Secretary of State John Kerry’s Mideast trip this week has been a lesson in the limits of U.S. power and the difficulty of telling friend from foe in a land where alliances can shift as readily as desert sands.
Shortly after Kerry tried to promote cooperation among Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite politicians in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who’s long enjoyed American support, rejected calls to step aside and clear a path toward a more inclusive government.
A day before he met Kerry, the president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, told CNN that the time may have come for the region to break with Baghdad and pursue independence. In their talks, Barzani was noncommittal in response to Kerry’s urging that he desist, according to a U.S. official who spoke anonymously because the discussions were private.
The U.S. has “very little leverage” with key figures in Iraq, including Maliki, said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington. “It is not just a question of credibility, it’s a question of commitment.”
The lack of leverage was evident elsewhere, as well. Less than 24 hours after Kerry appealed to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to relax his crackdown on civil liberties, an Egyptian court sentenced three Al Jazeera English journalists to at least seven years in prison for endangering national security by reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood. Then El-Sisi rebuffed U.S. calls to pardon the journalists.
Kerry has met with similar frustrations in his efforts to negotiate an end to Syria’s civil war and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry announced today that his special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, is returning to his previous post at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Indyk’s deputy, Frank Lowenstein, was named acting special envoy.
Kerry’s travel to the region has been the latest test of how effective the Obama administration can be in trying to quell the region’s turmoil.
It also has tested whether Arab leaders are capable of meeting the challenge posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, an al-Qaeda offshoot, and other radical groups in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. Finally, it’s put the U.S. in the uncomfortable position of fighting Sunni jihadists alongside longtime foe Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Obama once said must “step aside.”
Reflecting that discomfort, Kerry met yesterday in Paris with his counterparts from Sunni Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan and added a stop today in Jeddah, where he met with Saudi King Abdullah and the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba.
Kerry at least will be able to point to a White House announcement yesterday that Obama is asking Congress for $500 million to arm and train vetted Syrian rebels. The U.S. has been providing humanitarian aid and non-lethal military supplies, along with running a small covert CIA program to train selected rebels.
U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained for three years by Obama’s limited support for the Syrian rebels, who are largely Sunnis, fighting the Iran-backed government of Assad, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Analysts such as Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said that “Obama has particularly little influence” after he decided against ordering U.S. airstrikes to support the Syrian opposition.
Until yesterday, Obama had said he was wary of being drawn into the Syrian civil war and unsure that U.S. help would make much difference. In remarks June 19, he suggested one problem was how to support rebels who are “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists” fighting a “battle-hardened regime.”
As the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, Abdullah is the most influential Sunni leader, and the kingdom has helped arm Sunni rebels in Syria. Further, an unknown amount of Saudi individuals’ money has supported Sunni extremist groups such as ISIL and the Nusra Front in Syria, though the Saudi government has tried to block those funds because of the threat such groups pose to the kingdom.
One immediate challenge that remains for Kerry is to get Saudi buy-in for U.S. airstrikes against ISIL, a problem compounded by the reality that some Sunni tribesmen who don’t share the radicals’ ideology are nonetheless fighting with the extremists to oust Maliki.
It’s not clear whether the Saudis favor working with the U.S. to encourage Iraq’s Sunni tribes to turn against ISIL or “prioritize the short-term opportunity to destabilize the Maliki government,” said Colin Kahl, director of the Middle East Security Program at Center for New American Security in Washington.
“I can guarantee that Washington is pushing the Saudis to do the former, not the latter, and in fact emphasizing that the latter is a road to nowhere and a road to complete disaster,” he said in a phone briefing for reporters.
Maliki’s intransigence, however, remains an obstacle to prying the tribes away from ISIL, repelling ISIL and keeping the country united.
While the U.S. has armed and trained the Iraqi military since invading the country in 2003, Maliki has purged Sunnis and put Shiite loyalists in power, a practice he accelerated after the last American troops left Iraq at the end of 2011.
Itani cited Maliki’s support from predominantly Shiite Iran, which is providing military advisers, supplies and intelligence, as well as supporting Shiite militia forces.
“Maliki recognizes that the Iranians are much more committed to a specific outcome in Iraq than the United States currently is,” Itani said. “That disparity of commitment ultimately means that the party that cares about it more ultimately gets its way and Maliki, being a wily political operator, understands that.”
The U.S. is now deploying a small number of U.S. special operations forces in Iraq to assess the capabilities of the Iraqi military and gather intelligence that could used to target airstrikes. Still, officials have said that any strikes would be helpful only to the extent that there’s an inclusive Iraqi government that can win the confidence of Sunnis and Kurds.
“At this point, it is not going to be easy,” said Jim Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “The country is heading toward a split-up,” and Obama is right not to commit to military action without an inclusive government, he said.
A lot is beyond U.S. control, and that “is not Kerry’s fault,” said Jeffrey.