Listen carefully in Washington and you’ll hear the sound of a coming war in the Middle East.
“We must stop Iran and we will stop Iran,” declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday at the American Israeli Political Action Committee’s annual conference in Washington. Amid thunderous ovation, the prime minister said that “darkness is descending on our region,” adding that “Iran is building an aggressive empire.”
Coming from the man who told Americans in 2002, ”If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region,” Netanyahu’s judgment about what the U.S. should do in the Middle East is defective, if not deceitful.
Yet the Trump administration has embraced him, even as he faces corruption charges at home.
Since the New Year, Trump has pledged to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, thrilling Netanyahu and alienating almost every country in the world. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has given a speech hyping the alleged menace of Iran’s ballistic missile program (U.S. allies were not convinced). Israel attacked Syria, and lost a fighter jet for the first time ever. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared the United States “will maintain a military presence in Syria,” where there are four times as many U.S. Special Operations forces as was previously acknowledged.
“We’ve seen this before: a campaign built on the politicization of intelligence and shortsighted policy decisions to make the case for war,” wrote Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell during the runup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The situation is “extremely alarming,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, in an interview. “I hear the increasing sense among officials in the Middle East that the region is on the brink of war. And the more people think war is inevitable, the more likely it becomes.”
Here are seven signs of impending conflict.
1. Up for grabs.
The map of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, drawn in 1917, is now being redrawn a century later, thanks to the destabilizing impact of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“So this is much more than a dispute between two countries or a simple political uprising and demand for democracy,” says Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “This is really a fundamental reorganization of power in the region in a manner that we actually don’t know where the dust will settle.”
When Arabs complain about “Iranian meddling in the region,” Nasr told Frontline,“what they’re essentially saying is that the balance of power between Arabs and Iranians has been lost, not — I don’t think actually because the Iranians are doing any more, but because the Arabs have imploded,” he says.
Nasr points out that two of the most important Arab states, Syria and Iraq—the equivalent of Germany and France in Europe—barely exist as the nation-states they were in the year 2000. Today their governments only control their capital cities and their own ethnic sectarian constituencies.
By contrast, Persian Iran, while it has a terrible human rights record and confronts popular domestic protests, is not at war or losing territory. Its allies dominate the government in Iraq, while in Syria, Iranian-backed forces have prevailed over ISIS and other fundamentalist militias funded by the Saudis.
2. Saudi-Israeli alliance.
The relative success of Iran since the U.S. invasion of Iraq alarms and unifies Saudi Arabia and Israel. The former is rich; the latter has the region’s most powerful military. Together they are seeking to bring the United States into conflict with their mutual enemy, Iran.
“The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] are superior in every way to Iran’s army but they cannot overthrow the Iranian regime,” Wilkerson said in an interview with AlterNet. “Only the Americans can do that. So they want to get the Americans involved.”
Parsi agrees. The Israelis and the Saudis don’t want to start a war,” he said. “They want to spark something where the U.S. intervenes.”
3. Israel is mobilizing Congress.
The AIPAC conference in Washington was only one aspect of the Israeli campaign to persuade Washington war is inevitable. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) visited Israel last month and came away saying the chances of war are growing.
“Any time you leave a meeting where the major request is ‘ammunition, ammunition, ammunition,’ that’s probably not good,” Graham told reporters upon his return.
“This was the most unnerving trip I’ve had in a while,” he added.
Nonetheless, Graham and Coons both said the U.S. should support Israeli plans to confront Iranian influence in Syria.
4. ‘Silent surge.’
Trump has militarized U.S. foreign policy generally, noted Colin Kahl, foreign policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump has mounted a “silent surge of troops & drone strikes across the globe,” Kahl tweets.
The Middle East Research and Information Project notes that:
“The United States has quietly increased the number of troops in the Middle East by 33 percent and there are plans for an ‘enduring presence’ in both Iraq and Syria. More troops and yet another supposedly new strategy are being deployed for the endless war in Afghanistan. US soldiers are fanning out across an archipelago of bases in Africa to conduct what they call ‘train, advise and assist’ missions with nearly 1,000 soldiers in Niger. In Somalia the numbers are also climbing: Troop levels are the highest since the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in 1993. The United States has even flown the flag in Europe, as 4,000 soldiers landed in Poland to demonstrate an ‘iron-clad commitment’ to NATO allies. Elsewhere, U.S. support for the Saudi-UAE bombing campaign on Yemen is drawing the United States deeper into that ongoing civil war…”
Militarized policy will lead to pursuit of military solutions, of which the U.S. has achieved none in the region since the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.
5. Diplomacy deficit.
The gutting of the State Department means that the Trump administration has lost the capacity to negotiate with other countries, whether they are friendly or hostile. In this vacuum, Vladimir Putin is emerging as the region’s diplomatic kingmaker.
Next month Russian, Turkish and Iranian diplomats will hold a summit on the future of the region, where U.S. policy is controlled by military commanders, not diplomats. The Trump administration has no capacity to translate its battlefield position into political gains, even if it wanted to. Which it doesn’t.
6. U.S. journalists enlist.
About the only Trump action approved by his liberal critics was the cruise missile attack last April on an isolated Russian air base in response to reports of a chemical weapons attack.
Once again, liberal interventionists in the press are warming to Trump’s desire to use force in Syria.
“It’s time for another red line,” say the editors at Bloomberg.“Trump should tell Assad and his Russian backers that any more proved use of any chemical weapon, including chlorine, will be met with even greater retaliation than what happened in April. It certainly won’t end the fighting, in Eastern Ghouta or across the country, but it may take away one of Assad’s most unconscionable methods of terrifying his citizens.”
The Washington Post advocates a “firm response” to Russia and Syria’s brutal attacks on civilian populations.
How more war in Syria will protect or advance any vital U.S. interest is not part of the editorial debate.
7. Jared lives.
As Israel and Saudi Arabia seek to isolate Iran, they have learned they don’t necessarily have to persuade the State Department, the Defense Department or the National Security Council of their preferred policies. They just need to wait for the president’s son-in-law to visit—which he did three times in 2017.
“They learned the U.S. inter-agency process can be sidestepped by one phone call to Jared Kushner or the president,” Parsi said. “They believe they have the capacity to manipulate Trump.”
So far, they’re right.