2015, a year of wishful thinking on Mideast conflicts
Andrew Bowen/Al Arabiya/December 23/15
For some, 2015 will be seen as a year of magical thinking. No one could of fully expected that an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 would be signed nor would there be a Vienna process on Syria. Few would have expected that new leadership would transform arguably a number of countries’ economic and strategic outlooks. Regional states importantly deepened their own cooperation against common challenges, as evidenced by Yemen. The new global military coalition (albeit off to a wobbly start) is an important step in regional states taking leadership to confront common challenges at a time when Washington’s commitment to its allies is adjusting and other global powers notably Russia are re-engaging the region.
A sea of turbulence
At the same time, a number of turbulent events have shaken the region including dropping oil prices, cuts in public expenditures, ISIS’s continued onslaught, Iran’s nuclear agreement with the P5 + 1, a deepening civil war in Yemen, and Iran and Russia’s intervention in Syria. Despite some progress in Libya, peace remains far off in Yemen. While there is greater will and resolve to confront ISIS, a solution remains elusive and its impact can be felt from the Sinai to Mosul. From Cairo to Algiers, deep economic challenges remain with few clear solutions. Despite Tunisia being heralded as a model in North Africa, Tunis’ post-Ali governments have struggled to address the state’s socio-economic disparities. 2015 may better be seen as a year of wishful thinking. Despite some transformative moments, this year was arguably one of the most challenging and disappointing in many respects.
Iran and Russia’s regional push
Even though Iran has faced setbacks on the battlefield, Tehran’s influence in the Arab world is at its highest point in decades. Iran, its allies, and its proxies reach from Sanaa to Aleppo. Despite this magical thinking in some circles in Washington that Iran would change, once clenching the agreement, Ayatollah Khamenei has gone on the offensive to further shore up Iran’s interests at the expense of its neighbors. The JCPOA agreement has only further empowered Iran economically and militarily as it further asserts itself in the region. Tehran within a decade could even have a nuclear weapon. Despite clamoring about the proposed U.S. visa changes as a violation of the nuclear agreement, Iran had no problem violating U.N. Security Council resolutions when it conducted a ballistic missile test.
Despite some transformative moments, this year was arguably one of the most challenging and disappointing
The Vienna Syria talks are progressing, but the critical question of Assad’s future remains a deep point of disagreement. While Riyadh’s efforts in organizing the opposition are making important gains, the timeline set out in the recent U.N. resolution is largely unrealistic. At the same time, Moscow and Tehran are continuing to surge forward in trying to buttress Assad’s crumbling regime. Washington naively thought that Russia and Iran would be incentivized to reach an agreement due to the costs of their military campaigns. In reality, even without Assad, Iran has effectively built an entrenched deep state in Syria. Humanitarian access continues to be limited and President Assad’s barrel bombing of Syrian civilians continues. Syria’s debilitating civil war also continues to reach far beyond its borders, even as far as Europe which faces one of the largest refugee crises since the end of the Second World War. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq continue to bear the costs of the civil war. No real path exists yet for their large refugee communities to return home. It’s a positive step that Lebanon may soon close to reaching an agreement on a president, but these states continue to face deep political, economic, and security challenges which will likely be exacerbated further as the civil war further grinds on.
Absence of American leadership
In the face of these challenges, President Obama remained cautiously disinterested as his “strategy” for protecting America’s global interests and the security of the homeland crumbled around him. Obama repeatedly ignored warnings that Syria’s collapse would endanger the region’s stability and the U.S.’s interests. Despite the President’s surprise about ISIS’s rise and its threat to the U.S. homeland, he has yet to recalibrate his strategy. Tilting to Asia has always been more appealing than having to exercise global leadership on complex challenges, which he liberally threw on his predecessor.
In the one area where he chose to exercise U.S. leadership, Obama became consumed in the belief that engagement can change regions and quickly solve global challenges. Obama’s wholehearted embrace of a nuclear deal hasn’t produced the change in Iran’s engagement with the U.S. that he expected. Obama also made the wrong bet that Iran could be a partner against ISIS. At the same time, Obama failed to effectively engage America’s long-standing allies in the region about the nuclear negotiations until mid-way through the negotiations. Despite making commitments at Camp David that his administration would support these states to counter-Iranian aggression, Obama has left regional leaders questioning when he will ever follow through with those commitments.
2016: a year of transition?
