From Baghdad to Jerusalem
The Iraq campaign is over, but the U.S. war on al Qaeda and Islamic radicalism continues. This is an insight that is finally sinking in around the world and in the United States as well. As STRATFOR has argued for quite a while, Iraq was not a self-contained war but a campaign designed to achieve certain necessary ends -- geographic and psychological -- in a much longer and broader war. Therefore, rather than closing off conflict, the end of the war in Iraq set the stage for follow-on campaigns -- with a confrontation starting with Syria.
The logic inherent in the American position was always apparent. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States was stunned and devoid of strategy. The campaign in Afghanistan was a logical, reflexive event. It did not rise to the level of strategy, but was simply a short-term exercise designed to disrupt al Qaeda operations. The long-term strategy for destroying al Qaeda depended on motivating other countries not to permit their citizens to enable al Qaeda -- and to stop any governments that might be contemplating direct support from carrying it out. The occupation of Iraq provides the United States with a platform for carrying out that strategy.
Iraq, the most strategic country in the region, gives the United States a base from which to threaten other countries in the Middle East and thereby compel them to change their behavior. This process is difficult and complex, but under the circumstances, not necessarily a very long process. Indeed, shifts began even before the war did:
· Saudi Arabia, which had vociferously opposed the war and refused to participate, quietly changed its position in the weeks leading up to the U.S.-led attack -- permitting U.S. access to its command and control center at Prince Sultan Air Force Base, permitting aircraft to stage out of Saudi territory and allowing some ground forces to use Saudi ports for deployments. Saudi leaders understood that the United States was going to war regardless of what the United Nations did, and that it would win. Rather than continuing futile opposition, Riyadh changed its position before the war began. We assume that the Saudi level of cooperation with U.S. intelligence over al Qaeda's presence in the kingdom -- and flows of money from people inside the kingdom to al Qaeda -- increased as well, and will remain increased.
· Jordan also opposed the war publicly, but even more than House of Saud, King Abdullah understood the necessity of the war. Abdullah also understood that Washington's interest in suppressing radical Islamic groups was also in the interests of the Hashemites, and he therefore permitted the basing of fairly substantial forces in Jordan, particularly those used to secure western Iraq.
· Turkey did not cooperate with the United States, at least to the extent of allowing U.S. troops to pass through Turkey in large numbers. Retrospectively -- and probably prospectively as well -- this did not represent a major challenge to the United States, particularly if Ankara cooperates moving forward. Regardless of Turkish behavior, Washington needs Turkey; it is the foundation of U.S. geopolitical strategy in the region. Moreover, the United States is the guarantor of Turkey's national security. The two will cooperate. Washington is going to make certain that limits are placed on the Kurds in Iraq. The Turks, on the other hand, invited the Israeli foreign minister to visit Turkey last weekend, the topic of conversation: Israeli modernization of Turkish tanks. The real topic: making sure that the Turkish-Israeli relationship remains firm, which means that the Turkish-Israeli-U.S. relationship is firm.
· Iran saw an immediate response from former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who suggested that there be either a referendum or a ruling by the Expediency Council on the future of U.S.-Iranian relations. Though the Foreign Ministry claimed that everyone misunderstood Rafsanjani (no one did) there were very positive comments exchanged between the British ("the Iranians were quite helpful in the war") and Iranians ("We will close our borders to fleeing Iraqi leaders"). Finally, the United States bombed an anti-Iranian group operating in Iraq on April 15, providing a substantial down payment on future relations. The Iranians also are realists and know from which direction the wind is blowing. They will cooperate.
· Kuwait: Well, Kuwait allowed the United States to launch its invasion from there.
· Syria: Finally, Syria. It is interesting to note that at this point, Syria is the only country bordering Iraq that remains completely resistant to U.S. power. The reasons for this divide into three parts. First, the Syrians genuinely misread the first week of the war and concluded that the United States might be in trouble. Officials in Damascus thought Iraq might give the United States real problems and defined their position from that. Now they don't know how to back away from this position. Second, a huge amount of money is passing between Iraqi leaders looking for a haven or safe passage and Syrians. The Syrians have no love for the Husseins, but they are businessmen, and there is money to be made. The sums make it hard to turn down. Third, the Syrian government is hard-wired into groups like Hezbollah, which is one of the foundation stones in its occupation of Lebanon. Washington is demanding an end to these relationships. It is not easy for Syria to deliver.
Therefore, the United States appears to have moved directly from a war in Iraq to a confrontation with Syria. That is true, but the story is much more complicated than that. First, the United States has moved from the war to a redefined relationship with the entire region. Every nation bordering Iraq is recalculating its national interests, based on the probability of a long-term U.S. military presence next door. The Syrian resistance must be placed in the context of the broader movement toward accommodation with the United States and its own peculiar status.
