July 15, 2020

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How not to stabilize the Middle East


My very first blog post almost exactly 10 years ago was about the just-released Iraq Study Group Report, co-authored by Lee Hamilton and James Baker. What struck me about it was how it asserted that the way to solve the problems of the Middle East in general and the impasse facing the US in Iraq in particular was to achieve a “comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts,” by direct American involvement. It seemed to me a thunderous non-sequitur. What did Israel have to do with the ambitions of the various players in Iraq?

The commission recommended that the US “engage” with Syria and Iran, who were arming and encouraging the insurgencies that were killing Iraqis and Americans. The US, it said, should use carrots as well as sticks to persuade them to stop trying to destabilize Iraq and instead become part of an international “support group” for that suffering country. And one of the major carrots was Israel.

Syria was key to the plan. Baker and Hamilton (and their then little-known associate Ben Rhodes, now a top Obama advisor) believed that if Israel would cede the Golan Heights to Syria, Syria would cooperate in enforcing the toothless UNSC resolution 1701, which called for an end to arming Hezbollah, with which Israel had just fought a vicious little war. Syria could also be convinced, they said, to stop trying to subvert the government of Lebanon, whose officials – including President Rafik Hariri – it had been systematically murdering. Syria would also help convince Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist (!) and to unite with the Palestinian Authority, which would rule a unified ‘Palestine’ in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. At long last, the Israeli-Arab conflict would be over, and at the same time the grateful Arabs and Iranians would allow the US to exit Iraq with honor.

The plan failed to take into account several things, including Israel’s instinct for self-preservation, Palestinian rejectionism, Iranian expansionism, the rise of Da’esh, the increased insecurity of the conservative Sunni nations over Iran’s nuclear program, the implosion of Syria, and Russia’s aggressive move into the region.

Nevertheless, the Barack Obama Administration adopted a modified version of the plan.

The original plan called for the Iranian nuclear program to be managed by the existing international framework, the IAEA. But the price demanded by Iran to “engage” with the West was the removal of sanctions, a massive infusion of cash, and what was essentially a green light to go ahead with its nuclear program with only minor limitations – and even those are impossible to enforce if Iran cares to violate them.

The significance of the transformation of Russia into a major player in the Middle East has not been recognized by some, who continue to argue that the US is militarily superior in the region. However the introduction of advanced Russian air defense systems to Crimea and Syria, combined with the lack of will by the US to take risks has allowed Russia to consolidate itself as the major player here. So while the original plan called for the US to call the shots in Syria and Iraq, that is now impossible. The Russians are in the driver’s seat.

The chaotic power vacuum that rules in Iraq and Syria is being filled by Iran, with Russian support. The Russians are holding the Turks and the US at bay while their Iranian ally rolls up Da’esh in Iraq and consolidates its control there. The Russians are also assisting Iranian puppet Bashar al-Assad to hold onto at least part of what used to be Syria. When Da’esh is finally evicted from its major strongholds, the jihad is expected to metastasize into less formal terrorism around the world.

The American plan to stabilize Iraq has exploded into atoms, and the human toll has been immense. But what seems to be left is the desire to feed Israel to her enemies.

Although the idea that Israel would surrender the Golan to some remnant of Syria seems insane, the administration had not given it up as recently as April 2016.

The PLO and Hamas are still at odds, and it has become even clearer than before that no viable Palestinian leader would be prepared to give up the demand for the right of return, or to admit that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. The Palestinian Authority has become, if possible, even more corrupt and incompetent in providing services to its population, and will soon be gripped by a major power struggle with the exit of Mahmoud Abbas from the presidency.

But the US administration still pursues partition fantasies, and even interfered in elections in Israel in 2015 to try to bring a more compliant government into power. It is thought that Obama is planning some kind of diplomatic offensive against Israel after the US election, ranging from a Rose Garden speech setting out “parameters” for an Israel-PA agreement all the way to support of a Security Council resolution establishing parameters or outlawing settlements.

The US prevented Israel from taking military action against the Iranian nuclear program in recent years. Now the JCPOA (the nuclear deal between Iran and the West) would make it very difficult diplomatically for Israel to do it, even if she were not worried that the US would reveal or even physically interfere with an operation to bomb or otherwise destroy Iranian facilities.

Although Israel’s government claims to have good relations with Russia, there is a serious divergence of interests due to Russia’s alliance with Iran. Israel is very concerned that Iran will transfer game-changing weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and bombed weapons convoys and other targets in Syria in the past to prevent that. It is not clear today to what extent Israel’s “coordination” with Russia gives her freedom to act against such threats.

American policies have not stabilized Iraq, not prevented Iran from expanding its influence there, and not deterred Assad from pursuing his almost genocidal war in Syria. They have destroyed American influence and allowed Russia to become the most important power in the Middle East. They have enabled Iran to come close to achieving its goal of creating a “Shiite crescent” of control from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean. They have financed Iran’s worldwide terrorism and local aggression. They have greatly increased the risk of war and terrorism against Israel. And it looks like Obama hasn’t even finished with Israel.

Back in 2006, I wondered if the introduction of Israel into the plan to fix Iraq wasn’t disingenuous. I wondered if anti-Zionists like Baker weren’t hitching a ride on the Iraq problem in order to get their own pet project – the reversal of the results of the 1967 war – carried out.

Now that we’ve seen the total failure of the overall plan combined with the persistence and care with which the pressure against Israel has been applied, I’m wondering if it’s more than a pet project but rather a top priority goal of the administration?

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