A little more than a decade ago, I was asked to address a London dinner-table of about twenty Gulf ‘figures’ – a mix of Ambassadors and those with ‘ties to power’. All represented the cosmopolitan, rich élite of the Gulf. Then, towards the evening’s end, talk turned to Hizbullah: the gathering simply erupted into flames. Well, almost literally – as these grandees choked on the smoke and tongues of fire pouring from their nostrils (to say they were unhappy is an understatement). In unison, they swore oaths that they would stop at absolutely nothing to destroy ‘the resistance’. They choked again at the very word ‘resistance’. They swore to destroy it, utterly, down to the last particle.
But how times do change. Of course, in the interval, there was a war backed by these gentlemen in 2006 that was supposed to finish off Hizbullah for good (but plainly didn’t). There was also a billions-of-dollar insurrection mounted against ‘rejectionist’ President Assad in Syria that was supposed to break the keystone to the arch (but hasn’t); and an equally massive info-war to turn Iran into a global leper.
Yes, these well-polished gentlemen have had certain successes in squashing the so-called Arab Spring, and in fracturing and demonising Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, after these, and after gulling the Americans and Europeans with their anti-Iranian propaganda so completely, the Gulf is fretting again. Why?
Well, the clue lies in Libya, and with General Haftar’s military thrust on the capital, Tripoli. At one level, evidently this push is a part of an internal Libyan struggle; but at another, Haftar’s unexpected and sudden exit from the political process (the UN Secretary General and Envoy were left gaping on their last visit to Libya), is revealed more as an expression of Gulf agitation. (Haftar’s push came on the heels of a round of consultations in certain Gulf capitals).
It is not so much agitation about Libya, but rather fears – real fears – about Algeria. Algeria is experiencing huge and repeated popular protests which have forced the President to stand down. The popular (peaceful, so far) uprising, however, continues – but with the security apparatus still hovering menacingly in the background. In Khartoum too, protests have been afoot, and now that President has been overthrown (in a military coup). Ghosts – old ghosts – from 2011 are affronting Gulf leaders.
The UAE-Saudi message from (Islamist-hater) Haftar’s getting the ‘green light’ to take Islamist controlled Tripoli is simply addressed to the people of Algeria: ‘If you rise up against your ruling-structures, be aware: ‘It will be repressed unhesitatingly’’. And, it is an absolute ‘red line’ that ‘Islamists will not be tolerated’. (The UAE has a past history of intervention in Algeria’s affairs through the Algerian military. Bouteflika was a ‘guest’ of the UAE, until he became President).
If that was ‘it’, a cynic might conclude that the UAE will likely deal with Algeria; so what’s their fuss? But that is not ‘it’: Algeria comes against a context – a background. One that makes Gulf States so very edgy.
Here is the point. After all those pyrotechnics at dinner a decade or so ago, and after the sarcasm directed at the ‘resistance’ from US commentators subsequently, a resistance front is, in fact, taking shape. From Lebanon to Iran, a political front has arisen out from the defeat of the Gulf-supported, jihadist and Kurdish political projects in the region.
And for the sake of clarity, the regional ‘Belt and Road’ initiative linking Iran – via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – to the Mediterranean ports of Tripoli (in Lebanon) and Latakia in Syria, is very much of interest to China (just as its’ energy dimension is of interest to Russia). Nicholas Lyall writes in The Diplomat:
“The Levant is set to become a critical node in the BRI’s China-Central Asia-West Asia economic corridor, as it offers an alternative route to the Mediterranean as opposed to the Suez passage. Syria is being eyed in the long term as the key Levantine region to achieve this aim. For instance, Tripoli in Lebanon is set to become a Special Economic Zone within the BRI, with the Tripoli port planned to be a main trans-shipment hub for the eastern Mediterranean. This will provide a more direct route for Chinese goods to Europe compared to relying on the Suez Canal.
“China is set to be the major player in the impending rebuilding process that will occur in postwar Syria …pledged deals include the construction of steel and power plants, car manufacturing, and hospital development. Some of China’s flagship involvements include Huawei committing in 2015 to rebuild Syria’s telecommunications system by 2020, and the China National Petroleum Corporation owning major stakes in two of Syria’s largest oil companies.”
And what has this to do with Libya or Algeria, or Gulf edginess? Quite a lot. And that is not just because Syria, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon – all of whom have been on the ‘wrong end’ of Gulf regional projects – are ‘on the rise’, but because Turkey and deep-pocketed Qatar are moving ever closer to Russia, and to the Iran, Iraq, Syria, axis.
