The Iranian Albatross that Donald Trump Has Hung Around Its Own Neck

By Alastair Crooke

Mr. Trump, nor anyone else in his administration, has announced any conclusions about how Mr. Khashoggi died, or who bears responsibility for ordering the killing, a Washington Post editorial fulminates. “Instead, they have pretended to be waiting for the results of a Saudi investigation… the obvious problem with that stance is it assumes that Mohammed bin Salman himself is not at the bottom of the Khashoggi plot — though abundant evidence points to the crown prince. In truth, as the administration surely knows, there is no Saudi investigation — only a cover-up operation that has clumsily tried to disguise itself as an inquiry”.

One aspect to this affair is the US domestic issue. The White House is increasingly perceived – as the Washington Post implies – as engaged in a ‘soft’ cover-up of a cover-up. That is to say, the White House is being viewed as so set on keeping MbS in position as lynchpin to Trump’s entire Middle Eastern strategy that the White House and Mr. Bolton will try to turn a Nelsonian ‘blind eye’ – or a ‘selective ear’ – to any audio evidence provided by the Turkish government that seems to implicate MbS.

President Trump is keeping his powder dry. He said: “I’ll have a much stronger opinion on that subject over the next week … I’m forming a very strong opinion.” But caution on his part might be wise: leading Turkish daily, Yeni Safak, which is close to the Turkish government, and which has been covering leaked details of the Khashoggi investigation day by day, has reported that Maher Mutrib, the Saudi intelligence official who led the 15-man assassination team in Ankara, spoke to Badr al-Asaker, the head of the Crown Prince’s private office, four times directly after Khashoggi was killed (if it was Mutrib who said “tell your boss” to MbS’ chef de cabinet, then the implication is clear). This has not been officially confirmed, but it is possible (and likely) that Turkish intelligence has yet further details to trickle out, piecemeal, to discredit the Saudi ‘line’ each time the kingdom tries to ‘draw the line’ under the case. Erdogan is determined to get MbS’ scalp, it seems.

In any case, the nature and cost-benefit of the Saudi-US relationship clearly is an issue set to run-on in Washington: Adam Schiff (Chair of the House Intelligence Committee) has already identified it – and ‘the who, where, and what’ of the Khashoggi affair – as a prime topic for Democratic Party scrutiny, when the new House assembles.

However, the bigger issue – one that Trump may not yet be ready to admit – is that his Mid-East strategy is in deep trouble, even if MbS does manage to survive as heir-apparent, as seems likely, given Trump’s strong attachment. The complication does not derive from the gruesome Khashoggi murder alone – it is now much wider than that. The significance of the Khashoggi affair, as it were, is that it has slid open a Pandora’s box of ugly goings-on. What is emerging from the Gulf is that the Khashoggi assassination is neither isolated, nor out of the ordinary in the Gulf today: Buzzfeed News reported that UAE leaders had set up, and tasked, a foreign military mercenary unit for the explicit task of serial assassinations of Muslim Brotherhood leaders (Al-Islah), in Yemen (whilst Saudi Arabia was at the same time, quietly facilitating al-Qa’eda forces in Yemen, fighting against Houthi insurgents). More recently, the NY Times has disclosed an attempt by a senior Saudi official to close a $2 billion contract with US interests – again for serial assassinations – but this time, of Iranian leaders. It is, to put it bluntly, more redolent of the Saddam Hussein era, to read these reports; and those of Princes ‘disappeared’ from Switzerland and Paris; of a Prime Minister hijacked; and of dissenters and senior princes incarcerated at whim.

Of course, the ‘realists’ will argue ‘so what’. And we see this line coming from ‘western officials’ in their briefing, for example, to the Financial Times: a weary sigh of ‘there is no alternative’ percolates through. “Western officials doubt that the 33-year-old prince is in danger of being ousted as he has consolidated so much power, including bringing all armed forces and security services under his control … There is no obvious candidate to replace Prince Mohammed, who has won support among youth and the liberal elite for his social reforms during his meteoric rise”, they conclude. Really? No one? No one else to perform any of this roles?

Well then, there is indeed a problem here for Trump’s grand strategy: In fact, there is a three-fold problem: One, is psychology. Does MbS or Saudi Arabia now embody anything authoritative, anything compelling, in terms of leadership or vision? Does the Kingdom have the charisma now to gather under its ‘banner’ the Sunni world, and to lead Trump’s ‘war’ on Iran? (Most people in the region have been sickened by events in Yemen, even before the Khashoggi murder).

