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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

The US could be heading towards another Cold War

As US defence officials prepare for a tour of the East, the focus will be on Russian, Turkish and Iranian interference threatening its forces in Syria

National security adviser HR McMaster, pictured with US President Donald Trump, will be heading to Turkey to make clear his country's position on Syria / AP
National security adviser HR McMaster, pictured with US President Donald Trump, will be heading to Turkey to make clear his country's position on Syria / AP

US diplomacy will next week head to Arab capitals, Turkey and Europe, empowered by a doctrine of firm determination as the basis of any deals and accords, as if to declare that the “Make America Great Again” brigade will no longer show leniency to those whom it considers to be threats to American power and strategic interests. The US national security adviser HR McMaster, the most powerful figure in the Trump administration today, will head to Turkey to make explicit the limits of US and Nato patience vis-a-vis president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s adventures in Syria and his partnerships with Russia and Iran there. Mr McMaster and defence secretary James Mattis will also address Europe and the world at a security conference in Munich, the go-to place for launching strategies and cutting deals. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson will also visit Turkey as part of a tour that will take him to an Iraqi reconstruction conference in Kuwait and then Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. Mr Tillerson will be raising a good few issues to inaugurate his new tack, fully in line with the faction that has prevailed in the Trump administration and is laying down the foundations of a new short and long-term strategy on anything from Russia, China and Iran to the Arab Gulf nations.

These visits come in conjunction with the return of a Cold War-like climate between the US and Russia, amid confusion over Israel’s intentions regarding Iran’s role in Syria and Lebanon, strains in relations among Turkey, Iran, and Russia, and the election season in Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon proceeding in full swing. The timing of the US diplomatic tours in the Middle East is therefore interesting, albeit the main focus remains Russia’s project in Syria, its Iranian dimension and the ramifications in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

On the Turkish stop, US officials will focus on Ankara’s military operations in Afrin and Manbij and recent belligerent statements that threatened US forces in Syria and vowed to expand operations against the Kurds there. The stop coincides with efforts to salvage Turkey’s relations with Iran and further strengthen relations with Russia. Nato member Turkey is expected to receive a clear message from the American administration that it is intent on seeing through its new strategic vision and will not be making bargains like the previous administration had done. Indeed, the administration believes in cutting deals from a position of strength and is not prepared to cave to the priorities or special considerations of others.

Even with the European partners, US officials will tell the leading members of Nato that they are required to contribute more to cover the costs of the strategic partnership. This would include long-term training programs in Iraq, committing to sanctions on Iran and contributing to coalition operations in Syria against sites belonging to the regime, which Washington accuses of deploying chemical weapons in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. What Mr McMaster and Mr Mattis will say in Munich will be of paramount importance, especially as it will be coupled with a new national defence strategy, whose main focus will be maintaining the US edge over Russia and China’s ascending militaries.

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Moscow has started to take seriously everything coming out of Washington under Mr Trump. Shortly after Mr Mattis told Congress the new US nuclear doctrine would seek to strengthen the negotiating hand of American diplomats to convince the Russians to stop violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Moscow said it was prepared for a constructive dialogue with Washington on this issue. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow does not want to escalate the situation and wants dialogue. However, while the US is not opposed to this, the problem lies in the basis of such a dialogue amid mutual distrust.

Unless Russia and the US reach an understanding, a Cold War blizzard will blow over the world, with the eye of the storm centred on Syria. Yet the main point of contention lies not in their bilateral relationship, where it is relatively easy to reach an accord over respect for mutual interests and the presence of US and Russian assets in Syria. Rather, the tension and divergence has widened because of the Iranian project in Syria, leading to an entanglement of interests as complicated as the Assad knot in the Vienna peace talks in 2015, hindering progress in Syria.

Moscow’s confusion stems from having to weigh the sensitive issue of abandoning allies, something it has long derided Washington for doing, against the pragmatic requirements of developing the crucial relationship with the US. Furthermore, Moscow does not want to lose its gains in Syria, a possibility if the Trump administration decides to fuel a war of attrition against its forces there. It is also possible to say that the US is interfering with the Russian elections, if only by preventing a total victory for Mr Putin in Syria, in an echo of the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan. In broader strategic terms, the message from the White House to the Kremlin is that there is no possibility for Russia to regain its superpower status.

Even at the regional level, the Trump administration is making it clear to Moscow that the days of their former partner Barack Obama are over. No longer will Mr Lavrov be able to co-opt his American counterpart, as he had skilfully done with John Kerry. And now Mr Tillerson has rebranded himself based on the recipe he was given as a condition for keeping his post.

As he embarks on his Middle Eastern tour, the US secretary of state will not deviate from the administration’s strategy, doctrine and new rules of engagement. In Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait, he will be among strategic partners but his visit to Lebanon will not be as easy.

Indeed, in Beirut he will deliver a firm message to the authorities, that while Lebanon’s security is important to Washington, a strategic decision has been made not to show Hezbollah leniency as long as it remains in a firm alliance with Iran. That is, the Lebanese leaders’ delicate alliances and Lebanon’s fragility will no longer be enough for the US to accept their compliance with Hezbollah’s dictats at home and its threats to US partners in the Gulf.

Mr Tillerson has just been in Argentina, where he launched a new effort to pursue Hezbollah’s activities in South America and will therefore not be engaging in bargains in Beirut. He will demand the political and financial authorities in Lebanon lift the cover of legitimacy from Hezbollah or otherwise face being included in Washington’s measures.

What is still not clear, however, is how Israel’s goals factor in. Israel is escalating on the ground against Iranian targets in Syria as well as over the issue of Iranian rockets in Hezbollah’s possession and is building a wall along the border with Lebanon. These developments are worrying and raise concerns regarding possible wars. The decision to go to war depends on whether Israel has concluded that the opportunity to get rid of Hezbollah’s rockets is more important than the de facto truce that largely governs the Iranian-Israeli dynamic. The answer to this can only lie with Israel and Iran.