US administration faces immediate challenges on key Middle East issues

Mike Pompeo will have privileged access to a stream of visitors arriving in Washington in the coming weeks.
Sunday 18/03/2018
Hearings ahead. US Senate lawmakers arrive for a press conference following the regular Democratic policy luncheon at the US Capitol, on March 13.  (AFP)
Hearings ahead. US Senate lawmakers arrive for a press conference following the regular Democratic policy luncheon at the US Capitol, on March 13. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Caught in an interregnum between two secretaries of state, the United States is facing immediate challenges in the Middle East that will test the Trump administration on key issues in the region.

Mike Pompeo, nominated to be the United States’ top diplomat, will have privileged access to a stream of visitors arriving in Washington in the coming weeks but he will not take over the State Department from Rex Tillerson until clearing US Senate confirmation hearings next month.

Tillerson, who was ousted by US President Donald Trump on March 13, is leaving his post March 31 and has handed the day-to-day running of US diplomacy to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, a key Trump ally in the region, is to become the first high-ranking official from the Middle East to visit Washington after Tillerson was fired. Trump is to meet with the crown prince on March 20 in the White House.

Iran’s regional ambitions, the conflict in Yemen, the row between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as the Israeli-Palestinian issue are likely to be on the table.

“[Crown Prince Mohammed] certainly expects a lot from the US on Yemen and on the broader issue of Iran’s expansion in the region,” Elie Abouaoun, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Programmes at the US Institute of Peace, a bipartisan organisation founded by the US Congress, said via e-mail.

The crown prince, in his capacity as Saudi defence minister, recently fired his country’s top military leaders in a move seen as a sign of frustration with the stalemate in the war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. “This is [the crown prince’s] war and his signature policy initiative,” Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote earlier this month. “Failure in Yemen is a fundamental black mark on his credibility.”

Even though Trump’s White House sees Crown Prince Mohammed as a key partner in its effort to contain Iran, the administration is unlikely to offer additional support to win in Yemen, Abouaoun said.

“Given the constraints to mobilise more US military resources and the realities of the ground in Yemen, I don’t see how the US can play a more determining role in the Yemen war and in countering Iran’s expansion,” he said.

Before travelling to Washington, Crown Prince Mohammed raised the spectre of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East by declaring that Saudi Arabia would develop nuclear weapons if Iran acquired the bomb.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb but, without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” the crown prince told the US television network CBS. He compared Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Adolf Hitler.

In the meeting with the crown prince, Trump is expected to seek Saudi backing for his plan to solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Another focus is the Qatar crisis that is pitting several US allies against each other. The administration is trying to put together a summit of leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council at the presidential retreat at Camp David in May to end the dispute. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh

Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan is to visit the White House this month with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani due in April.

As it struggles to find a solution to the Qatar crisis, the Trump administration is also trying to ease tensions with NATO ally Turkey over the situation in northern Syria. Ankara’s intervention in the Afrin region is putting pressure on the Syrian Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a crucial US partner in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The Turkish government said Washington has agreed to force the YPG to leave the city of Manbij, about 100km east of Afrin, and withdraw across the Euphrates River but Washington denied there is a deal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he wanted to drive the YPG out of northern Syria. “We will turn to Manbij” after completing the campaign in Afrin,

Erdogan said.He said he did not know Pompeo’s position on the issue and US-Turkish talks scheduled in Washington were postponed following Tillerson’s ouster. Erdogan insisted, however, that the United States should withdraw the YPG to the east of the Euphrates to prevent military tensions between Turkish troops and US soldiers deployed with Kurdish forces in Manbij.

The United States is caught between wanting to save its alliance with the YPG for the anti-ISIS fight as well as for efforts to block the advance of Iran’s influence in Syria on one side and its relations with Turkey on the other.

“An enduring US-Kurdish alliance is critical to stability in north-eastern Syria and is therefore tied to US interests,” said Andrea Taylor, a non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East of the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“For this reason, the United States has an incentive to provide the Kurds clear and reasonable assurances that it will not abandon its Kurdish allies at the completion of the anti-ISIS campaign but it could stipulate these assurances on a YPG withdrawal to the east of the Euphrates,” Taylor wrote via e-mail.

Convincing Turkey that it is containing Kurdish influence in northern Syria might not be easy for the US administration. Erdogan’s government has reacted coolly to Pompeo’s appointment, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu calling for “respect.”

Pompeo reportedly called Turkey a “totalitarian Islamist dictatorship” after a failed coup attempt against Erdogan two years ago. The secretary of state nominee carried “prejudgments against Turkey,” Murat Yetkin, a respected Turkish columnist, wrote in the newspaper Hurriyet Daily News.