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America’s Catch-22 diplomacy, when friends are also adversaries

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The United States has “calculations against Turkey and Iran and maybe Russia,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his political party on Feb. 6. It was the latest harsh criticism of the United States that Ankara has made in the first six weeks of 2018. Erdogan accused the United States of training a terror army in Syria. Yet U.S. Secretary of State James Mattis consistently calls Turkey a NATO ally.

This illustrates the problem that Washington faces in Turkey and with several other key allies: how to balance traditional alliances with the changing tectonics of the Middle East. In Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Qatar the Trump administration faces the prospect of enabling alliances that adversaries, such as Iran or Russia, also benefit from. This presents a Catch-22. If the United States seeks to reduce its relationships with these countries, then they will threaten to grow closer to Moscow or Tehran.

{mosads}For many years, as U.S. interests have expanded in the Middle East, they have tended to try to support conflicting agendas. For example, Palestinian terrorist Ali Hassan Salameh was an enemy of Israel but had close relationships with the United States in Lebanon until his assassination in 1979. “A grateful CIA took him to Florida’s Disney World,” recounted a 1983 New York Times review of the book, “The Quest for the Red Prince.” In Lebanon today, the United States has a different problem. It wants to empower the central government and the Lebanese military without also supporting Hezbollah, which is a part of the Lebanese government.


In July 2017, President Trump said Lebanon was “on the front lines in the fight against ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah,” during a news conference with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In October, Congress “took direct aim at the Lebanese government, a major U.S. counterterrorism partner, for its continued cooperation with Hezbollah,” Foreign Policy noted. This month, the administration imposed sanctions on six Hezbollah members.

There is no evidence the Janus-faced Lebanese administration will change. Millions of U.S. aid dollars pour into the Lebanese army’s coffers and Hezbollah continues to undermine Lebanon. In January, Ayatollah Sayyed Ebrahim Raisi, a powerful Iranian leader, toured the Lebanese-Israeli border and threatened to “liberate” Jerusalem. Washington has no policy to counter the Catch-22. Lebanon is hostage to Hezbollah.

Another U.S. adversary who visited Lebanon in December 2017 was Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shia militia in Iraq. Khazali once was a prisoner of the United States in Iraq at Camp Cropper. In 2015, however, his militia became a component of the Popular Mobilization Forces fighting ISIS. Many of these militias once fought the United States, and some of their leaders were considered terrorists. However, in 2016 they became an official paramilitary force of the Iraqi government, even though they continued to threaten the United States in Iraq.

In a contentious meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last October, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed the PMU “should be encouraged because they will be the hope of the country and the region.” This presents another Catch-22. The United States wants to empower Abadi in the wake of the defeat of ISIS. As U.S.-led coalition forces are withdrawn, the stability of Iraq is gambled on relying upon Baghdad’s strength. Yet the PMU are deeply entwined with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, from where its senior leaders began their career.

The United States must walk a tightrope in Iraq because Abadi has made it clear any pressure to disband the Iranian-backed militias is unacceptable. At the same time, the presence of the sectarian militias in Sunni areas alienates the areas that fell to ISIS in 2014. It also alienated the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. Any U.S. equipment transferred to Iraq as part of the train-and-equip program must be closely monitored to make sure it doesn’t end up in the hands of Tehran sympathizers.

In Qatar, the United States faces a more opaque problem. In 2015, David A. Weinberg of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies concluded that Qatar was one of several U.S. allies that could be characterized as “frenemies” when it comes to terror finance. This issue came to a head in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia and four other countries cut relations with Qatar and angled for U.S. support. Instead, Mattis and Tillerson worked with Doha to form a strategic dialogue whose inaugural meeting took place in January. The United States wants to continue using Qatar for CENTCOM’s Al-Udeid base. But there are other concerns with Doha because it has grown increasingly close to Tehran and Ankara, and inked a deal with Russia on air defense last October.

In four cases, there are countries that want it both ways — to be key U.S. allies but to also work with U.S. adversaries, even undermining U.S. interests and threatening Washington or associating with those who do. When Washington balks, each country threatens to develop closer relations with Tehran or Moscow. But each is drifting away from the U.S. orbit anyway.

The challenge in 2018 is for the Trump administration to make it clear that there are consequences for this. If it begs countries to come in from the cold, it risks starting a cycle of threats and begging. Russia has gained favor with Middle Eastern countries through projecting strength and standing with allies. The United States must not sacrifice its allies, such as its partners in eastern Syria, and it should stand by its existing friends such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Kurds in northern Iraq.

Seth Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is a research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the IDC Herzliya.

Tags Donald Trump Hezbollah Iran–Israel proxy conflict Iraqi Civil War Iraqi insurgency Islam Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant James Mattis Lebanese nationalism Politics of Syria Popular Mobilization Forces Rex Tillerson Rex Tillerson Terrorism

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