by Ali Rizk
In 2019, the Trump administration will focus its Middle East policy on intensifying its opposition to Iran and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah. This escalation will likely involve decoupling the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. Thus far, however, the prospects for this campaign don’t look good. In its efforts to mobilize a global coalition against Iran, the Trump administration has been having difficulties enlisting the support of a number of major world powers.
That Hezbollah has become an integral part of the anti-Iranian policy of the Trump administration is yet another indicator of its “Israel first” policy. In his speech at the American University of Cairo on January 10—much of which was dedicated to the demonization of Iran—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States would never accept the status quo where Hezbollah has a “major presence in Lebanon.”
Parallel to Pompeo’s regional tour, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale met with senior Lebanese officials in Beirut. Following a meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, the U.S. diplomat said that it was “unacceptable to have a militia outside the control of the state and unanswerable to all the people of Lebanon.” He was clearly referring to Hezbollah. Hale also remarked that, although Lebanon had the right to defend itself, “that is the right of the Lebanese state alone.”
In Syria, Assad has largely won the civil war and consolidated his power. Late last year, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, both part of the anti-Iranian regional camp and staunch allies of the Trump administration, reopened their embassies in Damascus. But Syria has not won over the whole Arab world.
During the Arab Economic and Social Development summit held in Beirut on January 20, Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said, “The condition is not ripe yet regarding the return of sisterly Syria to occupy its seat in the Arab League.” He pointed to “different points of view” among Arab League members regarding the readmission of Syria.
Furthermore, the heads of state of only two countries—Qatar and Mauritania—attended the Beirut summit. One main reason for this absence was that Lebanese factions close to Syrian leadership—including Hezbollah—had insisted that Assad be invited to the summit. So, even though some Arab countries are reopening their embassies in Damascus, they are not willing to embrace a government that still refuses a longstanding demand of Washington and its regional allies: withdrawing from the alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.
The last-minute decision by Qatari Emir Shiekh Tamim bin Hamad to participate in the summit, however, is significant. Despite its small size, Qatar is an important and wealthy country. Its participation at the level of head of state could signal that Doha no longer has any problems with Assad or the “Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis.” Indeed, Qatar has had ties with Hezbollah for some time now. In an interview in December 2013, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, stated that he had recently received an envoy from Qatar after contacts had been cut off due to divisions between the two sides over Syria.
Aside from the efforts to decouple the Syrian leadership from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, U.S. officials have also attempted to build an international anti-Iran coalition. Secretary of State Pompeo, for instance, has called for an international conference that would will “include an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.” The conference will be held on February 13 and 14. Its venue, the Polish capital of Warsaw, suggests that Washington wants a global anti-Iran coalition, not just a regional one.
But the Warsaw summit may end up suffering the same fate as the Arab economic summit in Beirut. Russia has made it clear that it will not be attending, as has EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Meanwhile, major European countries like France, Germany, and Britain have not yet confirmed their attendance. If these countries do attend, their attendance may very well be at a lower level than that of foreign minister.
Washington is now scrambling to assert that the conference will not be aimed at Iran. U.S. acting ambassador to the United Nations Jonathan Cohen told the Security Council that the Warsaw gathering “is not a venue to demonize or attack Iran.” The Trump administration’s attempts to create a new coalition of the willing against Iran—and sever some of Iran’s key alliances—have not gotten very far.
Ali Rizk has been working in the field of journalism since 2003 including five years in Iran. He is a contributor to Al-Monitor and Al-Mayadeen and has written for other outlets including the Lebanese dailies Assafir and Al-Alakhbar. He is the former Beirut correspondent for Iranian PressTV.