Grinding Towards Peace in the Middle East as America Looks Inward

It’s early 2017 and there’s a chance for peace in Syria, but it’s complicated. One regional superpower and two regional powers in the Middle East – Russia, Turkey and Iran – have agreed a trilateral monitoring commission to monitor the Syrian ceasefire at Astana in Kazakhstan. The UN is in attendance, but the US absent, apart from the formality of the presence of the local US Ambassador.

Surely, this is a historic state of affairs, especially since the absence of the US isn’t the choice of the new isolationism of a Trump administration; it is outcome of the abject failure of Obama’s globalism in the face of Russian opportunism, long-term Iranian strategy, and the reaction by Turkey to its changed circumstances.

But the Middle East isn’t just Syria; another war grinds on in Yemen. However, the increasingly unwinnable nature of this conflict contributes at great cost to the Yemeni people to growing stability in the rest of the Middle East.

Rebel forces go to Astana except Fath el-Sham and ISIL

Jaysh al-Islam’s Mohamed Alloush leads the delegation of Syrian rebel groups to Astana. His fighting force, along with Jabhat Fath el-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), and Ahrar el-Sham, has acted as a national ‘magnet’ for the plethora of ever-changing local rebel groups in Syria over the past five years.

Of course, there is also the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL if you substitute Levant for Syria): an equally if not more impressive fighting force, always standing apart for reasons which will become clear below.

Alloush is the brother of prominent Saudi jihadi figure, Zahran Alloush, killed in a Russian airstrike in 2015. His participation in the peace talks reflects Saudi Arabia’s new war-weariness; while that of Ahrar el-Sham reflects Qatar’s political shift towards the new Russo-Turkish alliance. Russian negotiations and efforts to integrate the Syrian rebel groups into the Free Syrian Army (FSA) never gained traction with Fath el-Sham’s leader, Mohamed al-Julani. Like ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Julani is a hard-line ex-internee of the ex-US military detention facility at Camp Bucca, Iraq. So neither al-Julani, nor ISIS, are present at Astana.

Fath el-Sham dropped the al-Nusra name when it split from al-Qaeda last year and re-branded as a ‘moderate rebel group’, in order to attract more money and arms from the US. This was too late, however. Already, by late 2015, the US had established a close alliance in Syria with the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish YPG which, like its Turkish PKK affiliate, is opposed to Islam. An ongoing ideological battle for the soul of the Kurdish population has straddled the Syrian-Turkish border for a generation, driving conservative Kurds in Turkey towards Erdoğan’s AKP. This divide allowed ISIS of late to infiltrate the poorer, more pious among those, encouraging them to take up arms against left-wing Kurds.

While the YPG operates under the name of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to include some Arabs in their ranks, all such recruits have to undergo Marxist-Leninist political indoctrination prior to military training.

While al-Julani has fought the SDF, it is the least of his problems at present. He is bitter over the fall of Aleppo, for which he blames Ahrar al-Sham’s defection to the FSA. The FSA is engaged in the Turkish ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ in carving out a ‘safe zone’ between A’zaz, al-Bab, Manbij, and Jarablus in Northern Syria, with Russian air cover. It was humiliating for Fath el-Sham to be bussed out of Aleppo back to Idlib as peace broke out. So, al-Julani announced a new alliance with ISIS, launching a blistering attack on FSA elements between Aleppo and Idlib as the Astana talks got under way, emboldening those ISIS elements still defending al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo.

The road to Astana and the Russo-Turkish alliance

Al-Julani’s new decisions are designed to attract ISIS fighters to the ultimate rebel fortress, in Idlib. But the logical outcome of such a development will that al-Bab will fall for the same reasons Aleppo did; because of a lack of fighters. Nevertheless, whatever al-Julani does, his Gulf backers have deserted him for good. Russia’s agreement to a non-OPEC oil production cut was predicated on a formal withdrawal of Saudi Arabia from Syria, and this became official policy when King Salman’s ‘state of the Kingdom speech’ on 23rd December 2016 excluded any mention of Syria, for the first time.

