Page 2 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Middle East turns a deaf ear to the US
By Dilip Hiro
These days, despite the repeated US complaints and requests, the Maliki government continues to allow Iranian arms to be sent overland and through its air space to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In late August, during the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, Iraq even declared that it wouldn't allow its airspace to be used for military strikes on Syria.
The diminishing 'coalition of the willing'
In a controversial New York Times op-ed on September 11, Russian President Putin wrote of President Obama's plan to launch a military strike against Damascus, "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts has become commonplace for the United States... Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as
relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan, 'you're either with us or against us'."
Only days earlier, however, President Obama had failed to form a "coalition of the willing" on the Syrian issue at the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg, managing to rally only 10 members. Those who opposed military strikes against Syria without a UN Security Council mandate included the five-strong BRICS powers - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa - along with Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, and Argentina.
A week earlier, the British parliament defeated a motion to join a US-led operation against Syria. With the British "poodle" slipping Washington's leash - an unprecedented act in recent memory - Obama was lost.
In desperation, he turned to the US Congress, where, thousands of miles from the Greater Middle East, only a minority tuned in. Responding to the overwhelming sentiments of their constituents and opinion polls showing that remarkably few Americans believed an attack on Syria in national interest, the lawmakers started lining up to give Obama a resounding thumbs-down. It was only then, after an offhand remark by his Secretary of State John Kerry was taken up by Moscow, that Obama went on television and accepted the outlines of Putin's proposed plan for Syria's chemical weapons.
Landmark deal underscores US decline
Undoubtedly, the Syrian deal struck in Geneva between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov favored the Kremlin. It put any American attack firmly on the back burner. It brought the UN Security Council, earlier skirted by the Obama White House, center-stage as the primary agency to implement and supervise the deal. In the process, it underscored the continuing influence of Russia as a permanent member of the council with a veto.
Moscow also managed to spare the Bashar al-Assad regime the degradation of its military capabilities that would have resulted from the Pentagon's strikes. In so doing, it enabled the Syrian leader to maintain the current battlefield superiority of his forces. Overall, the Syrian rebels and Washington were unmitigated losers. Among other losers were Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan.
On the opposite side of the equation were Iran and the military rulers of Egypt, albeit for diametrically contrary reasons. For Tehran, a Syria governed by Assad, a member of the Allawite sub-sect within Shi'ite Islam, is a linchpin in the axis of resistance against Israel. For the generals in Cairo, the demon is the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Syrian branch is the foremost foe of Assad.
Having overthrown Mohammad Morsi, the first democratically elected ruler in Egypt's long history, the generals are now busily attempting to eradicate the Brotherhood itself, the oldest political party in the region. Following their July 3 coup, the generals were reassured when Obama, though perturbed by their actions, meticulously avoided using that word "coup", which would have resulted in a suspension of aid as mandated by the US Foreign Assistance Act. In contrast, his administration did suspend aid to the African state of Mali in March 2012 when, in a bloodless coup, the military toppled democratically elected president Amadou Toure.
If Obama was having second thoughts on his Egyptian policy, "marathon phone calls" from Jerusalem evidently ensured that no significant action would be taken against the military junta.
Israel's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, and National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror engaged their American counterparts - Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Susan Rice - in telephone conversations urging them not to freeze the $1.3 billion in military aid to the post-Morsi regime.
To the delight of the generals in Cairo, Israel's lobbying continued unabated in Washington. Among others, Michael B Oren, Israel's ambassador in Washington, argued forcefully for an uninterrupted flow of US aid. "Israel has been waging an almost desperate diplomatic battle in Washington," wrote Alex Fishman, a leading Israeli columnist, in Yediot Aharonot on August 25. That was just 10 days after Egypt's Interior Ministry troops had massacred nearly 1,000 Brotherhood supporters while clearing two protest sites in Cairo where pro-Morsi partisans had been staging peaceful open air sit-ins.
Obama responded by saying, "Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back". But all he did was to cancel an upcoming annual joint military exercise with Egypt.
The evident impotence of Washington before yet another client state with an economy in freefall was highlighted by the revelation that since the ouster of Morsi, Secretary of Defense Hagel had 15 telephone conversations with Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the coup leader, pleading with him to "change course" - but in vain - a repeat of Washington's experience with Karzai, the Pakistani leaders, and Assad.
The threat that Washington might cut-off its military aid to Egypt was promptly countered by its long-standing ally in the region: Saudi Arabia. In a gesture of undisguised defiance of US wishes, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal pledged publicly that his country would fill any financial gaps left if the US and the European Union withdrew aid to Cairo. With Riyadh's budget surplus of US$103 billion last year, his words carried weight.
Within a week of the coup in Cairo, the three oil-rich states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates - each dependent on the Pentagon for its external security - poured $12 billion into the bankrupt Egyptian treasury. In this way, these autocratic monarchies encouraged the military junta to defy Washington's pleas for a return to democracy.
Launching a blitz of jingoistic propaganda and pumping up Egyptian xenophobia, the generals have gone beyond thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam. They have even concocted wild theories about how Washington has colluded with the Muslim Brotherhood. These are now being assiduously peddled through the state-controlled media and its compliant private sector counterpart.
In late August, for instance, the state-owned newspaper, Al Ahram, citing "security sources", published a sensational front-page story by its editor-in-chief Abdel Nasser Salama. It claimed the authorities had foiled a plot involving US Ambassador Anne Patterson, Brotherhood leader Kharat El Shater (by then under arrest), "37 terrorists", and 200 Gaza-based jihadists to infiltrate the Sinai Peninsula through clandestine tunnels between the two territories, and create chaos. This was to be a preamble to isolating Upper Egypt and declaring it independent of Cairo.
In response, Ambassador Patterson did no more than send a note of protest to Salama. Such stories have become grist for the Egyptian rumor mill and are transforming fantasies into facts in the popular psyche.
At the turn of the century, who could have imagined that barely a decade later an official mouthpiece for an emergent military dictator in Egypt, a client state of Uncle Sam for a quarter of a century, would have the audacity to malign Washington in this way while its generous aid package continued to flow in uninterrupted? If you need a marker for the waning of American power in the Greater Middle East, look no further.
Dilip Hiro a TomDispatch regular, has written 34 books, including After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World. His latest book is A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East (Interlink Publishing Group).