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OP-ED

Some roleplayers in the Middle East will miss Trump’s presidency

Illustrative image | Sources: Outgoing US President Donald Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE/YURI GRIPAS / POOL) / Senior Advisor Jared Kushner. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Chris Kleponis / POOL) / Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY) / Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyahu. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Yonatan Sindel / POOL) / The White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Stefani Reynolds / POOL) / US aircraft. (Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO)

It might seem as if the whole world cannot wait for Donald Trump to leave the White House on 20 January 2021, but a few leaders will be sad to see him go.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) and Russian President Vladimir Putin have all had their ways with US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa over the past four years.

Israel has bypassed the Palestinians to remake its relations with much of the Arab world. MBZ, the Gulf Arabs and Egypt have slammed shut the Pandora’s box that was opened by the Arab Spring, and are seeking to rid the region of political Islam and disruptive democrats. And Putin has cemented his presence and influence in the Middle East, disproving Barack Obama’s dismissal of Russia as a regional power.

Even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey managed to persuade Trump to dump the Kurds, the US’s most steadfast allies in the region, who had shed much blood in the defeat of Isis, and benefited from his relationship with Trump.

President-elect Joe Biden has described the US’s policy processes under Trump’s highly personalised reign as having “atrophied or been sidelined”.

Rather than any guiding principle of international relations (and other than when he intervened with Russia and Saudi Arabia last April to steady the oil price and rescue the US shale industry), Trump’s transactional view of American interests has boiled down to the sale of sophisticated weaponry.

Arms deals have featured prominently in the horse trading that has been conducted by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and unofficial diplomat- in-chief. The UAE, for instance, purchased $23-billion in F-35 fighter jets and advanced drones as part of the deal to normalise relations with Israel known as the Abraham Accord.

Likewise, Trump has pointed to a willingness to purchase hundreds of billions of dollars of US arms as justification for his refusal to get tough with Saudi Arabia, even after Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman earned a place in infamy for his role in the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. 

Biden and his team will find the Middle East and North Africa much altered from four years ago, not least because of the decline of American power and influence. “Right now, there is an enormous vacuum,” Biden said.

Medium-level players have moved into this vacuum and their mercenary armies and fancy new weapons have become decisive instruments in the wars of north and northeast Africa.

Africa has become a battleground for competing nations such as Russia, Turkey and the UAE, which see the continent as a fairly cheap way of extending or rebuilding their global power and influence. Trump has been happy to make way for them.

There is a view amongst some pundits in Washington that for all his weakening of alliances and strengthening of America’s adversaries, Trump will leave the Middle East more stable than it was at the end of the Obama administration. Isis is severely degraded, Iran is drowning economically, the Syrian civil war ground to a halt after a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey in March, and the biggest crisis right now is whether Iraq or Lebanon will go broke first.

A decade after the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia, some Arab rulers view the return of a Democratic administration with trepidation – particularly in the light of Biden’s statement that there will be “no more blank cheques for Arab dictators” and his promise to reassess the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The US’s long-term allies in the Gulf felt betrayed by Obama when he called on Hosni Mubarak to resign after the Egyptian leader unleashed violence against the pro-democracy demonstrators at Tahrir Square.

It shows that the United States is not a partner we can rely on in the long term. His voice was calm and cold. It was less a plea for help, I realised, than a warning.

In his recently published memoir, A Promised Land, Obama describes how MBZ told him at the time that US statements were being closely watched in the Gulf with increasing alarm. He suggested to Obama that if Egypt collapsed and the Muslim Brotherhood took over, eight other Arab leaders would also fall.

“It shows,” he said, “that the United States is not a partner we can rely on in the long term,” Obama wrote. “His voice was calm and cold. It was less a plea for help, I realised, than a warning.”

In retrospect, MBZ’s warning was prescient. Mubarak’s departure was met with jubilation on the Square but within months the Muslim Brotherhood won parliamentary elections and a Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president in May 2012.

By June 2013, a fresh wave of demonstrations erupted against Morsi’s attempt to monopolise power and he was deposed by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian armed forces. Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members were massacred in counter-demonstrations.

A decade after Mubarak left power, Egypt is a corrupt military dictatorship under Sisi in which thousands of political activists, journalists and other Egyptians have been arrested, killed or in some cases sentenced to lengthy jail terms for criticising the president on social media.

The US still provides more than a billion dollars in military aid annually to Egypt and Trump – who famously called Sisi his favourite dictator – has shown little concern for the corruption or rights abuses even as American citizens are among those who are locked up in Sisi’s jails.

As vice-president, Biden was among those (including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) who argued for a more cautious approach to Mubarak, a long-time US ally. Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, was among a younger group who were enamoured with the “Facebook generation” protesting on the Square and wanted Obama to “get on the right side of history”.

