Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

InReview: The Middle East in the New Year

 

The New Year brings with it an endless list of promises and threats to and from the Middle East. Just one month into 2014 it is clear that the ever-volatile region has not been left in the lurch and the U.S.’s presence continues to shape and react to the conflicts and realities throughout these diverse countries from the incremental progress made in nuclear negotiations with Iran and Syria’s first peace deal to the concerning indicators of “history repeating itself” in Egypt’s political process and Iraq’s rebel-held city of Falluja.

Professor Nicholas Burns of Harvard’s Kennedy School listed “Obama’s 2014 Foreign Policy Challenges,” including:

Four fires burning in the Middle East. Obama wants to pivot to Asia but keeps getting caught in the quicksand of the Middle East. Four crises will test him once more in 2014:

■ In Syria, can Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry work with cynical and not-always trustworthy Syria, Russia, and Iran to forge a ceasefire? Without one, Syria’s 9 million refugees will continue to suffer in the brutal conflict.

■ Key US ally Egypt appears headed for a bloody, divisive 2014. The military dictatorship has extinguished the 2011 revolution and recently branded the powerful Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. That will cause continued tension, violence, and perhaps even civil war in the Arab world’s keystone state.

■ As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict enters its 66th year, Kerry refuses to give up his improbable but courageous bid for peace. He arrives in Israel soon with a plan to restart talks preceded by release of Palestinian prisoners. The road to peace is long, but critics may not want to count out Kerry just yet.

■ Stopping Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons remains the key US priority for the next year. Can Obama and Kerry build on November’s interim deal to move Tehran toward a final agreement? Iran is a supreme test of Obama’s belief that diplomacy can avert another Middle East war and perhaps even lead to eventual peace with our longtime nemesis. (Boston Globe)

Likewise, during an interview, Senior Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations James M. Lindsay focused mostly on the Middle East. World Outlook for 2014:

When we looked ahead for 2013 last year, you said the major issue was the Middle East—most immediately the problems in Syria, followed by Iran’s nuclear activities. The situation in Syria seems to have worsened, but there’s potentially a breakthrough with Iran. Would you like to elaborate?

Top: “Iran’s Key Nuclear Sites,” BBC Bottom: Natanz Nuclear Facility, “Iran Halts Uranium Enrichment under Nuclear Deal,” The Guardian

Top: “Iran’s Key Nuclear Sites,” BBC
Bottom: Natanz Nuclear Facility, “Iran Halts Uranium Enrichment under Nuclear Deal,” The Guardian

The Middle East continues to present the Obama administration with a wide range of challenges. The issues look much the same as they did in 2013, but the particulars have changed somewhat. Let’s take the good news first. With the Geneva interim agreement reached with Iran in November, the administration has the opportunity to strike a broader deal on ending or severely limiting Iran’s nuclear program. And the Obama administration’s number one priority in 2014 will be to make the transition from an interim to a comprehensive agreement. But that will not be easy to do, and it may prove impossible.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is that the two sides will kick the can down the road by renewing the interim agreement. Hanging over the negotiations will be the question of what kind of new sanctions legislation emerges from Congress. Many members of Congress are unhappy with the interim agreement, or believe that they can give the administration additional bargaining leverage by imposing new, tougher sanctions on Iran. So we’ll see how that influences the course of the negotiations.

Israel has a big interest in this.

Israel has a big interest in the outcome, as does Saudi Arabia. Both counties see big risks in the warming of relations between Washington and Tehran. So the Obama administration will be feeling a lot of pressure politically and diplomatically from two of its partners in the region. But keep in mind that the discussion with Iran is not simply between the United States and Iran, but between the P5+1, the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and Iran. So the Obama administration is going to have to balance a lot of different pressures, concerns, interests in trying to come to an agreement. It will be a very tough negotiation.

What about the Syria conflict and its spillover?

Spillover Effect: The site Analysis Intelligence provides an excellent interactive map that illustrates the conflict’s regional effect.  Zoom in on the neighboring countries for a closer look at the varying violent activity that is linked to the Syrian conflict.

Spillover Effect: The site Analysis Intelligence provides an excellent interactive map that illustrates the conflict’s regional effect.
Zoom in on the neighboring countries for a closer look at the varying violent activity that is linked to the Syrian conflict.

The Assad government looks to have stabilized its control over parts of Syria. The Free Syrian Army, which had been favored by the West, has lost out to more Islamic-minded rebel groups. Syria in the near term faces an immense humanitarian crisis. Some 2.3 million Syrians are now refugees who have crossed into neighboring countries. That’s about 10 percent of the population. Another 30 to 40 percent of the Syrian population has been internally displaced. They are likely to face very challenging conditions as we go further into the winter. There’s a shortage of fuel, food, and medicine.

Beyond that, there’s the question of what the ripple effects of the continued fighting in Syria will be for neighboring countries. We’ve begun to see Lebanon feel the stress of the fighting as Hezbollah has come to the aid of the Assad government, raising the prospect of the war spilling across borders and taking on a sectarian tone as Shiites square off against Sunnis. That could have troubling ramifications for the broader region.

Falluja – Gunmen fighters walk with their weapons in the streets of Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad.  Image Source: “Time to End al Qaeda Presence in Falluja: Iraq’s Maliki,” Reuters

Falluja – Gunmen fighters walk with their weapons in the streets of Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad.
Image Source: “Time to End al Qaeda Presence in Falluja: Iraq’s Maliki,” Reuters

Looking to Jordan, there was concern early on that it would struggle to handle the influx of refugees, and that the resulting stresses might exacerbate existing divisions in Jordanian society. So far the Jordanian government has done a reasonable job of managing the refugee issue. Still, there’s always the possibility that the size of the problem, and the difficulty of providing for the needs of Jordanian citizens and for refugees, could create political problems and destabilize the Jordanian government.

Looking to the east of Syria, we have Iraq, which has had its own stresses exacerbated by the influx of refugees and fighters coming from Syria. We’re seeing an escalation in sectarian violence as Iraq approaches its elections this spring. There’s concern that the level of violence in Iraq could jump well beyond what we saw in 2006-2007, when it led George W. Bush to order a surge of American troops that managed to restore order. There is not going to be an American response to the violence in Iraq in 2014. The question is whether and how Iraqis will contain the violence.

The UN is calling for a new conference held on January 22 in Montreux, Switzerland. Will it be possible to work anything out at the conference, which is supposed to include all the opposition groups and the Assad government?

The prospects for a negotiated settlement to the Syria crisis are low. The Assad government controls large parts of the country, so it feels no pressure to negotiate with its opposition. The opposition is divided. There has been conflict among the various factions. The Western-favored

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad speaks during a press conference at the UN HQ in Geneva, Switzerland while attending peace talks that began in late January.  Image Source: “Women and Children ‘to be Given Passage’ from Homs in First Syria Deal,” Telegraph

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad speaks during a press conference at the UN HQ in Geneva, Switzerland while attending peace talks that began in late January.
Image Source: “Women and Children ‘to be Given Passage’ from Homs in First Syria Deal,” Telegraph

factions seem to be losing influence. The government in exile appears to have little influence over many of the rebel fighters, particularly those from various Islamist groups. So the most likely outcome is continued fighting, with a regrettably high loss of life, and the informal carving up of Syria into government-held territory and rebel-held territory. An estimated 125,000 Syrians have died in the fighting in the 33-month civil war, and right now the daily death toll is higher than the death toll in Iraq at the height of the sectarian violence back in 2006-2007. It is a horrifying situation, but there’s no likely diplomatic solution that’s going to work, and it’s clear neither the United States nor any other major power has an interest or desire to become involved militarily with boots on the ground in Syria.

(…) In July, Egypt’s military ousted the country’s elected president, Mohammed Morsi. No one’s really counting on the Arab Spring now to lead to democracies throughout the Middle East.

No. Americans, because of our historical experience, tend to be optimistic about what revolutions can produce and how fast they can produce them. But if you look at revolutions in many other parts of the world, they often don’t turn out well, or they take a while to turn out well. Just think, for example, of the French Revolution and the course that it traveled. So it’s not surprising that the upheaval that swept the Arab world in 2011 hasn’t yielded more progress than it has. It may be quite some time before we see either stability or true democracy in many of the Arab countries that overthrew their governments.

History repeating itself? “Egypt’s General Sisi Cleared for Presidential Bid,” Al Jazeera

History repeating itself? “Egypt’s General Sisi Cleared for Presidential Bid,” Al Jazeera

One challenge for Washington going forward will be how to avoid making some of the same mistakes that administrations made before the Arab uprising, aligning themselves with governments that proved to be terribly unpopular. It’s a difficult choice, and it comes most clearly in the case of U.S. relations with Egypt. We had what was clearly a coup; an elected president was ousted. There are lots of arguments made inside and outside Egypt about why that coup was necessary and in the best interest of Egyptian democracy. Nonetheless, that presents a real challenge for an American foreign policy that has argued for the importance of preserving democracy,. Many people find it hard to understand how you have to subvert democracy in order to advance it. So this is going to be a challenge for the Obama administration and for European countries that have tried to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

(Council on Foreign Relations)

Looking forward – summaries and recommendations from The Brookings Institute’s 2014 Big Bets and Black Swans: As much as policy-makers wish they could predict the future, the perpetual volatility of the Middle East and North Africa presents a unique unknown when it comes to what the next year holds for the region and U.S. involvement therein. Nonetheless, the Brooking Institute’s 2014 Big Bets and Black Swans, a series of 22 memos addressed to President Obama, each no longer than four pages, provide a succinct summary, background, and recommendation for dealing with the major U.S. foreign policy issues, many of which revolve around Middle Eastern countries.

Below are the excerpts from some relevant memos, with counter-arguments interspersed, followed by some recent news from each particular country:

  • Suzanne Maloney, Big Bets and Black Swans: “Broaden the Approach to Iran”

(…) Iran’s politics broke wide open last summer with the unexpected election of a moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani. A decade earlier, Rouhani was responsible for brokering the sole significant compromise that Tehran had ever implemented on its nuclear activities—a 2003 suspension of uranium enrichment and reprocessing that lasted nearly two years. That made Rouhani the target of intense criticism from Iranian hard-liners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani’s sudden rehabilitation and ascension to the theocracy’s second highest office reflected a consensus that had quietly expanded over the course of Ahmadinejad’s final tumultuous years: Tehran could no longer afford to maintain its collision course with the international community over the nuclear issue. The campaign that won Rouhani the presidency and his early rhetoric and actions once he took office in August confirmed that he has been given an explicit mandate to resolve the impasse and return Iran to a more normal place in the international economy and the community of nations.

The dual-track policy framework established in your first term and implemented with impressive multilateral coordination had a great deal to do with Iran’s change, but the shift in Iran’s domestic political dynamics owes much to internal considerations that are largely distinct from the sanctions and international isolation. Frictions within Iran over Ahmadinejad’s heterodox and destabilizing policies helped bind the regime’s establishment together in an almost unprecedented fashion.

As a result, Rouhani leads what should be understood as a national unity government. (Emphasis added). Despite the persistence of Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 11.20.39 PMIran’s factional competition and ideologically-driven critiques of the president’s policies, he has far greater authority and room for maneuver than any of his predecessors to undertake ambitious and innovative policies.

That is the most important factor that distinguishes this historical moment from all prior periods of optimism in the tortured U.S.-Iranian dynamic. Rouhani should be able to deliver on the most significant and sensitive aspects of international concern about Iran’s policies. The Supreme Leader continues to articulate a deeply engrained suspicion of American motives, but nothing that Rouhani has accomplished to date would have been possible without Khamenei’s explicit endorsement.

So we face an opportunity for diplomacy, one that is almost certain to dissipate if we do not make the most of it. Iranian politics remain at an unsteady equilibrium, and the internal balance of power could shift without warning. Each of Rouhani’s predecessors has seen his influence eroded over time, and powerful pockets of opposition to the changes underway in Iran’s relationship with the world remain. As a result, it is important that we move rapidly to make progress on our core concerns. To the extent that diplomatic progress on the nuclear issue also benefits Iran and its citizens, Rouhani’s more moderate position at home will be enhanced. (Brookings Institute)

Other analysts might question the characterization of the Iranian regime as a “national unity government.” J. Matthew McInnis, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writes about the dichotomy in Iran’s domestic versus foreign pressures in the eighth edition of his series “What is Keeping the Ayatollah up at Night?”:

“A train wreck”

After entering into force just over a week ago, the [Joint Plant of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program] has already hit a snag. In an interview on CNN, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif insisted that the White House was mischaracterizing the terms of the agreement and that Iran had not agreed “to dismantle anything.” In another interview with CNN, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insisted that the Islamic Republic would not destroy its nuclear centrifuges “under any circumstances.” Responding to Rouhani’s new red line (first the right to enrich, now this), Fareed Zakaria called the deal a “train wreck,” not seeing how negotiators could mediate the differences between the American and Iranian conception of the agreement.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 11.23.38 PMThe Iranian President’s tough line might be indicative of the Supreme Leader’s domestic concerns with the regime’s hardliners. At a minimum, however, it emphasizes that the nuclear program’s infrastructure, rather than enriched uranium, is what truly matters to the regime.  (Emphasis added). More troublingly still, Khamenei could have miscalculated how much pushback the Obama Administration would allow in order to reach the coveted comprehensive deal (a foreign policy legacy the Supreme Leader knows Obama would like under his presidency’s belt). Iran’s new red line will push to the limit the Administration’s strategy of ignoring Iranian rhetoric in favor of focusing on direct talks and concrete actions.

(…) Without sanctions relief, the Supreme Leader may not be able to afford indefinitely the rising costs of supporting President Assad. In order to prevent the public debate over JPA implementation from undermining the international momentum toward a comprehensive deal, the Supreme Leader may eventually suggest that Iranian officials’ water down their tough rhetoric. (American Enterprise Institute)

Within the Brookings Institute’s briefing, scholars Robert Einhorn and Kenneth Pollack warn of the need to prepare for the possibility that “Iran Nuclear Talks Fail”: “While our negotiators are working hard to get a final nuclear agreement with Iran that meets our requirements, we must be prepared for the possibility that negotiations will fail and the Iranians will then direct their efforts toward eroding sanctions and advancing their nuclear program. The opening created by President Hassan Rouhani’s overtures would close.” (Brookings Institute)

  • Regarding Egypt, scholars Daniel L. Byman and Tamara Cofman Wittes lay out the nightmare scenario in which “The Muslim Brotherhood Radicalizes”:

Egypt has long been a U.S. ally, and its stability an important U.S. interest. The military’s forcible removal of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in July 2013 and the brutal crackdown that ensued are likely to further destabilize Egypt. The Brotherhood’s exclusion from politics could lead its members to give up on peaceful politics, radicalize and return to terrorism, which would pose a major setback for U.S. interests in Egypt. The negative effects could spill outside of Egypt’s heart- land to Sinai and beyond its borders to Gaza, further threatening U.S. interests.

American policy probably cannot prevent the radicalization of the Brotherhood, but it can seek to mitigate its effects on U.S. interests and the

security of Americans. The Egyptian regime is primarily focused right now on securing its hold on power, while our interests are in the overall stability of Egypt and the region. American policy must therefore seek to prevent widescale radicalization, while also limiting the capacity of Islamist radicalism in Egypt to affect regional stability. We recommend that you push the Egyptian government far harder to allow paths for Brotherhood supporters to participate in legitimate political and social activity. You should also broaden intelligence efforts on Islamist radicalization, and focus U.S. engagement with Egypt and other Arab allies on counter-radicalization, as well as counter-terror, operations.

To sustain a peaceful alternative for Brotherhood supporters, you should press the Egyptian government to release from prison Islamist politicians who commit to non-violence, and to allow a range of Islamist parties to organize, compete in elections, and participate in governance. Former President Morsi is now on trial for a host of charges, some questionable, in a highly politicized environment. The United States should not make his release the measure of success for its diplomacy. But it should continue to press the Egyptian government to engage with Brotherhood figures seeking reconciliation, and should insist that Morsi receive fair treatment. U.S. officials should engage with all Egyptian politicians, including Islamists committed to non-violent political participation—even if this displeases the Egyptian government. (Brookings Institute)

Not so much as a counter-argument but rather a counter-narrative, senior editor at Bidoun Magazine Negar Azimi provides fascinating insight on the “The Egyptian Army’s Unlikely Allies: Alaa Al Aswany and Why Egypt’s Liberal Intellectuals Still Support the Army” in the New Yorker:

When the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany took the stage in October at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris to promote the French translation of his latest novel, he was presumably not expecting to be heckled and chased from the venue by a crowd of his own countrymen. But minutes into his talk, the author’s voice was drowned out by the shouts of Egyptian emigrés who had come out for the chance to tear him to bits.

One of the Arab world’s most popular novelists, Aswany was a prominent supporter of the demonstrations that climaxed with the dramatic fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. (Wendell Steavenson wrote a Profile of Aswany for the magazine in early 2012.) More recently, in his columns for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (and, since October, for the International New York Times), Aswany has been a relentless critic of Mohamed Morsi and his followers in the Muslim Brotherhood—and a passionate defender of the man who deposed him, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom Aswany has called “a national hero.”

In clips of the Paris gathering posted on YouTube, one can see the room erupt into chaos resembling a food fight.

(…)

Alaa al Aswany wrote the novel The Yacoubian Building, which gained notoriety both within Egypt and abroad for its scathing critique of the country, as each resident of the building metaphorically represented a different social class or group found within contemporary Egyptian society.  The novel was particularly controversial for broaching taboo subjects such as sexual harassment and homosexuality, which were previously unmentioned or overlooked.  As discussed in the New Yorker article, though Aswany is a prominent liberal commentator and a well-known critic of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship, he is now a strong supporter of the military’s often violent and indiscriminate actions following the July 2013 coup/revolution against President Mohammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led regime.

Alaa al Aswany wrote the novel The Yacoubian Building, which gained notoriety both within Egypt and abroad for its scathing critique of the country, as each resident of the building metaphorically represented a different social class or group found within contemporary Egyptian society.
The novel was particularly controversial for broaching taboo subjects such as sexual harassment and homosexuality, which were previously unmentioned or overlooked.
As discussed in the New Yorker article, though Aswany is a prominent liberal commentator and a well-known critic of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship, he is now a strong supporter of the military’s often violent and indiscriminate actions following the July 2013 coup/revolution against President Mohammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led regime.

The scene is painful to watch, and yet not entirely surprising. Two thousand miles from Cairo, it serves as a window onto the vast polarization of the Egyptian political sphere over the past twelve months (emphasis added), which culminated two weeks ago with the military-backed government’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as an illegal “terrorist organization.” The new designation set off an even more aggressive crackdown on the group, most of whose leaders have been jailed. Protests in several Egyptian cities have escalated into violent confrontations between Brotherhood supporters and police; on the 3 January, thirteen people were killed, and almost fifty wounded, in clashes across the country.

(…)

Amid these rival claims [of whether Egypt’s July 2013 event constituted a coup or a revolution], Aswany’s passionate defense of the military sits squarely in the mainstream of public opinion, and yet it has surprised and disappointed some of his admirers. After all, we expect our writers and intellectuals to be moral giants, holding up a mirror to the world’s inequities (Emphasis added). In Egypt, this expectation has particular resonance, as several generations of politically committed writers—beginning with Naguib Mahfouz and continuing with Sonallah Ibrahim, Gamal Al-Ghitani, Ahdaf Soueif, and Hamdi Abou Golayyel—have made vivid the many grinding injustices of Egyptian life. Across the decades, one finds a familiar cast of literary types: the thuggish politicians who take your bribes, the drug dealers who ply you with cheap painkillers, the pimps who sell your sisters, the police who beat you to a pulp, the Islamists who censor your books and trash your cinema, and—of course—the unacknowledged, but omnipresent, Big Man.

(…)

And, finally: What if Morsi had stayed?

“They would have controlled the whole country. There would be Brotherhood in the media, Brotherhood in the Ministry of Culture, Brotherhood everywhere!” Aswany said.

This, I felt, got to the heart of what many secular intellectuals fear most. I heard it over and over again this fall: given enough time, the Brotherhood would have spread its tentacles throughout the system, until it became the system. “We don’t want to turn into Iran,” the newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa told me, explaining why he felt the ongoing crackdown on the Brotherhood was necessary. Eissa, a friend of Aswany and a prominent Egyptian liberal, faced multiple prison sentences for criticizing Mubarak in the aughts. These days, his weekly television talk show is a wince-worthy carnival of affection for the military. In a landscape in which good choices are few and far between, the Eissas of Egypt have attached themselves to what they may perceive as the lesser evil.

(…)

I thought back to my conversation with Aswany a few nights earlier, when I had asked him whether he thought democracy was simply an electoral process, or if it represented a more diffuse set of values.

“Democracy is our homework,” he said. “If in one year we end up with military rule, we don’t blame the military. We can only blame ourselves.” (New Yorker)

  • Turning to Syria, Michael Doran, a specialist on Middle East security issues at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute and former senior director at the National Security Council during the administration of George W. Bush recommends that U.S. double down on its Syria policy and “Pursue Regime Change” in the country:

The decision to call off military strikes against President Bashir Assad’s forces and instead to work with Russia to destroy his chemical weapons deeply disappointed the Syrian opposition and its major external backers. Pro-regime propagandists have depicted this policy as a quid pro quo: as a reward to Assad for his participation in the chemical weapons deal, the united States will withhold support for regime-change efforts. In the Arab world, this interpretation of U.S. policy is widely accepted.

Even if Assad’s chemical weapons have been taken entirely out of play (by no means certain), the regime’s goal of waging total war against the rebels remains unchanged. “We are fighting terrorists,” Assad said recently. “Eighty to ninety percent of those we are fighting belong to al Qaeda. They are not interested in reform or in politics. The only way to deal with them is to annihilate them.”

More than 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced by the war, according to the United Nations. Of those, two million have fled to neighboring countries. More than 130,000 people have died. The war has also divided the Middle East into two camps. The Saudis, Turks and Qataris, among others, remain committed to toppling Assad. They face staunch opposition from the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah, who are working assiduously to save the regime. The fight between the two sides is a zero-sum game.

I recommend that you return to a policy of regime change in Syria. The United States currently appears fickle, risk-averse and unreliable to our allies and partners in the region—especially in comparison with Russia and Iran. This has serious knock-on effects to our standing not only in the region but around the world.

This recommendation raises an obvious objection. Any effort to topple Assad, it is frequently claimed, will draw the united States into a quagmire. After all, the Syrian opposition remains deeply fractured, and the radical Islamic element in it is growing ever stronger by the day.

A regime-change policy, however, need not require that you send American soldiers into harm’s way. All it requires is a commitment to help American allies in the region muster sufficient force to change the balance of power on the ground in Syria. This policy would certainly include arming and training elements of the opposition. It would also mean providing strategic guidance, intelligence support and diplomatic backing. But the single most important dimension of the policy is simply the political commitment itself—the assertion of American leadership to remove a ruthless autocrat and replace him with a regime that is more representative of the Syrian population as a whole. (Brookings Institute)

On the other hand, regime change might not be something that is in the purview of U.S. foreign policy influence. Arthur Bright, Europe Editor for the Christian Science Monitor reports on the Syria peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, “After Humanitarian Compromise, Syria Talks Run into ‘Regime Change’ Impasse – UN-sponsored talks in Switzerland yielded a provisional agreement to allow civilians to leave a besieged city, but rebel demands for a dictator’s exit are hitting a wall”:

After several days of discussion of humanitarian issues, including safe passage for women and children out of the besieged city of Homs, Syrian government officials and opposition leaders are to discuss a power transfer in Damascus, a topic where the sides remain miles apart.

Rebels, echoed by the United States, have long argued that Mr. Assad must step down under any serious peace accord. But Syrian officials are equally adamant that the possibility of such a transition is zero. UN mediator Lahkdar Brahimi, who has been overseeing the so-called Geneva 2 talks and is the only point of contact between government and rebel camps, must try to bridge this yawning gap between the two sides, which refuse to talk directly.

(…)

Depleted Resources: the three-year long Syrian conflict has left the country in ruins, including pipelines and other energy infrastructure.  Image Source: “Rebels in Syria Claim Control of Resources,” New York Times.

Depleted Resources: the three-year long Syrian conflict has left the country in ruins, including pipelines and other energy infrastructure.
Image Source: “Rebels in Syria Claim Control of Resources,” New York Times.

But the task of finding middle ground on Assad’s future looks Herculean, based on public statements from the two sides. Al Jazeera reports that Syrian officials openly dismiss any consideration of Assad’s departure, instead focusing solely on the Al-Qaeda-affiliated factions among the rebel forces.

“Let Syrians decide what is best for Syria,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad. “This war is not about President Assad, it is about Syria.”

(…)

The US and Russia, who organized the Geneva conference and are key backers of the rebels and the Assad regime respectively, remain equally far apart over Syria’s future government.

(…)

Vladimir Sazhin, senior researcher of the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, told The Christian Science Monitor that the Islamic extremists are “a headache for everybody.”

“The extremist groups are at war both with the governmental troops, and with Free Syrian Army and Kurdish formations in Kurd-populated regions,” he says. “Free Syrian Army and governmental forces should struggle against Islamic extremists, if not in the same ranks then at least in some coordinated way, probably under the UN Security Council’s aegis.”

Vladimir Sotnikov, a Middle East expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies, says that “it will be difficult to convince Americans,” however. “The only strong argument might be atrocities committed by the Islamic radical groups and the conflicts inside the opposition itself, between the moderate and radical parts of it.”

But Mr. Sotnikov says that some sort of rebel-government alliance against the extremists is something that both US and Russia could get behind. “No force that takes part in these negotiations is interested in seeing the radical Islamists … coming to power and bringing chaos to Syria and the region,” he says. “Nobody is interested in substituting an unacceptable regime for uncontrollable Islamists.” (Christian Science Monitor)

  • Renowned terrorism and intelligent expert and Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project Bruce Riedel recommends “Avoiding a U.S.-Saudi Divorce”:

As I wrote a year ago, revolutionary change in Saudi Arabia remains possible but unlikely. The Saudi-American bilateral relationship has been seriously strained in the last year by the tensions underlying the Arab Awakening and by differences over Iran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia’s resources are also increasingly strained by the costs of countering the uprisings in the region. The united States has no serious option to head off a revolution in the Kingdom, if it is coming, because we are too deeply wedded to the House of Saud. The Saudis have no realistic alternative to the American alliance either.

The Saudis were very quick to welcome the military coup in Egypt last summer; they saw it as strengthening their own position at home by removing a dangerous example of revolutionary change in the Arab world. The return to autocratic rule in Cairo reduced the risks of upheaval in other Arab states. Riyadh rapidly put together a multibillion dollar aid program for Egypt and enlisted Kuwait and the united Arab Emirates to help fund it. The aid comes with no requirement that Egypt restore democratic rule. To the contrary, it is intended to undermine our efforts to use U.S. aid to help foster reform.

The Saudis also saw their interests advanced in Bahrain and Yemen, where Saudi-backed regimes have hung on to power despite popular demands for change and human rights. Saudi troops continue to back up the Sunni minority regime in Manama, and Saudi money sustains a weak government in Sana’a.

Riyadh is especially disappointed in our policy toward Syria. The Saudis want us to take robust steps to oust the Assad regime and replace it with a pro-Saudi Sunni government. At the same time, Riyadh is anxious that Washington is prepared to appease Assad’s backer, Iran, and conclude a deal with Tehran on its nuclear program. Senior Saudi officials have been increasingly outspoken in criticizing U.S. policy, as we saw in their refusal to take up a seat on the UN Security Council, although robust cooperation continues in private on counter-terrorism and other issues.

The burden of bucking up weak autocratic regimes is becoming more costly for Riyadh. Saudi officials say the Kingdom spent more than $25 billion subsidizing its allies in Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere in 2012, and expect that burden to rise to over $30 billion in 2013 with the addition of the Egyptian account. Almost all of this aid is budgetary support, so there is virtually no economic development return. The cost of supporting the counter-revolution in the Arab and Islamic worlds adds greatly to the challenges facing the House of Saud in the years ahead.

Recommendations

As I noted last year, we have no ability to avert revolutionary change in the Kingdom if it comes. In the interim, Washington and riyadh do not share common values, but we do share some common interests such as containing Iran, fighting al Qaeda, and facilitating Assad’s departure from Syria. Neither of us has a viable alternative partner to secure those interests. While we will have to pursue our policy goals in the context of what is likely to be an increasingly disharmonious alliance, it should not be a divorce. you should continue to reach out to the King. Progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would especially help to improve ties with the Kingdom. (Brookings Institute)

The U.S.’s liability in forging a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia is well known. Between the human rights issues, their support (whether historical or current) for anti-American non-state actors, and the like, supporting increased or status quo U.S.-Saudi relations is often an unpopular position.

  • And finally Natan B. Sachs considers the nightmare scenario in which “Israeli-Palestinian Violence Erupts”

The current peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians offer a glimmer of hope for re- solving the longstanding conflict between the parties. But even as the united States works diligently to ensure the success of the talks, we should start the difficult and discreet task of preparing for their possible failure.

Failure of the talks carries a real risk—low probability but high impact—of full-blown violence between the parties. Such violence would be reminiscent of the aftermath of the Camp David negotiations in summer 2000, but it would be greatly complicated by recent upheavals in the Middle East and could spiral into a wider campaign against Israel from unstable regions in Syria and in the Sinai Peninsula. A breakout of regional violence of this kind would have profound and lasting consequences for future resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which you determined last year to be a U.S. priority in the middle East. (Brookings Institute)

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