With Obama’s presidency in its final year and a new U.S. President elected in November 2016, Washington’s role in the region will be increasingly a transitory one. Obama will unlikely make any major shifts in his engagement with the region. He will continue his engagement with Iran despite Tehran’s proclivity already to violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and its aggressive behavior. His administration will continue to pursue a low-resourced anti-ISIS strategy, barring a major attack on the U.S. homeland. Obama will hope that the Vienna talks will continue to the end of his presidency. By supporting the new U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria, he effectively accepted that President Assad will stay in power in some form until the end of his presidency and that Syria will be his successor’s challenge. He will hope that Libya will reach a settlement. It’s unlikely that his commitments to his allies will change that substantially despite his rhetorical promises. 2016 has the potential to be a year of transitions if the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya can be put on a more sustainable diplomatic path (already, there is a modicum of progress on Libya and Syria, despite the need for careful skepticism). Next year will be one to watch to see how Iran engages and acts in the region as it experiences the benefits of economic investment. Next year is also a moment of transition as the region’s new leaders further build on their important economic reforms in the face of lower oil prices.
Pessimistically, 2016 could be quite similar to 2015 if the few positive gains of this past year aren’t built on.
We have a common dream: A happy Middle East Jamal Khashoggi/Al Arabiya/December 23/15
This article was co-authored by Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati academic and professor of political sciences, and chairperson of the Arab Council for Social Sciences.Researchers, ambassadors, and maybe former members of intelligence services representing countries involved in the Syrian crisis, gathered in Beirut for two days at the invitation of the Middle East Institute, which receives American and Arab support. The first day’s sessions were discouraging – we blamed each other, some insisting on adopting their government’s position and justifying the unjustifiable, such as bombing and killing civilians in Syria.
Discussions heated up on the second day. One of us shouted at an Iranian researcher who equated Wahhabism to Nazism. In the final session, the American-Lebanese moderator asked us to think about the future with utmost boldness and freedom. One of us replied: “Let’s assume that wars are over, that crises have magically disappeared, that the Arab Gulf countries are on good terms with Iran, that the situation in Iraq and Syria has stabilized, that Egypt has recovered its strength, and that concerns about Turkey have disappeared. Let us imagine all of that across a large, stable, prosperous, cooperative Middle East, from Iran in the east to Mauritania in the west, and from Aden in the south to Istanbul in the north. Let us dream of a happy Middle East, and think together on how to develop the capacities and potential of its countries and people to achieve this dream.”
This vision diffused a positive energy, prompting us to get carried away with our thoughts despite them being utopian. “No dream is impossible when it’s accompanied by long-term strategic planning,” said an American-Lebanese researcher.
The dream of a happy Middle East stems from the womb of a distressed, dark, sad reality. If we give in to the many obstacles and constraints, the dream will disappear along with the quest to achieve it
An Iraqi colleague proposed that his country provide food and water to the Gulf countries via the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A Turkish researcher considered his country as a passage for Iraqi and Gulf oil and gas toward international markets. Elderly researchers regained their youth, as if they were students in a virtual laboratory where they discovered a promising future for the region. The Emirati spokesman tried to reconcile between utopia and reality, suggesting the replacement of rivalries with “complementary functional relations,” meaning that for example, the countries of the region might discuss, with the support of friendly international powers, the water crisis that threatens the existence of some states and is no less dangerous than political conflicts and extremism. Had the current warring states put their differences aside, seeking solutions to their water and food problems and addressing the concerns of their youth, they would have been much happier today.
Learning by example
A former American ambassador in many Arab countries reminded participants of the Helsinki Accords, which constituted the start of unprecedented cooperation between the two sides of the Cold War. The agreement was based on “non-intervention in internal affairs, equality, the respect of citizenship rights and political and civil freedoms, national sovereignty, the inviolability of frontiers and territorial integrity, the peaceful settlement of disputes and refraining from the threat or use of force, the right of peoples to self-determination, the consolidation of cooperation manifestations, and the fulfillment of international commitments and pledges in line with the Charter of the United Nations and the provisions of international law.”If the countries of the region had applied these principles, the Middle East would have been in a much better situation than it is now (being the most violent region in the world). This dream seems far-fetched for the Middle East, but why should we not dream?
Europe emerged very weak from World War II, and began its journey of change with a dream of unity. The past 70 years have been the longest period of prosperity in its history. The same applies to Asia, which was immersed in crises and extreme poverty, but started its journey with a dream of economic development, turning the continent into a new economic center. The dream of a happy Middle East stems from the womb of a distressed, dark, sad reality. If we give in to the many obstacles and constraints – such as the lack of democracy, the monopolization of power, corruption, sectarianism, hypocrisy, and political and ideological disputes – the dream will disappear along with the quest to achieve it. We are certain that we are not the only ones dreaming of a happy Middle East. Half a century ago, then-ruler of Dubai Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed dreamt that his city would become like Basra, which used to be called the Venice of the East. He was able, with much effort and planning, to achieve his dream.
As if he was present with us in Beirut, his son and current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, tweeted to his 5 million followers: “Our Arab region needs wisdom to dismantle its political bottlenecks, governance to manage its human and financial resources, and active governments that can lead a real development.”This tweet came from someone with an Arab success story that started with a dream of a city ranking high on the list of the world’s happiest cities. That dream can be enjoyed by the whole region, away from violence, extremism, misery, tyranny and corruption. We can turn this dream into reality.