Sisi has already hedged his bets in case the incoming administration is less than friendly by moving into a closer military alliance with Putin. He has signed a major deal with Russia to build a nuclear reactor in Egypt and Putin has referred to Egypt as a “trusted and close partner”. With the backing of Russia, Sisi threatened to invade Libya in August after Turkish-led forces pushed their mutual ally General Khalifa Haftar back from the suburbs of Tripoli. 

In the eyes of the Gulf Arab rulers, Obama’s even greater sin was negotiating the 2015 Iran deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – without consulting them, and their opposition to the deal moved them into a de facto regional alliance with Netanyahu, who has long seen Iran as an existential threat to Israel. Everywhere else the deal was hailed as a major diplomatic achievement – not just the US’s European allies, but Russia and China as well.

Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, launched economic warfare against Iran and in January 2020 assassinated Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force, at Baghdad International Airport. In November Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was murdered, which Iran blamed on the Israelis.

More than once the ratcheted-up tensions that have resulted from this aggression have brought the US to the brink of war with Iran. In January Trump only called off the bombers after Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host and one of his television gurus, warned that escalating such a conflict was a terrible idea. Trump has veered between a “wag the dog” mentality in which a war with Iran would be a convenient distraction for problems at home, and a bully’s fear of a real-world crisis that could get out of control.

Trump still has a few weeks left when he could blow up the Middle East by starting a war with Iran perhaps as a parting gift to Netanyahu or at least to muddy the waters for the incoming administration, but the signs are that the leadership of the military is loath to embark on such a risky adventure. 

Biden has indicated that he wants to get back into the Iran deal as a starting point for follow-on negotiations and there is some optimism that a weakened Iran might be ready to expand talks to include proxy wars and non-nuclear missile weapons. These talks would have to involve other regional players as Iran is not the only one supporting proxies or deploying advanced weapons technology in the conflicts of the Middle East.

The success of such an undertaking might depend on MBZ, who occupies an ever more prominent leadership position in the Gulf and whose alliance with the Saudis is no longer as watertight as it once was. The UAE would be first in the firing line in the event of war and MBZ has shifted to a more accommodating posture towards Iran.

MBZ’s flexibility was signalled by his moves in the Yemen war in 2109. Aggrieved at the incompetence of the Saudis, he switched his support away from the Saudi alliance backing the government in the north against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Sana’a, to a group in Aden wanting to restore the pre-1990 independence of south Yemen.

MBZ’s alliance with Israel is designed to enhance the UAE’s modernisation that is driving the economic regeneration of the region. Abu Dhabi is not only oil-rich, it has the second-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world and the link-up with Israel will give its investors access to one of the most vibrant technology sectors in the world.

Though Abu Dhabi has no more than 1.5 million people, MBZ appears determined to remake the Middle East in line with new economic and geopolitical realities. He has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on American weaponry and is now regarded as having the most advanced military in the Arab world.

Thus armed, MBZ has aggressively asserted himself in the region, seeking to rid the region of political Islam and confront the spectre of Turkey, which he now sees as his main adversary.

Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, wrote in the French magazine Le Point in June that “Turkey has many things to answer for, with its long-term attempts in concert with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood to sow chaos in the Arab world, while using an aggressive and perverted interpretation of Islam as cover”.

This rivalry extends to Africa where MBZ’s most critical intervention has been in Libya.

Libya remains a largely tribal nation, a reality that Muammar Gaddafi, ruthless and eccentric as he was, managed to navigate for decades. But this arrangement was blown up by the uprising of 2011 and the Western intervention that ousted Gaddafi.

After Gaddafi, the country fell apart. Warring tribes and militia were at each other’s throats and the feuding led to a civil war that has now reached the point of stalemate.

In 2015 an international agreement split the government between Tripoli and Tobruk, the seat of Parliament, but the issue of how the oil revenues were to be shared remained unresolved. MBZ backed general Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, as he mopped up the rag-tag militias and Islamists, and took over the bulk of the county’s oil production. In April 2019, Haftar turned to march on Tripoli. 

Expected to make a lightning attack on the capital, Haftar’s forces bogged down outside Tripoli before, in early 2020, Erdogan came to the rescue of the beleaguered UN-recognised government. The combination of Turkish drones, Syrian mercenaries and local militia, mainly from Misrata, broke the siege and pushed Haftar back along the coast.

The truth is the challenges we face today can’t be solved by any one country acting alone. They demand American leadership. They demand the cooperation of our allies and our partners.

But the Turkish-led force’s advance on the next big target, Sirte (Gaddafi’s hometown), was stopped by another combination of forces. These included Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, Russian jets, Emirati drones and Sudanese mercenaries that MBZ had redeployed from Yemen. This army was bankrolled by MBZ, who recognised the strategic position of Libya as a bridge between the Arab world, Europe and Africa.

