By Abid Mustafa
Over the past few months, the Bush administration in the backdrop of the Iraq Study Group’s (ISG) report has announced its plan for Iraq—apart from the Presidents refusal to formally engage Iran and Syria— the plan broadly concurs with the recommendation laid out by the ISG. Furthermore, the US has mobilized its surrogates in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the gulf countries to implement this plan and prepare the ground for the emergence of a new middle east. What follows is a brief summary of what America is planning to achieve in Palestine, Iraq and Iran.
The present US effort undertaken by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to kick start the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis—as envisioned by the ISG—is for now, a mere symbolic gesture.
Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular and is engulfed in numerous scandals. It is unlikely that Olmert will survive. Fresh elections will have to be scheduled to form a new Israeli government—likely to be a coalition government—this will delay the implementation of the road map. Despite Olmert’s obvious weakness, his government like its predecessor has sanctioned the construction of fresh settlements in West Bank— a move intended to foil the US attempts to re-start the peace process. The proposal elucidated by Israel’s Foreign Minister to advance negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, which includes psuedo final status termed ‘political horizon’ is meaningless unless Israel puts a halt to fresh settlement activity and stops the excavation of Al-Aqsa mosque. The tactic of supporting the peace-process and then simultaneously undermining it to provoke the Palestinians into violence is an indelible feature of Israeli politics.
On the Palestinian front, the US under Israeli pressure refused to negotiate with Hamas and instead favored Abbas to form a new unity government. It must be remembered that it was Abbas’s government which Israel systematically destroyed, and left the door ajar for Hamas to fill the political void and emerge victorious in the parliamentary election held last year. Olmert then proceeded to exploit Hamas’s militant credentials and its repudiation of Israel to cut short Palestinian demands for peace and continued unilaterally to redefine the road map.
Nevertheless, Israel’s defeat in Lebanon destroyed Olmert’s plan and presented the US with another opportunity to move the peace process forward. The US instructed Abbas to form a new government and told Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria to reign in Hamas and forge a unity government with Fatah. If the Mecca agreement between Fatah and Hamas fails to hold —the likelihood is very high—then America will want Abbas to convene fresh elections to consolidate the power of his Fatah party. Already the US, Israel and the EU have offered Abbas aid to augment his security forces in order to offset Hamas. The tussle between Hamas and Fatah will present Israel the pretext to unilaterally shape the peace process in the absence of a viable Palestinian partner. When Hamas and Fatah are not squabbling with one another, they will be busy retaliating against Israeli aggression in the occupied territories. This cycle of violence will pervade much of foreseeable future, stalling the quartet’s efforts to make headway on the road map.
Even if the US succeeds in forming unity governments in both Israel and Palestine, there is little the Bush and the Republican Party can do to rejuvenate the road map. With the 2008 US general elections looming, the Republican Party, as well as the Democratic Party requires the Jewish lobby’s support to get elected. The castigation of Jimmy Carter’s new book about Palestine, demonstrates the power of the Jewish lobby over US foreign policy in Palestine. This means that it will be 2009 before the US is able to mount enough pressure to coerce Israel to make necessary compromises with the Palestinians, and bring an end to the protracted dispute.
America’s plan is to carefully manage the disintegration of Iraq into three distinct entities and retain almost 70,000 troops. These troops will be stationed in bases scattered throughout Iraq and their function will be supplement future wars against Turkey, Syria, Iran, Saudi-Arabia and the much feared Caliphate. Whilst America controls the North and South of Iraq, it is the centre of the country where the US lacks control and has struggled to co-opt Sunni resistance fighters into a political process. Furthermore, the Al-Sadr camp has also refused to endorse the dismemberment of Iraq and poses a grave risk to US forces in Baghdad—Sadr City to be precise— and Southern Iraq.
Bush’s troop surge plan is intended to curb the activities of the Sunni resistance fighters, the Mahdi army and other Shia tribes opposed to Iraq’s partition. The US military is determined to counter the Mahdi army which has made Sadr City a mainstay of its operations in Baghdad. The bastion of Sunni resistance such as Haifa Street in Baghdad and the Anbar province have been earmarked for a Fallujah type of assault. Politically, the US has enlisted Syrian and Iranian assistance via back door channels to encourage the Baathists and the Sadris to lay down arms in exchange for political rewards. In this way, the Bush administration hopes to pacify the centre and establish a strong foundation for the eventual dissolution of Iraq. To help the US accomplish this feat, an international conference will be convened where regional countries like Turkey, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will be given the responsibility to protect US interests in the three new entities. Given the current magnitude and intensity of the resistance, the probability of this plan bearing fruit is remote. The US National Intelligence Estimate and the Council of Foreign Relations hold similar views.
