to placate its allies.
As with Haley, Trump also continued to contradict his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, especially in the Middle Eastern policy. Tillerson wanted to keep Iran Nuclear Deal intact and had a neutral stance in Qatar Crisis which was not liked by Saudi Arabia and her Gulf allies. After Donald Trump fired Tillerson on 15 March 2018, leaked emails appeared which showed that a businessman with ties to the UAE tried to convince President Trump to fire Secretary Tillerson for not supporting the UAE-backed blockade of Qatar. Now Mike Pompeo is heading the US State Department and he has publicly shown his displeasure over Iran Nuclear Deal several times.
But, the demise of the Iran Nuclear Deal would further complicate things as moderate Iranian president Rouhani would have no choice but to back down against the conservative pressure and restart Iranian nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia has recently indicated that if Iran pursued nuclear arms, Saudi kingdom would follow the suit. On the other hand, the marriage of convenience between Turkey and Syria also seems shaky as the former signified her unwillingness to hand over Kurdish Afrin region to the latter. Russia also seems to lose grip on Assad as she has got his sea legs back. History can repeat itself with Assad ditching Russia as Saddam did to America after the Iran-Iraq War. There would be no winner of this vicious power struggle but that hardly matters anymore as the conflict has become self-consuming at the expense of millions of lives, with international community watching silently.