The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been reading between the lines of the American-Russian relation. He has been walking a tightrope, because he is aware of the implications of the scramble ahead of any maturation of cordiality between the man in the White House and the man in the Kremlin. But despite all his caution, he still fell victim to an American veto against the nomination of former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad as envoy to Libya, as the secretary general wanted despite the non reservation by the US State Department at first.
That astonishing move gave the UN a clear idea about what the Trump administration intends to do at the international organization. The move was astonishing for many reasons. First, a superpower objected to the appointment of a qualified person for the sole reason that he is Palestinian, in disregard of a fundamental American idea about equal opportunities for all. Fayyad also worked for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, with US and European support, and commands international and even Israeli respect. Thus the Trump administration appeared reckless and prone to turning its back on moderates and friends. Guterres quickly withdrew Fayyad’s name because he had no choice, but made his frustration with the US clear during his Gulf tour that took him to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Oman before heading to Egypt.
On Iran, Guterres understands it is best to wait and see and not go over the White Houses, which is in the process of reassessing relations with the Islamic Republic. Otherwise, he would face censure and obstruction. This is interesting because former secretary general Ban Ki-moon had closely trailed the US on relations with Iran, while the new UN chief is set to closely watch what will transpire with America’s relations with Iran and Russia to calibrate his next moves. For this reason perhaps, Gutteres renewed the term of undersecretary Jeffrey Feltman, an American, for another year, bearing in mind that Russia is determined for the post to go next to a Russian choice.
Everyone is waiting for the development of American-Russian relations, especially in the wake of Michael Flynn’s sacking. Flynn was very close to Moscow and Putin himself. His departure is a blow to Russia, but another blow could come when Congress interrogates Flynn and new investigations are launched into alleged Russian meddling in US elections.
The US intelligence community are up in arms about these abuses, especially since members of the Trump administration are deliberately belittling the intelligence agencies. True, revealing what Flynn had hidden from the vice president was not the work of the CIA or FBI, but the intelligence community appears relieved that the new president and his administration have been prevented from making any moves that threaten national interests as set by the long-standing establishment and not the newly elected administration and its friends in Wall Street.
Moscow is aware of the gravity of these developments. What happened was not marginal. It was an omen that could pull the brakes on any unwise and premature conclusion that the grand bargain sought by Putin is ready and needs only Trump to sign on the dotted line. Yet until an agreement is reached over this grand bargain, there are many issues through which trust can be built, and the European, Arab, and Middle Eastern parties can contribute.
The issue of Ukraine could be more complicated than Libya or even Syria, given its position along the NATO-Russian faultline. But Libya itself s a candidate for cooperation between Russia, the US, and European states, as well as Egypt and the GCC. Libya, remember, is a victim of Western reluctance to help rebuild the state, even though it was NATO that toppled the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, stretching the mandate of a UN Security Council resolution that had been endorsed by Moscow. At the time, Moscow protested and accused NATO and some Arab countries of insultingly misleading Russia, which is one of the reasons the Kremlin has sought vindication in Syria.
Russia today appears closely involved in the Libyan issue, which interests Moscow on two main counts: terrorism, which it wants to eliminate in the Libyan source; and oil. The Trump administration is too ready to pounce on the terror dens, especially if this can be done without using any US forces. Europe, as usual, is mainly keen to have a stake in Libya’s oil and gas, contrary to what former French President Sarkozy and his arrogant philosopher Bernard Henri Levy had claimed, that the goal was to liberate the Libyans from tyranny. Egypt is also keen to play a role in Libya, but the Gulf countries, which are directly involved in Libya, appear more focused on Yemen and on forging special ties with the new US administration. In short, should the necessary political will become available, the Libyan issue is a good candidate for multilateral accords.
Lebanon was until recently the focal point of regional and international consensus and optimism. But the optimism has since receded, after President Michel Aoun defended Hezbollah’s armaments and role as an entity parallel to the Lebanese Armed Forces under the pretext of “resistance”. The divorce between Iran and America after the honeymoon between them under Obama has implications in Lebanon. Intra-Palestinian conflicts are undermining security, and the border with Syria remains risky and exposed to terror groups. Yet all this can be contained if the key capitals take radical decisions to prevent war in Lebanon. This also requires local decisions that are up to the level of responsibility, beginning with the president. Lebanon needs intensive care before it is too late, but it is also a candidate for international accords.
Iran has a big say in shaping any decisions on Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. The tension in American-Iranian relations may appear advantageous to the Gulf countries, which have welcomed the change under Trump. However, this does not mean automatically that the Iranian tentacles will be pulled out of these countries. Iran has a long-term project that is hard to contain or tackle, as long as the United States is opposed to a military option against Iran. Yet it’s not impossible, if Washington resolved to see this through, and it will be easier if Moscow lends a helping hand in Syria.
The expected intransigence in Israeli positions not just on Iran but also Palestine will be the ammunition that Iran has been waiting for, since Iran has always used the Palestinian issue as a weapon. In this context, the European countries can play important roles if they insist on opposing settlements and on defending the dying two-state solution.
The two-state solution has died at the hands of Israel, which rejects it in principle despite agreeing to it verbally. This week, Donald Trump said what everyone has known is true, instead of flogging a dead horse. Perhaps this could be useful, because it helps everyone stop pretending. However, this also marks a new American position, abandoning the commitment to a two-state solution. Meanwhile, Trump’s remarks about one state requires a lot of clarification. Indeed, a truly democratic one state means equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis and the end of military occupation. However, one state that is exclusively Jewish implies the deportation of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories to Jordan, which Israel wants to become the alternative homeland of the Palestinians. If Trump wants this, then he must tell King Abdullah of Jordan that he will renege on promises of respecting Jordan’s sovereignty.
The Gulf countries may wait before deciding to protest. But they must seek explanations, to avoid appearing as though they have decided to put enmity with Iran ahead of loyalty to Palestine.
If Trump is truly intent to effect a qualitative shift in the Palestinian-Israeli issue with the help of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, then he must quickly explain what he means by abandoning the two-state solution and the one-state as he envisions it. Otherwise, he risks undermining the task of his son in law, and alienating moderates in the Islamic countries, whom he needs to fight radicalism and terror.
Syria remains the gaping wound. There is no clear roadmap yet for what comes after the declaration of the redline with Iran, and American-Russian relations are hitting more difficulties than expected. The last thing Trump needs therefore, is to kick a ball into the air, loaded with poisonous nails.