Is there an ‘Arab NATO’ in Trump’s Middle East toolbox?
The Trump administration is searching — so far without success — for a mechanism to define and fortify its alliances with friends in the Middle East.
Both former US President Barack Obama and current White House officials bet wrong on Syria after the Russian intervention in September 2015. Obama’s Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter famously warned that the intervention had placed a “bullseye” on Moscow’s back.
Trump administration officials have been reticent to acknowledge the extraordinary Russian success in turning the war in its favour and winning strategic gains that during the Cold War would have been unthinkable.
The deployment of Russian troops on the Golan frontier, the basing of the Russian Air Force in Syria and the deployment of top-of-the-line Russian air defence systems umbrella — including the S-300 system said to be under Syrian authority — are the most notable examples of how Moscow has leveraged its decision to save the Ba’ath regime into a broad strategic advance.
Washington has had far less success in defining its objectives — recall Obama’s empty demand for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s removal — and devoting the resources necessary to realise them.
The Trump administration faces the imperative to “annihilate” the Islamic State (ISIS) and counter Russian and Iranian power in Syria and the region. To do so Washington is looking forward by looking backward to the first decades of the post-second-world-war era.
In the 1950s, the British retreat from Suez launched Washington on a largely fruitless quest to organise regional defence among newly independent and militarily weak Arab states, Iran and Pakistan. The Tripartite Declaration of May 1950 was followed by the Middle East Command, Middle East Defence Organisation, Baghdad Pact and the Central Treaty Organisation. These serial attempts to cajole and force friends to join Washington’s anti-communist crusade often backfired.
US diplomatic cables of the era describe “formalising the weakness” of tottering and unstable Arab regimes trying to win military aid from the West without antagonising anti-imperialist public opinion.
The alliances promoted by Washington were, at best, declarations of support for the United States in the Cold War. The limited military capabilities of Arab allies required a long-term commitment to training and equipping local forces without any real prospect of reducing US force contributions.
In a typical commentary, the Pentagon in 1955 warned: “The immediate effects of a loose regional defence grouping… backed by US military aid programmes would be primarily political and psychological rather than military. Such developments would not materially affect the internal weaknesses, that have thus far undermined Middle East strength and stability and would by no means eliminate the tensions and fears that have thus far alienated much of the area from the West. Such a loose grouping would not result in any significant reduction of the area’s military vulnerability.”
The odds are that Washington’s latest creation, the Middle East Strategic Alliance (or an “Arab NATO”), will come up short both as a symbol of unity and as an effective military alliance against ISIS and Iran.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis asked retired US Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni to sell the idea to Washington’s Arab allies.
Zinni is the right man for the job. He is well-known and respected as former head of the Central Command and diplomatic troubleshooter for former President George W. Bush. More recently, he led a quiet US effort to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose continuing estrangement is one of many challenges Zinni will face as he tries to form an Arab NATO.
While long on credibility and integrity, Zinni has been tasked with selling an idea that has always proved more attractive in the abstract than in the execution.
Last spring, Washington suggested an Arab NATO as a vehicle for deploying Egyptian and Saudi troops to areas of Syria occupied by Washington’s Kurdish allies in the north-east. All nodded politely when the idea of Arab countries engaging in a hostile occupation of Syria was suggested but the ill-considered notion was quietly dropped.
More recently, Zinni briefed Arab diplomats about the advantages of exploiting the individual strengths of their states — Saudi and Emirati air power, Egyptian land forces — to build a collective security framework strong enough to confront the “resistance axis” and facilitate US efforts to establish a new generation of missile defence networks throughout the area.
However, in an era when US President Donald Trump has raised questions about the United States’ devotion to the cardinal principle of NATO — the commitment to collective defence — it is difficult to be optimistic about an Arab commitment to collective defence when key prospective members often cannot even abide each other’s company.
We have been to this movie before: Washington’s failed history at Arab collective defence offers a time-tested warning that the latest incarnation — an “Arab NATO” — will also come up short.