Pompeo carves out new US alliance system in Middle East
Following the historic agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the region to ensure the stability of U.S. interests. In addition to the UAE, he visited Israel, Sudan, Bahrain and Oman. During the trip, the U.S. also criticized Turkey for hosting Hamas leaders, whom the U.S. and Israel view as terrorists. The U.S. message appears to be that a new alliance system is forming in the region, with the UAE and Israel at its core and Washington’s backing.
This may be part of a wider U.S. strategy to shore up allies in the Middle East and confront China and Russia in the long term.
For decades, the U.S. system of alliances in the Middle East was generally rooted in support for Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Islamic Republic has been a major adversary of America’s foreign policy. More recently, Israel achieved unique status as the sole country in the region to receive the advanced F-35 aircraft from the U.S., and it has received unparalleled support from the Trump administration.
President Trump also reversed the Obama administration’s 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which had begun to thaw relations with Iran. Turkey, once a close U.S. ally, is becoming increasingly hostile, buying Russia’s S-400 air defense systems and threatening Israel, Greece and other countries. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain have broken relations with Qatar, leaving a schism in the Gulf among countries where the U.S. has key bases.
All this may seem complicated, but the end result is relatively simple: There are now three alliance systems in the Middle East. One consists of Iran and militias and states in which it operates, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, militias in Iraq and the embattled Syrian government in Damascus. Turkey and Qatar represent a second alliance system, rooted in support for groups such as Hamas and the Government of the National Accord in Libya. The third alliance is the one Pompeo helped to push by meeting with Israel, the UAE and Bahrain during his recent trip.
Since Israel historically didn’t even have relations with Abu Dhabi, one might wonder, “How can this be an alliance?” The answer is, “Because of growing shared interests.”
One shared interest is confronting Turkey at sea. Turkey was among the region’s countries most hostile to the UAE-Israel deal, threatening to cut relations with Abu Dhabi. In January, Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed an oil pipeline deal; Turkey and Libya, meanwhile, have signed a deal in which Turkey claims exploration rights to the Mediterranean that bisect the potential pipeline. In May, France, Greece, Cyprus and the UAE condemned Turkey’s aggressive stance in the Mediterranean. As Turkey sent warships off the coast of Greece, the Greeks and Egyptians agreed to work together at sea. The UAE sent F-16s to Greece for joint exercises, and Turkey announced military drills at sea.
Such confrontations at sea link the UAE, Greece, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus and likely will include some European partners. Turkey is largely going it alone, but has been pushing boundaries by harassing and threatening Greece. Turkey’s role in Libya also angers Egypt, just as its hosting of Hamas angers Israel.
The second frontier of cooperation for Israel, the U.S. and UAE (and their allies) regards Iran. A harsh critic of the UAE, Iran last year used drones and cruise missiles to attack neighboring Saudi Arabia, which is backing the Yemen government along with the UAE in Yemen’s civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Pompeo’s recent visit helped chart a course for the new alliance. His stops in Sudan and Oman were designed to cultivate those countries as well, so that they are not enticed by Iranian, Turkish, Russian or Chinese influence. The U.S. is concerned about Chinese and Russian inroads in the Middle East. This is not a priority for U.S. allies, who tend to view Moscow and Beijing more amicably. However, the more the U.S. can show that it is standing with its Middle East friends, the less likely they are to be open to other global powers.
Many challenges lie ahead for the Israel-UAE-U.S. alliance, which shares interests across the region with Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The growing consensus between these states regarding threats from Turkey and Iran, and the wider U.S. goal of reducing Chinese and Russian influence, represent a transformation of the region that could dominate the next decade and become historic change.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.