Absent US leadership potential conflicts in Caucuses and Libya grow

The Middle East today is largely being carved up by Russia, Turkey and Iran while traditional US allies, such as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are left to scramble.

U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he addresses his first re-election campaign rally in several months in the midst of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., June 20, 2020. (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump pauses as he addresses his first re-election campaign rally in several months in the midst of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., June 20, 2020.
(photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
With Washington increasingly absent from any semblance of trying to lead through past experiences of using shuttle diplomacy and other means, the Middle East  is becoming more unstable and chaotic as regional powers step into the vacuum.
Recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have seen Iran step up to mediate as Turkey threatens to back an Azerbaijan war effort.
Meanwhile, in Libya, local tribes have asked Egypt to intercede as Turkey pours weapons illegally into Libya and accuses Egypt of interfering.
The Middle East today is largely being carved up by Russia, Turkey and Iran, while traditional US allies, such as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are left to scramble to deal with a new regional order. This is part of the long-term decline of the international rules-based order that was ushered in with US global leadership after the Cold War.
President George H.W. Bush pushed for multilateral approaches and a “new world order” in confronting Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait. This aggression would not stand, he said, spelling out a period of US interventions usually aimed at enforcing UN resolutions.
By way of Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and then Afghanistan and Iraq, the US squandered its global leadership slowly and eventually chose to retrench and contract, with President Donald Trump saying the US would end its “endless wars” in faraway places.
With that end of the US role as peacemaker, a role that goes back to president Theodore Roosevelt’s involvement in ending the Russo-Japanese War and the US role after the First and Second World Wars, other countries have stepped in.
With Europe increasingly isolationist and now dealing with COVID-19, other countries are pushing up against each other. Turkey ignored a UN embargo on arms flow to Libya, moving drones and Syrian mercenaries to fight there in a civil war.
In the past, the recruitment of poor Syrian refugees to fight in a foreign war by a third country would be seen as a major violation of international norms. Not so in 2020.
Libya is now a proxy war between Russia, the UAE, Egypt and even France on one side, and Turkey and Qatar on the other. The Syrian regime even appears to back the LNA side, which is also backed by Egypt, while Turkey and Iran back the GNA in Tripoli. Everybody is sending drones and air-defense systems to Libya.
In Yemen, there is a war grinding on as Iran sends ballistic missiles and drone technology to the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia bombs the Houthis. Further afield, Azerbaijan and Armenia are clashing, and Turkey looks hungry for escalation.
Russia is on alert too. Having already sent its military and mercenaries to various countries, it is ready to do more in the Caucuses or Libya. It has aircraft in Libya, and US AFRICOM is nonplussed. But the Trump administration has wanted to revise AFRICOM’s role.
National defense strategists in Washington suggest the US drawdown the use of United States Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, in some 80 countries, with 8,000 personnel deployed, and focus on “near-peer” competition with Russia and China. That means ending the addiction to the Global War on Terrorism and ending the focus on “counterinsurgency” and sending more naval units to the South China Sea.
As the US shifts focus, it means Turkey and Iran play a much larger role in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They are now working together on some issues with Russia and opposed on other issues.
A loose alliance of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia with France seeks to confront a Turkish sea-grab for energy resources in the Mediterranean. But with the US conducting only limited diplomacy – often behind the scenes and with the Pentagon, State Department and CIA at cross purposes – there is a decreased US role on these major issues and thus more likelihood of conflict in the region.
For instance, United States Central Command, or CENTCOM, has commented recently on the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the US State Department and Treasury are focused on Iran sanctions. But on larger issues there isn’t robust and consistent Washington-based approaches to these various conflicts.
US policy-makers even seem to disagree on which side to support, with some Obama-era officials preferring Iran, some leaning more toward Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood and others influenced by either Qatar or Saudi Arabia or being more pro-Israel. This leads to local countries trying to read the US approach and capitalize on it for their own interests. Most are then surprised when the US doesn’t do more on Libya.
For instance, Turkey’s president called Trump last week, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to his Russian counterpart about Libya. But it appears that US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien also hinted the US is more sympathetic to France on the Libya issue.
So which is it? Will the US work with Russia, Turkey or France on Libya? No one knows, and therefore, all the regional powers must make their own way, potentially escalating the situation.
All of this is happening along with other tensions, such as Egypt’s complaints about a new dam in Ethiopia. The US seems to be absent from that issue as well.
When the US does speak, such as Pompeo condemning pipelines called Nord Stream and Turk Stream on Friday, it isn’t clear if it will follow up on these issues. The US will use sanctions, its usual stick approach, rather than diplomacy to deal with the pipelines. But that’s about it.