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The limits of American multilateral diplomacy in the Middle East

The region’s actors have their own agendas that will not conform to those of the new Biden Administration.

Analysis | Middle East

Perhaps the hardest among the many challenges that the new Biden Administration will face is renewing the spirit and practice of multilateral diplomacy in regions where leaders have learned to pursue their own interests without paying much heed to American power and wishes. The Middle East is a case in point. Indeed, it is very likely that ambitious strongmen such as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MbZ), and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will continue to arrange the geo-strategic chessboard in ways that will hinder efforts by the United States and Europe to forge regional solutions to regional problems. While the drive for a revived multilateralism may not collide with Middle East realities, it will certainly have to adjust to them.

From Obama to Trump: Plus ça change?

While many Arab leaders are concerned that a Biden White house will try to cool relations with the region’s strongmen, it is likely that the new administration will adapt its policies to regional realities in ways that will not decisively break with the approaches of both the Obama and Trump administrations. After all, President Barack Obama, a devoted multilateralist, was also a realist. In fact, his decision not to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013 for using chemical weapons––and thus not honor the “red line” he had drawn a year earlier––seemed to signal the limits of American power in the region.

Thus while President Donald Trump’s “America First” stance signaled a clear rebuke of Obama, a man he clearly disdained, it achieved much of the animating logic of his predecessor’s Middle East policy. Trump spelled out in jingoistic tweets what Obama refused to say explicitly while he was in office; namely, that US domestic concerns and interests would set the boundaries of any American diplomatic or military actions abroad. In doing so, Trump laid waste to multilateralism, not only because he believed that this was an idea for the weak, but because multilateralism often requires strong leadership to be effective. It also requires a credible readiness of a state to use some measure of force or coercion to rally its allies in any collective endeavor.

Trump laid waste to multilateralism, not only because he believed that this was an idea for the weak, but because multilateralism often requires strong leadership to be effective.

Thus, rather than leading from the front or from behind, Trump promised to reduce the American military footprint in the region while simultaneously following and supporting the preferences of strongmen such as MbS. The latest deals engineered by Trump and struck between Israel, on the one side, and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, on the other, were no exception to this pattern. But whether these agreements will catalyze peacemaking elsewhere or intensify other conflicts remains to be seen. What is clear––as the following snapshots suggest––is that the region’s intersecting disputes will not yield easily to the idea of a new, US-led multilateralism.

Syria’s tangled web

There is no one authoritative multilateral path through which the various rival parties and combatants are maneuvering to shape the contours of a post-conflict Syria. Instead, there are multiple channels and arenas, all of which have been managed by a mix of regional and global players the most powerful of which is Russia. The latter has sponsored so-called peace talks which have been orchestrated to protect the interests of Assad and Iran. Turkey’s inclusion in the Astana process gave Russian President Vladimir Putin multiple benefits, not least of which is creating space for a NATO member to sustain a strategic outreach to Moscow that continued despite the very deep tensions between Russia and Turkey regarding Assad’s ultimate fate as well as the tenuous ceasefire between the two countries in Idlib province to the northwest. While there are big fault lines in the Astana process, it is a by-product of a coherent Russian strategy that Moscow has backed from the air and on the ground.

By contrast, the United Nations-sponsored Geneva talks do not rely on the leverage from any regional or global players, including the United States, which long ago signaled that it would not get in Russia’s way. Thus, while it may be true that hopes for de-escalation in Syria will require a bridging process between Geneva and Astana, these two roads will continue their parallel existence unless Washington has some stake in the game.

While it may be true that hopes for de-escalation in Syria will require a bridging process between Geneva and Astana, these two roads will continue their parallel existence unless Washington has some stake in the game.

This does not mean that Russia will have an easy time managing the seeming de facto partition of Syria. Nor can it sit still given the ongoing humanitarian crisis in that country and in the neighboring states, where almost six million Syrian refugees languish but––to the dismay of their reluctant hosts––are fearful of returning home. The November 11-12 Russia-backed international conference on the return of Syrian refugees provided no path forward. Held in Damascus, it gave Moscow and Assad a chance to feign concern about the humanitarian disaster and blame the United States for a situation that they created. But the call for the conference could not obscure the continued efforts of Iranian-backed militias to entrench Iran’s military, cultural, and religious presence in southeastern Syria. This situation, which is certainly not to Turkey’s liking, all but precludes the return of refugees to this region.

