The Jordan king's harsh criticism of US foreign policy in Syria underscores the coalition's opposing interests
January 11 was a bad day at the office for King Abdullah II. The king of Jordan had just been stood up by the president of the US, although he met Vice President Joe Biden, and there was one more appointment for him in Washington - an off-the-record briefing with senior members of Congress. He decided to put the boot in.
Abdullah shredded America’s policy in Syria: where did America stand, the king wanted to know. Did the US want to get rid of the Islamic State or just Assad? Didn’t the US realise the Cold War was over and that they were in the middle of the Third World War, in which Christians, Muslims and Jews were fighting the khawarej, the outlaws? “The US should ask itself why did ISIL (the Islamic State group) get to where it is now,” he said. “This is unacceptable.”
This was not the first time Abdullah has complained about Obama behind his back. According to Jeffrey Goldberg who interviewed the president for The Atlantic, Obama pulled Abdullah aside at a NATO summit in Wales in 2014, saying he had heard the king had complained about his leadership to the US Congress and if he had complaints he should address them directly to him.
The king later denied he had made derogatory comments to Congress in 2014, but then he also denied the comments he was recorded making this January. Denial is becoming a way of life for the king.
Abdullah went on to claim Turkey was behind the region’s problems with radical Islam. Radicalisation, he claimed, was made in Turkey. It was no accident that Islamic State militants kept turning up in Europe. It was Turkey’s policy to export them. It got its hands slapped by the West, but Europe did not do anything about it. Furthermore, Turkey was buying oil from the Islamic State.
Why? Because, in the king’s view, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “supported a radical Islamic solution to the region”. Jordan’s problem with Turkey was strategic and global. What was Turkey doing in Somalia, the king wanted to know.
It was surely not wise, even among friends, for the king to attack an ally needed by a debt- and refugee-laden Jordan. The revelations about the January visit to Washington broke just before a two-day official visit to Amman by the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu this week.
So, why did Abdullah do it? For whom was he speaking?
Attacks on Turkey, as the power behind the IS throne, have been made before. Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah strongman and security adviser to Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, made similar claims to a NATO-linked think-tank, the Atlantic Treaty Association in Brussels.
Dahlan accused the West of hypocrisy in its ugliest form. He said: “OK, terrorism reached Europe. But how did it get there? No one is saying. OK, world oil trade, and the whole of Europe knows who is trading and with whom, with Turkey. Yet, you remain silent. Had this sort of trade been conducted with Egypt, with whom you have no interest and whose political regime you dislike, you would have waged a political war.”
He went on: “The entire movement of terrorism in Syria came through Turkey. And you know this. But you are not bothered. Because you have political interest. Or I have no explanation why this is happening. I am not against Turkey. But I am against not exposing the facts of those who are not confronting ISIS, those who are providing it with financial facilities, trading in oil with it or smuggling weapons to it.”
Dahlan then made an overtly ideological point about religion and politics in a Muslim country. He described his new home, the United Arab Emirates (a country that tortures and imprisons its opposition, funds military coups in Egypt, interventions in Libya and assassinations in Tunisia) as an oasis of liberal behaviour. It has churches, mosques and beaches. “There is development and there is care for the people. Therefore, yes, if we want to build a future, we must use a successful model.”
Both Abdullah and Dahlan attacked Turkey not just as an alleged financier and arms supplier for Islamic State, but also as an alternative political model to autocracies like Jordan or the UAE.
Turkey, Jordan and the Emirates are all supposed to be on the same side in Syria, part of a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia. But neither Abdullah nor the Emiratis treat this coalition as anything more than rhetorical. In his briefing to Congress Abdullah admitted that Jordan only joined this coalition because it was “non-binding”.
Non-binding is an understatement. As far as I can see, they are all fighting different wars in Syria. Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt are happy for Assad to stay, as long as Syria suppresses its Arab Spring. The last thing the king wants is for its northern neighbour to hold real elections, form coalition governments and share power and wealth. Turkey - which negotiated with Assad for eight months in an attempt to persuade him to accept political reforms - the Saudis and Qatar either tolerate or support Islamist militas among the rebel Free Syrian Army in the hope that given free elections, they can be wooed away from the al-Qaeda-affiliated fringe.
A rather more cohesive coalition is opposed to both factions. This consists of Assad, Russia and Iran, who are all fighting for the same thing - the continuation of the regime. Putin sees Syria through the prism of the insurgencies in Chechnya, Dagestan and Tajikistan, and feels betrayed by the assurances given to Russia over Libya. Barack Obama has given up on Syria, as he has on the Middle East in general. In his interview with The Atlantic, Obama regards his decision not to bomb Assad after the chemical attack as a moment of liberation from the Washington foreign policy playbook and calls Libya “a shit show” after the ouster of Gadafi.
Goldberg wrote: “Libya proved to him that the Middle East was best avoided.”
“There is no way we should commit to governing the Middle East and North Africa,” Obama recently told a former colleague from the Senate. “That would be a basic, fundamental mistake.”
The betting is that neither the pro-Assad coalition nor the Saudi-backed one will prevail in Syria. The likeliest outcome of a ceasefire is a Syria permanently fragmented into sectarian statelets in the way Iraq was after the US invasion.
This could be regarded as the least worst option for foreign powers meddling in Syria. Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt will have stopped this dangerous thing called regime change. Saudi will have stopped Iran and Hezbollah. Russia will have its naval base and retain a foothold in the Middle East. Assad will survive in a shrunken sectarian state. The Kurds will have their enclave in the north. America will walk away once more from the region.
There is just one loser in all this - Syria itself. Five million Syrians will become permanent exiles. Justice, self-determination, liberation from autocracy will be kicked into the long grass.
The history of the region has lessons for foreign powers. It proves that fragmentation only leads to further chaos. The region needs reconciliation, common projects and stability as never before. That will not come from creating sectarian enclaves backed by foreign powers.
The Islamic State is a distraction from the real struggle of the region, which is liberation from dictatorship and the birth of real democratic movements. IS is not a justification for the strong men. It is a product of their resistance to change. History did not start in 2011 and it won’t stop now. The revolutions of 2011 were empowered by decades of misrule. There is a reason why millions of Arab rose - peacefully at first - against their rulers and that reason still exists today.
As long as there is no real democratic solution in the Middle East, the Islamic State group will continue to mutate like a pathogen that has become antibiotic-resistant in the body politic of the Middle East. Each time it changes shape, it will become more virulent.
The struggle, conflict and the chaos will continue until the peoples of the region manage to break their shackles and rediscover the spirit of Tahrir square. By that time, the likes of Abdullah, Mohamed bin Zayed, Sisi and Dahlan will be long gone.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Jordan's King Abdullah and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AFP)