US pivot to Africa should be responsive to the Gulf crisis

the United States has focused on eliminating ISIS and other terrorist organizations to the exclusion of much more significant state-actor threats.

SUDAN’S PRESIDENT Omar Al Bashir arrives to address the nation during its 62nd Independence Day celebrations at the Palace in Khartoum last month. (photo credit: MOHAMED NURELDIN/REUTERS)
SUDAN’S PRESIDENT Omar Al Bashir arrives to address the nation during its 62nd Independence Day celebrations at the Palace in Khartoum last month.
The recent hot mic incident involving Egyptian intelligence trying to persuade TV audiences that Ramallah would not make a bad capital for a future state of Palestine echoes a similar recent allegation concerning the Saudis. Both stories resulted in perfunctory denials and finger-wagging from the officials in those countries. Whether the issue is that Israel, following Dr. Mordechai Kedar’s advice, is finally negotiating from a position of strength, and is backed by a more favorable US administration, or whether the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are simply more pragmatic, the reality is that wider geopolitical concerns are taking center stage and have been for some time.
That anyone in the US is still surprised by this turn of the events is largely the fault of Western media’s poor coverage of the biggest plot twist of the recent few years – the fact that Africa, as a continent, is now central to US allies, her adversaries, and to the US itself, despite the Trump’s administration short-sighted foreign policy. Just as with Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, the Trump administration is focusing all its attention on joint counter-terrorism operations against Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Islamic State (ISIS) and others, while ignoring the much more dangerous state actors fueling local terrorist organizations as a distraction from the greater game being played.
Egypt and Sudan may be on the brink of war over land disputes; some of these issues have been festering for years. However, Turkey, already with a base and significant influence in Somalia is adding fuel to the fire: it has just concluded an agreement with Sudan taking over a formerly Ottoman island, where Turkey is to set up additional military bases, while also stationing forces in Qatar, much to the consternation of Egypt and the Saudis; furthermore, Turkey recently concluded 21 defense treaties with Sudan. Qatar is to assist in the effort.
Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, seeking to increase influence after the Trump administration lifted sanctions in October 2017, is finding a surprising new ally in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as Qatar. Furthermore, Egypt’s transfer of two islands to Saudi Arabia is now coming into dispute by Sudan, which is impecunious and is benefiting from Turkish and Qatari financial infusions. Egypt had joined the Gulf State blockade of Qatar earlier this year.
As Saudi Arabia is struggling to retain its influence along the Horn of Africa, Iran and Qatar are challenging that hold. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi influence through mosques and religious centers is starting to wane; Iran has been successful in supporting Shi’ite militias in Western Africa and beyond. Saudi Arabia is currently distracted with other anti-Iran efforts and military campaigns in multiple Middle East locations, and may be losing its grasp in Africa for good.
Morocco, having recently rejoined the African Union, may be showing signs of leadership in displacing Saudi Arabia in that regard, as it seeks to train imams from all over Africa in Maaliki tradition, and the more tolerant expression of it prevalent to Morocco, as well as to develop stronger relationships in Western Africa. However, for now, the situation looks dire.
The US and France, both present in Western Africa, are distracted by increasing tactical missions against Sunni terrorist organizations; there has been no focus on addressing the Shi’ite threat and the state sponsorship of them. Iran and Qatar look to further destabilize an already sensitive Ethiopia-Eritrea situation; Iran has had a strategic alliance in Eritrea based in Somalian irredentist threat and an unresolved Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute, Eritrea’s actions which ran counter to US counter-terrorism policy in Somalia, and the George W. Bush administration bungling the Ethiopia-Eritrea-Somalia tension.
Bush’s policy failure resulted in an inadvertent isolation of Eritrea, a power vacuum and an easy path for Iran to move in. Eritrea now provides a maritime route for Iran to Syria, a friendly port of call, and general support of assorted strategic interests and military operations. That West Africa and Eritrea, where Iran is more successful at using aid and soft power than Saudi Arabia, are resource rich adds another dimension to the issues. Iran has also been using various African countries for an assortment of clandestine meetings, illicit arms trade, uranium procurement toward its nuclear development, and as recently discovered, recruitment and training of Palestinian terrorists, as in South Africa.
Recent economic and political protests in Iran have kept the US distracted from other Iranian and Qatari activity, while the two actors, in cahoots with Turkey, have been utilizing the Western preoccupation with the uprising and possibility of a counterrevolution to make significant geopolitical gains abroad. Despite the seeming instability in Iran, the government felt confident enough to open all border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan; Iraq’s importation of Kirkuk oil into Iran is coming up at the end of January.
Iran is not acting like a power on a verge of falling, or even on significantly destabilized. Why? Because these protests turned out to be a significant opportunity for Iran. For anyone watching the regime’s manipulation of the Iranian people for decades, it should come as no surprise that the regime would be well informed about the level of dissatisfaction inside the country. That the regime would instigate the protests, and then allow them to continue at no real threat to its own base, for as long as necessary while conducting illicit operations elsewhere, is much easier to believe than the naive idea that the Islamic Republic lacks the resources to put down the rallies of largely unarmed people whenever it feels the need to do so. The Kurdish, Ahvazi, Baluchi and other minority group grievances on the periphery are harder to infiltrate or discount; however, these groups also lack the “in” with the central authorities to gain any strategic ground to weaken the regime from inside at the current juncture.
As things stand, the United States has focused on eliminating ISIS and other terrorist organizations to the exclusion of much more significant state-actor threats, to such an extent that it now stands to see allied and potentially allied countries fall to Iran, Qatar, Turkey and Russia one after another. Kirkuk in Iraqi and pro- Iran militia hands is experiencing the return of ISIS, with kidnappings, explosions and other attacks happening on a daily basis, as it is becoming further destabilized and Kurds continue to remain isolated economically from the world, excepting Turkey.
Turkey has become exceptionally close to Iran, and continues to facilitate terrorism, along with Qatar. Destabilization is clearing the path for these countries to fill the power vacuum; the world naively expects Saudi Arabia to somehow put out simultaneous powers all over the Middle East and Africa armed with nothing but an air force, while the Western media contributes to potential destabilization inside the country itself by lambasting the Crown Prince, while defending the Iran deal and offering endless second chances to “reformers.”
The administration makes costless statements of support to protesters, but takes no steps toward pushing back at Iran strategically. This disastrous policy will cost the US dearly; the question is not whether US relationships with its allies will deteriorate, but whether, unless it starts countering the egregious bellicose actions by Iran, Qatar and Turkey in Africa, as well as everywhere else, it will have any allies left 10 years from now.
The writer is a human rights and national security attorney based in New York, who has written about geopolitics, the Middle East, and US foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli and international publications.