By Farid Mirbagheri
Are we about to witness a strategic shift in the US as regards the Middle East? Do the cruise missile attacks last month on Syria indicate a more robust and more proactive approach by the new US administration? The response to the first question is probably ‘No’ whereas the second merits a resounding ‘Yes’.
President Trump’s first official foreign visit later this month will take him to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Saudi and other Arab leaders in an attempt to highlight the importance Washington attaches to its relations with its traditional regional Arab allies. The cold Obama days that had appeared to alienate Riyadh seem rapidly to have become a thing of the past, at least that is what the Saudis hope for.
The areas where the US support would be particularly welcome for Saudi Arabia would include Syria and Yemen, where Riyadh is intensely engaged in a proxy war with Tehran. The Assad family rule in Damascus for nearly half a century has never been viewed as ideal by the guardians of the holiest shrines in Islam. During the Reagan era the Saudis hoped to topple the father Assad in 1980s particularly after the brutal suppression of protestors by the Syrian government in Hama in 1982. The same expectation may now have been revived with President Trump at the helm in the White House.
Iran, on the other hand, is treading its path very carefully. In tandem with new realities the days when daring the US navy by small Iranian frigates in the Persian Gulf was a regular occurrence seem to be history. Caught in the heat of its presidential pre-election politics Tehran does not appear to exhibit the same zest for engaging in revolutionary rhetoric and manoeuvring that could irritate Washington.
As for the bigger picture in Syria it seems unlikely yet that the big powers will use their political and military muscles to undo the carnage in the country. What would become of the tens of thousands of Islamist zealots now consuming a blend of religious passion and political frustration in Syrian battlefields? Once distracted from intra-religious and sectarian conflict, the fundamentalists’ attention would axiomatically turn towards their ‘external’ enemy: the West including Israel.
Russia could also attract the wrath of Islamists, however. The unwavering support Moscow has extended to the government in Damascus has made an enemy of Assad opponents, whose reactions have tragically destroyed and scarred innocent lives in Russia.
Thus, containment of the Syrian blood bath that would limit Iran’s role in the country may be a preferred option for the US. Tehran will sooner or later realise that it cannot fight several fronts simultaneously. It has neither the military prowess nor the financial resources to sustain them in the long-term. The Kremlin may not be very eager to see an emboldened hegemonic Iran stamping its authority across the region either.
All in all President Trump will in all likelihood reassure his Arab allies that Iran does not have a free hand in regional developments. He will, however, gauge their willingness and capacity to commit troops and resources to a broader security framework that could safeguard longer-term regional stability.
Farid Mirbagheri is professor of international relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia