'No viable alternatives' to US alliance in the Middle East, says Joel Rayburn

Arab-American relations are in a bad state after Washington took an 'almost hostile' position towards the Gulf, former senior official says

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 4, 2021.  United States Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn will travel to the United Arab Emirates and Jordan from January 4 - 7 for discussions with government and civil society leaders, as well as US implementing partners, on the situation in Syria.
Victor Besa/The National
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Journalist:  Ahmed Maher
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The US must remain the strongest partner to the Middle East by repairing ties with regional allies, according to former US senior official Joel Rayburn.

The retired army officer and former adviser to General Petraeus in Iraq and Afghanistan called on the US to reverse the perception that Washington is disengaging from its historic role and reach out to allies that have started to drift away.

“There’s no viable alternative for Middle Eastern countries to an alliance with the United States,” he told The National. “And they may not know that yet.”

Mr Rayburn, who was a senior National Security Council official on the Middle East during the Trump administration, was appointed US Special Envoy to Syria from 2018 to 2021.

In those years American support for the Gulf countries had culminated in the Abraham Accords between Arab states and Israel, US air strikes and sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its proxies, and the Caesar Act sanctions against Syria’s Assad regime.

Rayburn described the Biden administration as taking an “almost hostile” position towards the Gulf by declaring it would make Saudi Arabia an “international pariah”, and seek to re-engage with Iran to revive the nuclear deal – at the expense of putting pressure on Assad and Iranian proxies.

“They continually declared their intention to disengage strategically from the Middle East,” he said. “There's only so much disengagement that you can declare before your partners and allies start recalculating.”

Speaking to The National about US-Gulf relations, which he believes are the only hope for peace and prosperity in the region, he said that “the great bulk of the blame is at the feet of the US”.

His comments come as Gulf countries seek alternatives to US support for resolving the region’s conflicts.

Chinese-brokered peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran were announced in March, and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has been re-admitted to the Arab League after a decade.

For Mr Rayburn, these moves are the consequence of the US’s declared disengagement from the region. “The Gulf countries are hedging against their long-standing traditional alliances with the United States,” he said.

Saudi Minister of State and National Security Adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban meets the Iranian Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani in Beijing. Reuters

But both moves were misguided, he added. He said the Chinese involvement in the peace talks makes “a regional war more likely” as it removes the deterrents on Iran afforded by the Abraham Accords – which saw normalisation between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel.

“The Iranian regime believes it has neutralised the Gulf Arabs via China,” he said. "It has broken that emerging Gulf-Arab and Israeli front against Iran, to leave Israel strategically isolated again.

“That makes the Iranian regime more likely to take provocative steps against Israel.”

This is largely because the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran was “one-sided”, according to Rayburn. “It is provoked by the Iranian regime, the Saudis are on the defensive. The idea that the Chinese are going to shield the Saudis from that is fantastical. It’s not going to work.”

China’s interest was not just in ensuring a stable energy supply in the region, he said, stating: “Their larger aim is to try to expel American influence and military presence from the Gulf region.”

Mr Rayburn fears the rise of a “political ideology” within the Democratic party and the one-sided interpretation of conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon “leads them to view the Yemen war as some sort of Saudi aggression, as opposed to the IRGC’s proxy war against Saudi Arabia and the Emirates,” he said.

This led to a “failure to respond to the IRGC and Houthi provocations” against the Saudis and the Emirates, including after the 2022 attack on three oil tanker trucks in Abu Dhabi.

The effects of their Middle East policies, he added, were visible beyond the Gulf region.

“If you look at the US relationship with our major traditional allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, there’s really serious tension in a way that hurts American interests,” he said.

Recent normalisation efforts by Arab states with the Assad regime have further raised tensions with the US.

US lawmakers have been critical of the Arab normalisation efforts with the Assad regime. Congress passed a bill to combat normalisation with the Assad regime in May, just days before the Syrian President was re-admitted into the Arab League. The new bill would prohibit any US government from diplomacy with Assad.

Asked whether the legislation was directed at the Syrian regime, or more indirectly to the Gulf countries, Rayburn said: “It’s meant to discourage economic normalisation. It means that anyone who wants to trade with Assad is vulnerable to sanctions apart from protected categories.”

Pressed as to whether the US had been too soft on Assad during the civil war and the years preceding it, Rayburn conceded that pressure on the Syrian leader had been “meagre” – but only until 2018.

Between 2018 and 2020, he insisted, the US put “major” pressure on the regime, which included two air strikes on the Syrian regime and the passing of the Caesar Act in 2019, which enabled wide-reaching sanctions.

Since 2021, the Biden administration has all but reversed these policies as it sought to re-engage with Iran in efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal. “They were reluctant to pressure the Assad regime because they judged that it would make getting back to a deal with Iran more difficult,” he said.

This echoed the Obama administration’s handling of the conflict in Syria, where the Iran nuclear deal was prioritised at the expense of Syrian civilians, he said. “They went back to the mode of 2013 to 2016. The Syrians paid the price again.”

The effects of re-engagement with Iran had wide-reaching implications for Syria he said: “The [Biden administration] stopped meeting with the Small Group on Syria, a diplomatic forum that sought the advancement of the UN-sponsored political process, in 2021.”

He added: “While they kept the rhetorical goal of seeing a political resolution to the conflict, they stopped the actions and the planning that would require, particularly with our allies, to bring about.”

These new developments have left the Syrian opposition with limited options. “They should really get behind this US legislation. It’s the best chance for reversing the normalisation trend and putting pressure back on the Assad regime,” he said.

War crimes investigations in Europe, he added, needed more Syrian opposition support to help steer European policy on Assad. “European policy is affected by the rule of law. If they can continue to make inroads in the European criminal justice system, it will have a very significant impact on Europe's political posture towards the Assad regime,” he said.

The opposition should also learn to “live without Assad.” Syrian refugees still need to go through official channels to get travel documents and register important education and medical records. “It keeps them tethered to the regime as an authority,” he said.

He proposed the creation of an international agency that would allow Syrian expatriates to access important documents without recourse to the Assad regime that “would be done under UN auspices.”

“It wouldn't be perfect, but it would be so much better than what the Syrians are having to suffer through now,” he said.

After nearly three decades of work in the Middle East, Rayburn’s key takeaway was the importance of clearly communicating US policy in the region. “The number one job of US representatives is to clarify American intentions every day, all day long. Because if we don't, they will either be misinterpreted or an adversary will miss characterise them,” he said.

He recalled an incident in 2006 in Iraq, when he was stationed in Nineveh under then-Colonel HR McMaster. Their unit was being replaced with another unit, which arrived wearing different uniforms. “A rumour had been started by our enemies, saying: ‘You see those guys with the green pixel uniforms? Those are Israelis, the Americans are giving Iraq to the Israelis,” he recalled.

“Most of the time, we're on the losing end of the disinformation battle that we don't even understand is going on,” he said.

Yet recent social changes in the region made him optimistic for the future. “There’s a modernisation movement going on. Saudi society is just changing in such a huge way,” he said, “It’s going to have a signal effect on Iran. The Iranian regime is ageing out – they’re living under their last Supreme Leader and dictator.”

Updated: June 05, 2023, 4:54 PM