Furthermore, Qatar, Turkey’s long-term strategic ally since some time, is committed to the Astana process. It has stopped funding non-compliant rebel groups outside the FSA, as it seeks to engage with the new Russo-Turkish world-vision. Qatar has also invested $11bn in Rosneft, along with its Anglo-Swiss commodities trading subsidiary, Glencore, in a move which brings the Gulf state into a significant commercial alliance with a company whose management is close to Putin.

These are seismic geopolitical shifts among the Gulf States, and are the result basically of changes in Turkish policy, driven by a series of events in train since mid-2014.

Ever since Erdoğan backed Syrian rebel calls for a ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria in May 2013, relations with Obama became increasingly fraught. Mid-2014 was significant in that Mosul fell to ISIL then, jolting an indecisive Obama into action, and leading him to demand access to İncirlik airbase for a new anti-ISIL coalition. As millions of refugees poured into Turkey from Syria, Erdoğan refused to agree to Obama’s demands without US agreement on the safe zone.

There ensued an angry reaction from Washington, communicated to Hürriyet by a Beltway analyst who said that “… Ankara’s refusal to allow the U.S. to use İncirlik Air base is of great concern to American military planners and seems like the top priority issue at the table right now… [Turkey is] not living up to its NATO obligations… People in the US government and the Washington think tank community have begun to re-assess the US-Turkey partnership”.

Erdoğan was unmoved. Furthermore, when the Syrian border town of Kobane was besieged by ISIS in the final months of 2014, he decided to sit on his hands; an event which became a media sensation. Pressured to intervene militarily, Erdoğan only assisted by ordering field hospitals to be erected and by allowing the Pershmerga from Iraq to come to the rescue. However, the media pictures of the Turkish military lined up along the border, surrounding Kobane, looking on as the fight raged, played very badly in world public opinion.

It was nine months after the Kobane events, when the US found itself struggling to put a together force of ‘moderate rebels’ against Assad beyond a mere ‘four or five’, as reported in Senate hearings, that Obama and Chuck Hagel decided to concentrate on a alliance with the Syrian Kurds to further their aims. This was a momentous decision, one that would have substantial, perhaps unintended, consequences.

The alliance pushed by the US was seen by the YPG and PKK as an opportunity to begin the creation of a separate state. Kurdish politicians had been calling on the PKK at the time, to implement final disarmament stage of the reconciliation process with the Turkish state. These calls were rejected by the militants, who decided to blame the Suruç bombing of 20th July 2015 on Erdoğan and the Turkish state, and to launch a new war. The Suruç bombing had in fact been perpetrated by a cell of pious Kurds in the town of Adiyaman, who took revenge for the expulsion of ISIS from Kobane. They killed 32 Socialist Kurdish students and aid workers going to the shattered previously-besieged town to help rebuild it.

When the US finally agreed to a safe zone 65 km deep along the Turkish border with Syria, from Jarablus to Marea (40km from Aleppo) in July 2015, Erdoğan granted the coalition access to İncirlik.

But the war with the PKK had started. At the same time, the same Kurdish ISIS cell widened its attacks on left-leaning Kurds. As the PKK and ISIS battled openly over the lucrative smuggling routes in the Turkish Southeast, ‘parallel state’ operators within the Gendarmerie (JİTEM), controlled by the Gülen movement, felt obliged to assert control. While conflict with the state proper might have contributed to the Gülenist coup attempt of July 15th 2016, the dynamics of Kurdish question, and the control of the mountainous Southeast, has always been the prime driver of the actions of the Turkish ‘parallel’ or deep state (of which the Gülen movement had now become the main representative).

The failure of the coup became Erdoğan’s opportunity. Army purges became possible that for the first time in modern Turkish history put the military under the total control of the politicians. On the Syrian side of the border the Kurdish YPG were in ruthless pursuit of a contiguous Kurdish state from Nusaybin to Afrin along the Turkish border. So the Turkish government accelerated the implementation of the safe zone and, gathering the FSA together, launched Operation Euphrates Shield to take Jarablus on 24th August 2016. Finding their plans at risk, the PKK’s terror campaign in Turkey redoubled. Meanwhile ISIS, expelled from Jarablus, now also turned its ire onto the Turkish state.

