We caught up with Harold Hyman, a Franco-American journalist working for the French press, to discuss the Middle East, the United States and France. He works at CNews and covers international issues. The interview was conducted by Denys Kolesnyk, a Paris-based consultant and analyst.
The security situation around the world has deteriorated since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We can mention the conflict between Hamas and Israel, the disruption of shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden by the Houthis in Yemen, the hardened Chinese rhetoric towards Taiwan, and we can also mention Iran, Pakistan, etc. How do you explain the emergence of all these conflicts?
At the end of the Cold War and since the Iraq war, we had hoped that the international order would hold. However, there is a lot of pressure on the dike and now it’s starting to break. Bit by bit, the dike is beginning to crack everywhere and even break in some places. Of course, once it breaks, the whole dam is swept away, but we’re not quite there yet.
In other words, one war fits into another, the Americans in Iraq, and the rise of Daesh, Daesh and al-Qaeda have set in motion the Shiite arc, which has given rise to enormous fighting on an international scale. And all this is moving forward, and all the pieces of what was contained are beginning to move forward, to unblock. So even if the wars are not ideologically linked, they are geopolitically linked.
Of course, the ideological part was needed so that we could organise ourselves along certain lines and look for the right allies. But, for me, this is a geopolitical and ideological war at the same time. And perhaps we have underestimated the ideological part. So, what is being added to the war between Russia and Ukraine?
Of course, the Houthis, but the Houthis are the next step. China is watching and thinking that, just as it is happening with Ukraine, it could happen with Taiwan. Ukraine was supposed to be defended, but not by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, and Taiwan is supposed to be defended, but not by an international treaty, only by internal American legislation.
So there were all sorts of ways of getting sidetracked, both in Ukraine and Taiwan, for the United States and NATO in the case of Ukraine. All this gives wings to China and certainly many wings to Russia, while exciting the pro-Iranian arc which is essentially Shiite, with singular exceptions such as Hamas.
It’s obvious that if Russia dismantles Ukraine, the signal will be given to Taiwan. It’s also a signal for Iran to physically go to war, send divisions and divisions to Syria and attack the Golan Heights or something like that. As for the Houthis, they’re at the end of the Iranian arc, so they’ve found a way to annoy everyone by blocking shipping, which wasn’t planned at the outset. The Saudi and Emirati armies, armed by France and the United States, were unable to bring the Houthis to their knees, and they have now entered the war around Gaza and Israel. And given that the Houthis are part of the Iranian arc, we can speak at this point of the final repercussions of what happened in Ukraine.
Talking of repercussions, Iran recently carried out strikes near, as they say, American installations in Erbil, in northern Iraq, in Kurdistan. Can we say that this Iranian attack was a response to the American-British strikes against the Houthis in Yemen? And what does this mean for Iran?
We are starting to attack areas that were considered untouchable. So for the Islamic Republic of Iran to fire directly at Erbil was not considered normal before.
In other words, we cross imaginary lines that everyone has established empirically. This means that country A and country B, who are enemies, say to each other, we won’t cross this line, you won’t shoot any further than that, and you won’t shoot any harder than one-off surgical strikes. But the Iranian regime crossed that line. They went to Erbil to strike.
Iraq is perhaps the most complicated country in the Middle East, along with Syria, because we no longer know who is who. For example, there’s Daesh, there are regular Iraqi troops, there are pro-Iranian militias, and then there’s the whole of northern Kurdistan, which has its armed forces. Of course, there are the Americans and, to a much lesser extent, other Europeans, including the French.
It’s very easy to find a target and so the Iranian regime hit Erbil, without hitting Iraq in the strict sense, which is without Kurdistan, which is a quasi-independent autonomous zone. The regime did hit the Americans, so it wasn’t a direct attack on Iraq. So Iraq was able to content itself with a verbal riposte. Its authorities, its president and its prime minister were quick to denounce the Iranian regime in public, but they were so close to the Iranian regime that this was the best they could do.
So it was aimed at the Americans. But what does that have to do with the American position?
Because a shot fired by the Iranian regime at Erbil has nothing to do with a shot fired by the Houthis in the Red Sea. In the Red Sea, they can block part of international trade. And it was also a provocation against Israel, which depends on the Red Sea route and the Israeli port of Eilat. So the scale was much smaller, but the symbolism was much stronger. The Houthis, after all, fire into international zones. Iran fired directly at a sovereign country from its territory. So once again, we’ve just gone one step further.
So what are they thinking in Teheran? Maybe tomorrow they’ll attack the American headquarters in Iraq directly, and maybe shoot the French too. But if they do that, what will be the response? So we’re testing ourselves through provocation. It’s an escalation of tests in a way.
It’s not a Mongolian stampede, it’s an escalation of surgical and scientific tests. And depending on the response, we say “Well, we can go further” or “We mustn’t go further”. So we do the same thing elsewhere, or we do it smaller, or we hold back for two months. This is the kind of decision that the Iranian regime faces every day.
And the Americans have the same problem since they too have to calculate the scale of their response. Otherwise, they can block the Persian Gulf from any Iranian ship. But that becomes complicated because all the Gulf allies are in the same area. So how do we filter? It’s very difficult.
As far as the Houthis are concerned, everyone is their enemy. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and so on. So they can shoot at anyone, and that’s fine with them.
But if we go back to the Persian Gulf, we can’t do that. We’re going to block the Emirates, we’re going to block Kuwait, we’re going to block oil. We can’t do it with the same casualness. So the Islamic Republic of Iran has a geopolitical advantage, in the classic sense of the term, and is using it.
But there was no “American response”. Does this mean that the Iranians are going to test again, in other words, increase the scale of the tests, as you have just said?
I’m sure they did. So it’s not out of the question that they shot someone who was in their way. It wasn’t necessarily a shot in the air. But perhaps the Americans didn’t respond, I imagine that for them it was a way of avoiding escalation. But Washington’s logic is to avoid escalation, which may ultimately lead to escalation because you allow the other side to continue testing.
As a result, the United States is once again bombing Yemen and even Syria. But directly into Lebanese skies, that would be something of a novelty. They could. They prefer that. There are two rules for the Americans: don’t bomb Hamas and if possible avoid Hezbollah.
Because that would make them look like enemies of the Arab world. Not because they lack enemies in the Arab world who consider that they have once again become the “Great Satan”, but because the Arabs themselves have a red line: do not attack Arabs directly. If the Americans strike Hamas, they will no longer have any symbolic legitimacy vis-à-vis Mahmoud Abbas or anyone else. So they can only strike at the pro-Iranian arc, the so-called Shiite arc.
I wonder what the Americans are waiting for, but there is still a vague hope that by avoiding escalation for perhaps six months, we can strike a deal on Gaza. If we escalate now, there is a twofold risk. Either it scares Tehran, which withdraws and starts negotiating for Hamas straight away, or it upsets Tehran and then there is no deal on Hamas. So, in the United States, we don’t know and that’s where the internal factors start to come into play.
So, precisely, American policy. The Biden administration is seen as having shown little determination to ensure a Ukrainian victory in the war imposed by the Russians. Some American specialists and analysts are not happy with the American reaction and determination in the Middle East. So, how would you characterise US policy towards the region, i.e. the Middle East and rogue states in general, under the Biden administration? And then, from your point of view, how would you analyse Washington’s policy under the possible Trump presidency?
Well, I’d call it the intra-American political sequence, because Biden has two problems. In his Democratic Party, there is a pro-Palestinian wing and opposite him, among the Republicans, there is a pro-Russian wing.
So how do we find a consensus? The Republicans themselves are fighting amongst themselves, the Democrats perhaps a little less so, because pro-Palestinian sentiment is rising inexorably. You can’t ask Democrats to think that bombing civilians, even if it has military logic, is acceptable. They can’t digest it, even if they refrain from saying so.
Among Republicans, Putin was always a nice guy, but Ukraine was also a country that needed protecting. So those who are more enraged by the new agenda of MAGA and an America unbridled at home and abroad, are pro-Russian because they like the “let’s get beyond the shackles of the law and constitutional traditions” aspect and we strike directly at those we don’t like in society, gays, black rights, trade unions, whatever. So all these tensions are weighing on Biden.
The Republicans are paralysing the budget, partly because the pro-Russian Republicans are starting to hold the whole party hostage. And on the other side, among the Democrats, Biden only has a certain number of days before there is a split in his party. And splits in parties mean certain electoral defeats. So he has to deal with that.
As a result, he is personally committed, he has a very clear ideology, which is force plus law, plus human rights as far as possible, plus American interests, plus the free economy, and all this makes a cocktail that millions of Americans understand without even having it explained to them.
So he’s sticking to this line, he’s pro-Israel but with a lot of doubts, and he’s pro-Ukraine but with a lot of constraints. He is sailing a tightrope in the interests of Ukraine, and that’s difficult for him because if he is too anti-Israel, the Republicans will fall further and further into line with their pro-Russian wing. On the other hand, if he’s too pro-Ukrainian and doesn’t care about Gaza, then he’s heading for a split.
But I’d say the split is less imminent than Republican pressure, so he has time to stick to his pro-Ukrainian line for a few more weeks, enough to find an accelerated settlement to the Israel-Hamas war. He will promise Israel the moon, except for one thing: Israel will not be able to expel the population. Netanyahu will call a ceasefire, and Biden and his European and Gulf allies will set up some sort of Palestinian authority.
We hope that the pragmatic Arab countries of the Abraham Accords will come back to Israel and the United States and that Saudi Arabia will join in, that a deal will be struck for the Palestinians that saves everyone’s face, and that this eventuality will give Biden time to turn against the Republicans on Ukraine.
The Republicans will all have to accept the Palestinian deal, even if some are playing the pro-Israel one-upmanship game, like Mike Pence who is going to sign Israeli army missiles in his name, things that are classic provocation, but that happen in wars, movie stars signing bombs, “kiss Hitler goodbye”, that sort of thing.
So there you have it, he has to deal with Hamas first, and then he can fully come to the aid of Ukraine. I think that’s why Anthony Blinken is always grimacing because he has to do this sort of balancing act. He looks tired and he looks puzzled, but so far he’s made no mistakes. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel.
Will they go fast enough? I don’t know. I think they’re a little slow. However, the longer we wait, the more the Israelis gain on the ground. The Israelis had stopped talking about the mass expulsion of the population, but then it came up again with a provocative conference by Itamar Ben Gvir, the Minister of the Interior.
What is American foreign policy towards the Middle East under the Biden administration?
Internally, Jews in the United States are very much identified with the Democratic Party. That’s what the French seem to ignore because they think that because Trump is courting Israel and saying super pro-Israeli things, Jews have become Republicans, but that’s not the tradition. It didn’t work under George W. Bush. So Biden needs to listen to the Jewish electorate and see how it manifests itself. The electorate, plus the intellectual influence and the financial influence to finance the elections, Biden weighs all that up.
But frankly, evangelicals and the like outclass what you might think of as Jewish money. They are much stronger, much richer.
Then, again demographically, there are more Muslims than Jews now in the United States. They are concentrated in Michigan in particular. So if he wants to lose Michigan, he can continue to be super pro-Israel, which he is not entirely. And then he’ll lose Michigan. So that’s impossible, because Michigan is too big, too many votes.
And if we look at who is in the entourage of presidents now, I’ve noticed a new factor, which is that Indians are starting to rise in all the key positions, people of Indian origin. We’re seeing this with Vivek Ramaswamy, we’re seeing it with Nikki Haley, we’re seeing it with the White House spokesperson, in short, there’s a series of indicators. So I’d say that demographically, Biden is being pulled towards the Palestinians. He may be the last Democrat who will also be a Zionist.
Then, in the geopolitical field, it’s the same thing. We put up with pragmatic regimes. We’ve washed our hands of Obama’s democratising agenda.
We’re not going to go back to Cairo, to al-Azhar University, and tell the students that they should spank their president [Mubarak at the time] for not respecting human rights. That’s not going to happen again.
So he’s going to maintain relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, it’s oil. No need to talk about oil, we know what it is. The Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq. But apart from that, we’re standing still. We must not lose Turkey, even if it is an increasingly ill-behaved child that we cannot disown. We have to wait for Erdogan to go, and he will go after Biden. So the Turks have won in Washington, and they have a huge lobby. Perhaps the biggest international lobby in Washington is Turkish.
There is also the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement, but that is of absolutely no use. Because the Revolutionary Guards are in Syria where they are practically fighting those armed by the Turks. No one is loyal to anyone any more. He’s going to keep Turkey. He is going to let 850 American soldiers live in Syria. He wants to stabilise, not conquer.
There is no problem with Israel. Jordan, on the other hand, must not have a revolution. So we are supporting King Abdullah II in every way we can. In Saudi Arabia, the murder of Adnan Khashoggi by the prince’s henchmen has been completely excused. We don’t even talk about it any more, even though Biden was publicly outraged at the time.
And Egypt is keeping quiet. It represses everything. We have a pharaoh in power. That’s even the word many Egyptians use. There is a kind of Egyptian stability that is a lid on a social pressure cooker.
So that’s what’s going on all around the Middle East. If we include the Maghreb, we don’t have any special problems. We’re very close to Morocco now. But strangely enough, Algeria also likes the United States. When Donald Trump told his collaborators about the Kingdom, “Give them Western Sahara, they deserve it” because they signed the Abraham Accords.
As I see it, the Americans could do two things: condemn Israel, but that won’t happen, and secondly, put mega-pressure on Turkey. They are too afraid of losing Turkey to NATO, and of Turkey destabilising NATO even more. So they won’t do that either.
I agree. Now let’s talk about France, which used to be a major player in the Middle East. But Paris is less and less visible, even if there have been some public relations campaigns concerning the war between Hamas and Israel. But how can France help in the region to defuse the security situation? And what do you think France’s policy should be?
So let me contradict one of your assumptions. I think that for a very long time, since 1967, and certainly since the early 1980s with Lebanon, France has had no projectable power in the Middle East. It doesn’t even have client states.
When it abandoned Israel because De Gaulle wanted to do I don’t know what with his Arab policy, it lost the plot. We didn’t get Egypt, Syria or Turkey on our side, or good terms. So we lost the only country that we had helped a lot, more than the Americans had, and that was Israel.
At the beginning of the 80s, the Phalangist, Christian Lebanese could have expected French intervention, but all we got was lukewarm and ineffective posturing on the part of the human rights movement, with the assassination of the Drakkar, the same thing for the Americans, their assassination, and then everyone left Lebanon with their tails between their legs, well, we couldn’t have done any worse.
France is no longer a real power in the Middle East, but it is a facilitating state. The United States is an empire that is losing its way, while France is a facilitator that is weak enough to be trusted.
And so they don’t sell arms to Israel, they give arms to the small Lebanese army which doesn’t dare use them, except against Al-Qaeda and Daesh, but never against Hezbollah.
We stifled everything that could have come out of Syria because that was the hope, that was Syria in the 1990s and early 2000s, but we didn’t like Bashar Al-Assad’s repression, it was far too violent. So we let him go, but look at the effect – everyone killed and they’re still killing. So we let that go, so we’re no longer even a facilitator when it comes to Bashar al-Assad.
So we have a small role to play with some Gulf countries, including the Emirates, because the Emirates are much less duplicitous in our perception than Qatar. We don’t have to explain that the Emirates are not duplicitous in their dealings with France, whereas we constantly have to explain that Qatar is.
Paradoxically, that left Egypt, to be a little more detached from the United States, to be less disingenuous, and also to punish the United States for Obama’s speech at Al-Azhar, and all that followed, the American support for Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood government that lasted barely two years, they chose France. And France is fighting political Islam, and that pleases them.
To sum up: France has Egypt, a few Gulf countries and a tiny bit of Saudi Arabia. With Turkey, there’s nothing. Lebanon is an empty shell or a bottomless pit. Syria is out. We’re trying to have a presence in Iraq, but we’re nothing compared to the Americans, we’ve only got a small ticket into the theatre. And that’s about it.
So we are more or less respected because getting closer to France is a way of talking to the West without talking to the United States. And we have an acquaintance, we think we have an acquaintance, but paradoxically we have an acquaintance that is growing with Israel, because before there were Russians on every street corner, now there are French speakers on every street corner in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
We still have the Lebanese ear, we no longer have the Palestinian ear, that’s over. When I was there in October, the Palestinians said, I’ve had 3 or 4 conversations, but it’s always the same. France is finished. We still love you, but you’re finished, you’ve joined your boss in Washington. Macron is Biden’s little dog.
So we’re going to Washington, and who is this Macron, what’s he doing? He doesn’t listen to us, he does what he wants, and he goes against the tide. That’s the perception.
Recently, was migration legislation adopted in France. Given that we have fairly large Muslim and North African communities that support the Palestinian cause, and that some of them also support Hamas – the organisation that France and the rest of the world consider to be terrorist. So how might this new legislation influence relations with the Maghreb?
You mustn’t confuse migration with Islam. I’m talking politically and diplomatically. Sociologically and ideologically, that’s another matter and I’m not touching it.
So politically, it’s very easy for French diplomacy to explain to Moroccan diplomacy, which at least listens to us, and a little to Algerian diplomacy, which doesn’t listen to us but understands us, that this was not done to, I would say, humiliate Islam. That it was a question of demographic balance.
They understand this logic because Morocco and Algeria are subject to migrants from the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa who are heading for Europe, but on the way often settle in Morocco and Algeria. So in the Maghreb, we have the phenomenon of migrant villages and camps. And these regimes are less tender than we are.
As a result, they accept the principle of blocking these people. They don’t like us blocking their nationals, that’s just a momentary pride, but they understand because when you have migrants coming from the Rif in Morocco, it’s not a rated area in the Moroccan system. What’s more, unaccompanied minors can be orphans, bearing in mind that an orphan from the Rif is socially discriminated against.
The cynicism is on the march: these North African societies, which sometimes crack down on illegal immigrants, don’t seem to mind seeing them arrive in Europe. Secondly, these people, who are often undocumented, are difficult to deport, because the French authorities are slow to act, and consulates reluctantly issue laissez-passer. But that hasn’t shaken relations. What does hurt are the restrictions that France has placed on issuing visas from French consulates in Morocco.
As for Algeria, there has also been a kind of virtual indifference, including to the 1968 agreement between Algeria and France, which automatically gave around 38,000 visas to Algerians a year, without any criteria. It was a codicil to the Evian agreements, and in practice, it meant that these people then went to look for a wife or family in their country of origin, so it amounted to doubling the entries.
In other words, there’s a sort of Franco-Algerian society in France, not linked to the French nation, but living as expatriates.
What could be more of a problem with immigration is the laws on secularism. I think our immigration law in Malaysia is three times stricter. There are very few illegal immigrants in Malaysia. And in Pakistan, the federal government deported a million and a half Afghans a few months ago!
So immigration is not a problem. Secularism, on the other hand, is a problem. Particularly in the Mashreq and Muslim Asia.
The big problem in the Maghreb is the Western Sahara. France plays both sides, always an “intermediary power”. This is legally correct, but very ineffective because France is seen as an active and capable power. France has accepted the UN plan for Western Sahara, so it does not yet recognise full Moroccan sovereignty. Algeria does not thank France for this, but Morocco is furious.
And there’s a kind of referendum going on here, which should be applied by the UN. It’s always the UN formula. It’s the same formula for East Jerusalem, it’s the same formula for Kashmir. They create regimes that are impossible to apply. Even in times of peace, it would be difficult, but we say, come on, a little referendum in Kashmir, but a million Kashmiris have left. In the Western Sahara, there are tens of thousands of Sahrawis living in Tindouf in Algeria. And then there are the new arrivals, I dare not say Moroccan settlers, who are arriving and you’re going to count who, it’s going to make the electoral rolls, it’s going to be a war in itself.
So France is being punished somewhat for not having immediately accepted all this from Morocco, from the moment Donald Trump did it. Before Donald Trump did it, things weren’t necessarily going so badly.
So we made a mistake that we realised three or four months ago. And since the earthquake, just before the earthquake, in Marrakech, we were on the verge of overcoming the Franco-Moroccan quarrel. And then the King of Morocco ignored us a little, not to say scorned us.
But relations will improve with Macron’s expected trip to Morocco. That’s when we’ll get some major redress. And the immigration law seems to be understood in Morocco. I don’t know how Rabat reacted to the fact that consular Islam was virtually banned. That surprised me.
And sometimes I wonder whether the French government has linked the issues, because, for Morocco, France is all these issues at once. I have the impression that our diplomacy puts the issues in tubes and deals with one tube without looking at the other. This is not a government that debates much internally. The Fifth Republic has created an imperial system, with second-rate gods surrounding the presidential ‘Jupiter’, who fortunately has a great deal of diplomatic talent. But I don’t get the impression that this is a government where there is interaction, where these issues can be discussed.
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