The flux in the Middle East is only getting worse, with no prospects of resolving it in the near future. In Syria, Donald Trump had believed that Russia might be able to ‘clear the swamp’ in favour of Bashar al-Assad regime, with the US and everyone else than turning their attention to destroying the Islamic State (IS). But in the new setting now, Trump has gone after the Assad regime by raining missiles on an airbase that was reportedly used for a chemical attack on rebels causing civilian casualties, including children. The relations with Russia, backing the regime, are now ‘an all-time low’, according to President Trump.
At the same time, Turkey has been waging its own war across the Syrian border to clear the region of Kurdish fighters that had helped the US to drive out IS from some of the border towns as well as targeting Raqqa, IS’ Syrian capital. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime, which had earlier brought down a Russian plane for alleged violations of its sovereign airspace from bombing missions on behalf of the Assad regime, sought to cosy up with Moscow to create some additional leverage but hasn’t gone anywhere yet.
At the same time, Ankara has tried to lean on the US, a NATO ally, to neutralise Syrian Kurds, regarded as an outfit of PKK, a militant Kurdish movement fighting for autonomy/separation from Turkey. Turkey has also clashed with the Assad regime militarily across the border. In other words, northern Syria is becoming a hotbed of rival military activities, with Turkey asserting it as its security zone.
During his election campaign, Trump had given an indication that his administration would concentrate on defeating IS. And in this, Russia and the Assad regime would be a virtual ally, even the main force. Generally, Trump was keen on a new friendly start with Putin’s Russia in the Middle East and elsewhere, but that seems to have become a casualty of all the leaks suggesting that some of Trump’s close advisers, like the new attorney general and his short-duration national security adviser, might be compromised because of their alleged Russian connections. Even Trump might not be above suspicion.
But Trump seems to have deflected the national attention from this by turning on Russia for its support of the Assad regime, focusing on its chemical attack.
Within the region, Saudi Arabia’s priority remains Iran, accused of being the biggest threat to regional stability ever since the 1979 clerical revolution in that country. Riyadh was only too happy to bankroll, with Kuwait and other Gulf monarchies, Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran immediately after the 1979 Iranian revolution, which had brought down the Shah’s rule thus upsetting regional order underwritten by the US.And in this war, the US supported and helped Saddam Hussein but, despite all the support from the US, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, Iran was not defeated, though it paid a heavy price in casualties estimated up to 1 million.
Saudi Arabia was unhappy during Obama’s exploration of a new start with Iran, which led to the nuclear deal to virtually freeze Iran’s nuclear programme in return for lifting economic sanctions. However, with Trump now US President, Iran is ‘on notice’, and US-Saudi compact (as well with Israel) is being revived against Iran, which will further complicate the Mideast flux.
However, returning to Iran-Iraq war in the eighties, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a broken country with a mountain of debt it owed its Gulf creditors, with demand for repayment from the Gulf States. And he sought to solve all his credit problems and more, for then and future, by attacking Kuwait. According to reports at the time, he had sounded out the US ambassador on this and apparently came to the conclusion that the US wasn’t too concerned about it. Maybe they thought that even Saddam wouldn’t be so reckless to attack another country, Kuwait, after his disastrous adventure with Iran.
But he did, which led to the first Gulf War with the US determined to put him in his corner but still leaving him as the king of the castle, though, with many of its trappings clipped. Parts of his country were put under a ‘no flying zone’.And it was subjected to comprehensive sanctions. But this hurt Iraqi people more, as the vulnerable among them, like children and old people, were unable to buy essential goods, including medicines, leading to death and destruction. George Bush senior, who was president of the US at the time of the Gulf War, however, didn’t go all the way to remove/kill Saddam Hussein, possibly because he hadn’t any alternative plan for another workable regime.
And that made some of his advisers at the time very unhappy for doing only half the job, which they sought to complete when George W. Bush became the US president. These were very powerful people like vice president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Rumsfeld and others around them. And it so happened that, not long after Bush became president, terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre in New York, killing nearly 3000 people. And Saddam Hussein was conveniently found to have connections with the al Qaeda that was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
This was reinforced with the Bush administration’s ‘intelligence’ that Saddam’s Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that posed an immediate and serious threat to the region and the world, even though the UN inspectors were doubtful about it. But this was enough to attack Iraq in March 2003, and with the overwhelming power of the US and it coalition partners, the military victory was rather easy, and Saddam was subsequently hanged for his crimes against his people.
The US military victory was declared to the world when the then President Bush appeared on the deck of a US naval armada in his ridiculous looking military uniform as commander-in-chief, both as a mark of US power and to create a punishing deterrent effect for those who dared to challenge the US determination to rewrite Middle East’s geopolitics.
But, as we see today from the flux in the Middle East which is getting ever more complex with multiple layers of local, tribal, sectarian, regional and global factors that it all started with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. And its consequences are there before us with the multiple issues spanning IS, the never-ending conflict in Iraq and Syria, Turkey jumping in to crush Kurdish aspirations for autonomy/separation and a terrible human tragedy unfolding before our eyes with famine overtaking Yemen under constant bombardment by a Saudi-led coalition against, what they regard as an Iranian proxy war, by Houthi rebels.
And to make matters worse, Trump has decided to make ‘America great again’ by, among other things, whipping up a bigger storm in the Middle East.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org