Middle East: The Next Four Years
Dispatches From The Edge
Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of
foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of
them global. Dispatches From The Edge will try to
outline and analyze them, starting with the Middle
The most immediate problem in the region is the
on-going civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and
international ramifications. The war--which the
oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its
crushing of pro-democracy protests-- has drawn in
Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the
monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi
Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain
are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow
the Assad government.
The war has killed more than 30,000 people and
generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have
flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has
also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran.
The former supports the insurrection, the latter
supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a
certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based
Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim
opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout
The war itself appears to be a stalemate. So far, the
regime's army remains loyal, but seems unable to defeat
the insurrection. The opposition, however, is deeply
splintered and ranges from democratic nationalists to
extremist jihadist groups. The US and Britain are
trying to weld this potpourri into a coherent political
opposition, but so far the attempts have floundered on
a multiplicity of different and conflicting agendas by
the opponents of the Assad regime.
Efforts by the United Nations (UN) to find a peaceful
solution have been consistently torpedoed, because the
opposition and its allies insist on regime change. The
goal of overthrowing the government makes this a fight
to the death and leaves little room for political
maneuvering. A recent ceasefire failed, in part,
because jihadist groups supported by Qatar and Saudi
Arabia refused to abide by it and set off several car
bombs in the capital. The Sunni extremism of these
groups is whipping up sectarian divisions among the
various sects of Islam.
There are a number of things the Obama administration
could do to alleviate the horrors of the current civil
First, it should drop the demand for regime change,
although this does not necessarily mean that President
Assad will remain in power. What must be avoided is the
kind of regime change that the war in Libya ushered in.
Libya has essentially become a failed state, and the
spinoff from that war is wreaking havoc in countries
that border the Sahara, Mali being a case in point. In
the end, Assad may go, but to dismantle the Baathist
government is to invite the kind of sectarian and
political chaos that the dissolution of the Baathist
regime in Iraq produced.
Second, if the US and its allies are enforcing an arms
embargo against Assad's government, they must insist on
the same kind of embargo on arms sent to the rebels by
Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Third, China and Russia should be asked to negotiate a
ceasefire and organize a conference aimed at producing
a political settlement and transition government. China
recently proposed a four-point peace plan that could
serve as a starting point for talks. A recent Assad
government controlled newspaper, Al Thawra, suggested
the Damascus regime would be open to such negotiations.
A key aspect to such talks would be a guarantee that no
outside power would undermine them.
The conflict that will not speak its name--or at least
that is the way the current impasse between Israel and
the Palestinians was treated during the 2012 US
elections. But as U.S. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S.
Central Command, the military formation responsible for
the Middle East, said last spring, the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a "preeminent flame
that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East,
particularly as the Arab Awakening causes Arab
governments to be more responsive to the sentiments of
their populations" that support the Palestinians.
Rather than moving toward a solution, however, the
government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
recently announced yet another round of settlement
building. There are approximately 500,000 Jewish
settlers currently on the West Bank and East Jerusalem,
although all such settlements are a violation of
international law. While Netanyahu says he wants
negotiations, he continues to build settlements, which
is like negotiating over how to divide a pizza while
one of the parties is eating it.
Proposals to annex the West Bank, once the program of
far-right settlers, have gone mainstream. A conference
this past July in the West Bank city of Hebron drew
more than 500 Israelis who reject the idea of a
Palestinian state. The gathering included a number of
important Likud Party officials and members of the
Knesset. Likud is Netanyahu's party and currently leads
the Israeli government.
"Friends, everybody here today knows that there is a
solution--applying sovereignty [over the West Bank]. One
state for the Jewish people with an Arab minority,"
Likud Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely told the audience.
Conference organizer Yehudit Katsover put the matter
bluntly "We're all here to say one thing: the land of
Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!"
A major argument against absorbing the West Bank is
that it would dilute the Jewish character of Israel and
threaten the country's democratic institutions. "As
long as in this territory west of the Jordan River
there is only one political entity called Israel it is
going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,"
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues. "If this
bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will
be an apartheid state."
But right-wing conference goers dismissed that argument
because they reject that there is a demographic threat
from the Palestinians. According to The Times of
Israel, former ambassador to the US, Yoram Ettinger,
told the crowd that estimates of the Palestinian
population are based on "Palestinian incompetence or
lying" and that there are actually a million fewer than
the official population count.
Legal expert Yitzhak Bam said he expected there would
be no fallout from the Americans if Israel unilaterally
annexed the West Bank, since Washington did not protest
the 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria.
Both areas were conquered in the 1967 War.
The Times reporter Raphael Ahern writes that that the
conference reflects "The annexationists are growing in
confidence, demanding in outspoken fashion what they
always dreamed of but have never dared to say quite so
The expanding settlements are rapidly making the
possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible.
Eventually there will be no pizza left to divide.
The Obama administration has dropped the ball on this
issue and needs to re-engage, lest the "pot" boil over.
First, the Tel Aviv government needs to be told that
all settlement expansion must cease, and that failure
to do so will result in a suspension of aid. At about
$3.4 billion a year, Israel is the US's number one
foreign aid recipient.
Second, the US must stop blocking efforts by the
Palestinians for UN recognition.