Secondly, have not all these reports underscored Mr Trump’s political risk in staking so much on the veritable pinhead of a one-man platform? What else lurks unknown and unseen, beneath the surface? (By-the-by, Prime Minister Netanyahu has based his platform too, on a similarly, precariously narrow foundation.)

And lastly, what – in the light of all that is emerging – now stands as the core ‘idea’ advanced by the Gulf: What does ‘the Gulf’ stand for after the eclipse of Monarchial, de haut en bas, handouts of benevolence to grateful ‘subjects’? Is it a vision of quasi-secular autocracy, the ubiquitous security-state, and raw neo-liberalism? Admittedly, the might prove a hit with Israel, but in terms of the energetic national, cultural re-sovereigntisation taking place in the northern tier of the region, this leaden notion is no competitor. And the embrace of the security-state structure – in, and of itself – speaks not of self-confidence, but of rising internal dissent and existential pressures that must be contained and suppressed.

And it is this latter point (increased internal repression) on which Khashoggi’s death, inadvertently, has shed unexpected illumination. It is an insight which suggests that the future axis of conflict in the region will not be as Trump and PM Netanyahu had hoped. It will be focused not on Iran, but will rotate towards a further round of conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and its patrons – Turkey and Qatar. Some Gulf states are more frightened of Islamist Muslim Brotherhood dissidence within their emirates than they are frightened of Iran, which has no history of external state expansion. These anxieties are driving – and represent – the new regional re-alignment.

And these Gulf states, the UAE and Saudi, are fearful that Turkey – the old Ottoman imperial political power, and seat of the Islamic Umma – might just succeed in usurping Saudi Arabia’s Islamic credentials – as diminishing Saudi’s position as being no more than an inept Custodian of Mecca and Medina (the Turkish press is full of such claims). This would strip the Gulf of much of its significance and value to Washington.

And whilst the Gulf has made its turn toward a quasi-secularism to please the West, Turkey has been quietly vacuuming up what there is of the Gulf’s discarded Islamic credibility in the form of a MB-style, ‘soft’ Islamism – and a very explicit neo-Ottoman revanchism, fueled by Turkey’s sense of being victim to a conspiracy led by Mohamed bin Zayed, the US and Israel.

Thus, the axis of the coming conflict is more likely to be that between a fearful Gulf, and an increasingly assertive Turkey, bidding for the leadership of the Islamic sphere. As for Iran, it can contemplate these events with sanguinity: Saudi being pressed to end its campaign against Yemen -and end its siege of Qatar. And, additionally, this new regional dynamic will only serve to push Turkey and Qatar closer to Iran.

None of this can be countered as promising for Mr Trump. Turkey will ‘lead’ on embracing the Palestinian cause (with Iran and Qatar in the rear), and MbS will lack the credibility or standing to lead any new ‘war’ against Iran after the disaster of Yemen, nor be able to coerce the Palestinians into capitulation in the face of the ‘deal of the century’. Even his near incapacitated father, as well as the al-Saud family, understand Netanyahu’s strategy to bury the ‘idea’ of a Palestinian state – and in any event, Bibi’s strategy is likely to be overtaken by internal politics, as Israel struggles with the implications of Lieberman’s resignation.

All this raises the question of why the Trump Administration continues to view an MbS-led Kingdom as somehow still a fount of strategic stability (… is it just that old habits die hard)? Trump’s policy of not just exiting JCPOA, but of going that ‘mile’ further in seeking to overthrow the Islamic Republic as well, through sanctions will – we suggest – eventually become seen as ‘the Albatross’ which Trump injudiciously – and without compelling need – hung about his own neck. It will not work, and America’s credibility in the Middle East will be gone when that failure becomes apparent.


The Reopening of The UAE Embassy Might Signal Syria’s Pivot to The GCC

By Andrew Korybko

It would be foolish to believe that the uber-wealthy UAE needs war-torn Syria more than the reverse, so the reported reopening of the Emirati Embassy more than likely signals a significant change in policy on Damascus’ behalf and not Abu Dhabi’s, the ramifications of which could be far-reaching for the entire region and especially Iran.