Throughout these bloody and chaotic events, Putin had been looking on, and saw a clear opportunity.

Russia was embattled as a result of US and European sanctions; the economy was reeling from a declining oil price, and suffering from obstacles erected in the way of Russian gas supplies to Europe in Ukraine and Bulgaria. When Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani travelled to Moscow to relay a call for help from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in August 2015, a decision was taken to establish a substantial military presence in Syria around the existing ex-Soviet naval base in Tartus, Latakia. The collapse in relations between the US and its most important NATO ally in the region, over the question of the safe zone, gave Putin a window to expand Tartus and to build a new airbase at Khmeimim, close-by. The world may have been focusing on Syria and Assad, but it was really Turkey that was now in play.

At the very time that the PKK launched its war in Turkey, Putin, by now installed at Tartus and Khmeimim, decided to add to the pressure on Erdoğan, by focusing airstrikes on Turcoman Syrian rebels, traditionally under Turkish protection, whilst claiming that the purpose of the Russian mission was to destroy ISIS. After military action that involved numerous incursions into Turkish airspace, the notorious downing of the Russian fighter-jet occurred on 24th November. This allowed Putin to stage a loud and dramatic pantomime that conjured up visions of WWIII, succeeding thus in cowing NATO and the US. As the world held its breath, Russia dramatically increased its Syrian capability, while slapping crippling economic sanctions on Turkey. Putin had fully expected a Turkish air defence response to happen at some point, as long as he kept the incursions into Turkish airspace going on for long enough. But Turkey would eventually have to apologise for something that had been in its right to do, and when Putin asked for a scalp, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu took the fall.

It is unlikely that the massive gains to Russia from the downed jet event were purely serendipitous. The Khmeimim airbase may have looked like protection for Assad, but together with the Gyumri airbase in Armenia, the new airbase had completed the encirclement of Turkey. The US may have added ex-Warsaw Pact countries to NATO since the 1990s, breaking Reagan’s promises to Gorbachev at Reykjavik, but Russia has now acquired a founder member of NATO, with its largest army, holding the most strategic geographic position in the alliance, as an ally.

And a willing ally at that. Turkey is formally the co-host of the Astana talks with Russia. Turkey, not Russia is the pivotal element in the new process. Its new economic and prospective military agreements with Russia are central to an Eastward-looking strategy that will restructure priorities in its old alliances with the US and Europe. A new hard-line attitude in Turkey towards the Syrian problem is encapsulated in the building of a new ‘Great Wall’ along its border with Syria to stop uncontrolled traffic. With JİTEM, the Gendarmerie responsible for Turkey’s security in the Southeast, and Turkish Intelligence (MİT), under the strict executive control of the President since the failure of the coup, Syria rebel groups will find it hard to bypass official policy. The smuggling routes from the north are now blocked, and Iran controls the territory to the south.

Groups like Fath el-Sham and ISIL will only survive if the US suddenly decides to supply them through its base in Syrian Kurdish territory. This seems unlikely under the prospective isolationism of a Trump administration (although the Pentagon and CIA have been known to disobey their leaders).

The rebel groups attending Astana are focused now largely on ceasefire compliance. There have been skirmishes with Assad’s régime over water supplies, and because the need the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia sees to consolidate its positions between Damascus and Lebanon. It is significant that these violations are being overlooked by a Turkish government determined that Astana bring a final end to the chaos on its southern borders.

The Great US-Iranian War, and the Syrian alliance with Iran

In 1996, neocons Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David Wurmser proposed the ‘Clean Break’ strategy to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, to ditch the peace process and launch a pre-emptive series of strikes against it neighbours with, as an ultimate target, an invasion of Iraq. Enough neocons came to power under George W. Bush to make this policy a reality. The 2003 invasion of Iraq followed on the heels of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan prompted by 9/11.

