Middle East awaits Biden impact

With US president-elect Joe Biden preparing to take office this month, geopolitical actors in the Middle East await his stance on the Iran nuclear deal.

Left to right: Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, Syria’s regime leader Bashar al-Assad, and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah.

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The year 2020 has finally come to a close. It has been a hot year in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. Regional tensions have only been overlooked because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. This time last year, the world witnessed a number of events that led many to believe the outbreak of World War III was imminent. The conflicts in Syria and Libya were two wild sparks that threatened to set the world alight. While the deployment of Turkish troops to Libya polarised Europe and almost brought NATO and the European Union to loggerheads, the Trump administration’s assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq looked likely to trigger a massive escalation in Syria as Iran vowed vengeance.

The US position on the region was always going to be an interesting one owing to 2020 being an election year. Despite at the beginning of his term opting to pull-out US troops from the Middle East following the defeat of ISIS, outgoing president Donald Trump had to take a few bold steps in the region to boost his credentials among his Republican support base. He also had to distract the public from calls to impeach him while he was still serving as president. Killing Qassem Soleimani was certainly going to score him points with the powerful Zionist lobby in the US, and hamper Iranian efforts to fill the power vacuum left behind in Syria and Iraq.

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American military strategists would have also understood the need to execute the top Iranian commander as soon as possible, fearing a missed opportunity to take Soleimani out in the event of a Republican defeat to the Democrats in the November election. As witnessed in the previous administration led by former president Barack Obama, the Democrats certainly took a softer approach when dealing with the Iranians, having in 2015 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran. This deal was torn up by the Trump administration, but with the Democrats now back in power, conversations are already pointing to the revival of the plan. It was important, therefore, for the US to hit Iran and its interests hard while Trump was still in office before any alternative leader set about dealing with the Iranians again.

Of course, by assassinating Soleimani, Trump risked causing a major destabilisation in the region. Soleimani was extremely popular among everyday Iranians for his successes on various battlefronts. Humble yet charismatic, and a loyal soldier of the Iranian revolution, he was elevated to rockstar status, not only in Iran, but also among Tehran’s Shiite allies throughout the Middle East. If only to save its own reputation, the Iranian regime had to retaliate. That retaliation was expected, but the severity of it was anyone’s guess. Immediately after the drone attack that killed Soleimani, Trump sought to play down tensions, while mass protests surrounding the slain general’s funeral called for retribution. The regime in Tehran was being squeezed by its own people to take action, but at the same time the regime knew very well that any retaliation of significant impact would only start a war it was not ready to fight. So, Iran launched ballistic missiles targeting American positions in Iraq. The damage caused by the missiles were so minimal, it was as if Iran had intentionally aimed to miss their targets. In fact, it seems the only real damage done was Iran accidentally shooting down a passenger plane and killing dozens of its own civilians. Nonetheless, it was played out to the Iranian people like a great victory against the Americans. After that, the name of Qassem Soleimani was barely ever mentioned again. In this instance, American calculations on Iran not pursuing a course of self-destruction proved to be correct.

Chipping away at the Iranian axis

Since the death of its general, Iran’s progress in Syria has been stifled. Iran has been helping Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad throughout the Syrian civil war, which started almost 10 years ago. Iranian Quds Force commanders have been working with Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Shiite militia, to bolster the Assad regime, which before the Russian intervention in 2015 was on the verge of collapse. They have mainly been shoring up Assad around the Lebanese border and near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Israel has kept a close eye on all Iranian and Hezbollah movements in Syria, and Israeli air strikes targeting their convoys and camp sites have become somewhat of a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. Iran seems unable to do anything to prevent attacks by Israel, which has even shown the ability to carry out hits as far north of the Israeli border as Aleppo, which is closer to Turkey.

Not only has Iran encountered problems with its military strategy in Syria, but its entire axis of allies has come under severe economic pressure. The economic impact of the pandemic aside, the Syrian economy was already in tatters even before the Trump administration rolled out the Caesar Act sanctions targeting the Assad regime and its affiliates. The dire situation has seen the re-emergence of anti-Assad demonstrations, reminiscent of protests that led to the civil war a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah faces its own problems in Lebanon, where public opinion has been turning against them due to their non-cooperation with efforts to secure a much-needed IMF bailout. Many people in Lebanon, who are now facing starvation, blame Hezbollah for the collapse of the Lebanese economy due to their facilitation of cross-border smuggling between Lebanon and Syria. The smuggling has enriched Hezbollah while denying Lebanon important tax revenues. Lebanon’s inability to crack down on the smuggling is also damaging to its chances of securing a bailout, and so long as Hezbollah continues to take advantage of the country’s sectarian political system, its representatives in Beirut are likely to continue sabotaging talks with the IMF. Hezbollah has thus shown that it prefers to risk the total collapse of the Lebanese state in order to secure its partisan interests rather than give concessions on its cash flow. Without a solution to this stand-off, Hezbollah’s selfish behaviour will no doubt be punished by the very same people it claims to defend.

