The Middle East looks more and more like a set of Matryoshka dolls, the famous Russian dolls of decreasing size that are placed one inside the other.
As the year ends, and a new US president prepares to take the reins in Washington, it is worth remembering that when any party intervenes in an issue or crisis, or attempts to bring stability to a failing country, their decisions are usually influenced by interests in other issues or countries.
When Western powers deal with Lebanon, for example, they are thinking about Syria. When they are dealing with Syria, it seems they are thinking about Iran. When dealing with Iran they are thinking about Russia. And when dealing with Russia they are thinking about China. Similar chains can be identified in Western dealings with many other countries, from Gaza to Libya. They also apply on the other side, among those dealing with the West.
If one looks at this set of diplomatic dolls, there is one that historically has been a key to the Middle East, capable of shifting and influencing the regional balance: Syria. Despite the instability caused by the Civil War, it still stands between two of the most important forces in the region, which are Lebanon and Iran. There is no hope of a stable and lasting resolution to the situation in Lebanon until Syria becomes stable, and the route and formula to establish this stability will directly affect policies on Iran.
While negotiating with Iran, US President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy team did not want tensions to rise and so they chose silence or appeasement in response to the actions of the Syrian regime. The view was that a deal with Iran would result in a greater good for the region. When dealing with Syria, therefore, Obama’s team was in fact thinking more about Iran.
This was symbolized by the “red lines” the regime crossed without any response from the US. More importantly, it institutionalized and, in a way, formalized an acceptance of the Iranian presence in Syria and, as a result, the country becoming part of Iran’s regional network. This allowed Iran to send troops and Hezbollah fighters — in fact, fully realize its expansionist vision.
Fast forward to 2020, and Syria has reached something approaching a status quo, with the involvement of a number of regional and global powers. One key element of this is the balance between Russia and Turkey. Also important will be the view the Biden administration takes of Turkey’s role in Syria.
The past year has been marked by increasing Turkish involvement across the region. A constant in this has been that Ankara is on the opposite side of issues from Moscow, but the two sides have also struck some deals. Similarly, it is competing with Iran but also trading with it. All the while Turkey has also been bullying European nations, disrespecting NATO and launching populist appeals to Arabs and Muslims.
Will the new US president’s foreign-policy team allow Turkey to continue with this approach despite the disrespect it has shown to America’s European and NATO allies? The answer will be linked to how the US intends to deal with Iran and Russia, and will directly affect efforts to find a solution in Syria.
The status quo in Syria cannot be a permanent solution because the country, like too many in our region, risks returning to lawlessness where groups such as extremists and nationalists constantly clash and civilians continue to suffer.
By dealing with and appeasing Tehran, Western nations think they will be able to break its alliance with Russia and damage Moscow’s interests. The reality is much more difficult to predict than that.
Khaled Abou Zahr
If it is not geopolitics that prompts a resolution in Syria, it will be the economic crisis. The urgency is clear in the efforts of Russia to find an acceptable political solution that can establish a form of government accepted by most of the population, and capable of starting the process of rebuilding the country.
This in turn would allow for a consensus in Lebanon as it would affect some key issues, including the acceptance of the Iranian presence and influence in Syria (and therefore Lebanon as well) by all global and regional powers, including Israel.
In my view, this is one of the reasons — besides Hezbollah’s total control — why Arab countries are not getting involved in Lebanon: they are waiting for a solution to be found for Syria. Any formula for Syria will also need the support of Gulf countries.
A key element for Syria therefore will be the US position under Biden on the Middle East. This goes beyond the regularly discussed potential for a return to the Iran nuclear deal. The real, and more important, question is whether Washington will return to a “pivot to Asia” strategy? In other words, will the US allocate fewer resources and less effort not only to the Middle East but also Europe?
If the answer is yes, we can expect Turkey to continue with its current policies — yet the US would also be able to also strike deals in its own interests. This would also mean a renewed deal with Iran, which is what Tehran desperately wants. Despite the regime’s declarations to the contrary, its economy is badly in need of an influx of money. This would, in turn, also gives a hint about the likely future of Lebanon.
There have always been plans and visions holding out the promise that by engaging with one group or country, we can eventually break them free of an alliance we do not want to persist. I believe this is the West’s strategy in dealing with Iran. By dealing with and appeasing Tehran, Western nations think they will be able to break its alliance with Russia and damage Moscow’s interests.
The reality is much more difficult to predict than that. Gone are the Cold War days where a country such as Egypt might shift sides to stand with the West in the face of Communism. More importantly, Russia will be able to navigate change and secure its interests.
We rarely learn from our experiences during global crises, or tend to forget the lessons fast. Yet as we all hope the pandemic will fade in 2021, it will leave a horrible sanitary and social legacy — and most importantly will have troubling economic consequences for some time to come. The latest International Monetary Fund report on the global economic situation should set the alarm bells ringing, especially in Iran.
Therefore, countries in the region should abandon their Matryoshka-doll approach and shift to more of a Lego mindset: these regional shifts, and this health crisis, offer a unique opportunity for countries in the region to build something new and better, on a solid foundation that can protect their interests and provide a platform from which to engage with the rest of the world. We can learn the benefits of this approach from Europe and strength of the German-French alliance.