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Opinion: US Middle East Policy after the Midterms | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A U.S. Navy F-18E Super Hornet fighter jet receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria on ISIS on September 23, 2014 (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Shawn Nickel, File)

Following President Barack Obama’s refusal to take any action against the escalation of the brutal war the Syrian regime is conducting against its own people, observers in the Arab world have begun to re-evaluate Washington’s Middle East policies.

These policies are expected to change after the midterm elections, and while there is no agreement on the scale of changes, one thing is beyond any doubt: President Obama is now in a much weaker position vis-à-vis Congress during his last two years in the White House.

The results of the midterms do not usually favor the president’s party, as they present an opportunity to register a protest vote against the administration. Furthermore, although domestic rather foreign policy is uppermost in most voters’ minds, the general mood of the electorate plays an important role in influencing the outcome. The “feel-good factor,” or lack of it, affects the president’s standing, and if the electorate have a good feeling about the general outlook of things, they may overlook presidential errors that might otherwise prove fatal. Today, the general mood is troubled by the steady growth of the jihadist and takfirist threat in the Middle East and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa; and if the president cannot be held responsible for the Ebola outbreak, he has a lot to answer for as far as the jihadist–takfirist threat is concerned.

Looking at the recent history of the Middle East and the Arab world one can easily see several developments, all of which have convinced Arabs who are interested in American affairs that the relationship between Washington and its Arab “friends” is fast losing its luster.

These include Washington’s helplessness in the face of Israeli intransigence on the issue of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Such a negative attitude has weakened Palestinian moderates led by Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, and allowed Iran to strengthen its ties with Islamist organizations controlling Gaza.

Moreover, Washington’s rapid withdrawal of support for Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, at the outset of the “Arab Spring,” and their subsequent encouragement of Islamists in several Arab countries, made some believe there was a radical shift in Washington’s policies in these groups’ favor.

There is also the issue of Obama’s accelerating rapprochement with Tehran, especially in the wake of President Hassan Rouhani’s election. This rapprochement has gathered momentum despite Iran’s procrastination and endless maneuvering on its nuclear program, and the Arabs’ increasing worries about Iran’s expansionism and virtual takeover of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen. The revelation of ongoing talks between the US and Iran in Muscat has been a significant development.

Next, Washington has all but adopted the Russo–Iranian perspective on the Syrian crisis, whereby the whole crisis is now limited to confronting the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—despite ISIS appearing on the scene two years after the initially peaceful popular uprising was answered by the Assad regime with brutal force. Washington’s refusal to adequately arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with advanced weapons, and its rejection of the creation of no-fly zones and safe havens to protect liberated areas and displaced civilians, have made the FSA the weakest fighting force on Syrian soil. This has allowed ISIS to seize control of considerable swaths of territory in eastern and northeastern Syria and Al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Nusra Front to make gains in the southwest of the country while advancing on the northwest.

Earlier this year, following the failure of pro-Israel moves to slow the White House’s eager push to begin normalizing relations with Iran, a Washington-based friend, quoting a pro-Israel lobbyist, said: “We have to wait until the end of the president’s term. I do not expect any agreement with him during the next two years.” In the meantime, while Iran’s lobby was congratulating itself on an exceptional victory, perceptive analysts have come to see the Iran–Israel confrontation as a competition for the greatest share of regional influence under Washington’s auspices. The two countries have no “official” shared borders, and both are too smart to think that either one can cancel out its competitor, let alone challenge the might of America.

The next few months are likely to be critical in defining the future shape of the Middle East. The personal relationship between President Obama and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never been warm, but it has been going even further downhill since the rapprochement with Iran began in earnest, and the accusations from unnamed American officials that Netanyahu is “chickenshit” have hardly helped. During the elections this week the Israeli right-wing was openly anti-Obama, and by association anti-Democrat; so it was not surprising that many Democratic candidates distanced themselves from the president believing he has become a liability. Thus, from now on, the White House finds itself forced to adopt a new approach with the Likud government, while making sure that appeasing the Israeli right does not further erode Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian moderates’ credibility.

Regarding the Iranian nuclear program, there is the November 24 deadline. Both Washington and Tehran seem to be keen on securing a deal they could sell to their respective publics as a victory, and hence score points against their respective conservative domestic opponents.

Equally critical is the volatile situation in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The situation there cannot wait, politically or militarily, for decisive action to be taken. Bombing ISIS and its ilk from the air has proven ineffective, so it was interesting to read in the London-based Daily Telegraph that come next spring ground forces could be deployed. On the other hand, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s warning regarding the dangers in store if Aleppo is to fall to Assad is an indication of how uneasy Paris feels about Washington’s indifference to the moderate Syrian opposition, allowing extremists to control most of the liberated territories. Lebanon remains without an elected president, as Hezbollah insists on imposing its candidate Michel Aoun in order to join the string of regional pro-Iran regimes in the face of growing Sunni Muslim bitterness and tension. Last but not least, the Houthis are now pushing Yemen toward a catastrophic situation in which Washington cannot remain blameless.

Tense coming months? Definitely!