Iran tops list of Middle East challenges for the US in 2020

The Middle East will continue to “pull” the United States in despite its interests elsewhere.
Sunday 05/01/2020
US President Donald Trump (L) listens to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, last October.    (AFP)
Risky gambles. US President Donald Trump (L) listens to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, last October. (AFP)

To paraphrase actor Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in the movie, “The Godfather Part III”: Whenever I want to get out, they keep pulling me back in!

That sentiment seems to encapsulate the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East. Its inclination was to reduce US involvement in the region and pivot towards China. That is why US President Donald Trump was quick to declare victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) and was eager to withdraw US troops from Syria.

Reality is another matter. First, he was slow to realise his maximum pressure campaign on Iran was not going to be cost-free. His Iran strategy seems to centre on the hope that, with enough economic pain, the Iranian people would revolt against the regime and a new, more moderate government would replace it.

Although there have been widespread protests in Iran, the regime has held firm. Not only have there been no cracks in the security apparatus, the regime has upped the ante through a series of provocative actions.

The latest one, which resulted in the death of a US civilian contractor, was reportedly carried out by Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shia militia with ties to Iran.

Believing it had to respond to that attack, the Trump administration not only struck this militia, killing 25 of its members, it killed a militia leader and the Iranian al-Quds force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, in a strike near Baghdad International Airport.

Before the latter attack, members of the militia stormed the so-called Green Zone in Baghdad and lay siege to the US Embassy. Although the siege ended after two days, it could resume and there are likely to be more calls in Iraq, not just from militia members, for the withdrawal of US troops.

It is unclear how Iran is going to retaliate, as Tehran might not want to directly target US troops, knowing that its military is no match for the US armed forces.

However, Tehran could retaliate by using its proxy forces. Regardless, it seems Iran is going to occupy much of Trump’s foreign policy attention in 2020.

Ironically, a few days earlier, Trump stated that he does not want war with Iran. This reflects his position that he hopes to use in the 2020 presidential campaign that the United States should avoid “endless, stupid wars” in the Middle East.

However, by ordering the killing of Soleimani, he upped the ante and it is hard to see the political off-ramp, especially since he is unlikely to end the maximum pressure campaign on Iran that has put the Iranian leadership in a corner.

Some political commentators noted that Trump’s military actions have sidelined calls in Iraq, even among many Shias, for Iran’s role in Iraq to be reduced.

Syria poses another major challenge for the United States.

After his disastrous decision to pull US troops out of the north-eastern border region of Syria, Trump settled on retaining about 600 US troops south of that area, near the oil fields in Deir ez-Zor.

In addition to “protecting the oil,” which has problematic legal issues associated with it, the remaining US troops are to go after ISIS remnants with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Amid numerous reports of ISIS rebounding in Syria and Iraq, it seems that the US troops may be staying in Syria for some time. Even though Trump has expressed a desire for “others” — meaning the Turks and the Russians — to handle matters in Syria, much of the Washington bureaucracy is reluctant to cede the ground to those forces in addition to Assad’s troops, which have re-entered the border region while also moving further into Idlib province and creating a new humanitarian crisis.

Although Trump has made noises about the latter crisis, he does not want to get further involved in Syria. Nonetheless, as long as there are US forces in Syria, Washington will remain part of the Syrian equation.

Meanwhile, Libya poses another problem for the United States.

The offensive by strongman Khalifa Haftar to take Tripoli has caused the Government of National Accord, ensconced in that city, to seek the military aid of Turkey, which might soon deploy forces there. Those actions have further deepened regional fissures.

After several years of neglect, the United States recently tried to re-engage in the Libyan crisis, advising Haftar to halt his offensive — to no avail — largely because Washington does not want Russia, which strongly supports Haftar, to become even more entrenched in that country as well as the concern that ISIS will take advantage of the chaos to rebound.

Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian situation, 2020 might finally see the unveiling of the Trump Deal of the Century peace plan if the Israelis are finally able to form a government after their third try in March.

However, because the plan is rumoured not to include Palestinian sovereignty, it will be seen as another win for the Israeli right wing and Trump will use it politically to hit the Democrats, who support a two-state solution.

What Trump may not realise is that the plan’s unveiling may cause more violence in the West Bank and Gaza, as disaffected Palestinians take out their anger against Israel and the United States. Hence, Trump’s Deal of the Century may become the “Deal of More Instability,” causing the United States to become involved solely for the purpose of dampening the violence.

The Middle East, therefore, will continue to “pull” the United States in despite its interests elsewhere.