A new regional architecture? The impact of U.S. strategy on the regional Arena


Dr.  Moshe Albo | October, 2021


Albo6-10-21Web.jpg
Photo: Air Mobility Command Public Affairs


The U.S. administration has adopted a policy whereby its involvement in the Middle East has lessened while its focus has shifted to the strategic rivalry with Russia and China. Subsequently, the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, pursuit of a renewed nuclear deal with Iran, increasing debate over the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Syria, and the cracks in the wall of sanctions Washington had imposed on Assad's regime (the Caesar Act) are all leading to the shaping of a dynamic regional architecture that impacts the alliances and bilateral relations between countries due to the growing concern over a shift in U.S. policy in the region.


Washington's strategy is forcing countries in the region to re-examine their policies on local rivalries and competitions, as they realize that American support is unstable, and key regional challenges – Iran as well as the radical terror organizations – require a strategic realignment.


The U.A.E is therefore revisiting its policy vis-à-vis Turkey, taking steps to renew bilateral ties despite the military friction between them in Libya, their battle over energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, and bitter ideological rivalry; Turkey, however, is striving to renew its political relations with Egypt, the U.A.E, as well as Saudi Arabia, and is willing to pay the price of reducing its support of Muslim Brotherhood activists active on its soil, despite the growing rivalry in all of the above domains; Saudi Arabia is probing for political ties with Iran to mitigate the tension and avoid military miscalculation despite Iranian proxies' attacks against it in Yemen; and Qatar has successfully cemented its regional influence despite the blockade imposed by the Gulf States and Egypt, having made no political or ideological compromises. The following article will focus on the Qatari and Syrian study cases.


The regional dynamics seem to reflect the various actors' strategic incoherence; however, in effect, if represents countries' flexibility and ability to fence conflicts in view of the hefty price tags attached to all-encompassing ones, while promoting their interests vis-à-vis these very same regional adversaries. The main driver behind the rearrangement and establishment of the patchwork of relations and ties between these states is U.S. policy, alongside the widespread assumption that the current administration in Washington is determined to follow its own national security set of priorities and unwilling to use military tools in the Middle East unless absolutely necessary.


Qatar – a key regional actor


"I wish to express our deep gratitude for Qatar's extraordinary support in easing the safe transit of hundreds of U.S. citizens, and tens of thousands of Afghans, and other Afghans at-risk" 
(U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken).


The photograph posted on the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's personal account, featuring him smiling next to Qatar's Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and U.A.E. national security advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan (brother of Crown Prince and acting ruler Mohammed bin Zayed) was resonated in Arab media, and received the title "A relaxed meeting in the Red Sea".


The dispute between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E and Bahrain on the one hand, and Qatar on the other, began in June 2017 when Doha was accused of supporting terror organizations and contributing to regional destabilization. The Gulf states alongside Egypt made 13 demands of Qatar, such as: minimizing its ties with Iran; removing the Turkish military forces deployed there; ending the support it provides to the Muslim Brotherhood and expelling its senior representatives; and shutting down the influential media outlet Al Jazeera. Qatar's refusal resulted in the closing of its air, sea, and land borders, as well as in an overall economic and political embargo.


Qatar's importance in Washington was demonstrated last year, when it mediated in the negotiations with the Taliban leading up to the U.S. agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan, and helped to extract American forces during the chaotic exit from Kabul. While under the blockade, Qatar strengthened its strategic ties with Turkey and Iran, expressing open support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as aiding the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) as opposed to the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is supported by Egypt and the U.A.E. In January 2021, a reconciliation agreement was signed in Al-U'la as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit.


Qatar has successfully positioned itself as a key actor that knows how to take action and mediate between regional rivals – Hamas and Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, the United States and the Taliban – as well as strengthening its local standing using a proactive policy, while remaining true to its ideological allies (the Muslim Brotherhood). The photograph taken during the "relaxed meeting in the Red Sea" demonstrates Qatar's growing importance in the dynamic of the Muddle Eastern system.


Are the Arab states on their way to legitimizing Assad's regime?


In recent months, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates are revisiting their relations with Damascus, taking steps to fence their national security and economic interests with it in view of the limited American involvement, as well as the absence of a strategy aligned with the post-Civil War era. U.S. military presence in Eastern Syria is limiting Iran and Turkey; however, the debate over a possible withdrawal is growing.


King Abdullah's visit to Washington last July aimed to set the wheels of a renewed initiative for a compromise settlement in Syria in motion. The Jordanian initiative calls for internal dialogue in Syria, minimizing U.S. sanctions imposed on Syria, and having Damascus reenter the Arab influential sphere. Jordan's concerns are clear: Iranian subversiveness; The Islamic State's increasing terror; the issue of the refugees, and the need to strengthen regional stability all require political proactiveness. Subsequently, King Abdullah spoke to Syrian President Assad (October 3) for the first time since the Civil War began, and expressed his support of Syrian sovereignty and stability. The conversation was held following the Syrian Minister of Defense's visit to Oman (September 20). As a result, the Jaber border crossing was reopened, and the Jordanian Minister of Interior declared the purpose of this step was to activate the trade and tourism movement between the two countries. Egypt, meanwhile, publicly announced its desire to strengthen Syrian stability, promote some restorative steps, and give Syria back to the Arab nation.


In this context, the Arab gas pipeline project that should have helped Lebanon out of its severe energy crisis now serves as a legitimate framework for diplomatic steps vis-à-vis Damascus. The United States supports this project, and has allowed the gas to be transported through Syria, despite its ongoing unwillingness to lift the sanctions and recognize Assad's regime.


Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf States are using economic and political "carrots" to establish their clout in Syria, while expressing public support of the need for Syrian unity and stability. This campaign is aligned with the New Levant Initiative designed to minimize Iranian impact in the region, and have Syria and Lebanon reenter the Arab sphere. To date, the United States did not curb the Arab initiatives despite the fact that they fundamentally conflict with the sanctions it has imposed on Assad's regime. De facto, the Arab league is slowly but consistently legitimizing the Assad government, while coming up against no American objection.


Implications


The absence of an informing U.S. strategy in the Middle East, alongside the advancing of negotiations over a nuclear deal with Iran, as well as the growing criticism faced by Washington over the state of human rights affairs in the region, all lead to political proactiveness among members of the pro American Arab bloc, as well as a reexamination of regional alliances and rivalries. U.S. credibility has waned, particularly following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley defined as a "strategic failure", and this development has some implications for Israel's national security interests.


The strategic coordination between Jerusalem and Washington is especially crucial in view of the debate over continued American presence in the region. The steps taken by the U.S. in this area have direct implications for Israel's stability and deterrence. Namely, increasing inter-Arab impact in Syria could serve as a pressure lever over Russia and the Assad regime to minimize Iranian presence in Syria. At the same time, if Qatar will be "bearhugged" by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Israel's efforts to reach an arrangement with Hamas may be aided.


This complex regional architecture requires a comprehensive view and profound understanding of the various actors' interests, while cleverly managing the risks involved in the decision-making process and policy management in the various arenas. The campaign against the Islamic State, curbing of Iranian and Turkish impact, as well as the fight against the pandemic could potentially enhance Israel's strategic collaboration with the Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan.




This is a weekly brief on topical strategic issues facing Israel and the Middle East. The brief shares the insights of the research team of IDC Herzliya's Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) and is authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at IPS.

 

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