US President Donald Trump delivered his third State of the Union Address 5 February, in which he praised the might, glory and economic prosperity of the United States.
A few days later, across the Atlantic, the Munich Security Conference opened its 56th Annual Conference, with no less than 35 heads of states and governments, in addition to foreign ministers, ministers of defence and senior officials from across the world, in attendance. The state of the West was the major theme. However, Middle Eastern questions took centre stage. For the last one hundred years, or more, the Middle East has been one of the major battlegrounds for the great powers. It still is.
Developments in northern Syria were a major discussion point, insofar as they touch on the Russian role in the Levant and in the larger region. Meanwhile, the ongoing confrontation between the United States and Iran was looming as each country tried to gain support and rally allies behind their respective positions. Last but not least, how the international community will deal with the complex security environment in North Africa, in light of the standstill in the Libyan conflict, was another flash point at the Munich Conference.
The conclusions of the conference this year were not as rosy as the overly-optimistic picture President Trump depicted in his State of the Union address. Does the State of the Region differ from one year ago? Will it be different one year hence?
If we take the situation in Syria as a starting point, the main parties have remained locked in their respective positions, save the Syrian government, supported by Russia, that has been gaining ground in face of fierce resistance from Turkey and Turkish-backed armed groups, some of which are included on the United Nations list of terrorist organisations. The steady advances of the Syrian Army in northwest Syria has put a serious strain on Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria — a development that was quickly seized upon by the United States. The US State Department sent Ambassador James Jeffrey to confer with Turkish officials in a sign of solidarity with Turkey. Even though Turkish-Russian relations are being tested as never before in the last few years, still the two countries have strategic interests in common, at least in the medium term. That was proven when the Turkish foreign minister, after his meeting with his Russian counterpart last Saturday in Munich, said that differences between the two governments on one issue does not mean that the two would sacrifice their larger strategic cooperation in other important areas. He stressed that Turkey will not change its mind on installing Russian S-400 air defence systems. The next few weeks will be a litmus test of how resilient Turkish-Russian relations will prove to be.
In Libya, these relations are being tested again. The two governments are supporting two opposing warring camps. Russia is providing political and material support to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whereas Turkey has deployed military advisers in Tripoli to shore up the besieged internationally-recognised government of Fayez Al-Sarraj. Last week, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a permanent ceasefire in Libya. But Haftar said that he is not going to abide by this resolution, and he would keep on attempting to enter Tripoli, and this regardless of international warnings that this would lead to a bloodbath. Furthermore, even if he succeeds in taking control of the capital city, there is no way he would be able to keep control over Tripoli in face of the forces that would challenge him.
In the Gulf, the US-Iran standoff does not look like it is going to end anytime soon. At the Munich Security Conference, the Iranian foreign minister opened a window of opportunity, however limited, by emphasising that his government would be willing to roll back its decisions to increase uranium enrichment beyond the limits set by the Iranian nuclear accord of July 2015, if the E-3 — referring to the three European powers that are parties to the nuclear deal with Iran (Great Britain, France and Germany) — would honour their economic commitments towards Iran, as stipulated in the nuclear accord.
Needless to say, these three European powers face a quandary on how to keep Iran in the accord by providing it with some economic incentives, and trying to square this with the American “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. This dilemma will remain unresolved until the Trump administration and Iran reach a compromise through third-party mediation. The Omanis seem to be working on a formula that would satisfy the minimum requirements of both without the Iranians losing face. Last week, the Omani minister of state for external affairs met with the Iranian foreign minister in Munich, in their second meeting in the last few weeks. In a year of presidential elections in the United States, President Trump needs a foreign policy success, and getting Iran to compromise would be considered as one. That could be possible if the Iranians reach the conclusion that President Trump has a strong chance of being re-elected. If not, they would prefer to wait for a new US administration.
Regional and Arab powers, including Egypt, have been entangled in a regional stand-off without clear signs that the raging conflict could be settled politically. The entrenched pattern of alliances that has existed for the last 10 years has failed to find the grand political bargain that could put the region on a more constructive and peaceful path. Nothing on the horizon seems to indicate that this status quo will change soon.
On the other hand, the regional power that has gained from the status quo has been Israel. The Trump administration, that has failed to come up with policies that favour the long-term interests of peace and security in the Middle East, has copied the textbook of the Israeli extreme right as to the future of the West Bank and the ultimate geographic borders of the Jewish state. The US “Peace Plan” that was announced 28 January at the White House is the biggest strategic prize that Israel has ever received from any great power — even from past US administrations.
The State of the Region will, probably, be on hold, with tactical gains here and there for entangled parties on the regional chessboard, at least until the swearing-in of the new American president.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.