Middle East Desperate for a Course Correction

10 April 2015
President Obama has again spoken to Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times. Although the interview essentially aimed at reassuring the people of Israel and Congressional opponents that the framework agreed upon in Lausanne represents the best possible solution under the circumstances, what the President said about the root causes of Middle East turmoil was also important.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on 24 September 2013 the President had said, “The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. But we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals…”

This was before ISIS emerged as an additional threat to stability in the Middle East and beyond.

During his last interview the President went a step further. “As for protecting our Sunni Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia”, the President told Mr. Friedman, “they have some very real external threats, but they also have some internal threats — populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances. And so part of our job is to work with these states and say, ‘How can we build your defense capabilities against external threats, but also, how can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [the Islamic State, or ISIS] to choose from. … I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. … That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

I could not agree more. Without reform worse would follow. What Mr. Obama said is also true in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Mahmoud Abbas is still the best interlocutor for Israel. If Mr. Netanyahu remains unwilling to make peace with him, his successor will be Hamas. And Hamas would probably be followed by the likes of ISIL.

I also understand from this last interview that President Obama hopes that a nuclear deal may bring about a change, at some stage, in Iran’s behavior and such change together with enhanced security and defense cooperation with Sunni states may lead to a new regional equilibrium, help bridge the Sunni-Shia divide and enable focusing on extremism.

As I wrote in a previous spot, if Arab countries are uncomfortable with Iran’s growing power they have to either collectively offer a counter-weight or seek accommodation. To offer a counter-weight they would need to put behind the Arab spring turmoil through national dialogue and reform and revive Arab identity.

The Guardian’s Middle East editor Ian Black, in his article entitled “Sunni v Shia: why the conflict is more political than religious” put this in historical context:
“In the glory days of the post-colonial era the focus was on creating an overarching Arab and national identity. Syria with its mosaic of Sunnis, Alawites, Druze and many Christian communities, boasted of being the “beating heart of Arabism”. Even in Lebanon, with its elaborate power-sharing arrangements, confessional identity remained a private matter. Intermarriage was common.
“The Ba’ath party, which ruled in both Baghdad and Damascus, was the creation of a Christian ideologue, Michel Aflaq. Two radical Palestinian leaders, George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, were Christians. So was George Antonius, the great historian of Arab nationalism.
“In Iraq, carved by the British out of three Ottoman provinces, a poor, largely rural, Shia majority, a Sunni minority, and the Kurds were the predominant groups. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, tried to co-opt them all; all were oppressed.

“Change was driven by Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, a cataclysmic moment in Middle Eastern history and an inspiring one for downtrodden Shia everywhere…”

Indeed, Syria and Iraq were examples of that overarching Arab identity which was squandered in a vicious circle of conflict for which all regional countries are to blame.
Nevertheless, responsibility for Middle East peace and stability lies primarily with regional countries. And they can only shoulder this responsibility through energizing a multilateral regional process which rests on three pillars:
• Arab internal peace through reform and national dialogue,
• Intraregional dialogue, and
• The settlement of the Palestinian issue.

It is obvious that none of this is going to happen any time soon. Yet, “business as usual” no longer seems to be an option with the war in Syria and widening conflict in Libya and Yemen. Creating regional consciousness about the need to talk and launching a process must be the first steps. President Obama’s doctrine of engagement should inspire regional leaders. For all this to happen, the Arab League and the long forgotten Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) need to come out of the shadows. If these two international bodies remain incapable of making a difference after four years of Arab Spring turmoil, they both should be closed down and their funds should go to supporting the millions of Middle Eastern refugees.

President Erdogan visited Iran on Tuesday. It seems that he and President Rouhani used some common language on the imperative to talk and stop Middle East bloodshed. President Rouhani said: “We had a comprehensive discussion about Yemen.” Better late than never since the Saudi-led air operations are not likely to lead anywhere.

Of course Turkey’s greatest service to itself and the region could have been further democratization through continued reform. This could have turned Turkey into the North Star of the Middle East and help others find direction. Now we fit the definition of a shooting star; a sudden and temporary brilliance soon gone…

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