These trips of American officials took place against the background of growing tensions and contradictions in the Middle East after the decision of the US President Donald Trump to withdraw the American troops from Syria and the controversy in relations between Arab countries. Disunity and misunderstanding are growing between the countries of the region, and Trump's Middle East policy is worrying the key allies.
Iran and Russia are seeking to oust US influence from the Middle East, playing on the contradictions of the Arab countries. Bolton and Pompeo tried to work on the mistakes that Trump made recently, smooth out the sharp corners of the contradictions of their allies and at the same time test the ground for returning to negotiations on the creation of a military-political Strategic Alliance of the Middle East (MESA), also known as "Arab NATO" in contrast to the growing influence of Iran and Russia in the region.
A blow to the image of the United States in the Middle East
After Trump’s decision to withdraw 2,000 US troops from Syrian Kurdistan, some secular regimes expressed concern. According to the Israeli Channel 10, Netanyahu to the last tried to convince Trump to change his mind, and the withdrawal of the American military from Syria is spittle in the face of Israel, depriving the Middle Eastern ally of the subject for bargaining with Russia, which has influence on Iran. The Politico on condition of anonymity published the opinion of an Israeli official who admits that Iran can see a signal to action in the departure of Americans from Syria and this will lead to confrontation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of General Staff Gadi Eizenkot still flaunt. In their opinion, regardless of whether American troops are stationed in Syria or not, they will continue to conduct military operations against Iranian troops in Syria in order not to allow them to create bases. The Israeli Air Force conducted over 200 air strikes against Iranian military facilities in Syria.
Trump’s argument on Twitter that for Americans it don’t make sense to participate in the fight against ISIS for Russia, Iran and, as he put it, “other locals”, and it’s time to concentrate on the development of their country might seem offensive to Arab countries participating in the military operation against ISIS. In addition to the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia took part in military actions against ISIS in Syria. Everything looks as if the Americans, who organized the antiterrorist coalition, have decided to shift all the responsibility onto the shoulders of their partners, without leading the issue to the end. Although 90% of the territory of Syria was cleaned of ISIS, 14,000 militants are still active, scattering throughout the country and posing a threat. Trump withdrew from the restoration of the Syrian Kurdistan territory, saying that Saudi Arabia will allocate money for construction work. Despite the fact that Riyadh it is not against such a prospect, it will not be easy to restore this part of the country, since hostilities can be resumed there.
After the Americans left, the Syrian Kurds could end up in the hands of the Turkish army, the troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is interested to suppress all opposition centers of resistance and regain full control over the country with the support of Russia. In December 2018, Turkish President Recep Erdogan announced his intention to conduct a military operation in northern Syria. The purpose of the operation is to defeat the Kurdish armed formation "Syrian Democratic Forces", which, according to Erdogan, interacts with the terrorist organization "The Kurdistan Workers Party" in Turkey, to establish control over the border areas on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border. According to Kurdish journalist Arin Shaykmos, if the Americans leave, and the Kurds are left alone with Turkey and the Assad regime, the situation of 1991 in Iraqi Kurdistan may repeat. Then the Kurds revolted in northern Iraq in the hope of creating their own state, while the Iraqi army suffered losses from the US military in Kuwait. After the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, Hussein sent troops into Iraqi Kurdistan to cease the uprising. About a million Kurdish refugees have left the region.
The withdrawal of the United States from Syria may adversely affect their image among the Middle Eastern secular regimes, which cooperate with the United States in the military-political sphere and count on assistance in the event of a threat to their sovereignty. If the Americans refuse to guarantee the security of their allies - Kurds, who played a key role in defeating ISIS during ground operations, then anything can be expected from the Trump administration. Arab countries can block a plan for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is being developed by one of the advisers to the American president and then by Jared Kushner. Back in September, the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, said that he did not know what this plan was about, but if he suggests a step aside from the concept of "two states", the creation of a Palestinian-Jordanian federation or autonomy for the Palestinians, then it is a waste of time. The situation in Syria has become a kind of loyalty test to the Middle Eastern allies, which Trump failed.
Work on Trump's mistakes
Pompeo and Bolton visited the Middle East to clarify the US position on the withdrawal of American troops from Syria. They tried to state the future policy of the United States in Syria differently, to make the faceting of Trump's clumsy statements. It is worth noting that they waited for a pause and flew to the countries of the Middle East when the passions around Trump's statement subsided a bit. Apparently, during this time they, together with the American president, have worked out a new strategy for strengthening ties with the countries of the region. Extremely direct and tough statements during the trips, which were made by Pompeo and Bolton, were replicated by the mass media.
Bolton took the mission to dispel the stereotype that the United States allegedly "surrendered" the Kurds and "are retreating" from Syria. In Israel he said that Turkey should not take military action in Syria without prior approval from the United States, so as not to threaten the American military and opposition armed forces, which mean Kurds. Then Bolton went to Turkey, where he met with the press secretary and special adviser to the president, Ibrahim Kalin. He said that the United States would not completely withdraw troops from Syria, but would maintain a military presence at al-Tanf base in the south of the country to deter military activity of Damascus and Tehran. The withdrawal of US troops will not interfere with military operations against radical Islamists, for ousting the Iranian military from Syria and the US participation in the political process. Bolton warned Kalin that the United States would not tolerate inappropriate treatment of opposition members and they need agreements with Turkey to demilitarize the airspace over northeastern Syria, where Kurds live. Bolton stressed that the remaining US troops will be withdrawn gradually, but did not set any clear deadlines.