US Provisional Authority Head in Baghdad, Paul Bremer’s De-Baathification and his dissolution of the Iraqi military, provided one of the ingredients for the disaster that engulfed the world.

The other ingredient was chucked into the pot by Bush himself in his January 29th 2002 State of the Union address, when he classed Iran as a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’. Senior State Department official Ryan Crocker, who was actively cooperating with the Iranian Quds Force leader Suleimani in planning the early Afghan campaign against the Taliban at the time, remembers the instant volte-face the Iranians made upon hearing the speech.

John Mearsheimer writing in 2005 equated the neocon and Bush doctrines, calling them “Wilsonianism with teeth”: a combination of liberal internationalism with and belief in the power of military action. He argued that the fatal flaw in this doctrine was a belief in “bandwagoning” logic. This logic held that the mere threat of attack from a military as powerful as that of the US would cause any opposition ‘… to throw up its hands and jump on the American bandwagon…’. Mearsheimer held instead with “realist” thinking, which believed instead in a “balancing” world, where every action begets a reaction.

When it became clear that Syria and Iran would “be next” after Iraq, Suleimani helped Assad turn Damascus into “Grand Central Station” for international jihadis travelling to fight US forces in Iraq. Mahmoud Abu al-Qaqaa became Assad’s chief recruiter for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Then, from AQI, would eventually emerge, from the confines of the US military detention facility at Camp Bucca, the ISIS phenomenon, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his coterie of Baathist officers.

But, Syria and Iran had become allies much earlier, right after the March 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and the Iranian Revolution of the same year. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had felt betrayed by Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat, who never followed through on Camp David promises to the Palestinians. For Ayatollah Khomeini, on the other hand, the alliance would be deeply ideological. Syria was the vital link with the Shi’a of Southern Lebanon, whose theologians had been central to the Safavi conversion of Iran to Twelver Shiism some centuries before.

Syria assisted Iran during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88). After the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon in 1982, the two countries carried out the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings together. Using Lebanese Hezbollah suicide bombers 541 US Marines and 58 French servicemen were killed in two simultaneous attacks deemed by FBI forensics to have been the ‘… biggest non-nuclear explosion since World War II…’ During the 2003-2011 US-Iraq War, Syria and Iran were no longer mobilising Shi’a fighters (such as Hezbollah) against a common enemy but, as Crocker reported, were actually helping the Sunni insurgency against the US occupation. Suleimani went so far as organising jihadis belonging to AQI for ‘… attacks on Western targets in Saudi Arabia… under Iranian protection…’.

When the Assad régime came under pressure from protests during the Arab Spring in 2011, it would be of little surprise that cooperation would unfold between Damascus and Tehran along similar lines.

Assad saw the protests as an opportunity for the Saudi King Abdullah (since deceased), to unseat him. At daggers drawn since the assassination of Lebanese president Rafik Hariri, a strong Saudi ally (in fact, a Saudi citizen), the relationship between the two became bitter, after Assad had called Abdullah a “half-man“, a particularly galling Arabic insult, for his criticism of Hezbollah’s aggressive stance towards Israel in 2006.

After the 2006 Lebanese War, the Egyptian and Saudi embassies in Damascus came to be used by the US to foment sectarian unrest against Assad and the Alawites. When the 2011 protests erupted, Assad’s expectations and his violent overreaction justified the Saudi régime in its desire for overt interference in Syrian affairs, while Turkey all the time pressed for conciliation. It was at this point, between August and October 2011, that Assad released a number of militant jihadis from Sednaya Prison, who had been arrested upon their return from Iraq. He presented this as an olive branch to his opposition, although actually there was never to be any release of the peaceful protesters (including many public intellectuals) in detention.

