Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Filling the power vacuum

2018 holds promise, including for stability in the Middle East region, but much will depend on the relation between the US and Russia, in all its complexity, writes Hussein Haridy

Putin and Trump
Putin and Trump

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States changed the way America viewed the world. The Trump administration succeeded an administration that had been bent on regime change and nation-building in the Middle East. The policies adopted to reach these objectives destabilised the Middle East to such an extent that nation-states almost crumbled. Egypt was no exception.

From the end of 2010 until 2014, the region became a no-man’s land, a situation that gave rise to a hitherto unknown phenomenon of transnational terrorism. The organisation known as the “Islamic State” has been the extreme manifestation of this phenomenon.

At the outset, the West and its allies and partners in the Middle East had calculated that they could use terror groups to carry out their policies of regime change. Syria and Libya were cases in point. From 2011 onwards, these groups, all carrying Islamic-inspired names, were armed, either directly or indirectly by this alliance of convenience, trained and provided with large political cover, internationally and regionally.

The rapid rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq raised alarm bells, particularly in the West. The US administration of Barack Obama, which carries great responsibility in the development of transnational terrorism, hurried to respond to the fall of Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city after Baghdad, in June 2014. In September of the same year, Obama called for a grand international alliance to defeat and degrade the organisation that declared an “Islamic Caliphate” with its capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

If the announced objective of the US-led coalition was the complete defeat of IS, the battle against it was limited, in the first stages, to aerial bombardment that did not, to say the truth, degrade its military capabilities nor its ideological appeal. Things began to change dramatically, however, with Russian intervention, militarily, in September 2015 to shore up the Syrian army against myriad terrorist groups operating in Syria.

By the time President Trump entered the White House in January, cooperation between the United States and Russia in the fight against IS and other Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, like Al-Nusra Front, gained momentum that bore fruit with the complete defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi army, with help from the Americans and the Iranians, liberated Mosul in July 2017 in a fierce battle that had begun in October 2016. Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic Caliphate, was liberated a few weeks after Mosul at the hands of an Arab-Kurdish alliance aided, trained and armed by the United States.

American-Russian cooperation in the defeat of IS has been unmistakable. With 2017 nearing its end, this cooperation, or its lack, will determine the fate of the Middle East in the coming year. It reminds us of a previous historical precedent a century ago when two former superpowers, Great Britain and France, had reached what came to be known as the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the territories of the decaying Ottoman empire into respective spheres of influence, and demarcated the borders of new states in the Middle East. These borders remained untouched until 2011. In the context of this frontier engineering in the midst of the Great War of 1914-1918, the British had come up with the Balfour Declaration in Palestine. A hundred years later, the borders of Arab nation-states are under threat, and the final geographical borders of Israel are still to be determined. This provides a basic context to analyse the significance and the ramifications of President’s Trump decision, on Wednesday, 6 December, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel.

As a matter of fact, if there is one constant in the Middle East it is the tacit understanding between Washington and Moscow on the security of Israel. This was proven in developments in Syria and how the United States and Russia responded to them. In the course of 2017, both countries agreed on the concept of “de-escalation zones” in Syria, to rein in the levels of violence as a first step towards a general and complete ceasefire throughout the country. The two countries made clear that this policy should not be seen as an attempt to create mini ethnic or religious entities within Syria, reaffirming their position that United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015 remains the cornerstone of a political solution in Syria.

One of the de-escalation zones in Syria this year demonstrates the close cooperation between Washington and Moscow, but this time with Jordan as a direct party, and Israel as an outsider. Last July, the United States, Russia and Jordan reached an agreement on a de-escalation zone in the southwest of Syria that includes Deraa, Al-Sewadaa and Al-Kunaitra, that would become a no-go area for foreign militias fighting in Syria (read: Iranian-backed and Iranian-sponsored armed groups like the Lebanese Hizbullah). The agreement aims at achieving three objectives: namely; secure the borders of Jordan with Syria to prevent the infiltration of armed groups into Jordanian territories; to prevent the penetration of these groups into the Israeli-occupied Golan; and to contribute to bringing down the overall level of violence within Syria. So far, the agreement is working.

However, Israel is working with both the United States and Russia on dealing with another more dangerous threat, from its strategic perspective: its fears of Iran gaining a permanent military presence in Syria once a final political solution is achieved. The Israeli air force has been honing in on fixed and moving targets in the southern part of Syria to prevent the establishment of an Iranian base. But Syrian air defences are becoming more advanced, and the Syrian general command more daring in trying to shoot down Israeli fighter bombers that violate Syrian airspace. The Israeli defence minister warned that his country will not tolerate these Syrian developments, and similarly warned against the modernisation of the Syrian army and its ambitious re-organisation as well.

During his presidential campaign, President Trump talked about increased cooperation with Russia to try to find political solutions to international crises like Syria and the Ukraine. In Syria, the United States succeeded in 2017 to work closely with Russia. The Joint American-Russian Declaration of 11 November in Da Nang, Vietnam, on the importance of reaching a political solution in Syria with respect to the territorial integrity and independence of the country has proven that Washington and Moscow have the political will to bring to an end a very destabilising chapter in the history of the Middle East, and to fight together, within certain limits, transnational terrorism.

The parallel battles in Syria and Iraq during 2017 were more coordinated than before, and, all in all, the two sides have achieved, each from its perspective, the political goals that they think best serve their national interests in the region. This should not mean that the road ahead will be smooth sailing. The task of reshaping the Middle East to meet the challenges of reconstruction in Syria and Iraq, the stabilisation of Lebanon, the efforts needed to prevent the return of IS in Syria and Iraq, trying to rein-in Israel, how to deal with the threatening consequences of the fierce and persistent confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia across the Middle East, how to revive the moribund “peace process” between the Palestinians and the Israelis (almost an impossible task after American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel), in addition to the reshaping of regional alliances and strategic partnerships to meet the challenges cited above, all these would test the extent of American-Russian cooperation — and I would say rivalry — in the Middle East in 2018. Needless to say, there is an element of great uncertainty in the wider scene related to the domestic political situation facing the Trump administration in the wake of the indictment of former national security adviser Mike Flynn, and investigations ongoing on possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

The new year of 2018 is full of promise, but also challenges and threats in the Middle East. How regional and the Arab powers will play their cards would be a major element in deciding whether 2018 would witness determined efforts to close the sad chapter of the last seven years in Middle East history. By receiving President Vladimir Putin before years’ end in Cairo — for the second time in the last three years — Egypt is destined to play a marked role in the transformation of the Middle East.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

add comment

  • follow us on