Planning A Pivot

Al-Masdar Al-‘Arabi (“The Arab Source”, also known as AMN), an Alt-Media website that basically functions as an unofficial outlet for the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) or at least a faction of it, dropped a bombshell report on Wednesday about how the planned reopening of the Emirati Embassy in Damascus is part of Syria’s reconciliation with that country and its GCC allies in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Considering how close AMN is regarded as being to some of the people in Syria’s military-intelligence community (which forms part of its “deep state”), this exclusive information shouldn’t be treated lightly, nor as “disinformation” from an “unfriendly source”. Rather, there’s every reason to believe the report and analyze the far-reaching regional ramifications that it could have if this actually comes to pass. So as not to be accused of misportraying its contents, here’s the entirety of what AMN revealed to the world on Wednesday:

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Syrian Arab Republic are working through back channels via the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to reach a political reconciliation, a source in Damascus said on Wednesday. According to the source, the Syrian government has been in discussions with the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia regarding political reconciliation. The source said that the Syrian government and the Gulf nations have been in discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in the region and their need to defeat their ideology. The first step in this reconciliation was the reopening of the UAE embassy in Damascus after closing more than six years ago. When asked about Syria’s relationship with Iran, the source said that the Persian Gulf nation was not involved in the talks. With the war winding down in Syria, Damascus is hoping for the Arab League to lift their suspension and resume efforts to champion the peace settlement.”

What’s particularly interesting about this report is that it specifically alleges that Iran wasn’t involved in these talks, suggesting that this might have been done truly independently of Syria’s military ally and representative of a sort of pivot at its perceived (key word) strategic expense. After all, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are infamously bombing Iran’s “kindred spirits” in Yemen and Riyadh even dispatched an emergency military force to Bahrain in 2011 to quell an uprising by Iran’s fellow co-confessionals there, so entering into talks with this overtly anti-Iranian alliance would understandably perturb Tehran. That said, it’s Syria’s sovereign right to conduct its diplomacy however it feels fit to pragmatically advance its national interests, and “rebalancing” towards the GCC wouldn’t be surprising when bearing in mind that Damascus used to be particularly close to the bloc before 2011. In fact, President Assad even received the prestigious “Order of King Abdulaziz” in 2009 that was also bestowed upon Putin, Obama, and Trump.

Required Reading

Before going any further, it’s very likely that the typical Alt-Media consumer is totally taken aback by what AMN reported because of how heavily they were indoctrinated over the years into believing simplistic dogma about International Relations, such as the supposed impossibility of Damascus ever entering into a rapprochement with some of the very same countries that were responsible for the Hybrid War of Terror on Syria in the first place, let alone at the perceived (key word) strategic expense of its Iranian ally that solidly stood by its side this entire time. The fact of the matter is that global affairs are infinitely more complex than how they’re usually presented to the masses, especially by websites that stay in business by catering to their readers’ wishful thinking and earning advertising revenue from their repeated visits, to say nothing of the donations that they receive from people who are basically paying to keep their preferred “echo chamber” a “safe space”.

For those who are interested in getting a grip on the nitty-gritty strategic details of what’s really been going on in Syria over the past year, the author strongly recommends reading or at least skimming through three of his most recent analyses:

* “Chaos Theory, Hybrid War, And The Future Of Syria

* “Strategic Assessment Of The War On Syria In Fall 2018: Idlib & The Northeast

* “Russia’s Reshaping Syria’s “Deep State” In Its Own Image

The main idea being conveyed is that Syria is truly at a political crossroads right now that’s much more profound than how many have portrayed it. Although the kinetic (military) phase of the country’s conflict is drawing to a close, the non-kinetic (political) one is rapidly heating up as all sides compete to influence the ongoing constitutional reform process that will determine “the rules of the game” for decades. The three most important points of contention are the post-Daesh rivalry between “Israel” and Iran in the Arab Republic, the enormous task of funding the country’s reconstruction, and the question of “decentralization”, all of which are currently being managed through Russia’s adroit “balancing” act between all players but which nevertheless need a definite solution one way or the other as soon as possible. The present state of affairs cannot carry on indefinitely, so Syria’s possible pivot to the GCC might be Damascus’ envisioned way out of this dangerous impasse.

“Inconvenient” Context

It’s not popular to say, but Syria cannot realistically continue to rely on Iran’s military assistance forever. As a sovereign state, Syria naturally wants to reacquire the ability to ensure its own security with minimal foreign assistance, and Iran’s military intervention there at the democratically elected and legitimate government’s request has pretty much already fulfilled its official anti-terrorist purposes. That’s also why AMN recently reported that the SAA is preparing to discharge thousands of troops who performed more than five years of service “as the military attempts to shift to post-war Syria, which will rely more on police units and less on infantry and armored personnel.” That’s understandable for both practical “peacekeeping” reasons and the very likely possibility that Iranian funds to the SAA are expected to dry up after the US’ reimposed sanctions begin to affect its target’s economy, so it’s better to begin the decommissioning process now while there’s still time to execute it in an organized fashion.