The move was intended to divide and rule the opposition. The militants released by Assad became the leaders of the most important Sunni rebel groups. Zahran Alloush led Jaysh al-Islam, Hassan Abboud, Ahrar el-Sham, and Amr Abu Atheer al-Absi would turn into one of the more unhinged ISIS leaders (he was the group’s main kidnapper). Al-Absi joined Jabhat al-Nusra, founded at the turn of 2011/2012 by AQI, which had by then become Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The idea was to expand its reach into Syria (so ISI becomes ISIS). Where al-Nusra’s leader, al-Julani then broke with ISIS, al-Absi remained faithful. Assad’s accommodation over the Syrian oil and gas fields with different rebel groups over time, guaranteeing both a sales outlet and the protection of the Syrian air force was an important part of the régime’s divide and rule tactics.

The régime’s survival would ultimately be underpinned by the Quds force, however, with the help of an increasing number of Shi’a militias brought over by Suleimani from Iraq. The Quds force itself lost a good of number of its high ranking officers in Syria, including Suleimani’s own deputy, Hossein Hamadani. According to al-Jazeera’s research, rescuing Assad cost Iran upwards of $175bn over five years.

Baathist officers, Syrian intelligence and the creation of ISIS

The lone isolation of ISIS from all the other rebel groups in Syria has always been a mystery. An insight was gained into this mystery from Hassan Abboud, leader of Ahrar al-Sham. Just prior to being blown up in his own quarters in September 2014, along with his entourage, he maintained in an interview, that Iraqi premier Nouri al-Maliki had received orders from Suleimani to withdraw from Mosul to allow an ISIS take-over. He was convinced of the close relationship between Suleimani, Assad and ISIS.

While ISIS, he said, fought his own group constantly, and sowed division amongst all the rebel forces, it never fought Assad’s forces and appeared ‘to spend a great deal of leisure time with limitless resources and funds’. It had, in fact, been well-funded even before taking over Syria’s oil and gas fields.

Abboud’s story is backed up by reports of strong links between the ISIS leader in Aleppo, Amr Abu Atheer al-Absi, and Baathist officer Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi. Al-Khlifawi had not only been al-Baghdadi’s delegate in Syria, responsible for setting up Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place, but had also developed strong links with Syrian intelligence.

The infiltration of Syria’s rebel forces by Assad’s intelligence services is evidenced by a particular sequence of events in 2012. Zahran Alloush was responsible for organising a massive bombing at the heart of Assad’s security establishment on 18th July 2012 as part of an all-out rebel attack called the ‘Damascus Volcano’ (at the time when Jaysh al-Islam was operating under the name of Liwa al-Islam). Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz (Bandar), on behalf of the Saudi régime, masterminded Operation Damascus Volcano. The Assad régime retaliated soon after, on July 26th, in the heart of the Saudi capital, at the offices of the Intelligence Services, although subsequent reports of Bandar’s death were premature. Nevertheless, this was a testament to the long arm of Assad’s intelligence apparatus and its dissimulation within the rebel network.

Another illuminating comment made by Abboud in his final interview, was that the UAE was funding ISIS. Saudi Arabia and Qatar might have been backing Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar el-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam, but the UAE was systematically backing Assad’s interests.

The UAE, the Yemen imbroglio and the Egyptian morass

Yemen, like Afghanistan, is a graveyard of invaders. Part of the reason for Saudi acquiescence to the Russo-Turkish plan may have been the need to cooperate in the oil markets, but war weariness resulting from endless military action in Yemen is also behind this. And here is to be found the strange tale of the UAE, and its leader Mohamed bin Zayed (MbZ).

MbZ runs a police state almost out of science fiction, which has followed a systematic counterrevolutionary policy against Muslim Brotherhood political parties throughout the region. He funded the military coup in Egypt, planning a complete takeover of the country, and then pursued similar goals in Libya and Tunisia. He was opposed to pro-Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Assad Qatari and Turkish policy in Syria, and pursued antagonistic policies accordingly.

