2020 has just begun and tensions in the Middle East have suddenly risen to a new level. The duel between the United States and Iran, hitherto handled with kid gloves, has this time changed in nature, with the elimination of General Soleimani, the legendary leader of the Quds Force, the Islamic Republic’s armed wing in external theatres. It is very likely that in retaliating on January 8 with strikes on American bases without causing casualties, Iran has not said its last word. In fact, we are facing a temporary truce.
This is all the more so since the year 2020 will be an "American year": until the presidential elections in November, President Trump's geopolitical compass will be pointing in the direction of that deadline. The New York billionaire can be just as pacifist in his quest for the Nobel Peace Prize as he can be quick to escalate his military actions, as has been seen over the past few days, to show that he is making America respected abroad. At the same time, his opponents or partners will also position themselves vis-a-vis him according to the same deadline – on the Middle Eastern stage for instance, the Iranians certainly wonder how to "play the American presidential elections". The same goes for the Russians, the Chinese, etc.
Turning the spotlight on French politics, this year’s first summit is the one that has just taken place in Pau, at President Macron’s initiative, gathering the G5 countries, namely France's partners in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel. In December, the death of 13 French soldiers in Mali was a stark reminder that our country has engaged a very tightly knit operation in this part of the world, bearing high risks. As always, crises are at the top of the foreign policy makers’ list of priorities – or at least those taking place on our doorstep and directly threatening our internal security interests such as Syria-Iraq, Libya, the Sahel. The year 2020 is also likely to be particularly difficult for the various fronts of multilateralism, of which President Macron, like his predecessors, has become a strong advocate. Finally, questions arise surrounding projects launched by the President in recent months, such as resetting relations with Russia and redefining the European project.
Storm warnings on three major battlegrounds for France
Let us not dwell on the overall risk of the region setting ablaze as a result of the antagonism between Iran and the United States, and their regional allies. French interests are more specifically engaged on three battlegrounds.
- Syria-Iraq: will the Americans be able to maintain their military forces in Iraq, while Iran and its Iraqi supporters are going to great lengths to get them to leave? Will they maintain their "leadership" in the international coalition against Daesh, of which France is a member? Days of a US’ military footprint in the Syrian Northeast seem to be numbered in any case, in the dual context of upcoming elections in the United States and the situation in Iraq. How, then, shall France continue its action against the inevitable resurgence of Daesh and deal with the issue of French jihadists still remaining in the region?
- Libya: There too, the last few weeks have seen a deep deterioration of the situation. The fracture between a "Haftar" camp and a "al-Sarraj" camp has only worsened with the Russian commitment to the former and the Turkish backing of the latter. What can therefore be expected is either a spiral of escalation, or instead a Russian-Turkish agreement to share areas of influence in accordance with the approach previously adopted by Putin and Erdogan in Syria. In either case, Europeans seem to be marginalized, if not taken hostage with risks of blackmailing on the topic of immigration. No one can be fooled any longer that the German initiative for a peace conference on Libya will bite the dust.
- Sahel: In addition to the difficulties that the French had in mutualizing risks with their regional and European partners, many other issues have arisen since. For example, the political cost of our military presence in Mali with "Operation Barkhane" is increasing, both regionally with anti-French feelings brewing in the region, and most likely domestically, even if opinion remains consensual at this stage. Likewise, the reconfiguration of its external military commitments may lead the United States to reduce its (vital) support to Operation Barkhane. Finally, it is becoming increasingly clear that the jihadist insurgency is spreading and strengthening, less for security reasons than because of bad governance on the part of local authorities.