Middle Eastern snakes exceed ladders for the US

Obama wasn't challenged over America's plans in Syria and Iran in the election. But conflicts in the region could proliferate in his second term

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President Obama is lucky in his opponents, particularly when it comes to explaining why America's influence is waning in the Middle East. The issue was hardly mentioned in the election, aside from a botched attempt by Mitt Romney to blame the administration for the death of Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and for the burning of the US consulate in Benghazi.

Romney soon steered away from his initial posture of attacking Obama for "apologising for America" and failing to assert US power. He recognised that the one thing the US electorate does not want is another war in the Middle East. By beating the patriotic drum too hard, Romney risked voters remembering that it was the Republicans who, not so long ago, led them into failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a more prosaic level, Romney may have sensed he would be vulnerable on topics he knew nothing about.

This near immunity from effective criticism during the campaign does not mean that Obama is not facing dangers across the region with which he has previously failed to grapple successfully.

Afghanistan is a good example. The "surge", which preoccupied the White House when Obama first took office in 2009, led to an extra 33,000 soldiers being sent to Afghanistan, where they wholly failed to eliminate the Taliban. The remaining 112,000 Nato troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2014, bringing to an end one of the more disastrously unproductive wars in American history. The US and its allies are supposedly training up Afghan security forces to take their place, but so many American and British soldiers have been killed by Afghan soldiers and police that the transition is turning into a debacle.

If the US was ever going to achieve anything like military success over the Taliban, it needed to shut the open border with Pakistan that enabled the insurgents to have a secure rear base. Washington recognised the problem, but failed to do anything effective about it. The regime of Hamid Karzai will have difficulty surviving past 2014, when the Taliban or other players move in to fill the void left behind as the Americans and British move out.

Given what has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it is strange that there are siren voices in the US suggesting it should increase its involvement in the Syrian civil war to tip the balance against Bashar al-Assad. Many critics have given reasons why this is a bad idea, but two important points are seldom made. One is about the nature of anti-government militias: militiamen, be they in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya or Chechnya, may start off as heroic fighters for freedom and democracy. But these unpaid irregulars, unless restrained by the tightest discipline, tend to become local warlords or criminal gangs and batten on the population. I remember how, in Chechnya in 1999-2001, local people came to hate the insurgent bands, whom they once would have died for, even more than the Russians. The same happened in Baghdad in 2006-07 and in Libya over the past year.

In Syria, people are beginning to say, echoing what was said in similar conflicts, that "the fighters say they are dying for the people, but it is the people who are dying for the fighters". Jihadi or Islamic fundamentalists make fanatical and effective soldiers, but their unrestrained violence alienates the people they claim to be protecting. This is what led to the Sunni tribal revolt in alliance with US troops against al-Qa'ida in Iraq.

These developments are bad news for greater US military support for the "moderate" Syrian militia that will supposedly be strengthened by an increased flow of US arms and equipment.

There is a second point that is seldom considered. Suppose the Assad government does fall, this is meant to be a damaging blow for Iran, deprived of its one Arab ally. It is meant also to weaken Hezbollah, the Shia guerrilla movement in Lebanon. Both these things might happen. But keep in mind that the Assad regime is most likely to be succeeded by general anarchy in Syria, or at best a weak government. Going by the experience of Iraq and Lebanon, the Iranians and Hezbollah are better than the US at fishing in troubled waters. Complicated situations are ideal for exploitation by the Iranians, with their taste for devious political games.

Could Israel bamboozle the US into joining it in an attack on Iran? I have always thought it likely that the Israelis are bluffing. Forever being on the verge of attacking Iran suits them nicely, giving them much leverage in a world that wants to prevent such a war. Israeli threats have provoked devastating economic sanctions against Iran and marginalised the Palestinians as an issue. But an actual military attack is unlikely to achieve much and would probably provoke Iran into building a nuclear device. Tales of how it was only the Israeli chief of staff and the head of Mossad who have prevented such a war being launched in the past serves Benjamin Netanyahu's purposes well, by making his threat of imminent Israeli air strikes more credible.

For the moment, the Middle East and west Asia is probably a good place for the US and other foreign powers to keep out of. Libya is a recent example of what can go wrong. Up to a few months ago, Washington thought its behind-the-scenes role in Gaddafi's overthrow was a model of foreign intervention. It forgot that the war effort by the rebel militia brigades was something of a propaganda sham, the real war being fought by Nato air power. But, come the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi on 11 September this year, the local CIA detachment was reportedly pleading in vain to local militiamen to come to their aid.

The new political map of the Middle East has more snakes than ladders for the US, but it is not that there are no ladders at all. Obama was swift to abandon Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia during the first days of the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the ruling AKP in Turkey do not want a confrontation with the US while they seek to Islamise their societies. They need to deprive their domestic opponents of any prospect of US backing. With so many conflicts cross-infecting each other, we may be entering an era of conflicts in the region exceeding anything seen since the 1960s.

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