U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps off the plane at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, October 24, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Alex Brandon
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the Middle East last weekend with two simple aims – to wrap Irap into America’s regional axis against Iran, and persuade Saudi Arabia to end its blockade of Qatar. He failed to accomplish either.
The dust was barely settling on the capture of Islamic State’s de facto capital Raqqa, a major success for Washington and the coalition it assembled across the region and beyond. While most of the actual fighting has been done by local forces, without U.S. support the Islamist group would still almost certainly dominate huge swathes of the region. Its dramatic early victories in 2014 seriously rattled authorities in Baghdad and Riyadh in particular – but now it is largely on the ropes, neither government has much appetite for being dictated to by America.
Those in the Trump and Obama administration might be loathe to admit it, but over the last three years both followed a similar approach on Middle East policy. Occasionally dubbed “ISIS first,” it prioritized the group’s defeat above all other regional interests. It was a reasonable approach, and – while remnants of ISIS remain – it has proved remarkably successful.
The problem is that there is little clarity on what will now define U.S. Mideast policy. Without a single guiding principle, there is the real risk that an already-conflicted approach could fall apart entirely.
In some respects, this is already happening. With the diminished threat from IS, Washington’s always awkward alliance with the Shi’ite-dominated, Iran-allied Baghdad government and the various political entities of Iraqi Kurdistan has deteriorated with dramatic speed. A Kurdish independence referendum last month was followed quickly by an Iraqi government advance into oil-rich areas around the Kurdish city of Kirkuk. For much of the last week, Kurdish and Iraqi government forces – both U.S.-funded and equipped, and until recently allies in the bloody battle for Mosul – have been at each other’s throats.
Across the rest of the region, the historical Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry continues to grow more complex. In Syria, Iran and Russia have essentially succeeded in their attempts to salvage Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Washington appears to have accepted this as the cost of stability and pushing back against Islamic State, while giving Saudi Arabia effective carte blanche to pursue its own war in Yemen against Houthi rebels allied with Tehran.
With IS now weakened, the Trump White House clearly now hopes to make the confrontation with Iran its overarching regional priority. Trump’s October 13 announcement that he would not recertify the nuclear deal negotiated by the previous administration was the clearest signal of that so far, followed closely by new sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which the U.S. labels a sponsor of terror.
On Iran, however, Washington has little realistic chance of achieving the wide, unified coalition it formed against IS. America’s allies remain deeply divided on the best approach to Tehran, with European states openly reluctant to tear up the nuclear agreement also signed by Moscow and Beijing.
The Gulf states are anything but a unified coalition. The Saudi and United Arab Emirates-backed blockade of Qatar continues, putting the United States – which has major military bases in all three countries – in an awkward position, one it appears to have extremely limited ability to remedy.
Tillerson’s visit risks reinforcing a narrative that had been growing in strength since the Obama administration – that America has ever-less control and influence over traditional friends and enemies alike, particularly at a time when they increasingly feel they can turn to alternatives such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Under President Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey – a reliable U.S. ally as far back as the end of the nineteenth century – has become increasingly hostile. Egypt’s military government too is increasingly keen to assert its independence, even as it continues to receive large quantities of U.S. aid.
It’s a paradox that this is happening at the same time as the largely successful coalition effort against Islamic State – a coalition that depended heavily on the United States, and which perhaps no other country could have ushered into existence in quite the same way.