Bolton's rhetoric was reinforced by Pompeo. During a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, he confirmed that the States are not going to give up their long-term goals in the Middle East, despite Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. He called ISIS and Iran the main threats to the region. During a speech at the American University in Cairo, after talks with Egyptian President Abdel Al-Sisi about cooperation in the field of security and economy, the US Secretary of State expressed his intention to remove Iranian troops to the last soldier from Syria. Pompeo criticized the policy of ex-President Barack Obama in the Middle East, who supported the "Arab spring" against secular regimes, withdrew troops from Iraq, which led to destabilization in the region.
The statements of Bolton and Pompeo caused a negative reaction in Turkey and Iran. The Turkish authorities were unhappy with Bolton’s visit, as they expected to hear a clear timetable for the withdrawal of the US military, not an ultimatum. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said that his country would act in Syria depending on the situation and would not ask anyone for permission. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif compared the attitude of Pompeo and Bolton to his country with psychosis and accused the United States of replacing this foreign policy with an Islamic republic with delusions and paranoia. Partly the statements of Bolton and Pompeo were indeed contradictory, since Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is no different from Obama’s Iraq policy.
However, Republican “hawks” made it clear to Tehran, Moscow and Damascus and the rest of the international community that they would have to reckon with American interests in the Middle East. The United States will continue to rely on local secular authoritarian regimes, as has been the custom since the Cold War, and not to try to find an approach to moderate Islamists, as it was under Obama.
Return to the idea of "Arab NATO"
It is not by chance that Bolton and Pompeo paid much attention to Iran and the need to counteract its expansionist foreign policy. The Americans tried to lead the Arab countries to the idea that it was time to unite efforts to counteract the common threat. Alternatively, resume the negotiation process on the establishment of the Strategic Alliance of the Middle East (MESA). In Cairo, Pompeo called on the countries of the region to unite in this alliance. In May 2018, Trump and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, discussed the prospects for creating an analogue of NATO in the Middle East. It was planned to conclude contracts for the supply of weapons in the amount of $ 350 billion in the next 10 years. The United States was going to deliver anti-missile systems, warships, missiles to Arab countries. The Americans and Saudis wanted other Middle East countries to be involved in MESA.
However, the MESA military-political bloc was not formed because of the controversy flared up between the US regional allies. Since the summer of 2017, the political and economic boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has been dragged out due to suspicions of sponsoring terrorist organizations, providing asylum to radical Islamists and stepping up cooperation with Iran under the emir Tamim al-Thani. The emirate was isolated. The prospects for military-political integration became even vaguer after the scandal erupted in October 2018 over the murder of Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Hashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The CIA suspects that Prince Mohammed ordered to deal with a journalist who criticized his government policy. It will be difficult to convince Oman to join MESA, because this country adheres to international neutrality, not participating in military conflicts, maintains a balance in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and still maintains diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, unlike other countries of the Persian Gulf.
Iraq’s participation in the MESA block is questionable, since there are favorable conditions for turning Baghdad into a satellite of Iran. In May 2018, the Shiite Muslim parties - Alliance to Reforms, Alliance Fatah, Rule of Law and Wisdom, won the parliamentary elections in Iraq. They took most seats in parliament. These political forces support rapprochement with Iran and raise the issue of the withdrawal of 5 thousand American military. The leader of the Alliance for Reform Party, Muktad al-Sadr, is notorious among Americans. In 2004, he raised the Iraqi Shiite uprising and created the Mahdi Army, an armed group that organized terrorist attacks against the US military. The current Prime Minister of Iraq is Adel Abdul Mahdi is the son of a Shiite priest who is supposedly in contact with the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon. Iraqi parliamentarians criticized Trump’s visit to the US al-Asad airbase in December 2018, expressing outrage that he did not meet with officials in Baghdad.
Pompeo visited each of these countries - potential MESA participants, tried to smooth over the contradictions between them and convince them to unite against the Iranian threat. In particular, he urged the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain to stop putting pressure on Qatar, and during negotiations with Prince Mohammed did not focus on the murder of Hashoggi, limiting himself to continuing consultations on this matter. The United States is ready to close its eyes to existing violations of human rights and other democratic rights and freedoms in Arab countries for the sake of forming a powerful regional collective security organization and providing American industrialists with military contracts.
One of the goals of MESA is to prevent the growing presence of Russia and China in the Arab arms markets. In December 2018, information appeared about the intention of Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this year. In October 2018, Russia and Qatar signed an agreement on military-technical cooperation. Previously, contracts were signed for the supply of small arms and anti-tank complexes to the emirate. Although the main supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia is the United States, the United Kingdom, Russian media periodically publish information about plans to supply military helicopters and tanks to the kingdom. Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, UAE acquire drones in China. The Americans are proactive and are trying to tie the Arabs with new commitments in the field of security and military-technical cooperation before Russia puts its tentacles into the region.