GP Insights

GP Insights # 442, 22 November 2020

The US in the Middle East: A week of hectic engagements over Israel, Syria, Iran, Qatar and Iraq
Rashmi Ramesh

What happened?
On 19 November, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Psagot Winery, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. He also visited occupied Golan Heights at the Syria-Israel border. This is the first visit of a top American official to areas that are not recognized by the international community.

On 18 November, the US imposed new sanctions on Islamic Revolution Mostazafan Foundation, a conglomerate that is closely linked to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The US Department of Treasury accused Khamenei of misusing the Foundation's funds to "enrich his office, reward his political allies, and persecute the regime's enemies."
While the US is attempting to isolate Iran in the Middle East, it is working towards lifting the three-year blockade on Qatar. The US National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien hinted at the possibility of GCC crisis thawing within the next 70 days.

On 17 November, the US Acting Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller, announced troop reduction in Iraq and Afghanistan. 500 troops will be recalled from Iraq, leaving only 2500 troops on the ground.

What is the background?
First, the most assertive pro-Israel stance by the US. Trump administration has taken an overwhelming pro-Israel position in the Middle East. Earlier in 2018, the US recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and relocated its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Mike Pompeo's visit to the Golan Heights and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank is a major step towards acknowledging Israel's sovereignty over these occupied areas.

Second, the pressure on Iran, as Trump continues his 'maximum pressure' policy. He imposed sanctions, unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, launched an offensive against the Quds Force and the IRGC. The killing of General Soleimani in January 2020 further deteriorated the bilateral relations. The US has been pursuing an economic policy to isolate Iran and increase its economic woes.

Third, the role of US troops in the Middle East. The Trump administration has substantially reduced troops in the region, particularly in Iraq. This is a part of Trump's policy to end wars on foreign soil. Besides reducing the troops, the US has used its military efficiently in supporting the Kurdish forces, killing Abu Bark al-Baghdadi and decimating the Islamic State. 

What does it mean?
First, the Trump administration, unlike the previous ones, is not pursuing a balanced role in the Israel-Palestine issue, particularly on new settlements and human rights violations. He aims at a legacy that shows a consistent policy that includes a firm pro-Israel stance, and the need to end "endless wars".

Second, the Palestinian cause and regional dynamics. Abraham Accords act as a major game-changer. The Arab countries are beginning to have official diplomatic relations with Israel, much to the disappointment of Palestine. Also, the non-Arab countries like Iran and Turkey are supporting the Palestinian cause. In this regard, Arab vs non-Arab debates are becoming more evident. The Accords has been successful up to some extent, at least in binding the rivals of Iran together.

Third, Trump projects his policies towards the Middle East as his major achievement. Through mediation and peace plans, he aims to see concrete outcomes in the region. It may be premature to label it as a successful peace initiative, as there is categorical support for one side against the other. He has also encouraged Saudi Arabia to purchase more arms and ammunition from the US, despite knowing that they will be used against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Nevertheless, Trump will see through the lens of the Accords and project this as the major achievement.

Fourth, the tough road ahead for Joe Biden in the Middle East. It is likely to constrain Biden's approach towards the region. Certainly, there will be attempts to reverse some major foreign policy decisions of Trump, particularly on the maximum pressure policy on Iran, and cases of human rights violations. However, any move to undo Trump's actions will be perceived as pro-Iran; hence Biden has a tough road to tread over in the Middle East.


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