By Talmiz Ahmad
April 25, 2018
After the fall of the last Daesh stronghold in Iraq, the White House said on Nov. 24 last year: “We are progressing into a stabilization phase.” This assessment bore no relation to the regional scenario. Fault lines in the Middle East that had been submerged during the fight against Daesh are today more pronounced than ever before.
The whole region is entangled in confrontation. Regional powers are engaged in conflicts in Syria and Yemen; Turkish troops are in Syria, Iraq and Qatar; Iran-backed militants are in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; and Israeli forces regularly carry out bombing raids against government, Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. Global powers the US and Russia are involved in all these conflict zones and are fine tuning their own competitive interests in the emerging global order.
After the fall of the “caliphate” in Syria, government forces have moved with alacrity against their opponents. Rebel groups, backed by regional powers, are lukewarm about the Russia-led peace process as they are uncertain about their interests being safeguarded.
Israel is alarmed at the presence of battle-hardened Iranian and Hezbollah fighters at its borders and the prospect of an Iran-controlled “land bridge” linking Tehran with the Mediterranean via Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
In northern Syria, the consolidation of Kurdish territorial gains at the Turkey-Syria border has worried Turkey. It sees the Syrian Kurds as partners of its own disgruntled Kurds and their territory as the training ground and sanctuary for Kurdish militants. It has moved its troops into Syria and has established itself over a wide swath that has broken the contiguity of the Kurdish “homeland.” This standoff could deteriorate into a wider conflict.
After the fall of Daesh, the situation in Iraq is better. Prime Minister Haider Abadi is generally popular, being viewed as the victor against Daesh, the one who evicted the Kurds from Kirkuk, and a force for national reconciliation. His standing will be tested in the national elections in May, given that militias sponsored by Iran are also likely to seek a place in government on the basis of their war record.
There is little doubt that US policies have contributed greatly to aggravating regional uncertainties and anxieties. This largely emerges from the divide at the heart of the Trump establishment. The hawks who surround the president — Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — are pushing for an expanded and long-term US role in the Middle East that would challenge Iranian and Russian influence and affirm the US as the region’s sole hegemonic power. This would include a US presence in the Kurdish territories and the development of a 30,000-strong Kurdish force, both of which are unacceptable to Turkey.
While Trump shares his aides’ animosity for Iran and their fulsome support for Israel, he seems wary of a full-scale confrontation with Russia. In his view, the US has already spent trillions of dollars in the region over the last 17 years and has nothing to show for its efforts. Thus, while the president was keen to flaunt US power against Syria after the chemical attack at Douma, the actual air assault seems to have been rather limited, even half-hearted, with no real change to the situation on the ground.
The latest proposals to have come from Washington have further complicated the regional scenario. In early April, Trump told selected regional leaders that he planned to withdraw US troops from Syria. He said that, if they wanted US forces to stay, “maybe you are going to have to pay for that” — with a figure of $4 billion being circulated. Later, Bolton told some Middle East officials that they should consider putting together a joint Arab force that would be deployed in areas in Syria vacated by US troops.
Mobilizing an Arab expeditionary force would be a challenge, as most regional states are already preoccupied with conflicts nearer home. Also, even if the proposal were to move forward, the deployment would be in Kurdish areas whose fighters are hardly likely to welcome an Arab army. Finally, such a force would also face hostility from Iranian and Russian forces entrenched in Syria, increasing the possibility of direct conflict between them. Thus, the Arab states are left with the option of sharing the cost among them or funding a private mercenary force — hardly an edifying prospect.
As the fault lines in the Middle East become deeper, they are ironically providing a fertile ground for the revival of extremist elements across the region. Extremism thrives amidst domestic conflict, collapsed state orders and the disenfranchisement of sections of local populations. Daesh forces are even today present in small pockets in Iraq and Syria, while those influenced by them continue to carry out attacks against civilians in the Middle East and beyond.
Given that no attempt is being made by any responsible power to promote region-wide confidence and dialogue, this scourge can be expected to return with renewed virulence.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat.