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Trump’s Middle East Stabilization Plan: Syria, the Palestinians, Cairo & Riyadh and Confronting IRGC

Arabs received signs of reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a sigh of relief. Meetings between King Salman and President Sisi are being prepared, and several Saudi officials were in Cairo to work out a way the remaining issues between the two principle Arab countries. President Trump advised the leaders of the two countries to find ways to end their dispute. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia resumed discounted oil shipments to Egypt and President Sisi met King Salman on the sidelines of the recent Arab summit.

On the other hand, Iraq’s attempt to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh does not enjoy the same level of hopes. President Trump’s changes in the US approach to the Middle East is starting already to bring about a shift in the regional balance of force, at least in perceptions. The echoes of Al Shayrat Tomahawks were heard loudly in Tehran. It is expected now that the Iranians will follow the usual dual approach: Intensify their “peace efforts”, particularly with Gulf States, to split them and weaken their resolve, and show military defiance to the US and a heightened degree of stubbornness in regional issues. As the Arabs learned from previous lessons, they are not ready to buy superficial Iranian offers, and they insist, instead, to see tangible steps to manifest that Iran is intent on changing its expansionist policy.

The US, on its side, defined its priorities in the Middle East clearly. Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said the other day that the priorities in the proper order are: defeating ISIL, removing President Assad and ending Iranian influence in Syria. This is indeed a game changer in Tehran and the region. For the Iranians, the Obama-offered, Arab-paid free ride seems to be over.

Trump’s project to stabilize the Middle East looks to be comprehensive indeed. It is an open secret now that Washington will invite several Arab leaders and Israel’s Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a conference on establishing Arab-Israeli peace and finding an acceptable solution to the Palestinian question. If successful, this should enhance Middle East security in many substantial ways.

Obviously, the Arabs will not accept any solution to the Palestinian tragedy unless the Palestinians approve and support it. However, the backlash of an Arab-Israeli peace should not be underestimated. The “Arab street” has lived for long decades under intense discourse representing Israel as an “eternal enemy” which captured Palestinian land by brutal force and kicked its people out of their homes. The religious awakening of the 70’s and the following decades took the place of “Arab nationalism” of the 50’s and 60’s in keeping the flames of enmity. It will not be easy to tell the Arabs one morning that there is now peace with a country they perceived as an enemy all their lives. Jihadists of all kinds will see it as an opportunity to attack the legitimacy of the Arab political institutions.

Moreover, certain Arab governments, and certainly Iran, will use any comprehensive peace treaty as a springboard to intensify their war of words against specific Arab countries and fabricate a national cause to enhance their own legitimacy.

In the case of Egypt’s Sadat- Begin Camp David accords, the Islamists in Egypt were not as problematic as they now are in the Middle East. Still, they succeeded in assassinating Sadat. This happened despite the fact that Sadat’s deal with the Muslim Brotherhood was to continue turning his face the other way on their fast growth, in return for their support to his policies. They took the price, then killed the Egyptian President.

There is political risks for both sides in taking concrete steps towards peace. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by fanatics in Israel who refused his peace approach. The Arab public will be waiting for a Palestinian seal of approval. Ramallah will examine the deal on its merits, but Gaza maybe inclined to reject it. While this risk is within the acceptable limit, it should not be underestimated or taken lightly by the concerned capitals. The level of risk depends on multiple factors, the first of which is the Palestinian position.

If President Trump’s attempt to reach a peace deal is successful, he would have certainly and profoundly changed the security map of the Middle East in one master strike.

However, this will be way short of reaching the wished level of stability in the region. The first direct threat to the region’s stability at the moment is Iran’s ambitions to expand its presence west of its borders. The second is radicalism and terrorism. Both, inter-connected as they are, have nothing to do with the Israelis.

Therefore, the focus now has to be centered on convincing the Iranians that the benefit-cost equation of their interventionist policies is not favorable to the regime in Tehran. Here, we see several difficulties:

– Iran’s expansion is not a strategy glued to the regime in order to seek to unglue it. It is actually a structural part of the regime’s very existence.

– This should not lead to a “regime change”, however, or a militaristic approach. The objective is to change the balance of political power within the regime. In other words, it is to change the regime’s policies.

– In order to change the structure of the regime, a multiple layered plan should be adopted and carried out for few years, without distractions or hesitation.

– This plan would be based on the only avenue available now, after the nuclear deal: Defeating the Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) in its regional adventures. This will bear a huge impact within the political balance in Tehran.

– Such a plan requires long-term US commitment to stabilizing the region and a sufficient help to regional parties willing to lead this effort.

– NATO can provide valuable assistance, particularly in the domain of  training.

– The US should always keep the door of diplomacy opened, and should always show that it welcomes it. Such conflicts never end at the battle fields.

– The moment it is seen that enough change took place already, and that positions have been rendered more flexible, a global effort to reach an Arab-Iranian deal would be well-timed.

The objective, again, is not to attack Iran. It is rather to get it to stop attacking the others.

The recent step in Syria, coupled with firm statements from Washington, are a good start. If the IRGC loses in Syria, and if it is unable to shake the KRG in Iraq or to rest comfortably in the Anbar desert, it will gradually turn to be a burden on the Iranian state revenues and public opinion. Currently, all eyes are on defeating ISIL. But defeating ISIL should be only a first step towards a full implementation of Trump’s Middle East Stabilization Plan, which is already moving forward.

13 April, 2017

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