What to make of the remarks by US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley at a special session of the UN Security Council, where 14 council members criticized the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, that she could assure her “Palestinian brothers and sisters … with complete confidence that the United States is deeply committed to achieving a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” because, she said, “the United States has credibility with both sides.”
The mismatch of words and deeds is beyond puzzling, unless a deal is in the works that is until now unknown to world and regional leaders, reporters and analysts. The Palestinian permanent representative to the UN responded to Haley that “the US decision disqualifies its leadership role to seek peace in the region.” Thomas Friedman described the US decision on Jerusalem as the “art of the giveaway.”
The Trump administration may have, inadvertently, sparked the catalyst for a long-lost Arab unity on Palestinian issues, placing them back on the front burner of the Arab League. Hard-liners across the region have a tail wind. Iran’s “resistance” tack may make sense to the Arab and Islamic “street”; the Saudi and United Arab Emirates love-in with the Trump administration, in contrast, will face tough scrutiny and questions in cabs and coffee houses across the Muslim world. The White House did its friends no favors on this one. Jordan, in particular, is on the front lines of the fallout, which will build over coming months.
The US decision can be seen as part of a broader trend of an opting out of regional diplomacy. No one expects much from the peace initiative led by Trump son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner, particularly now. US diplomatic levers are receding fast, and not just on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The United States has also opted out diplomatically in Syria, leaving the field to Russia, Iran and Turkey. Syria’s future is being brokered by the Syria “big three” in Astana, Kazakhstan and Sochi, Russia, not Geneva. US ties with Russia and Iran go from bad to worse, and US-Turkey ties remain in crisis. Instead of a diplomatic pivot to capitalize on the US-led defeat of the Islamic State, the American plan for Syria is instead to maintain a troop presence in Syria to train, advise and assist “local forces” in support of security and stabilization, while giving mostly lip service to the Geneva process, in effect abdicating a leadership role and leaving US troops exposed in eastern Syria in an open-ended and vague commitment.
In this context, forget about US hopes to exploit alleged divisions between Iran and Russia. Maxim Suchkov explains the limits and extent of Iran-Russia ties, rightly pointing out that trust is minimal. But Moscow and Tehran are meeting and working on the issues. The United States, with its current posture toward both states, is ill-positioned to exploit any such differences, let alone shape post-conflict Syria, except at the margins.
The absence of a US diplomatic initiative and levers is taking Washington out of the regional calculus, and allowing leadership roles for Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose interventions are increasingly central to Middle East diplomacy.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country is opposed to the US decision on Jerusalem, may be especially exposed by the turn of events. The kingdom also came in for US criticism on other matters. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Dec. 8 that “with respect to Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Qatar, how they’re handling the Yemen war that they’re engaged in, the Lebanon situation, I think we would encourage them to be a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful in those actions, to I think fully consider the consequences.”
Whether these comments are the sign of an emerging distance and more open criticism with one of the administration’s closest allies, or a parting shot and warning by Tillerson (whose departure from the administration, according to press reports, may be imminent), the events of the past week signal a possible rethink by Riyadh of its own regional policies, the consequences of which have led to only frustration and failure.
Aoun hedges on Hariri
Saad Hariri is staying on as Lebanon’s prime minister. The whole bizarre episode in which he was summoned by the Saudi crown prince, held in Riyadh and forced to resign on live TV, requiring the intervention of Macron to secure Hariri’s safe passage out of the kingdom, is now to be filed away as “history” as the prime minister takes his rightful and constitutional place as head of the Lebanese government. Also to be forgotten is the death threat that supposedly factored in his decision to resign, and similarly animated his previous exile from Lebanon until his return last year.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun views his partnership with Hariri as vital to the country’s short-term stability, including holding parliamentary elections as scheduled in May. The question is whether Aoun’s banking on Hariri proves a house of cards. Aoun’s standing by Hariri has been the right move for asserting Lebanese sovereignty, but it has also given the prime minister a lease on life after the crown prince-induced debacle. Hariri’s resurrection until now is due to the good offices of Macron and Tillerson. Aoun’s gamble may be masking an eventual, and perhaps necessary, reckoning with other competing forces in Lebanon to rebuild the March 14 coalition.
Hariri has benefited from the passionate loyalties to his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was murdered in 2005 by forces reportedly aligned with the Syrian government and Hezbollah. This, and Saudi largesse, has allowed him to keep his lock on March 14, even as an array of Sunni leaders have emerged to stake a claim for leadership. By sticking with Hariri, Aoun risks alienating a Sunni political class and constituency that may be feeling exploited at a time of weakness.
The better bet for Aoun, and Lebanon, might be to open up the political process, to prevent the perception that the president and his allies are seeking to exploit Hariri’s weakness. Perhaps Hariri can resurrect his political fortunes and rebuild his party around a new, stronger coalition; if so, he and the other contenders would have to work for it. Whoever emerges the victor, whether Hariri or someone else, comes out stronger. Either way, March 14, the ruling coalition, and the Lebanese people will benefit. This column has documented a new dynamic Lebanese pulse calling for an independent post-sectarian course. After the fiasco of the past month, a more open and transparent political process should be part of the necessary healing.