Many observers have described US President Barack Obama as a hesitant individual who does not have a clear vision or strategy for dealing with the recurrent crises in the Middle East. They also say that after the withdrawal of the US military from Iraq and Afghanistan, his priorities are now focused on developing the economy and raising the level of domestic social and health services.
This position has its supporters, and it is relevant in light of the US’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq; as well as the US administration’s refusal to directly intervene militarily in a number of Middle Eastern crises, such as Iraq, Syria and, recently, Yemen. In all these cases, the US has only provided humanitarian relief, logistical support to a friend or an ally, or has intervened through the use of aircraft to conduct specific military interventions in the context of combatting terrorism and extremism.
The three strategic interests
Disregarding all conspiracy theories, and without holding the US administration responsible for what has happened in the region, we must take a careful look at US policy towards the devastating Middle East crises. It is a well-known fact that the US administration has strategic interests in the Arab region and is willing to intervene with all its force in order to protect these interests; this is an indisputable concept in international politics. Such interests include:
- Preserving Israel’s security.
- Securing energy sources.
- Securing the arms market.
- Ensuring the consumption of American goods in the Middle East.
These interests have been somewhat guaranteed over the past century, and Washington has been able to address any threat it faces with politics or military force, especially in the Gulf region – the latest of which was the US war on Iraq (or rather, on Saddam Hussein). Since then, American interests have not been exposed to any real threats, other than the straw man of “terrorism”.
This path continued until the wave of Arab revolutions in 2011, which I believe came as a surprise to Washington, as well as to many Arab countries. The Arab Spring represented a sharp turn in the region due to the ousting of a number of Washington’s allies, such as President Zine El Abidine and President Hosni Mubarak (described as Israel’s “strategic treasure”). This sounded alarm bells in the White House out of fear that these changes would affect American interests as a result of local instability and US “uncertainty” regarding the region’s future. There were a number of concerns aired at the time regarding the nature and form of the alternatives that might replace those Arab regimes allied with Washington. The American administration’s concerns were intensified with the emergence of Islamist rule, especially in Egypt, one of the largest and most powerful countries in the Arab world. The rise to power of Muslim Brotherhood raised concerns over the future of the Camp David Accords and revolutionised Egypt’s relationship with Israel and its security, as well as the potential of a knock-on effect in the Gulf states, which represent the US’s strategic oil and natural gas stores in the region.
While facing these concerns and uncertainties, both the American administration and the governments of a number of Arab countries were invested in containing the wave of revolutionary change. However, the US administration, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, had greater goals beyond mere containment of the protests, as it realised that the Arab revolutions were the symptom of a number of complex issues rising from the depths of the collective (young) Arab consciousness. On the whole, revolutions are motivated by tyranny, injustice, and poverty and their goals are freedom, change and democracy – which may be brought about by the enemies of Washington and Tel Aviv enemies. Therefore, the process of replacing one leader with another may not convince the Arab peoples of deep change.
Unconventional measures are required
In addition to this, Washington is aware of the fact that its direct intervention is not generally welcomed by the Arab public because of their negative view of the American role in sponsoring Israel’s security and its friendliness with the dictatorships that oppressed the Arab people – and which they consider the reason for their suffering on a social, economic, and political level. Washington is also aware of the financial and human costs it will have to pay for its direct intervention in the region, especially after its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therefore, Washington and President Obama decided to assume the position of “strategic silence”, which replaces direct American intervention with tacit and explicit support and by pitting Muslim and Arab parties against one another and against their own people. While these conflicting parties (both governments and groups) are working to achieve what they believe to be national and regional interests, in truth, they are achieving the American plan of unconventional strategic goals that are not revealed to the public. These goals were formulated to invest and exploit the events in the Arab region to the largest extent. Such goals include:
- “Massaging” the collective consciousness of the Arab public by means of promoting violence and instability that causes Arab citizens to regret thinking of freedom and change and drives them to miss the regimes allied with Washington, which were overthrown by the revolution. This is accomplished by igniting sectarian and doctrinal wars, which are considered the most complex and violent wars in history.
- Exhausting the region’s major countries by means of internal and regional conflict, both militarily and economically, by prolonging such conflicts and fuelling them for many years. The events in Syria are a clear example of Washington’s policy aiming to prolong the conflict by preventing both the regime and the opposition – and its supporters such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – from resolving the battle. This policy seeks to have no winners or losers; to destroy the country, and thus destroy the Syrian people’s spirit.