As a contingency the Bush administration plans on withdrawing some of its troops and shifting blame onto the Iraqi government for its failure to keep the unity of Iraq intact. If such a scenario were to unfold, Iraq’s disintegration would favor future US policy makers, but the Bush administration and his Republican Party would lose the support of US voters in the US general election. A far greater blow will be the erosion of America’s credibility internationally among friends and foe alike.
The current opposition to Bush’s troop surge plan in the US congress and the senate is non-binding and has more to do with politicians repositioning themselves for the forthcoming US general election in 2008. This also explains why the Baker-Hamilton report set 2008 as the year to bring a significant proportion of US troops home. The Republican Party wants to convey the impression to US voters—in particular the staunch Republican constituencies— that Bush’s plan worked and that the GOP is best placed to serve the country beyond 2008.
None of this should be seen as belittling America’s commitment to the Middle East. The announcement by US defense secretary Gates that a further 92,000 troops are required in the next five years underlines the fact that the US does not intend to leave Iraq or the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
Bush’s refusal to publicly engage Iran, his aggressive remarks against Iran in the State of the Union address, the subsequent apprehension of Iranian diplomats by US forces, the deployment of patriot batteries and the dispatch of an additional aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf has increased speculation that the US is about to launch an attack against Iran. Nonetheless, the Bush administration has gone out of its way to reassure the world that America has no plans to attack Iran. On 29/1/2007 Bush said, “I have no intent upon going into Iran… I don’t know how anybody can say, well, protecting the troops means that we’re going to invade Iran… we will protect our interests in Iraq. That’s what the American people expect us to do…” On 9/2/07 Gates said, “I don’t know how many times the president, secretary [of state Condoleezza] Rice and I have had to repeat that we have no intention of attacking Iran.”
Meanwhile, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini on 28/1/07 revealed that Iran had received an official letter from the US but refused to divulge any details. Ostensibly, the Iranian government despite being publicly derided by the Bush administration continues to promote US interests in Iran, and neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq. The backlash against Ahmadinejad by sections of the conservative leadership over his handling of the nuclear issue is just one such example. In Iraq, Tehran continues to extend support to the leader of SCIRI, ayatollah Hakim and the Badr Brigade who have become the lynchpin of US plans for Southern Iraq. In Afghanistan, Iran runs extensive reconstruction and training programs in Kabul, Herat and Kandahar. Thus far, Iran has successfully prevented the Pushtun resistance from spreading to Northern Afghanistan. So how does one interpret the mixed signals emanating from Washington over Iran?
In essence, the Bush administration is trying to accommodate two opposite views that are competing to fashion America’s relations with Iran. The Jewish lobby and the neoconservatives are advocating punitive measures against Iran’s nuclear program, whereas the realists represented by the Baker-Hamilton study group are in the favor of engaging Iran. The Baker-Hamilton group characterizes the body of opinion held by the US establishment that believes the Bush administration has exceeded its mandate to the ‘Israel first’ agenda. It is evident that the Bush administration fearful of the upcoming US general elections has succumb to some of the demands of the Jewish lobby, hence a proportion of the suggestions outlined by the Iraq Study Group have been deferred to be pursued via back-door diplomatic channels.
It is unprecedented for the Jewish lobby to exercise so much influence on the US government through the manipulation of the media, think tanks and the congress. The executive director of the Jewish Institute for (Israeli) National Security Affairs (JINSA), Thomas Neumann said a few months back: “The administration today was stronger on Israel than any administration in my lifetime.” Hilary Clinton felt the immediate power of the lobby when she was forced to retract her statement about engagement with Iran. Nevertheless, it must be stated hear that the Jewish lobby’s influences is restricted to certain issues pertaining to Israel’s security and nothing more.
With the UNSC set to review Iran’s compliance of its demands to halt uranium enrichment later this month, the struggle between the two camps has gained momentum. At present, the realists have managed to reduce the chance of war with Iran, and are manipulating the rhetoric and the military build-up to coerce the Iranian leadership into implementing US demands. These demands encompass Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. These issues and will be discussed publicly with Iran when it is suitable for the US to do so—ultimately leading to the normalization of relations between the two countries. This also explains why the Iranian leadership minus Ahmadinejad is undertaking actions that are in full agreement with US policy goals for the region and beyond: America is using Iran to achieve the following:-
1) Stabilize Southern Iraq and help the US accentuate the sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis.
2) Stabilize Northern and Western Afghanistan, and prevent the Pushtun resistance from expanding its tentacles into these areas.