So, with a lack of alternative options, or at least the imagination to think of any, Iran and its allies are continuing with the same strategy that has kept them in the game so far, except now that they feel the pressure, their tactics have got a lot dirtier. No doubt the Caesar Act sanctions have narrowed the economic playing field in Syria, so much so that the regime has turned on itself, with Assad going about seizing the wealth of his business tycoon cousin Rami Makhlouf, a long-time financier of the regime. Understanding this new reality, Iran seeks to cement its spot among Assad’s allies. Throughout the war, Iranian and Russian support for the Assad regime have run parallel to each other, united in the fact that both Tehran and Moscow have interests in keeping Assad in power. Both see Syria as a gateway to the Mediterranean. However, Tehran and Moscow also have different plans and agendas for Syria in the long-term. The difference is, the international community can do very little to apprehend Russia regarding its ambitions in Syria, while Iran has already been backed into a corner. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that pro-Assad militia leaders in Syria with links to Russia have been gunned down in recent months.

Iran has also been aggravating its neighbour Turkey, particularly around the outskirts of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. The province borders Turkey and is largely controlled by militias loyal to Ankara. Earlier de-escalation and ceasefire agreements brokered by Turkey, Russia and Iran have more or less contained most of the fighting between the Assad regime and Syrian rebels who control the area. Skirmishes earlier in the year saw Turkey retreat from some of its outposts around the circumference of the de-escalation zone as the Assad regime pushed back some of the rebels. The Assad regime had made it clear that sooner or later it would move in to retake Idlib from the rebels, but it used the time the ceasefire bought to focus more on fighting ISIS in the country’s east.

After ISIS was defeated, the Assad regime turned its attention to Idlib, primarily with the aim of clearing the rebels from the M5 highway in order to secure the connection between the capital Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo. Control of the highway was a vital lifeline for the already depleted Syrian economy. Next on the Assad regime’s agenda appears to be the M4 highway that connects Aleppo to the port city of Latakia. The areas along the highway look likely to be left to fend for themselves against a regime onslaught, as much of it is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which does not take orders from Turkey. Turkey has been tasked with clearing HTS from the area, but instead of stepping into an area where its presence is not welcome, Turkey has been allowing HTS to clear out some of its more extreme rivals, such as the Al Qaeda offshoot Hurras al-Deen. Nonetheless, the presence of Iranian fighters alongside regime forces in the area has made Turkey a tad uneasy.

For Turkey, control over Idlib is important for many reasons. First and foremost, any escalation in fighting in the area could result in 4 million civilians fleeing across the border into its territory. Secondly, Turkey needs allies in the province to keep hostile forces, such as the PKK-linked YPG, away from its borders. Turkey is particularly anxious about allowing hostile forces lingering west of the Euphrates river, because from there they could only possibly be heading in one of two directions - either the Syrian port of Latakia or the Turkish port of Iskenderun. Any disturbances near its ethnically and religiously diverse southern Hatay province is likely to destabilise the region surrounding its port. Perhaps it might even be fair to say that Turkey’s problem isn’t really so much with the Assad regime itself, but more to do with a lack of assurance offered by the regime to keep out the YPG and Iranian militias, both of which in Ankara’s estimates pose more of a threat to its domestic stability than the HTS. At least the HTS semi-serves a purpose by fighting Hurras al-Deen.

Iran not welcome

At the beginning of 2021, Iran finds itself in a region where its presence is not welcome at all. It has become a nuisance to Israel, Turkey, Russia, and the US, as well as local people themselves. The Assad regime still relies heavily on Iranian backing, but Bashar al-Assad is increasingly being presented with incentives to ditch Iran. One might argue that the international community has realised Assad’s only desire is to stay in power by any means necessarily, and he is the type of leader who would cooperate with anyone who offers him the best way to achieve that. Although the alliance between Assad and Iran to date has made sense owing to the fact that his regime is dominated by members of his Alawite minority, which is accepted as a sect of Shiism, Assad himself, being a political Baathist, is not necessarily governed by religious ideology. He may not be as religiously fanatic as some of the Shiite militias fighting for him. So by offering him better alternatives - be that through Washington announcing that his toppling from power is no longer its agenda, Arab states like the United Arab Emirates restoring diplomatic ties to counterbalance Iranian influence, or the possible lifting of the Caesar Act sanctions if he distances himself from Tehran - Assad might be won over.

