by Daniel Brumberg
American efforts to foster Middle East alliances have long run into roadblocks, not least of which is the clashing interests of the region’s key states. The animating logic of any alliance is that states will subordinate their disputes to confront a common foe. But getting them to act collectively not only presupposes that these states can agree on the shared enemy; it also assumes that the burdens associated with alliance maintenance will not be borne proportionately. Indeed, effective alliances require that powerful states shoulder a far larger share of the alliance maintenance costs than other states.
The immediate political relevance of these two points has been nicely illustrated by the White House’s bid to foster what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a January 10, 2019 Cairo speech, called a “Middle East Strategic Alliance” (MESA). The effort is bound to fail. The problem is not only that some Middle East states do not agree that Iran poses the biggest threat. The larger obstacle is that Trump rejects the very premise that the United States should act as an alliance leader by covering a good part of the economic and strategic bill. In fact, he prefers passing most of the tab (and risks) to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, all the Gulf states, Israel, and Turkey.
Trump’s allergy to alliance leadership has dismayed many foreign leaders, not to mention top foreign policy makers in his own administration. Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are struggling to limit the damage created by their boss’s preference for leading not from behind or the front, but rather from the strategic and financial purse of Washington’s “friends.” But no matter how many speeches and visits Pompeo and Bolton make, they cannot fix the problem.
Pompeo Promises to “Assist” US “Partners”
President Trump has repeatedly signaled that for him, alliances are short-term protection rackets to be disposed of when the United States concludes that its clients are no longer useful—or that they have not paid enough to justify Washington’s services. His decision to pull some 2,000 troops from Syria—and thus possibly sacrifice Washington’s Kurdish “allies”—was hardly the first time that Trump had evinced his mob-like approach to global politics. Still, both the suddenness of his announcement and its far-reaching implications for US credibility generated shock waves in Europe, the Middle East, and Washington. While the goal of the trips to the region by Pompeo and Bolton was to show that the United States remains committed to its friends, neither of these normally outspoken administration officials offered a coherent or realistic alternative to Trump’s “it’s just business” ethos. Instead, they tried to square the circle by echoing their boss’s bottom line on alliances.
Pompeo’s speech at the American University of Cairo demonstrated such hard realities. While promising to speak “truth” as he insisted that the United States is “a force for good,” and thus “will not retreat until the terror fight is over,” he also signaled that it would not take the military lead in any collective security project. Instead, Pompeo asserted that Washington would “continue to assist our partners in efforts to guard borders, prosecute terrorists, screen travelers, assist refugees, and more.” Moreover, right after this sentence—and this is the clincher—Pompeo stated that “‘assist’ is the key phrase” (author’s emphasis) and that “every peace-loving nation of the Middle East” should “shoulder new responsibilities for defeating Islamist extremism.”
Not surprisingly, Pompeo had little to say about the precise nature of such duties. But given President Trump’s recent decision to pull US troops out of Syria, Pompeo promised that the United States would “use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot,” and that it would “work with the UN-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people.” This could hardly have reassured nervous US “partners.” On the contrary, Pompeo’s fuzzy emphasis on “assisting” rendered hollow his pledge of a US-backed effort to “establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance.”
Apart from the self-limiting nature of its push for this alliance, Washington must wrestle with the fact that many US partners have strategic priorities that do not align with those of the White House. This point is especially true for Turkey, which does not view Iran or even the Islamic State as its primary menace. But US-Turkish tensions signal a wider problem for US Middle East diplomacy.
The Gulf States Focus on the Positive
In his Cairo speech, Pompeo praised the steps that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have taken to confront Iran, while avoiding hot button subjects such as the military role of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war or human rights challenges. In his subsequent visits to Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, Pompeo and Gulf leaders emphasized the theme of US-Gulf cooperation. Setting the stage for Pompeo’s visit, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash praised Pompeo’s Cairo speech, tweeting1 that “Washington, through its secretary of state, is asserting the importance of its alliances and supporting its friends.”
The specific phrasing of this tweet may very well have telegraphed some measure of anxiety about Trump’s Syria decision. At the very least, it seemed to suggest that UAE leaders now felt reassured. The TV images of Pompeo’s January 12 meeting with a smiling Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the UAE, signaled a similar upbeat theme. The same message was echoed in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). In light of the Khashoggi affair—and continuing concerns in the United States and Europe about Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen—that meeting must have presented its own challenges. MBS seemed to acknowledge as much when he cryptically if publicly reassured Pompeo that, “We’ll try to add more positivity to your trip, as much as we can. And we’ll try to cooperate more.”
The secretary reciprocated by reiterating the importance of US-Saudi relations. But during his private meeting with MBS and Saudi King Salman, the discussion reportedly turned to difficult topics such as Khashoggi’s murder, Qatar, and the Yemen crisis. Seeking to emphasize the desire of both Washington and Riyadh to cooperate, the US embassy tweeted that Pompeo and MBS had “agreed on the need for de-escalation and adherence to agreements” reached at peace talks in Sweden regarding Yemen.
Saudi leaders offered little reason to believe that such promises would be translated into action. Yet whatever discomfort US officials might register over Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe, Pompeo’s first priority was to show that Saudi Arabia is key to any new alliance. For their part, it seems that Saudi and other Gulf leaders did not publicly engage his proposal for a new Middle East alliance. Instead, they kept the talks vague and positive, even as some of their public statements suggested a measure of continued concern over US policy.