Another point to keep in mind is that “Israel” ramped up its rhetoric against Syria over the past week by threatening to strike it once again on the alleged basis that the IRGC and Hezbollah are carrying out activities there against its “national” interests (e.g. building missile factories, etc.), even going as far as hinting that it would attack the S-300s if they target its jets irrespective if Russian servicemen are present at the time. As “politically incorrect” as it is to say, Russia and “Israel”are still allies even in spite of the tragic spy plane incident that transpired in mid-September, as proven by their continued military coordination with one another, ongoing free trade talks with the Eurasian Union, and even Russia finalizing an agreement to allow “Israelis” to adopt its children (a privilege that it wouldn’t ever grant to a “hostile” entity). It’s therefore inconceivable that Russia would stand in “Israel’s” way the next time that it chooses to bomb Syria on its alleged anti-Iranian and -Hezbollah pretexts and escalate regional tensions, so Moscow’s preferred “solution” is obviously to “encourage” Syria to remove those said pretexts.

President Putin’s unofficial peace plan for Syria aims to have Damascus request the “phased withdrawal” of Iranian and Hezbollah forces from the country on the “face-saving” basis that they’re leaving as heroes following the successful conclusion of their anti-terrorist mission, which would satisfy “Israel’s” “security concerns” and could also see Russia’s new Saudi and Emirati partners moving in to “fill the void”. The GCC’s leaders might also importantly provide much-needed reconstruction aid to the country that Iran is incapable of granting, and Russia could have even clinched a deal with the UAE to play a more important role in its Soviet-era “sphere of influence” over South Yemen in exchange for facilitating the Emirates’ entry into Syria and possibly getting Damascus to “decentralize” control over the Gulf-influenced Northeast. Furthermore, as noted in AMN’s original report, the GCC might help Syria eliminate the last ideological remnants of the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood, which is in their collective interests.

Concluding Thoughts

While the reopening of an embassy might not ordinarily seem like much, the case of the UAE’s plan to reportedly do just that in Damascus is actually much more important than the casual observer might think, particularly after the Syrian “deep state”-connected AMN revealed that this might be the opening stage of a much larger pivot to the GCC countries. While appearing at first glance to be against Iran’s interests, the opposite might be true if one accepts that Tehran cannot continue indefinitely funding its military mission to the Arab Republic under the US’ sanctions pressure and that its post-Daesh presence there is “provoking” Russia’s ”Israeli” ally to escalate the situation to the point of possibly reversing all the stabilizing gains that were made in the country over the past three years. The argument can be made that it’s better for Syria to request Iran’s “phased withdrawal” under the “face-saving” pretext of leaving as heroes than to bear the consequences of keeping its forces in the country after their original mission has been completed.

Iran cannot afford the military and economic costs of fighting a lopsided proxy war with “Israel” in Syria even if it serves the political purpose of temporarily distracting its population from the predicted worsening of their living conditions throughout the course of the US’ reimposed sanctions regime, nor does Damascus even want this conflict to take place on its territory precisely at the point when so much has been achieved over the past few years and a so-called “political solution” is finally within sight. Syria isn’t “betraying” Iran because the two already signed a military deal over the summer and will continue to cooperate in a “normal” capacity, but it’s just that Damascus might have reached the conclusion that the reconstruction assistance that it could obtain from the GCC is worth downscaling that specific facet of its strategic partnership with the Islamic Republic if it was already proving to be “troublesome” as it is. Simply put, this potentially Russian-brokered pivot might save Iran money, lead to a windfall of aid for Syria, and enduringly “stabilize” the situation.

There are also multisided “balancing” strategies at play here too, provided that Syria does indeed pivot towards the GCC like AMN suggested. Just as Russia is proving itself to be a masterful “balancer” in bringing together and managing a diverse set of actors in ways that always work out to its own benefit, so too might Syria be following in its main “patron state’s” pioneering footsteps by seeking to emulate this Hyper-Realist interests-driven “balancing” strategy. Damascus would be diversifying its international partnerships beyond its erstwhile binary “dependence” on Moscow and Tehran, following the former’s lead in downscaling the military dimension of its ties with the latter in order to court generous reconstruction aid from the GCC and position itself to more effectively counter the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood’s influence that still remains in the country. By its very nature, and being careful not to present this as being anti-Iranian in any shape of form, this pivot would open up plenty of post-war strategic options for Syria and is probably why it’s being pursued.

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