Third, negotiations must cover not only the West Bank
and Gaza, but also the status of East Jerusalem. The
latter is the engine of the Palestinian economy, and
without it a Palestinian state would not be viable.
The immediate danger of a war with Iran appears to have
slightly receded, although the Israelis are always a
bit of a wild card. First, the Obama administration
explicitly rejected Netanyahu's "red line" that would
trigger an attack on Teheran. The Israeli prime
minister argues that Iran must not be allowed to
achieve the "capacity" to produce nuclear weapons, a
formulation that would greatly lower the threshold for
an assault. Second, there are persistent rumors that
the US and Iran are exploring one-on-one talks, and it
appears that some forces within Iran that support
talks--specifically former president Ayatollah Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani-- are in the ascendency.
Netanyahu continues to threaten war, but virtually his
entire military and intelligence apparatus is opposed
to a unilateral strike. Israeli intelligence is not
convinced that Iran is building a bomb, and the Israeli
military doesn't think it has the forces or weapons to
do the job of knocking out Iran's nuclear
infrastructure. Polls also indicate overwhelming
opposition among the Israeli public for a unilateral
attack. This doesn't mean Netanyahu won't attack Iran,
just that the danger does not seem immediate. If Israel
should choose to launch a war, the Obama administration
should make it clear that Tel Aviv is on its own.
US intelligence and the Pentagon are pretty much on the
same page as the Israelis regarding Iran's nuclear
program. Even with its powerful military, US generals
are not convinced that an attack would accomplish much
more than delaying Iran's program by from three to five
years. At least at this point, the Pentagon would
rather talk than fight. "We are under the impression
that the Iranian regime is a rational actor," says Gen.
Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Polls also indicate that nearly 70 percent of the
American public favors negotiations over war.
In short, a lot of ducks are now in a row to cut a
However, the US cannot make uranium enhancement a red
line. Iran has the right to enhance nuclear fuel under
the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as long
as inspectors are in place--as they currently are--it is
virtually impossible to create bomb-level fuel in
Not only has intelligence failed to show that Iran is
creating a nuclear weapons program, the country's
leader has explicitly rejected such a step. "The
Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue
nuclear weapons," says the country's supreme leader
Ayatollah Khamenei, calling nuclear weapons "a great
and unforgivable sin." The Iranian government has also
indicated that it will take part in a UN-sponsored
conference in Helsinki to create a nuclear-free zone in
the Middle East.
The Obama administration should endorse this effort to
abolish nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although
this will force it to confront the only nuclear power
in the Middle East, Israel. Israel is not a NPT
signatory and is thought to have some 200 nuclear
weapons. Such a monopoly cannot long endure. The
argument that Israel needs nuclear weapons because it
is so outnumbered in the region is nonsense. Israel has
by far the strongest military in the Middle East and
powerful protectors in the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO). While Egypt and Syria did attack
Israel in 1973, it was to recover territories seized by
Tel Aviv in the 1967 war, not an attempt to destroy the
country. And that was almost 40 years ago. Since then
Israel has invaded Lebanon twice and Gaza once.
Countries in the region fear Israel, not visa-a-versa.
While the White House has recently eased restrictions
on the sale of critical medicines to Iran, the
sanctions are taking a terrible toll on the economy and
the average Iranian. So far, the US has not explicitly
said it will remove the sanctions if talks are showing
real progress. Since no one likes negotiating with a
gun to the head--in this regard Iranians are no
different than Americans--there should be some good
faith easing of some of the more onerous restrictions,
like those on international banking and oil sales.
Lastly, the option of war needs to be taken off the
table. Threatening to bomb people in order to get them
not to produce nuclear weapons will almost certainly
spur Iran (and other countries) to do exactly the
opposite. A war with Iran would also be illegal. The
British attorney general recently informed the
Parliament that an attack on Iran would violate
international law, because Iran does not pose a "clear
and present danger," and recommended that the US not be
allowed to use the British-controlled island of Diego
Garcia in the Indian Ocean to launch such an attack.
Because US relies on the energy resources of the
Persian Gulf countries, as well as strategic basing
rights, it is unlikely that the Obama administration
will challenge the foreign and domestic policies of its
allies in the region. But then Washington should not
pretend that its policies there have anything to do
with promoting democracy.
The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation
Council, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are monarchies
that not only suppress dissent but also systematically
oppress women and minorities and, in the case of
Bahrain, the Shite majority. The extreme jihadist
organizations that the countries of the Gulf fund and
arm are destabilizing governments across the region and
throughout Central Asia. Washington may bemoan
extremism in Pakistan, but its Gulf allies can claim
the lion's share of the credit for nurturing the groups
responsible for that extremism.
The Gulf Council is not interested in promoting
democracy--indeed, political pluralism is one of its
greatest enemies, nor does it have much interest in the
modern world, aside from fancy cars and personal jet
planes. This past summer Saudi Arabia executed a man
for possessing "books and talismans from which he
learned to harm God's worshippers," and last year
beheaded a man and a woman for witchcraft.
Lastly, the Obama administration should repudiate the
1979 Carter Doctrine that allows the US to use military
force to guarantee access to energy resources in the
Middle East. That kind of thinking went out with 19th
century gunboats and hangs like the Damocles Sword over
any country in the region that might decide to carve
out an independent policy on politics and energy.
Conn Hallinan can be read at
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