The latter (Turkey and Qatar), are the main supporters of the Libyan Misrata militia, and the Islamists of Tripoli – which is to say, they are the facilitators and funders of those forces opposing General Haftar’s thrust to destroy the Islamist movements based in Tripoli (Libya). The present conflict in Libya therefore is also a Gulf proxy war waged against the Muslim Brotherhood, and its patrons (Turkey and Qatar). This constitutes a further, second, message to Algeria: Do not allow the Brotherhood a role in the popular unrest – or else!
And there is something else to keep the Gulf grandees awake at night: Turkey is gently slipping away from NATO towards Moscow (as best Erdogan can do, without as a result, completely losing the secular, Europe-leaning coastal constituencies). And, even if Turkey should remain in NATO in body – though not in spirit – this would represent a huge strategic shift, impacting on (substantively Turkic) Central Asia, and the Middle East.
In brief, a major US pillar is being uprooted from the region at a time when Gulf leaders are questioning US constancy, and are alarmed at the resurgence of popular protest. No wonder they are making overtures towards Israel. Where else can they turn for protection in a world becoming ever more hostile to their interests.
But even that is not without risk. Reports suggest that Trump is on the cusp of publishing his ‘Deal of the Century’. It is widely expected to be another Naqba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians. Gulf leaders (who guardedly support Kushner’s ‘deal’), will worry that its publication will provide fertile ground for Turkey and Qatar to instigate the Muslim Brotherhood against them on their own patch – on the Palestinian issue.
All in all, the Gulf grandees have a right to be edgy. They can see that Trump’s ‘war hawks’ are intent on cornering, pressurising and provoking Iran. After 3 May (when oil waivers expire), we may witness a major escalation by Bolton and Pompeo against Iran. How far might this be bluster and bluff in the lead up to crucial Presidential elections in the US? Or is Trump being quietly being manoeuvred into some ‘forever war’ with Iran, that John Bolton has long sought? Will Netanyahu play along? What then will become of the Gulf?
All of this complicates matters for President Putin. The ‘Belt and Road’ political and economic alignment that is shaping up across the northern Middle East to the Mediterranean, is not just some extraneous ‘happening’ that doesn’t really impinge on Russia. No. Rather it impacts very directly on Russian strategic interests. The new alignment serves as the ‘frontline’ to Russia and China’s vulnerable underbellies: the various ‘stan’ states, and China’s Xingjian Province. China needs a secure corridor into Europe for its goods, and Russia needs a land ‘energy’ corridor to Europe – to counter Trump’s attempt at US energy dominance, by hobbling rival producers. (Both China and Russia are at risk from maritime chokepoints on their sea links being closed by the US, through naval blockade).
And, it is just because of this emerging constellation of the northern tier of the region – plus NATO Turkey shifting towards the Russian security ‘umbrella’ – and therefore towards effective ‘area denial’ in respect to the US and Israel, that Russia must worry that the US will try to disrupt it. Not least, because of the Tel Aviv hold over US foreign policy. In other words, Russia must (and is), preparing against the possibility of conflict occurring in the region (most likely between US/Israel and Iran). Recall the old Mackinder doctrine: he who controls the (Asian) heartland …
On March 14, Russia’s National Security Council, headed by President Putin, officially raised its perception of American intentions toward Russia from “military dangers” (opasnosti) to direct “military threats” (ugrozy). In short, the Kremlin is preparing for war, however defensive its intention.
Does Moscow think Trump wants a war? It is doubtful; but Trump’s position – his very continuance in office, like that of previous US Presidents – inevitably is held ransom by the collegiate deep state which will not allow any existential threat to its inner circle, or to its hold on the levers of global power to develop. Trump undoubtedly is aware of his predecessors’ fates, and trades with them: i.e. pursuit of his own political necessities – against yielding to Sheldon Adelson’s two protégés (Bolton and Pompeo), the licence to do Israel’s will. Faustian perhaps, but maybe the only way to survive.
It appears then, that Putin’s response is to prioritise Moscow remaining as the ‘go-to’ global mediator that is not pulled into any gathering Middle East storm, but holds itself above the fray. The point here is that Middle East conflicts have a history of escalating. And the risk of a direct stand-off between Russia and the US is beyond contemplation. For this end, Putin needs a direct channel to Trump (where none exists at the diplomatic level; they have been dismantled); and, to be able mediate between Israel and Iran, he needs to clutch Netanyahu tight to his bosom, and to show empathy for the latter’s political needs (a strategy that Putin has evolved well, with the mercurial Erdogan too).
It will not be easy: Netanyahu is asking to continue to attack claimed Iranian structures in Syria and Iraq, and wants assurances that Russian air defences will not intervene; and he wants – together with Washington – a joint say in the political future of Syria.
That is no small ‘ask’. It would place at risk Russia’s relations with Iran and Syria and with her ‘Belt and Road’ allies. The precedent could become the rule. Can Mr Putin walk this tightrope? Is the channel to Trump through Netanyahu worth it? Can Netanyahu ever be trusted?