International Donors Conference on the Sahel, Much Ado…Will It Make a Difference


According to a number of reports, more than 60 delegations and 14 partner countries gathered in Brussels last month to put meat on the bones of the G5 Sahel force set up in 2017 to enable Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad build their military capabilities to conduct anti-terrorism operations in their countries and along their borders. There were also discussions concerning the need for social and economic development to address underlying local issues that feed dissatisfaction and instability.

The meeting was co-hosted by the EU, the UN, the African Union (AU), and the G5 under the auspices of Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou. Pledges were made totaling some $509 million for the joint force’s operating budget. Issoufou pointed out that it would only support the first year’s operations and that subsequent annual budgets of $150 million would be needed. France also announced that it would increase its contributions to development and government assistance to the region to more than $1.5 billion over the next five years.

As a post in Euractiv explained, “The aim of the military force is to drive out terrorist groups, smugglers, and organized criminal gangs that are taking advantage of the weakness of the state in certain areas of the region. It is a critical region since poverty, climate change, and the collapse of the Libyan state have turned it into an ideal breeding ground for all sorts of smuggling and could also be a haven for Daesh fighters fleeing Syria.”

Given this complexity, among concerns expressed by several delegations were “There is also a risk that an overly securitized approach could squeeze out equally necessary work on governance, justice, and the protection of local populations,” according to ECFR coverage.

In order to address concerns regarding the appropriate use of the funding, the G5 has set up a fiduciary fund for donations, and the EU now has set up a “coordination hub” for channeling international donations to aggregated and disburse funds within the GF effort. Hopefully, this will “help alleviate the risk already posed by so many international actors intervening in the Sahel, ideally avoiding duplication of efforts and wasted investments,” the article noted.

Coordination of both military and development efforts poses a tricky balancing act for the EU and G5 countries as the EU wants the G5 with intimate local knowledge to play the lead role in developing the military interventions while ensuring that support and assistance are channeled to projects that will best benefit at-risk populations and not exacerbate discrimination against local groups.

Unfortunately, the military situation continues to deteriorate. Attacks by jihadist groups aimed at French and G5 forces, often abetted by locals, have increased; and security operations by the joint forces sometimes agitate local civilians and have created refugee situations in some cases. It has been mentioned that as G5 operations continue, “The tactical need to work with “friendly” local armed actors could end up further destabilizing local security arrangements in the name of combating terrorism.”

This makes it even more imperative that the EU Training Mission (EUTM) and security sector reform in the G5 countries proceed apace, that the rights of minorities are protected, and that development assistance is effectively targeted. As Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs remarked, “This isn’t only about security but also about development. Because there can be no real conditions for security without social and economic development, such as opportunities for young people and women in the region.”

The Euractiv post listed that “France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, the EU, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the UNDP have announced that the Sahel Alliance will collect a total of $7.4 billion to finance development projects for the next five years. These funds will go towards the 500 projects that will be set up in the countries of the G5 Sahel, and will be based on six main areas: employment for young people, rural development, food security, energy and climate, governance, decentralization, and access to basic services and security.”

Concerns with a balanced, coordinated strategy were also emphasized in a Devex post noting that Mogherini made the point that the EU had invested more than $9.8 billion in the Sahel in the past seven years. Yet, Friederike Röder, director of ONE France, was skeptical of the durability of the commitments. “It’s great to hear announcements for more investment into development in the Sahel, but we need to ensure that the primary objective of this funding is the eradication of extreme poverty and not controlling migration or military objectives,” she said.

Achieving positive results in the next few years will take more than infusions of money. Reliable coordination and collaboration across the spectrum of military and development programs can only be built on commitments to transparency, effective communications, transnational cooperation, and consensus that is a rare commodity in the region. With the Sahel still liable to increased infiltration by outside militants and jihadists, and the existing unstable political environment, it will take leadership that embodies a long-range vision of building states out of insecure territories based on tribal alliances.

Russia Benefits from Lack of US Leadership in the Levant

One can argue that America’s absent leadership from the quagmire of Libya to the ongoing shame of civilian casualties in Syria, through to border tensions between Lebanon and Hezbollah and Syria, to the gradual erosion of Iraq’s sovereignty, is a strategic choice by the Trump Administration, in some ways mirroring the Obama posture of light-handed engagement in the region. When one throws in the downturn with Turkey, the weaknesses of our overtures with Egypt and the GCC, and the absence of depth of State Department experts dealing with this convulsive part of the world, then Trump’s genius may be that letting Russia get bogged down, as it did in Afghanistan, will in the long run be the winning hand…but don’t count on it.

The election this weekend in Russia is seen as potentially significant if there is low voter turnout, indicating to some the unhappiness with Russians with its overseas adventurism. Independent polling being what it is in Russia, we may never be able to analyze the election in depth, but it is quite clear that the Kremlin is concerned that its foreign policies seem reasonable and necessary to protecting the motherland.

As Al Monitor reported, “In the Syrian conflict, the tables have been turning quickly. The sense that things aren’t working out properly is strong in Moscow, with even staunch advocates of Russia’s Syria policies now wary and calling for policy updates. Moscow has been cautious not to take any radical steps before the March 18 election day to dodge possible risks. But Russia’s plans to amend its strategy are underway and will have been implemented once Putin receives his fourth-term mandate.”

What this means in Syria and beyond is not clear as the conflict there is a muddle of competing agendas among regional actors, militias, government forces, and assorted non-state actors seeking to move resolution of the war to their advantage. While some players, such as Russia and Iran, are quite clear about their goals, sway over the Assad government and large slices of the reconstruction pie, others, including Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon’s government, put security at the top of their lists.

It was only three weeks ago that, according to Real Clear, that only a phone call from Russian President Putin to Prime Minister Netanyahu prevented a large-scale Israeli engagement with both Syrian and foreign forces as a “lesson” about Israel’s resolve. In reality, it mirrored the long-standing US role in cautioning Israel to stand down, now it is Russia that “has the ability to limit Israeli freedom of action.”

The article went on to say that “At a minimum, without strong American leadership to deal with the Iranian threat in Syria, Israel must stomach the presence of Russia as a major power. Indeed, Russia offers little help in solving the Israeli security dilemma. After all, Russia’s involvement in Syria enabled the Iranian expansion that presently undermines Israel’s security.”

It is troublesome that Russia has generated its own arms race in Syria, going beyond what Hezbollah has amassed from Iran in Lebanon, including advanced surface-to-air missile systems and stealth aircraft. This last engagement made it clear that Israel must think twice before continuing its overflights over Syrian territory. As the article indicates, it is even more worrisome that “Russia has only a marginal interest in limiting Iranian expansion along the Golan, as evidenced by multiple violations and Iranian abuses under Russia’s watch.” Thus while Israel continues to rattle its sabers at Hezbollah in Lebanon, the country with the most to benefit, Iran, continues to collaborate with Russia when its interests are at stake. As the article ruefully concludes, “American cannot cede its leadership role to Russia, particularly while Moscow continues its partnership with Iran.”

With America’s eyes now focused on North Korea, and with the dearth of expertise at the State Department and conflicting signals from the Department of Defense and National Security Council, there does not seem to be any hope of righting the US position any time soon.

So in some ways, if the US was as agile as Russia in influencing elections through social media, there would have been some opportunities for mischief despite the overwhelming odds of Putin’s reelection. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy opined, “While Putin is assured a victory, the Kremlin appears concerned about its longer-term political future, leading it to rely more on military mobilization and anti-Westernism to bolster its domestic legitimacy and slide back to its authoritarian past. This means the Middle East will likely remain an arena for competing with the West and expanding Russian influence.”

Much like President Bush 43 pulled out a victory in the 2010 mid-term elections by calling up fears of impending foreign policy crises, Putin has adopted this strategy to overcome “a deteriorating economy, growing poverty, and little government interest in development…” Despite its weak economic health, Russia, like Iran, expects to be well compensated for its Syrian adventures, and has extended its reach as the dynamic outlier to Turkey and Iran as well.

It is no wonder that almost every Arab head of state has made the pilgrimage to Moscow in the last two years, giving Putin the leverage to keep US interests out of the region. As the article concludes, “Following the election, Moscow will likely treat the Middle East even more as a privileged sphere of influence similar to the post-Soviet space, with an increasingly aggressive, expansionist, and anti-Western posture all but assured.”

Yet Russia lacks control over its convenient “friends” Turkey and Iran that have their own interests that for hundreds of years have resisted Russian encroachment. One possible liability from this strategy is the lack of control that Russia has over the non-state actors, aside from its own, one the fighting in Syria is in remission. “Senior US officials believe that up to 80 percent of the Syrian army is made up of foreign fighters, many of whom are loyal to international forces, including Hezbollah and other Shiite militias with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU),” according to the Middle East Institute.

There are no straight lines given the proliferation of arms, agendas, and alliances of convenience. As David French noted in the National Review, “It’s imperative that the American people understand the risks, understand the administration’s vision, and approach these potential confrontations with their eyes wide open. We should not stumble into war.”

Rome Donors Conference Supports ISF and LAF Security Efforts, Emphasize Importance of Dissociation

 Some 40 countries gathered in Rome last week to hear details of the updated Capabilities Development Plan of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the first-ever strategic plan for the Internal Security Forces (ISF). The key question from the donors was about the government’s intention to take a more active role in extending its security activities to the south, adjacent to the border with Israel.

It is clear to Western governments that significant levels of assistance are required to support Lebanon’s military and security forces and its financial sector to stall and reduce the growing influence of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed military and political force in the country. In addition, it was expected that Lebanon would reiterate its dissociation policy to avoid entanglements in regional disputes and conflicts to preserve its independence and territorial integrity.

The US has been the leading donor, providing some $1.5 billion in materiel, equipment, ammunition, and training over the past decade, most recently another $120 million for border security and counterterrorism operations this past December.

The delegation, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri along with cabinet ministers and military leaders, sought to renew and strengthen ties with foreign governments that according to the Wall Street Journal, “want to counterbalance the growing Iranian presence in the country.

The donor side was led by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini. Both were quite explicit in their support for Lebanon and their expectations. In his opening remarks, the Secretary General said that “Preserving the stability and unity of Lebanon is essential for Lebanon, the region, and the world.”

He went on to say that while “Lebanon is headed in the right direction,” that the government has broader responsibilities. “Stability requires a transparent, accountable, and democratic state, rooted in the rule of law and strong and functional institutions,” he emphasized, urging all to remain strongly and visibly committed to stability in Lebanon – “for the sake of the Lebanese people and for the wider peace that is so essential at this time.”

He also mentioned the importance of the dissociation policy, “At a time of upheaval across the region, Lebanon cannot afford to be drawn into conflict with its neighbors,” he added, underscoring that countries in the region should work to avoid any steps that could lead to misunderstanding, confrontation, or escalation.

He concluded that “To support the Lebanese unity and stability is to support the stability in the whole region and to contribute to diminish the dramatic stress in relation to peace that we are facing today in the world.”

In a joint statement, conference participants said Lebanon should “accelerate effective and durable deployments to the South.” Prime Minister Hariri assured the donors that “We will be sending more LAF troops to the south, and we stress our intention to deploy another regiment,” adding that Israel “remains the primary threat to Lebanon.” While we are thinking of ways to move from a state of cessation of hostilities to a state of permanent ceasefire, Israel continues to make plans to build walls on reservation areas along the blue line,” Hariri said.

The European Union pledged $61.6 million to Lebanon’s security forces, and France is providing a $400 million credit facility for military and security equipment purchases, while the UK pledged an additional $13 million. This package includes $57 million for promoting the rule of law, enhancing security and countering terrorism until 2020, and another $5 million in support of security upgrades and Beirut International Airport.

When Federica Mogherini made the announcement during the Rome meeting, she said that “Lebanon can count on the European Union’s longstanding partnership in facing its current challenges, from humanitarian aid to development cooperation, but also on economy and security. With this new package, the EU reconfirms its support to the Lebanese security sector and the strengthening of Lebanon’s institutions, which are crucial to ensure the stability, security and unity of the country, for the benefit of the Lebanese people and of the entire region.”

The US continues to see Lebanon as a bulwark against the push of extremists in the region, and is strongly committed to Lebanon’s security and capability. While Hezbollah’s role in the country continues to enrage some members of Congress and other pro-Israel partisans in the policy community, the fact remains that without Lebanon and similarly Jordan, the aggravated tensions caused by the Syrian civil war and the resulting refugee crisis would have caused even greater issues of immigration and terrorism in Europe and the US.

The next stop for Lebanon is Paris in April, where Lebanese officials are expected to seek $17 billion in economic support in soft loans to invest in infrastructure and development. Given the expected passage of the national budget this week, despite political infighting that has paralyzed economic decision making, Lebanon can ill afford to stall. At 148%, Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the third-highest in the world, with annual growth projected at around 2% for 2018, not nearly enough to provide even half of the jobs needed by the Lebanese, let alone the refugee populations.

At a conference in Paris in April, Lebanese officials are expected to seek $17 billion in economic support for Beirut, likely in the form of soft loans to invest in infrastructure and development. The tiny Mediterranean nation has been reeling from an influx of Syrian war refugees, while political infighting has paralyzed economic decision making. At 148%, Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the third-highest in the world, with annual growth projected at around 2% for 2018.

Lebanon Needs to Pass 2018 Budget before Paris Donors Conference April 6

Not only is Lebanon’s fiscal health in question as Parliament struggles to pass a new budget, but it can ill-afford to show up at the international donors conference in Paris on April 6 without a strong case for how it will spend funds made available to Lebanon. There are three steps to be taken, starting with approval by the relevant committees, then agreement by the Cabinet and then Parliament. While the initial approvals were completed last week, there is plenty of time for mischief in the Cabinet and Parliament deliberations. Added to this is the challenge of being prepared for the donors conference later in April in Brussels dealing with support to countries hosting Syrian refugees.

The latest news is that the government is likely to approve the budget this week at the latest so that it can be presented, along with its Capital Investment Program at which Lebanon is requesting funding for a 10-year, $16+ billion capital investment program of reforms and incentives aimed at strengthening and accelerating economic growth. The donors summit is dubbed the Paris IV donors conference, which along with summits planned in Rome and Brussels, intend to rally support for building up Lebanon’s and attracting foreign investments to strengthen Lebanon’s economy battered by the consequences of the Syrian refugee crisis and regional unrest.

In a recent comment, the IMF noted that Lebanon’s deficit, already at 150% of GDP, was expected to increase another 10% under the 2018 budget projections, even with planned reforms. The projected deficit of $5.3 billion makes Lebanon one of the three most indebted countries in the world.

A recent statement by Prime Minister Hariri underscored the current negative situation. “It is no secret that the economic situation in Lebanon today is difficult and that we face big challenges. Growth rates are low, unemployment rates have exceeded 30 per cent, poverty rates are increasing, the balance of payments suffers a deficit, public debt is rising at a rapid rate and has exceeded $80 billion and the treasury deficit has reached unsustainable levels.”

Unfortunately, Lebanon’s power-sharing agreement among sectarian parties exacerbates the difficulty in reaching agreement on the budget and recommended reforms as each group seeks to maximize their benefits under the budget while avoiding reforms that would help stabilize the overall economy. Added to the dysfunctional process at the national level are issues such as the battle over who can provide Lebanon with reliable power, when some communities have only 12 hours of electricity a day. Generator owners, tied to different factions, continually block legislation that would allow solar power incentives to help close the gap.

In many ways, the goals of the donors conferences are all interrelated. For example, in 2017, Lebanon spent $10 billion of its funds addressing the Syrian refugee situation in the country, a sum not reimbursed by the donors. According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment, “Lebanon’s national response plan—a joint initiative with the UN to address Lebanon’s challenges related to the Syrian conflict—only received 54 percent of pledged funding in 2015, down to 46 percent in 2016, and 43 percent in 2017.” Some of this, Lebanese officials admit, is due to its lack of organization regarding services to the refugees and supporting local host communities.

So the debate on the national budget carries enormous fiscal consequences beyond allocations for the government, its programs, and its broader responsibilities to the refugees, and regional security. It is an opportunity for Lebanon’s leaders and Parliament to adopt a reform agenda add hopefully make a dent in a system that depends on arguments over assigning benefits by sect rather than the national good.

Another Election in the Middle East – Why It Matters in Lebanon

 Lebanon is bracing for its first parliamentary election since 2009, having extended its term twice since the in the absence of the security and consensus needed to proceed. While no one expects a shake-up in the results based on a new electoral law that may enable newcomers to win several seats, there are strong currents building that may alter future “election results as usual” predictions.

Currently, the Amal-Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement is considered the front-runner to secure the largest number of seats, not a majority, but more than enough to have its veto over any Parliamentary actions. But there are cracks in that alliance as well as the new electoral format does not assure them of all of the seats in districts in which they may have a majority of the population. In some districts, the outcomes will depend on real contests among candidates appealing to voters directly rather than through pre-ordained party lists.

Other variables that will influence the results will be the level of voter enthusiasm for Hezbollah’s continued foreign adventures on behalf of Iran, pressures to include more women candidates, participation by Lebanon’s millennial and independents, and pressure from regional actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As an article in Lawfareblog recently pointed out, “It is not yet clear how much or how little the new law will affect Lebanon’s elections—a robust debate is already underway. Neither is it clear how the foreign powers aligned with various Lebanese political actors will react to significant shifts in Beirut.  What is clear is that the new electoral law—which many Lebanese welcomed enthusiastically—might disrupt almost 9 years of status quo.”

The specter of a war with Israel, as a result of overreach by Hezbollah or Israel also plays on the minds of voters. From Hezbollah’s continued role as a surrogate for Iran in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere to flare-ups due to miscalculations or probing of Israel’s defenses by Iranian-backed forces along the Syria-Israel border, the majority of Lebanese remember all too well the price they paid for Hezbollah’s adventurism in 2006.

Let the Women Speak

Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries that has not made a concerted effort to ensure greater participation of women in Parliament through mandatory allocations of seats or requiring parties to field women candidates.

As Annaharnet wrote recently, “Despite a comparatively free press, different religious groups, and women in high-ranking positions in the corporate world and the job market, Lebanon ranks shockingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have been unsuccessful in acting on a movement to establish a quota for women in parliament.”

When Lebanon’s new government was announced in December 2016, it was criticized for its lack of women members. Even the Minister of State for Women’s Affairs is a man, Jean Oghassabian, such is the reality of balancing the sectarian membership of the government. Yet the Minister has been active in moving forward with promoting the participation of women at all levels of government. “Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament,” he said. In cooperation with the UN and EU, his ministry is working to bring more women into the election process.

On the other end of the spectrum is Rima Fakhry, a senior member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, who told AP in an interview that “the women’s movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions; for them, it is in parliament. We differ with those movements. Hezbollah doesn’t see the role of a lawmaker suitable for a woman in Lebanon. For us, a woman is a woman. She must work to fulfill the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference lies in the details. She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up future generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time.”

Hearing from the Outliers

Among various independent groups and coalitions that are maneuvering to join the election process are those who believe that transparency, an end of nepotism, and a greater emphasis on rule of law, providing services such as waste management, clean water, quality education, and respect for human rights are essential. Politics as usual in Lebanon avoids talking about issues except in very general terms. The lack of political platforms from legacy candidates representing the existing power structure may create vulnerabilities in some districts.

As one analyst remarked, “Elections in Lebanon are not based on a clear scientific, ideological, and political track, as much as being founded on the absence of real awareness, which justifies why several candidates disregard presenting their electoral programs and plans, based on which they will be later held accountable.”

Another electoral expert Abdo Saad asserted that “No candidate or political party has ever presented a political program while running for elections in Lebanon because voters do not hold those candidates accountable for their actions, but rather base their judgments on political and religious dependence.”

As with the US electoral map where literally less than 10% of seats not held by incumbents are real contests, the majority of seats will go to party surrogates whose victories will result from affiliations rather than policies. This has not dimmed the enthusiasm of those activists who believe that time in on their side as Lebanon is caught in regional cross-winds that make its role as a multicultural, multi-sectarian, independent, and tolerant country even more critical.

So you Ask, Will there be a War in Lebanon?

Going through dozens of articles over the past month on this issue has convinced me that the prospects for war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in the next six months vary somewhere between 20 and 80%! Not very helpful, I know, which means that there is even a greater need to monitor communications and actions to avoid triggering a miscalculation leading to a conflict. As recently as this week, at least six articles have appeared in journals and media listing the tripwires.

Take Mara Karlin, of Johns Hopkins SAIS, writing in Foreign Affairs that “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.”

She goes on to enumerate the calamitous conditions in the region, from the casualties, displaced people, and refugees in Lebanon, the uncertainty surrounding next steps for those temporary allies aligned against ISIS, and the shifting regional balance of power that has a marginal role for the US and outsized Russian and Iranian influence. Karlin writes that “The resulting tensions are likely to bring Israel to the brink of a regional war even bigger than the last one in 2006, when it invaded southern Lebanon.

With ISIS defeated and anti-regime foreign fighters dispersing throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, she believes that “the resulting shifts in focus will clarify the increasingly complex and dangerous relations between [Israel and Hezbollah]. Hezbollah has lost nearly 2,000 fighters in Syria, damaged its reputation through unfettered support for the regimes in Iran and Syria, and is rumored to face financial trouble. Despite all that, it remains popular with its core constituency, Lebanese Shiites.” This bodes poorly for Lebanon as Hezbollah, which Karlin predicts will win big in the upcoming parliamentary elections, will have even a strong chokehold on government policies.

She concludes however, that “Hezbollah’s and Israel’s long-term strategic goals are thus entirely at odds. Nevertheless, as of today, neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to trigger a war. A deliberate escalation by Israel or Hezbollah is unlikely to occur in the near term; an inadvertent one, however, is possible, as is an escalation courtesy of other actors currently tearing up the Levant, such as Iran, the Assad regime, or Russia.”

Commenting on Hezbollah’s overwhelming political power in Lebanon, a NY Books article argues that “There is real anxiety about Hezbollah’s domination in Lebanon, and about Iran’s not very subtle aim of expanding Shia power from Tehran to Beirut.”

This theme is echoed in a Washington Institute for Near East Policy article in which the presence of senior Iranian military officials along Lebanon’s southern border sends two messages, one, “so long as Lebanon is kept stable, the group will be left alone to continue its takeover there.”  The other that “Hezbollah and Iran still needed to reaffirm that no one in Lebanon can stop the group from intervening wherever it likes.”

The article takes issue with the notion that the Lebanese official policy of dissociation, by which it commits to not be involved in external conflicts, has any impact on Hezbollah’s activities. “The cover provided by the dissociation policy may buy the group enough time to position itself for victory in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. With the new electoral law that Hariri’s government passed this summer, Hezbollah will probably manage to bring its allies into parliament and consolidate its power democratically. This in turn would allow it to choose the next prime minister and president, make top military and security appointments, and even change the constitution as it sees fit.”

If Lebanon is to survive as an independent entity, the article concludes “The international community should therefore buttress its talk of stability with a focus on reforming state institutions in order to protect Lebanon’s values of freedom and diversity. Perhaps more important, Hariri’s dissociation policy needs to be accompanied by more aggressive measures against Hezbollah and its regional operations, though that seems unlikely given his recent moves.”

Similar pessimism is to be found in the International Crisis Group report on the Syrian conflict. It notes that “’Rules of the game’ that contained Israeli-Hezbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded. New rules can be established in Syria by mutual agreement or by a deadly cycle of attack and response in which everyone will lose. A broader war could be one miscalculation away.”

There is an emerging consensus that the US has relinquished any leadership role in reducing tensions in the area despite the recent pronouncements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent trip to the area and the presence of US forces in Syria. Although the seeds for this lack of engagement were the official policy of the Obama Administration, it continues. An article in Al Monitor put it this way, “But despite US President Donald Trump’s sharp criticism of everything his predecessor did to diminish American deterrence in the region, the impression for now is that Washington is stronger in words than in deeds. Yet soon it will have to decide which direction it is going to take.”

CNN focused on Russian perceptions that a war would be disastrous to its objectives in the region as being seen as the power broker. “Russia has no desire to undermine three years of investment in saving the Assad regime, only to see Israel become involved militarily in Syria, which could weaken the Syrian regime and strengthen the United States’ hand against Iran. Iran isn’t looking for war with Israel either, as it could jeopardize its own gains in Syria.”

Sadly the consensus around the marginal role of the US is echoed in the Israeli press, which noted the weak American hand in dealing with the tit-for-tat fighting two weeks ago when the Israelis shot down an alleged Iranian drone in its airspace, bombed a control center in Syria, lost a plane to a Syrian missile, then severely damaged Syrian air defense positions, almost leading to the feared escalation.

A Haaretz article said that It is clear that a call from President Putin to Prime Minister Netanyahu kept tempers in check. “The quiet after the Netanyahu-Putin call shows once again who’s the real boss in the Middle East. While the United States remains the region’s present absentee – searches are continuing for a coherent American foreign policy – Russia is dictating the way things are going.”

For now, the border remains much the same as before although there is concern that the Syrian regime may overstep its restraints and attack the de-escalation zone close to the Jordan-Syria-Lebanon-Israel border. Since not even the Russians are sure what the Assad government will do, as shown by its violations of the so-called 30 days cease-fire announced by Russia, there are far too many agendas and personalities in play to expect that a coherent set of rules of engagement will evolve any time soon.