Second, a confrontation with Syria is very useful to the United States at this moment. It sends the exact signal Washington wants to send to the Middle East and the entire Arab and Islamic world: The United States is not tired out by the Iraq war, it is eager to press its advantage and more dangerous than ever. That signal has caused everyone to re-examine the premise that Iraq would represent some sort of closure.
Finally, the Syria confrontation is the segue into another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Everyone should recall the Saudi initiative of last summer, which argued that there could be no agreement on Iraq until after the United States dealt with the Palestinian question. Although logically a non sequitur, the politics were these: The United States guaranteed Riyadh an Israeli-Palestinian initiative as the price for a shift in Saudi opposition to the war.
Now, Saudi leaders have never been deeply concerned with the Palestinian issue; they have no love for the secular, socialist radicalism of Yasser Arafat. But they have a domestic political problem: Under heavy pressure from the United States, they had to show the domestic opposition that they had gotten something valuable out of collaborating with the United States. It wasn't much, but the promised U.S. road map for Palestinian-Israeli relations at least allowed Riyadh to show that Saudi leaders had picked up something of value. Thus, at a press conference before the war and at the Blair-Bush summit near the war's end, the Israeli-Palestinian issue was prominent.
The United States, after the Clinton administration's Camp David initiative, had absolutely no appetite to try another round of definitive negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But it was the price, and the Bush administration was going to pay it. But they also figured out a way to make lemonade out of lemons. It went like this: Everyone knew that the fundamental problem in any Israeli-Palestinian negotiation was that Arafat does not control all the Palestinians. Arafat cannot deliver Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other outriders in any deal. Therefore, no matter what deal is negotiated, Arafat cannot deliver the one thing the Israelis want above all else: an end to Palestinian operations against Israel. Therefore, not only is no deal possible, but as soon as a deal appears to be possible, the net result will be a Palestinian action followed by an Israeli reprisal followed by ... and so on.
Washington reasonably could say to Riyadh that the only possible chance for the road map to work would be if the Palestinian radicals were forced, by other Arab countries, to buy into the negotiation process. The key for that is ending outside financial and logistical support for the Palestinian rejectionists. The main source and conduit of this aid is Syria, which supports Hezbollah as part of its Lebanon strategy and allows other radical groups to operate out of Damascus.
The United States intends to shut down as many of the radical movements as possible in the Arab and Islamic world. Thus, Washington used its agreement with the Saudis to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian settlement in order to justify dealing with Syria now. It was perfectly logical: If the Saudis want a road map to peace, part of that road must run through Damascus. Since the Saudi regime has no use for the Assads -- years back, the radicals they supported had targeted the House of Saud -- officials in Riyadh were not going to get all that upset over it. The Turks don't like the Syrians at all, nor do the Jordanians. Iran has collaborated with Syria, but they have more important issues to deal with than Hezbollah and the Syrians -- such as the U.S. Army sandwiching them from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therefore, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said April 16 that he is planning a trip to the region to begin working on the Israeli-Palestinian road map, and that he plans to visit Damascus for some frank discussions -- as a show-down is politely called among diplomats. The United States has turned the tables on Saudi Arabia, in other words. Riyadh made its cooperation against Iraq dependent on a U.S. commitment on Israel and Palestine; Washington has said that any serious commitment on that issue logically presupposes dealing with Syria. Saudi leaders, then, have to back the U.S. confrontation with Syria -- unofficially of course. Hard to argue with that logic.
Now, we are not particularly optimistic that this initiative actually will amount to anything vis-à-vis the Palestinians. But it will buy several months in which the focus will be on the Israeli-Palestinian situation -- away from the undoubted difficulties that Iraq will pose in that time, and away from the diplomatic maneuvering to get the region lined up the way Washington wants. If it works, that's great. If it doesn't, the United States will have tried once again. In the meantime, Syria faces a dilemma that it hasn't confronted since the Baath Party came to power: The Israelis are still to their southwest, the Turks are still to their northwest, but now the Americans are on their eastern border and they seem not at all averse to trying out their neat toys again.
In essence, with the end of the war, the United States has become the foundation of a new regional order and an absolute wild card. In the Middle East, where every government has spent a generation becoming predictable, the United States is utterly unpredictable. And that means that every country either accommodates the United States or faces serious uncertainties. Syria must know that even Washington doesn't know how it will behave if pushed. Therefore, as pessimists, they must assume the worst.
On April 18, foreign ministers from the region and Egypt will meet in Riyadh, where they will consider the fate that has befallen them.