This has left Libya effectively divided in two – the Turkish-dominated Tripolitania in the west and the Russian-dominated Cyrenaica in the east – roughly conforming to the provinces of the Ottoman empire, with the oil-rich desert province of Fezzan still being contested.

The talks aimed at restoring peace and bringing about a political solution revolve around how to recognise this reality by partitioning Libya into spheres of influence and dividing the oil wealth without breaking up the country.

Putin and Erdogan are experts at backstage agreements, having done deals in Idlib that halted the Syrian war and in Nagorno-Karabakh that ended the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But Libya is more complicated.

Turkey’s interest in Libya involves not just Erdogan’s dream of rebuilding the Ottoman empire. A maritime agreement he signed with Tripoli in November 2019 extends Turkey’s claims across the Mediterranean, cutting across the Eastmed pipeline that is to carry natural gas from the rich fields of the Levant to Europe.

Eastmed’s supporters are Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus and France – which all view Turkey’s moves in Libya with alarm.

MBZ, seizing an opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of his adversary, has signed a mutual defence treaty with Greece outside of Nato, its first such agreement with a European power, and has dispatched F-16 fighter jets to Cyprus.

For the first time since 1916 when the Englishman Mark Sykes and the Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot drew up the boundaries of the post-Ottoman Middle East, a power from that region – an emirate that was little more than a village in the desert when that colonial deal was done – is acquiring a prominent position in European affairs.

At the same time, the UAE still has planes and drones stationed in western Egypt, ready in case war flares up once more in Libya. 

Other African battlegrounds are also being drawn into this new regional competition in which ultrasophisticated weaponry combined with mercenaries and local actors create complicated alliances, shadow wars that are conducted almost entirely in the dark.

Perhaps the most vulnerable battle line is south of Libya in the Sahel where Jihadists are growing in strength across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and where the thin line of 5,000 French troops, the last gasp of empire, is looking for a way out.

Biden has acknowledged that to be effective, the US will have to work to regain the trust and confidence of the world, which involves a new era of partnership.

In 2012 the crisis in the Sahel was precipitated by the overthrow of Gaddafi and the movement of his Tuaregs into Mali. Once again the spillover from Libya could precipitate a fresh crisis with reports of new weapons and mercenaries moving into countries ripe for contestation and opportunities for sponsorship.

Another vulnerable area is the Horn. The recent fighting in Ethiopia between the Tigrayans and the Ethiopian National Defence Force was an example of this mishmash of local and foreign forces overlaid by sophisticated weaponry getting stuck into an African conflict. 

The UAE sent missile-armed drones from their base at Assab in Eritrea and their allies, the Etritreans, assisting in quashing the Tigrayans.

The French historian and analyst Gérard Prunier has warned of a catastrophic Yugoslavian-style break-up of Ethiopia with knock-on effects throughout the region. Somalia and Sudan have already been sucked into the conflict and Egypt is affected because of its dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile.

Even as Trump has pulled his remaining troops back from Somalia, Turkey has its biggest foreign base in Somalia and Russia has just signed a deal with Sudan to build a naval base in Suakin. A further wrinkle is the status of autonomous Somaliland, whose independence is being blocked by Somalia.

The incoming Biden administration is watching the potential descent into militarisation and chaos closely, and has already put feelers out to the US’s key ally in the region, Kenya.

The effects of the abandonment by the US of any principle to protect the international security system is being tested in northeast Africa. “None of these disputes really matter beyond their borders,” says Prunier. “But together they constitute a warning light to the international community regarding its state of dilapidation. There is no more ringmaster in the deserted arena to prevent minor quarrels from going septic.”

Biden has acknowledged that to be effective, the US will have to work to regain the trust and confidence of the world, which involves a new era of partnership.

“The truth is the challenges we face today can’t be solved by any one country acting alone,” said Biden. “They demand American leadership. They demand the cooperation of our allies and our partners.” 

The US and China, for instance, can find common cause alongside African, European and Asian partners to ensure security for ordinary Africans and Arabs who are most often the victims. But rebuilding the international order involves more than just holding the line against the worst-case scenario. The aspirations of the region’s people need to be taken into account. 

Though there is a powerful view that holds that what happened in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Yemen proves that the Arab Spring uprisings were devastating failures, they did usher in some reforms and the sentiments that gave birth to the protests were never totally suppressed. In Algeria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere a new generation has gone to the streets to demand change.

It is unlikely that they will remain dormant, even though we are in a darker age where authoritarians have gained strength globally and where, from Belarus to Hong Kong, the odds appear stacked against people’s power.

Biden’s biggest challenge might be to balance the fears of those leaders who are fighting to preserve the status quo with the aspirations of the people seeking greater freedom, prosperity and democracy. The Palestinians cannot be willed out of history, as some might imagine. Here too, the Biden team will find that the damage inflicted by the four years of Trump have made things immeasurably more difficult. DM

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