Beyond the challenges Moscow faces in managing the military, humanitarian, and political problems that stem from the Astana process is the simple fact that Russia’s approach to the refugee crisis differs profoundly from that of the West. The latter wants to link the provision of reconstruction funding to a process of political reforms in Syria that will free political prisoners and guarantee safety for everyone, including the opposition. Moscow, by contrast, wants western states to pay for reconstruction and rejects tying the latter to any political project. While the participants in the November refugee conference––which included China, India, and the UAE––rejected this position, the fact that the European Union (EU) and Turkey were not invited and that the United States refused to attend underscored a global stalemate regarding Syria’s future that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Washington’s capacity to play a role in the diplomatic struggle over Syria will be constrained by at least two things. First, the only region in the country where the United States continues to have some clout is the northeast, where Washington has been helping to produce a power sharing arrangement between the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). That this effort has yet to succeed stems partly from a lack of trust between the two parties that only deepened when the PYD-linked Syrian Democratic Council signed an MOU with a Russia-linked Syrian political party that is close to Assad. Russia’s spoiler role in this murky story underscored a second basic reality: unless the United States and Europe forge a multilateral approach that has real teeth, the Geneva talks will continue to play second fiddle to the Astana process. And since rescuing the Iran nuclear agreement will be the first item on the list for any new US-European initiative,  Moscow has little reason to worry that its role as ultimate arbiter of the Syrian arena will be challenged—even by a new US administration that promises to take a tougher line on Russia.

Libya’s peace process missing link

For better or worse, no foreign power can play the kind of dominant role in Libya that Moscow has played in Syria. Indeed, the October 23rd UN-brokered ceasefire between the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli (GNA), headed by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and renegade Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) came about as a result of a stalemate between these two protagonists, supported as they are by regional powers. The subsequent convening of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunis from November 7 to 19 established a roadmap for elections and a mechanism for pursuing further talks. But as experts on Libya have noted, the LPDF has failed to provide a formal mechanism for holding foreign forces accountable for their support of the two key protagonists. The United States, in concert with the EU, Russia, and the UN, could lead such a multilateral effort. But this would require that Washington muster the political will and leverage to ensure that Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia support rather than undermine negotiations.

A multilateral effort in Libya would require that Washington muster the political will and leverage to ensure that Egypt, Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia support rather than undermine negotiations.

This will prove difficult because over the last few years these countries have pursued their interests in Libya without paying much heed to Washington. Indeed, the October ceasefire was prompted in part by Egypt’s threat to intervene militarily to support Haftar whose troops had taken a beating from GNA forces that are backed by Turkish drones. By threatening to send in troops and thus raising the prospect of an actual war between Egypt and Turkey, President Sisi––Trump’s “favorite dictator”––eventually induced a reticent White House to work with Egypt to set the stage for new talks. In the end, Cairo was calling the shots––quite literally.

In light of these events, the incoming Biden Administration will have to forge a nimble diplomacy as it reaches out to regional rivals that have their own reasons to signal their independence from Washington. Biden’s promise to stop giving autocrats a “blank check” has given Sisi reason for concern, but the Egyptian president could also fend off pressure from the new administration to address Egypt’s human rights abuses by reducing his support for the LPDF talks. Russia and France might back him, as they have given Haftar military support, and as they both share Cairo’s hostility to the GNA and its most powerful regional ally—Turkey. Forging a common American-European approach will thus be hard, particularly if Biden takes a tougher line on Russia, as his foreign policy team has promised.

Turkey too has its own reasons for not playing ball. The Trump Administration has just imposed sanctions on Ankara for its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement that the “United States will…not tolerate significant transactions with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors” will complicate any effort by the Biden Administration to reduce tensions with its Turkish NATO ally, especially if Erdoğan responds by reaffirming his resolve to work with Russia. Moscow and Ankara do not have the same ultimate goals in Libya––or Syria for that matter—but they have reasons to make life difficult for Biden. Indeed, the November 13th signing of a military agreement between the GNA and Qatar––which Egypt has condemned––underscores how difficult it will be for Washington to stop one important Gulf Arab ally from taking steps that could intensify conflicts in a region where the United States is trying to back multilateral peacemaking.

Paved with good intentions

Similar headaches will afflict Biden’s foreign policy team as it tries to realize its promise to push for a negotiated solution to the Yemeni civil war. The Trump Administration has taken steps to encourage Saudi Arabia to pursue peace proposals––which Riyadh tabled last summer. But the Biden White House will face a tricky balancing act. As it tries to revive the Iran nuclear agreement, it will also be reaching out to a Saudi government which Biden has fiercely criticized for its human rights abuses. Moreover, if the Trump White House decides to put the Houthi militia on the official US terrorism list, which seems very likely, Biden will have even less room for maneuver.

None of this means that the United States should not pursue multilateral diplomacy. It could, as has been proposed, try to use the normalization of relations between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco to advance talks focused on regional economic or environmental challenges, or more ambitiously, to revive Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. But the region’s actors have their own agendas that will not conform to those of the new Biden Administration. Reports that Egypt is seeking a “tripartite front” with Israel and Sudan to counter Turkish influence in the Red Sea theater––and the UAE’s joining the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum as an observer––provide a potent reminder that the region’s interlaced conflicts will create significant roadblocks along a path that may be paved with the best of intentions.

This article has been republished with permission from Arab Center DC.

Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken meets with Saudi Prince Mohamed bin Naif, Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Interior, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 7, 2015. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
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