- Exploiting the heavyweights in the Arab countries and stripping them of their unconventional weapons that may one day pose a true strategic threat to Israel’s security. This was witnessed when Washington mobilised its fleets in the Mediterranean Sea to bomb Damascus in response to the use of chemical weapons in Eastern Gota. However, when the Syrian regime agreed to the Russian initiative to destroy its chemical weapons, Washington backed down from striking Syria and the scenario of internal conflict continued until over half of the Syrian people became refugees. This also applies to Iran’s nuclear weapons. Iran is keen on sanctions being lifted because of the economic exhaustion it has suffered from its direct intervention and support for its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, so the United States, led by Barack Obama, took advantage of Tehran’s crippling economic situation to push it to make serious concessions regarding its nuclear programme in the context of the recent “Lausanne Agreement”.
- Demolishing the nation-states that emerged after World War II through ethnic conflicts (such as the Kurds), religious conflicts (Muslims, Christians, Druze, Assyrians, and Chaldeans, etc.), and sectarian conflicts (Shia and Sunni), and promoting the desire to divide the region into small fragments mostly devoid of sovereignty and self-advancement as a result of the destruction of their infrastructure and economy and the spread of poverty and ignorance. This is likely to occur in large countries such Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and may even spread to countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. If this occurs, the Arab region will lack a central country capable to attract Arab people to form a real renaissance.
- The prolongation of the conflict, fighting and destruction means that the American economic wheel will continue to turn, as the military industries will be needed by the conflicting parties, and, in the long run, the entities emerging from the destruction of its cities will be in dire need of reconstruction. This will open the market for American and European companies to intervene and offer their services – at a price, of course.
Dismantlement and reorganisation as a condition for the success of the scenario
The US strategic goals mentioned above have partly been achieved by means of President Obama’s “strategic silence”. The most dangerous part may be achieved in the future, and this is the dismantlement of the entire region and its nation-states and reorganising them on ethnic, sectarian, and doctrinal basis in a manner serving America’s three strategic interests (Israel’s security, energy sources, and the Middle Eastern consumer market).
The condition for the success of the dismantlement and reorganisation of the region is to involve the largest Middle Eastern countries, which are still somewhat intact, in devastating conflicts – such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. This is what Washington is seeking to do by exploiting Iran’s desire for expansion through giving it opportunities to spread its control, which in turn provokes Arab countries and Turkey against it. This scenario is progressing through the Houthi coup in Yemen, which is supported by Iran, and which brought about a Saudi response (“Operation Storm of Resolve”) in order to protect itself from the perceived Shiite Iranian threat on its southern borders.
The weak American position towards the Houthi coup in Yemen a few months ago can be explained by Washington’s desire to reassure Iran and push it to make more progress in the Yemeni issue. At the time, the White House expressed its concern regarding the development of events in Yemen, and stressed continued coordination with the Houthis to strike Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Obama’s administration only provided limited support to Operation Storm of Resolve in order to encourage Saudi Arabia to take serious measures in confronting Iran in order to let Iran and Saudi Arabia fight it out and generate responses from other countries in the region.
In the same context, the Lausanne Agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear programme was reached during the heated battled in Yemen. This agreement was personally pushed for by President Obama despite the fact that it angered its ally Israel in order to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear bombs and give it hope that the sanctions against it will be lifted in order to encourage Iran to continue its expansionist project.
Hence, it is likely that the Arab region will witness more complications and conflicts due to the expansion of the confrontations in Yemen into a ground war, the results of which are difficult to predict. Just like Iran can disturb Saudi Arabia’s internal situation by inciting the Shiites in the South and East, Saudi Arabia also has the ability to disturb Iran’s internal situation by inciting the Sunni Arabs in Ahvaz in southwest Iran and the Sunni Baloch tribes that spread from east Iran to Pakistan, which is an ally of Riyadh. In addition to this, either side can directly interfere in the Syrian crisis.
I believe that President Barack Obama is highly capable of managing his foreign policy calmly and with political astuteness, and this is what has allowed him to push Iran to achieve its wild expansionist desires and get involved in Iran, Syria, and Iraq. He is completely aware that this would provoke angry responses from neighbouring Arab countries and would open the door to sectarian and doctrinal conflicts in the region.
I will conclude by quoting an interview conducted with Barak Obama by Thomas Friedman on 4 April, 2015, and published in the New York Times. In the interview, Obama said with regards to Washington’s Sunni Arab allies: “I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries,” and posed the question: “Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done?”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.