MbZ had co-opted the Saudi King Abdullah as part of his plan for Egypt through the intermediary of his agent in Riyadh, Khalid al-Tuwaijri, secretary to the Royal Court at the time (and effectively Prime Minister). However, part of the plan that MbZ had hatched with al-Tuwaijri involved a change to his advantage in the line of succession to the Saudi throne. When that plot failed, al-Tuwaijri was arrested by the new incumbent, King Salman, whose son Mohamed bin Salman (MbS) became Deputy Crown Prince, secretary to the Royal Court, Defence Minister, and economic supremo, all at once.

Strangely, MbZ’s relationship with the all-powerful MbS survived. But it did so largely by MbZ agreeing to join MbS’s signature war in Yemen. This was launched in part to consolidate MbS’s control, not just over the Saudi army which he controlled nominally anyway, but also over the equally powerful Saudi National Guard, which was effectively controlled by Mutaib bin Abdullah, the son of the deceased King, and the very person who was frustrated by MbS’s advent to power. His overall command of the new war enabled this assertion of power.

What is rarely reported about the disastrous and vicious war in Yemen, however, is the fact that the Houthi takeover, achieved with the aid of the deposed dictator Ali Abdulla al-Saleh, and prompting the action by Saudi Arabia, had not originally been an Iranian conspiracy. It had been backed and funded by MbZ and the UAE from the start. Furthermore, what has never been reported outside of the Arabic press is that, despite the UAE’s apparent alliance with Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni campaign, the Houthis and Saleh continue to maintain, even now, that they have MbZ’s support and that of the UAE.

The outcome of the interminable Yemen imbroglio is a much weakened Saudi Arabia, hemorrhaging both money and credibility in the region. The reluctance of Saudis to go beyond treating the war like a video game air war, using illegal munitions out of frustration, dooms the whole enterprise. Furthermore, the mean and nasty starvation tactics being used are uniting a hardy nation against them, rolling back any early advantages they might have had. Nothing expresses the collapse of Saudi Arabia’s role in the region better than Rafik Hariri’s son, Saad, turning his back on the kingdom in favour of the Hezbullah nominee for the presidency of Lebanon.

MbZ’s adventures have also cost the UAE dearly as, besides the mounting cost of its various wars and counterrevolutionary commitments around the Arab World, its commitment to Egypt continues to drain its reserves without an end in sight, as the country’s economy collapses. When the Egyptian people are going to erupt again is anybody’s guess, but when they do the UAE will pay a heavy price.

The Iranian victory, the Sunni-Shi’a divide, and the future of the Astana process

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, recently declared a decisive victory in the Great US-Iranian War. Iran’s only condition for backing the Astana talks was a demand to exclude the US. The Islamic Republic achieved almost everything it wanted from the Syrian War. Specifically, the land link with the Shi’a community of Lebanon was secured through the ruthless pursuit of demographic change in Syrian areas along the Lebanese border unprecedented in its scope, which has involved the settlement of new Iraqi and Afghan Shi’a communities in ethnically cleansed areas.

Previous Turkish outrage against this hideous policy is now suspended in favour of an acceptance of facts on the ground. In return, after months of anti-Turkish rhetoric about Turkish forces in Northern Iraq, Iraqi President Haidar al-Abadi suddenly adopted a more co-operative tone. Also significant was Abadi’s declaration rejecting the presence of the Kurdish PKK in Iraq. This signals an Iranian about turn in its long-standing support of the PKK operations in the Qandil Mountains. Little is reported about Iran’s historic role exacerbating the problems that have weighed against solving ‘Kurdish problem’ through the Turkish ‘Democratic Opening’. The Islamic Republic always sought to avoid facing calls for more political representation from Iranian Kurds.

The consolidation of the relationship between Barzani’s Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) and Turkey over recent years, now leads Iran to seek Turkish guarantees that Barzani ceases his support for the Iranian opposition Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI).

So the tensions at the start of the Astana process have not between Turkey and Iran, but rather between Russia and Iran, especially in regard to the behaviour of Shi’a militias over NGO access to areas needing aid, subsequent to the UNSC resolution.

