In the wake of the interim deal that the White House signed with Iran Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said on the Sunday talk shows that nothing has changed, not with the American position in the Middle East, or with the U.S. alliance system in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is screaming his head off, but Israel has nothing to worry about says Kerry. “Israel and the United States absolutely share the same goal here. There is no daylight between us.”
In reality, the deal implicitly acknowledging Tehran’s right to enrich uranium puts the White House and its regional partners, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, in opposing camps. In order to protect his deal with the Iranians, Obama will have to clamp down on these American allies, an action that Iran may well see as signaling carte blanche to pursuse its various regional interests, particularly in Syria. In order to protect their own interests, Jerusalem and Riyadh may have no choice but to put as much daylight as possible between themselves and the White House.
The interim deal makes official what Obama has long been pursuing—a strategic realignment integrating Iran into a multipolar Middle East, where once traditional American allies will no longer enjoy a privileged relationship with Washington. The signs pointing to Obama’s new configuration, downgrading Saudi Arabia and Israel and upgrading Iran, have long been apparent, if incredible. For instance, when Obama backed off on striking Bashar al-Assad and instead signed on to a Russian initiative to rid the Syrian despot of his chemical weapons, the president not only angered U.S. Arab allies, but turned against them and partnered instead with Assad and Putin. When Obama announced at the U.N. General Assembly in September that negotiations with Iran were an administration priority, he not only turned Iranian president Hassan Rouhani into a partner, but also sheltered Iran from any potential Israeli attack. In short, Obama switched sides.
However, it is only in the last few days with reports of secret U.S.-Iran talks conducted behind the backs of U.S. allies that we understand to what extent Obama abandoned the traditional regional order. Again, it’s useful to consider the White House’s Syria policy, not least because this has been Tehran’s key battleground for the last two and a half years. Accordingly, Obama saw Syria not in terms of how the outcome might affect traditional allies, but primarily in light of how it might affect his negotiations with Iran.
If some administration officials believed Obama seemed “impatient or disengaged” during deliberations on Syria policy, that’s only evidence that they hadn’t been clued in yet regarding the White House’s secret Iran talks. Discussions about arming the Syrian rebels or striking Assad were irrelevant because Obama’s mind had been made up long before. Similarly, it’s now clear that the so-called “walk-and-talk” in the Rose Garden where Obama ostensibly changed his mind after bouncing ideas off of White House chief of staff Denis McDonough was nothing but a clever piece of stagecraft out of The West Wing. There was never any chance Obama was going to strike Assad because he feared that targeting an Iranian ally, one in whom Tehran had invested men, weapons and money to ensure his survival, might anger his negotiating partner.
The cartoon above is from the Great Game era in Central Asia, when the British and Russians were in a contest for places like Afghanistan and Iran. It's strongly (perhaps perversely) suggestive given current events.
Lebanese authorities have arrested two suspects affiliated with a pro-Syrian regime group in the bombing of two Sunni mosques in Tripoli on Friday. Forty-seven people were killed in the attack in the northern Lebanese city, likely retaliation for a bombing the previous week in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, that killed another 27.
Even with all eyes turned toward Egypt and the increasingly violent rifts pulling that society apart, the region’s active civil war in Syria burns on. Last Thursday, the two-and-a half-year-long conflict touched neighboring Lebanon, again, when a bomb detonated in the Hezbollah-held southern suburbs of Beirut killing 27 people and wounding hundreds.
For over a week now, the Syrian town of Qusayr in Homs Province has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the two-year conflict. The struggle for Qusayr, says besieged President Bashar al-Assad, “is the main battle” in all of Syria.
CNN reports this evening that there have been Israeli airstrikes on Syria:
"Two U.S. officials are telling CNN that the U.S. believes Israel has conducted an airstrike into Syria," CNN reports. "Western intelligence agencies are reviewing classified data and they say they believe Israel conducted the strike today or late yesterday."
Eight years ago today, February 14, 2005, former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, along with 22 others, when a massive explosive detonated as his motorcade drove past Beirut’s St. George Hotel.
Yesterday the Bulgarian government announced the results of its investigation into the July 18, 2012 bus bombing that killed 5 Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver in the city of Burgas. At least two members of what appears to have been a three-man team belong to Hezbollah. More specifically, explained Bulgaria’s interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, they were part of Hezbollah’s “military wing”—a peculiar turn of phrase that hints at the political implications of the Bulgarian investigation, which may have a major impact on European Union foreign policy as well as Hezbollah’s ability to operate on the continent. And yet the most serious repercussions may be felt inside Lebanon, where Hezbollah is already feeling the pressure.
Last week THE WEEKLY STANDARD published my article, “Smugglers Galore: How Iran Arms its Proxies.” It seems that part of it may have found its way onto the reading list of Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah.
NBC’s Middle East correspondent Richard Engel was released yesterday after being held for five days in Syria. When his kidnappers came to a rebel checkpoint, they were engaged in a firefight with a Free Syrian Army unit that allowed Engel and his colleagues to go free. NBC’s statement said he was taken by an “unknown group,” but Engel himself said he has a “very good idea” that the kidnappers are members of the shabbiha.
This morning, the State Department designated former Lebanese parliament member, and longtime ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Michel Samaha as a specially designated global terrorist. Treasury also designated Samaha for “undermining Lebanon’s democratic processes or institutions, contributing to the breakdown of the rule of law in Lebanon, supporting the reassertion of Syrian control or otherwise contributing to Syrian interference in Lebanon, or infringing upon or undermining Lebanese sovereignty.”
Soon after 9/11, Michael Totten abandoned a profitable career as a technical writer and started a blog that took him throughout the Middle East, including Iraq which he visited seven times from 2006 to 2009. He also lived in Lebanon in parts of 2005 and 2006 in the middle of the Cedar Revolution, where I first met him.
To many Lebanese, the massive car bomb attack in Beirut on Friday that killed the Sunni Muslim head of internal security Wissam al Hassan and seven others evoked the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.
Yesterday a car bomb in Beirut killed a senior Lebanese security chief along with seven others, while wounding hundreds in Ashrafiyeh, a busy neighborhood in Christian-majority East Beirut. The target, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, was close to former prime minister Saad Hariri and his late father, Rafik Hariri. Yesterday evening, Hariri supporters, mostly Sunnis, closed down roads and burned tires in protest against the assassins, almost certainly tied to the Syrian regime and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah.