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US mystifying position on Iraq, Lebanon protests

Nov 05,2019 - Last updated at Nov 05,2019

Anti-government protests reached a critical climax this weekend in Iraq and Lebanon, and on Monday they marked a fresh drive in popular uprisings that have rattled the ruling political classes for weeks in both countries and beyond. For now, there seems to be no end in sight to the all-encompassing, largely leaderless and defiant movements despite the success in bringing down Saad Hariri’s sectarian-based government in Lebanon, and the declaration by Iraqi Premier Adel Abdel Mahdi of his readiness to resign once a successor is named. Nothing that the ruling classes in both countries have offered so far has mollified the protestors.

There are two crucial external components that are relevant to the ongoing uprisings in the two countries. One is the serious and unprecedented challenge to Iran’s influence and hegemony in Iraq and Lebanon, directly and through its proxies, and the second is the Trump’s administration’s apparent complacency in reacting to a seismic regional event.

Tehran’s reaction has been predictable. The regime, which has for decades employed its resources to spread its revolution and extend its regional grip, is now facing an across-the-board popular backlash. Nothing underlines this more than the scenes of angry anti-Iranian Shiite protestors in Karbala and Najaf this weekend. Similarly, Lebanese Shiites have joined others from all sects and regions in calling for the downfall of the ruling class and an end to the quota-based political system that has crippled successive governments and provided a fertile ground for massive corruption and rampant cronyism.

But while paying lip-service to the protestors’ demands in Iraq and Lebanon, the US has stopped short of putting pressure on the Baghdad political elite to adopt genuine and structural reforms that would not only undercut Tehran’s influence, but also put the failing country on the road to recovery. Even more astonishing was the Trump White House’s decision last week to freeze all military aid to the Lebanese army, including a package worth $105 million that both the State Department and Congress approved in September.

This decision, against the recommendations of both the State and Defence Departments, plays directly into the hands of Iran, Hizbollah, terror groups and even Russia. Of all the political players in Lebanon today, the Lebanese army is the only multi-sectarian and functional organ in an otherwise polarised political landscape. During the past weeks, the army showed constraint and refused to be dragged into a bloody confrontation with the protestors. As the country goes into a state of paralysis, the Lebanese army, trusted by all Lebanese, can and should play a major role in guaranteeing a peaceful transition out of the current impasse.

It is, therefore, puzzling that the Trump administration would seek to weaken the only neutral and credible force today in Lebanon. Putting pressure on the Lebanese army will not force it to take sides, especially in confronting Hizbollah, as Israel and some hawkish Washington strategists are hoping.

The only way out of the current predicament is for the Lebanese factions to work out a political road map that will deliver on the people’s demands of a non-sectarian, democratic and transparent system.

In Iraq, Washington has both military and political sway, not to mention a moral obligation to rid the country it invaded in 2003 of the ills of an ethno-confessional system that has proven catastrophic for Iraqis on all fronts. But it should tread carefully, applying soft pressure on all players in order to push for a new political deal that is supported by the people. In both cases, it is the people who now challenge the political elite and, by extension, Iranian intervention.

Doing nothing in Iraq in the hope that the revolt will break Tehran’s grip over Iraq is a dangerous ploy that could throw the entire country into an endless sectarian war.

The cases of Iraq and Lebanon underline the messy approach by the Trump administration to complex regional issues. The sudden US withdrawal from northern Syria was whimsical at best; leaving Turkey to carry out what could have turned out to be a bloody invasion of northern Syria if it was not for Moscow’s stern intervention. US troops abandoned bases only to return to them days later and Trump’s flip-flopping over his goals in Syria, now he says he will stay there to protect the oil fields, has left both allies and foes wondering what his next step will be.

If the United States is serious about abandoning the Middle East, as President Trump has insinuated on more than one occasion, then it should do it slowly, smartly and in coordination with regional and other world powers. It cannot claim to want to undercut Iran’s regional outreach while adopting erratic policies that deliver the opposite result. Leaving a weakened and polarised region to its fate will create a dangerous vacuum; one that Russia and China, not to mention Turkey and Iran, will be more than happy to fill.  


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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