What Trump is Doing in the Middle East While You are Distracted by COVID-19

And still the virus shrouds Donald Trump’s mischief in the Middle East.

First it was his sly retreat from Iraq; now it’s his cosy military exercises with the United Arab Emirates – famous in song and legend as a former Saudi ally in the bloody Yemen war – and his cut of $1bn in aid to Afghanistan because its presidential feuding may hamper another deal with his newly established chums in the Taliban. And then there’s Iran

So let’s look for a moment at the extraordinary mock city built in the Emirates – complete with multi-storey buildings, hotels, apartment complexes, an airport control tower, oil refineries and a central mosque – which Emirati troops and US Marines have been assaulting with much clamour in a joint military exercise. According to the Associated Press reporter who watched this Hollywood-style epic, Emirati soldiers rappelled from helicopters while Marines “searched narrow streets on the Persian Gulf for mock-enemy forces”.

But who were these “forces”? Iranian, perhaps? In which case, the mock-mosque was presumably Shia, the oil refineries presumably in southern Iran, and the old streets in one of Iran’s ancient cities. Surely not Shiraz. Surely not Isfahan.

Brigadier General Thomas Savage of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force didn’t seem to think the Iranians might find all this a bit suspicious. The exercise – Operation Native Fury, the name of which seemed to carry its own colonial message – is held every two years. “Provocative?” asked the aforesaid Savage. “I don’t know. We’re about stability in the region. So if they view it as provocative, well, that’s up to them. This is just a normal training exercise for us.”

I’m not at all sure that it’s “normal” for American armed forces to stage make-believe attacks on scale-model Muslim cities complete with mosque and narrow streets in order to create “stability in the region”. Surely this particular mock-up was not intended to stand in for Yemeni cities, around which Emirati troops had been fighting for four years against pro-Iranian Houthi fighters before turning against their Saudi allies in the same conflict and doing a quick bunk. The 4,000 US troops had been sent into the Emirates from Diego Garcia and Kuwait, where they might have recently arrived from the three newly abandoned American bases in Iraq. General Savage said none of his men had tested positive for the coronavirus and have “had little contact with the outside world” since shipping out for the exercise.

In a different context, Trump, who also has little contact with the outside world – the real one, that is – has been back to blackmailing his allies “in the region”. While much of that world continues to obsess about imminent pestilential death, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has suddenly – and with very little publicity — cut $1bn in aid to Afghanistan and threatened further reductions in cooperation. This is a bitter blow for a nation also facing Covid-19 (we can probably dismiss the handful of declared cases and two deaths there as an absurd underestimation), but America comes first!

Trump and Pompeo, you see, are very, very angry that both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah both claim to have been elected president in the recent elections – thus endangering the agreement between Washington and the Taliban to withdraw all US forces in return for the Taliban’s promise to fight Isis, al-Qaeda and all other jihadis wandering around Afghanistan. The signed understanding between the US and what I suppose we must call “Talibanistan” also includes a mutual exchange of prisoners (5,000 of the Taliban for 1,000 government troops) to which both of the rival presidents object.

Abdullah and Ghani, who was once described by his old university in Beirut as a “global thinker”, appear to have forgotten the words of the Persian medieval poet Saadi: that while 10 poor people could sleep on a carpet, two kings could not fit into a single kingdom.

You can see why Pompeo is upset. Not since rival popes – and, I suppose, earlier rival Roman emperors – simultaneously announced their supremacy have we witnessed such a pairing of panjandrums. If Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, it is also the font of hubris for its local masters – who, with their palaces, villas, bodyguards and 4x4s will not be affected by the cut in aid. If the two men were to reach a resolution to their dispute, Pompeo has announced, the US sanctions will be “revisited” – proving that this is indeed a spot of blackmail by Trump.

But US sanctions are clearly not going to be “revisited” in relation to Iran, which claims – not without some justice – that the ban on imports is hindering its own struggle against Covid-19.

The UN has called for such sanctions to be “urgently re-evaluated”, pointing out that human-rights reports have already described the malign effect of sanctions on Iran’s access to respirators and protective clothes for healthcare workers. The Iranians, with the declared number of cases above 27,000 and more than 2,000 confirmed deaths, may have covered up many more victims – and this, remember, is a regime that couldn’t tell the difference between a Ukrainian airliner and an American cruise missile (and lied about it for two days). They clearly need help. American sanctions, however, matter more than the coronavirus in the Middle East.

So, alas, does Iranian amour propre. With truly Trumpian fantasy – for the US president still calls the virus “Chinese” – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, inspired it seems by a Chinese official’s comments, has suggested that Covid-19 was man-made in America and that US medicine “is a way to spread the virus more”. This sort of claptrap is on a level with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed that a halo shone over his head at the UN and that his listeners didn’t blink for half an hour while he spoke. “You [Americans] might send people as doctors and therapists; maybe they would want to come here and see the effect of the poison they have produced in person,” announced the 80-year-old divine.

After this nonsense, Imran Khan, the Pakistani prime minister, was perhaps the only regional leader who could still appeal to the US to lift the sanctions on “humanitarian grounds” until the virus has receded. Needless to say, he was wasting his time.

And finally, a US Marine Osprey V-22 helicopter took off from the US embassy compound in Beirut last week, carrying aboard Amer Fakhoury, a former member of Israel’s proxy South Lebanon Army militia. Fakhoury, now a US citizen, had returned to Lebanon last September to visit his family – he was met at Beirut airport by a senior army officer – but was recognised by former prisoners as an ex-warden at Israel’s notorious Khiam jail. He was immediately accused by the Lebanese authorities of torturing inmates and brought before a military tribunal.

Fakhoury denied, and still denies, all the charges against him. He was subsequently released when a judge said the crimes levelled against him occurred more than 10 years ago. Fakhoury, who entered hospital in Beirut suffering from stage 4 lymphoma, had fled across the border after Israel’s retreat from Lebanon in 2000. An appeal was lodged against his release by a military judge, but Fakhoury was nonetheless flown out of Lebanon. “We’ve been working very hard to get him freed,” Trump said, which is true: a US embassy official insisted on attending the military court last year when Fakhoury made his first appearance.

Khiam prison was infamous for the torture and mistreatment of Shia Muslim prisoners – both male and female. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch published numerous and detailed reports of torture at the jail, and The Independent also published eyewitness accounts of torture. Fakhoury’s release prompted an outburst of fury from Lebanese parties who believed that their government had acted under threat of economic sanctions from Washington.

There were even claims that the Hezbollah militia, paid and armed by Iran, had been involved in discussions over Fakhoury’s release with a representative of the Trump administration. Its leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, in a rare burst of anger, denied such a conspiracy.

Of course, scarcely anyone saw the departure of Lebanon’s most famous prisoner. For as the American helicopter lifted him to freedom over the Mediterranean, Beirut’s inhabitants were hiding in their homes to avoid catching Covid-19.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.