There is, however, one problem for Assad. By cooperating with the Iranians in the first place, he has inadvertently placed himself under somewhat of a siege. The Iranians have been fierce in keeping other would-be allies, including Russia, away from Assad. As the regime’s recent build-up around Idlib has demonstrated, Assad is prepared to jeopardise the delicate situation there and potentially spoil Russia’s very sensitive game plan. So entrenched now is Iran in the Assad regime that the minute Assad decides to change direction, he is very likely to be taken out by elements under Tehran’s control and replaced by someone more loyal to the Iranian cause. For Iran, Syria is literally an all-or-nothing scenario, so Tehran can and will do absolutely anything to ensure its remains a main player in the country.

It is in this context that Joe Biden prepares to take over the US presidency. Currently, everyone is waiting to see if the Democrats will actually revisit the JCPOA agreement. If the nuclear deal is revived and the sanctions on Iran are lifted, we are likely to see more of a moderation in Iran’s behaviour. But due to pressure from Israel and Turkey, the US would most probably demand a scaling down of Iran’s presence in Syria. Iran is unlikely to accept such an ultimatum, as another change of heart in Washington would leave Iran totally exposed thereafter. Without a deal, on the other hand, Iran is likely to double-down on Syria until it is in a position to stipulate more favourable terms of negotiation for itself.

Anti-Iran front

Nations around Syria are preparing themselves for all inevitabilities. Even Saudi Arabia and Turkey are putting their differences aside to create a united front against Iran. Ankara and Riyadh have come to realise the importance of coordinating their efforts to pressure the Biden administration to represent their objections in any future talks between Washington and Tehran. The previous JCPOA did very little to address these objections, and if the US is to repeat the same mistake, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have to stick together. Turkey has also indicated it is ready to restore ties with Israel, arguably as a way to get into Washington’s good books.

Although relations between Turkey and the US dropped to all-time lows during Trump’s reign, Trump was still more often than not very generous in his dealings with Ankara, or at least a lot more generous than a Democrat leader would have been. With Biden now in charge, Turkey fears a return to days of the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president. The Obama administration was a lot more involved in the Middle East than the Trump administration was. What’s more is that the Obama administration was very keen on supporting the YPG in northern Syria. Turkey’s economy and domestic situation is certainly in a much more fragile situation today than it was four years ago when the YPG, emboldened by US support, was running amoc along its southern border. Furthermore, Turkey’s relations with the international community, specifically with the EU, were also in a much better condition back then. Not to say that Turkish ties with European nations were great, but relations certainly hadn’t declined to the levels witnessed in 2020 after the Turkish deployment to Libya.

Saudi Arabia also looks likely to lose favour during Biden’s era, as the Democrats have been a lot less lenient on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi than the Republicans have. It is therefore incumbent on Turkey and Saudi Arabia to work together and play ball with the US if they are to stop Iran in its tracks. Saudi Arabia could also utilise its influence over the UAE and Egypt to improve their relations with Turkey in areas of diplomatic conflict, such as Libya and Cyprus. Turkey would in turn take care not to provoke Egypt and the UAE in these areas, while at the same time taking a more conciliatory approach in its tensions with Greece.

But, the question is, are Turkey and Saudi Arabia prepared to deal with the consequences of having no deal with Iran? The death of Soleimani, the Caesar Act sanctions and the economic problems in Lebanon certainly put Iran in a much weaker position today than it was in 2015 when the JCPOA was signed, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous to its rivals. Without any incentive to behave diplomatically, the only way forward for Iran is to battle its way to achieving its goals.

All eyes on Iranian election

A lot will ride on the outcome of Iran’s presidential election in June. Current Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who many deem to be a moderate, showed the world a lesser-known side of his country by successfully championing Iran through the nuclear talks years ago. Having completed his second term in office, he is no longer eligible to run for the presidency. If another moderate is elected in his place, the US is likely to engage with Tehran for further talks. On the other hand, if Iranians elect a hardliner, hope for a new deal would be all but lost.

But of course, the US and Israel are in poll position to shape Iranian thinking ahead of the elections. If the Biden administration takes an aggressive stance on Iran from the get go, then Washington can be assured that Iran has no shortage of populist, hardliner candidates waiting for the opportunity to chew on whatever bones are thrown their way. But if the US and Israel decide to lay off the attacks for a while to give Iranians room to breathe and time to digest certain geopolitical realities, in six months time another moderate could take office.

Needless to say, however, it will always be the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who will have the real power in Iran. He may well use the next six months to provoke Israel and the US into carrying out more high profile assassinations in order to see someone more like himself get elected. After all, the survival of the whole so-called Iranian revolution by and large depends on maintaining the status quo. God forbid if Iran was to ever become a normal nation-state, its people might actually decide to do away with the theocracy. The Trump administration has until January 20th to help out Khamenei in that regard. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah may very well be next up on the menu.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
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All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

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