It is especially galling to Russian policy-makers that in having helped Iran to rescue Assad, they are currently being associated with a regional Shi’a project. Not only do they have to face public opinion in the Sunni Arab street, but also among the Sunni, mainly Tatar, populations within Russia, as well as in its (mostly) Sunni neighbours in Central Asia. Russian spokesmen are working hard remedy this situation, and it is instructive that, in this regard, the first action Russia took in Aleppo was to deploy Chechen (Sunni) military police.

Ultimately though, Russian calls for compliance under the terms of the new ceasefire violation commission will be heeded by Iran.  Russia is a crucial guarantor of the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), which is important at a time when opposition of the US Congress to the deal is reinforced by a new Trump administration sharply antipathetic towards Iran. It is important that under the new state of affairs, Russia’s guarantee is no longer just political, but military. Russian S-400 and S-300 installations at Khmeimim airbase, the fast expanding Tartus Naval Base near Latakia, and the naval fire-power based in the Caspian,  provide the basic structure for a security architecture for the Middle East, in which Iran can now participate.

The Obama legacy and the prospective role of the US in the Middle East

As Obama was being elected, Inderjeet Parmar wrote about what he called “terror war liberal interventionism”, which he saw as a twenty-first century variant of “Cold War liberalism”, along the lines of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Vital Center. A fusion existed between liberal interventionists, conservative nationalists and neocons which, he said, meant that ‘… Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq War, in late 2002, was… based on tactical, rather than principled, factors.’ Obama’s foreign policy wouldn’t be significantly different from Bush’s.

The new Obama administration would shun “boots on the ground”, but that didn’t mean that it wouldn’t pursue war by proxy. The inexplicable strength of the alliance with Saudi Arabia, the redaction of 28 pages in the 9/11 Commission report, the rise and rise of Bandar and his jihadi project (until the advent of the new King Salman), only makes sense if the desert kingdom was seen as an integral, rather than contingent, part of US global strategy. By at least 2009, Clinton was well aware of Saudi funding of terrorism. Clearly, she didn’t view that as a problem, but rather as a resource.

When Erdoğan saw the need for a Syrian National Congress (SNC) as a political framework for military action in Syria, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State had other ideas. At end October 2012, she branded the SNC as a waste of time and a ‘talking-shop’, because of her opposition to the Muslim Brothers. Bandar had shown his mettle in his handling of Operation Damascus Volcano only a few months before, and Clinton backed his promotion to Chief of Saudi Intelligence, right after his survival of the retaliatory assassination attempt by Assad’s men.

Syria wasn’t going to be a theatre for nascent democracy however difficult, if Clinton had her way, but for a despotic Islamic state along the lines of Saudi Arabia. Obama would excuse the nature of the new régime on the basis of US “security imperatives” as he did after the July 2013 military coup in Egypt. The new ruler of Syria could only be a chimera along the lines of Sisi in Egypt: a cross between a mullah and a general, controlled from Washington.

As it is, a new isolationist administration arrives in the US capital at a time that regional powers in the Middle East have managed to put together a credible system for stability in the region. The foreign policy fusion that Parmar described in 2009 has been shredded in the past few months, as national conservatives in the US begin to take account of new circumstances, resulting from the unexpected election of a leader who saw the opportunity of turning disparate popular discontent into a national movement.

Liberal interventionists and neocons have reacted in tandem with alarm at the developments. The Washington Beltway establishment remains in denial, even when accounting for the rise of this Trumpist movement as “Jacksonian” in character, it fails to fully recognise the full degree of the viciousness of the passing “Liberal Order”, mourning what it thinks was its “cosmopolitanism”, when the world actually suffered the onslaught for years of what was undoubtedly a “unilateralist” and “universalist” doctrine, one, on Mearsheimer’s view, ‘with teeth’.

Although the implications for US foreign policy of all of this are still very much in the air, the very confusion currently dogging the Beltway are isolationist in their effects, giving those nations that have managed extraordinarily to come together at Astana, the freedom to act, for the first time in a long time, according to their own lights.

Omar Kassem can be reached through his website at