Israel Escalates in Response to Iran (and Trump)
On January 20, 2019 the Israel Defense Forces tweeted, “We have started striking Iranian Quds targets in Syrian territory. We warn the Syrian Armed Forces against attempting to harm Israeli forces or territory.” Given Israel’s usual preference for not taking responsibility for such attacks, this audacious statement indicated that Israel is moving its battle with Iran to a new and more dangerous level. Israel’s December 26 air attacks on Iranian targets outside Damascus presaged this escalation. At the time, experts suggested that Israel’s attack was undertaken because Iranian forces had crossed into an 85 kilometer “forbidden zone” along the border. But Jerusalem was also underscoring its resolve to up the ante after Trump had announced the decision to withdraw from Syria. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reticent about the announcement, other Israeli officials expressed dismay. As one official put it, “It’s unbelievable … The president did it in opposition to all of his advisers, associates and senior staff.”
Military sources insisted that Israel was well placed to handle the “ramifications of the American exit.” Still, as the former ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro notes, the widespread sense among Israelis that Trump is a gever gever (a “real man” in Hebrew) must “be tempered by a new understanding.” Trump’s “disdain for any American military role in the Middle East,” Shapiro wrote, “and his lack of any sense of obligation toward U.S. allies” constitutes a “bitter truth” that Israelis must grasp.
A former close advisor to Obama who headed up the NSC’s Middle East division, Shapiro is not exactly a nonpartisan analyst. Moreover, as he knows, Israeli security officials have long rejected the notion that Israel’s security should ultimately depend on military protection by the United States. Instead—and echoing Pompeo—they have always emphasized the need for US assistance to give Israel the means to defend itself.
Over the last two years, the scope of that assistance has expanded to include US efforts to foster diplomatic and security ties between Israel and Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Pompeo in fact praised these efforts in his Cairo speech. Whether these developments are fostering a de facto entente between Israel and some Arab states remains to be seen. But Israel’s leaders must know that the prospects for expanding such cooperation will diminish if the Trump Administration signals that it intends to pull back from any sustained military role in Syria—or beyond.
Turkey Balks after Bolton Talks
During his January 6 visit to Israel, John Bolton told reporters that the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Northern Syria would not take place until Turkey promised not to attack Kurdish forces. One obvious purpose of these statements was to reassure nervous Israeli leaders. But another far more ambitious goal was to create conditions that would slow down the withdrawal of US troops. If Bolton’s statements seemed to contradict his boss’s wishes, it is worth emphasizing that on December 23, Trump spoke with Erdogan and then tweeted his support for a “slow and highly coordinated pullout of the area.” Insofar as this tweet seemed to suggest that Washington and Ankara would coordinate the withdrawal, it may have prompted Bolton to go one step further by linking the pullout to the protection of Washington’s Kurdish allies.
But Erdogan would have none of it. Miffed, he cancelled a planned meeting with Bolton and then declared that Turkey would not “swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel.” Indeed, he asserted, Bolton “has made a serious mistake … it is not possible for us to make compromises on this point” (i.e., a Turkish pledge not to attack Kurdish forces). Erdogan’s words—underscored in his New York Times op-ed—illustrate that defeating Kurdish forces is Turkey’s number one priority. Feigning empathy for a US administration wrestling with the predicaments of alliance politics, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu noted that, “It is hard to break up with a terrorist organization after being involved with it at this level.” Because Turkish leaders believe the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its People’s Protection Units, or YPG, threaten the very territorial integrity of their country, they insist that Washington must abandon what could only have been a temporary marriage.
Turkey’s position on the Kurds is also a symptom of a wider malaise in US-Turkish relations that is encapsulated in Ankara’s support for the Russian-led Astana Peace Process. This Russian-Turkish-Iranian effort to coordinate their Syrian diplomacy has its own tensions. Indeed, with the Kurds courting Assad’s protection—and with Assad surely interested in bringing disillusioned Kurdish forces into his orbit—Russia and Iran have good reason to discourage Turkey from mounting a full scale attack on Kurdish positions. The January 27 Turkish bombardment of YPG forces in Azaz and Mare will complicate this effort. But it is unlikely to wreck a Turkish-Iranian-Russian entente that probably makes more strategic sense for Ankara than Pompeo’s (and Bolton’s) dream of enlisting Turkey as a primary (or associate) member of a Middle East Strategic Alliance.
The Road to Damascus?
It is hard to imagine that Trump has similar dreams. Indeed, as Erdogan noted, “different voices have started emerging from different segments of the administration.” But how different? While Pompeo and Bolton have chosen their words carefully to avoid appearing to undermine Trump, they have not offered a strategically coherent alternative to Trump’s protection racket approach. The importance of this approach goes far beyond the impossible mission of forging a formal alliance: absent US leadership, even more modest efforts to nudge Washington’s Middle East partners toward cooperation are unlikely to succeed.
One measure of this painful reality is that some Arab states are trying to mend fences with Assad. The UAE has announced that it will open its embassy in Damascus, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir has visited the Syrian capital, and it appears that the Arab League might invite Syria back in. These developments represent a victory for Moscow. This may explain why Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Damascus—who had previously supported American arming of “moderate” Syrian opposition groups—now proposes that the United States “should offer Russia cooperation” on a range of strategic issues to advance a settlement in Syria.
Engaging Moscow may be the last card in Washington’s diminished deck. But given the challenges that Trump faces at home and abroad, he has no political room to work with Russia. Moreover, Pompeo and Bolton—not to mention many Republican leaders—will openly or quietly oppose such a policy, even if they have nothing in their strategic tool kit that could fix Washington’s broken diplomacy.
Daniel Brumberg is a non-resident senior fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here. Reprinted, with permission, from Arab Center Washington DC.