3) Stabilize Lebanon and reduce the influence of European powers by using Hizbollah
4) Strike fear in the GCC countries about Shia Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and tie them into a new security pact that places the security of oil fields in American hands
5) Galvanize Sunni states to formalize relations with Israel
6) Use Iran’s nuclear threat to establish missile defense bases in Poland and Czechoslovakia. In Eastern Europe, the Bush administration’s aim is to shore up America’s ability to check Russian expansion westward. On 9 Feb 2007, Secretary of Russian National Security Council was critical of US plans and said that there was no rationale for basing American antimissile radars and interceptors in former Soviet satellite states that have now joined the NATO alliance
7) Perpetuate Shia-Sunni divisions across the region in preparation for the emergence of a Shia Crescent.
Even if the Bush administration decides to undertake military action against Iran, it will be limited and designed to appease the ‘Israel first supporters’ as well as preserve Iran’s capability to ensure that Tehran can accomplish the above goals. Besides, military strikes will strengthen the Iranian regime and enable it to fuel Shia uprisings across the Middle East—bringing the US a step closer to its penultimate goal of placing the oil fields of Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries under Shia control. The other goal is to use Iran as a bulwark against the future Caliphate.
Syria Officially the Bush administration depicts Syria as an international pariah state and eschews all forms of public contact with Assad’s regime. The administration argues that Syria’s support for Hizbollah and Palestinian militants, its interference in Lebanon and its encouragement of militants in Iraq is highly irresponsible and not conducive to regional peace and stability. However, away from public scrutiny the US government wears a different lens and views Syria as an important surrogate that is needed to reduce insecurity in Iraq, and safeguard US interests in Lebanon and Israel.
Over the past two years the US has been secretly orchestrating talks between Syria and Israel to settle the matter of Golan Heights. The Israeli paper Ha’aretz said the meetings, held in Europe, began in September 2004 initiated by the Syrians. They involved Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, and Ibrahim Suleiman, a Syrian businessman living in Washington who is from the same Alawite sect as the Syrian president, Bashar Assad. The paper further states that a document was drawn up dated August 2005, covering security, water, borders and normalization of ties. It called for a demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights and an early warning post on Mount Hermon operated by the US, with military zones on each country’s side. The paper also confirmed that US Vice President Dick Cheney was kept abreast of the talks. President Assad of Syria has even tried to convert the secret talks into a formal peace process with Israel but has been rebuffed both by Tel Aviv and Washington. In many ways the Bush administration’s approach mentioned above echoes some of the recommendation put forward by the ISG. However, the need for Jewish votes in 2008 has made it difficult for the Bush administration to designate the talks the official status it deserves.
Over in Lebanon, the Syrian presence directly contributed to the protection of US interests, since the Taif agreement in 1989. Nevertheless, the insinuation of Syrian officials in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the subsequent demands by EU, Israelis and Lebanese politicians for Syria to withdraw its troops presented fresh challenges to American interests in Lebanon. The EU succeeded in Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and in consultation with the US imposed UN resolutions that stipulate the handover of senior Syrian officials—many of them close to Assad—to be tried by a tribunal under the auspices of the UN. Furthermore, the resolutions demand cessation of support to Hizbollah and for Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty. These resolutions and the assassinations of prominent politicians have deeply divided Lebanon into pro-American and pro-EU camps. The Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berry have repeatedly thwarted Fouad Siniora’s attempts to cast parliamentary votes to legalize the jurisdiction of the UN tribunal, whereas the mass demonstration by Hizbollah have sought to embarrass Siniora’s government internationally. At present the US is relying on Hizbollah, pro-US Lebanese politicians and Syria to diminish the influence of Europe (Britain and France) in Lebanon. It is unlikely for the US to completely relinquish Syria’s control over Lebanon and its support for Hizbollah until some sort of compromise is reached between the US and the EU that protects Assad’s regime as well as US interests in Lebanon.
In Iraq, the public perception is that Syria is encouraging Islamic fighters to cross over into Iraq to undermine the authority of the Iraqi government. The reality is that Syria has played an active role in infiltrating such Islamists and passing on valuable intelligence to the US led coalition. Moreover, it is an acknowledged fact that Syria enjoys limited influence over the Sunni resistance fighters operating in Iraq— a point emphasized by the ISG report. Syria does have some influence over the Baathists. And after Saddam’s execution, Damascus is working hard to drive a wedge between the Baathists and the Sunni militants who have offered material assistance to Baathists in exchange for their support for Islam. Added to this effort, the Syrians have restored full diplomatic relations with Iraq after an absence of 24 years. So behind the scenes, Syria has extended its cooperation to the US in many ways. The US has gradually begun to engage Syria over the issue of Iraqi refugees and it is expected that as the Bush plan in Iraq falters, the contact between the two countries will expand to encompass most, if not all the issues.
-Abid Mustafa is a political commentator who specialises on Muslim affairs