The Middle East: More Confusing Than Ever…

10 August 2015

Contrary to initial expectations the Arab Spring brought further chaos to a region already troubled by unresolved conflicts; beset by internal political, economic and social problems. But widening sectarian clashes and the emergence of ISIL have added new dimensions to a tradition of proxy wars, secret dealings and shifting alliances.

Syria:
With nearly 250,000 lives lost, 6.5 million internally displaced, 3.5 million struggling as refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, the country is now in fragmentation.
At the end of July, UN envoy to Syria Stefan di Mistura invited the warring parties to join “thematic talks” to keep alive efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict. The title chosen may reflect an obligation to find common ground. It may also signal that running out of patience and about to exhaust diplomatic formulas to reconcile disparate interests di Mistura could become the third UN envoy after Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi to say enough is enough.
On August 5, the US and Russia agreed to a UN Security Council resolution to identify and hold accountable the users of chlorine bombs in the war. This was the first instance the two powers agreed on something concrete on Syria since the launching of the program for the elimination of the country’s chemical weapons.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Muallem’s visit to Oman constitutes an important development in view of Oman’s diplomatic record as a regional mediator. Just as significant are the unconfirmed reports of a Russian-brokered meeting between Syrian and Saudi officials.
The question now is the possible impact of the Iran nuclear deal on the Syrian conflict. Opinion is divided.

Combating ISIL:
Analysts also differ as to when, if ever, ISIL could be “degraded and defeated”. Some believe that the group has already been cornered. Others think that the battle will be long and progress incremental.
Turkey’s allowing the anti-ISIL coalition to use the İncirlik air base is a significant development but its impact on ISIL remains to be seen in view of “competing agendas” of Ankara and Washington.
Mr. Robert Ford, last US Ambassador to Syria told the CNN a few days ago that “… it would be very helpful if the Turks finally seal their border so that the Islamic State cannot infiltrate fighters, infiltrate supplies and ex-filtrate back into Turkey for medical treatment their wounded fighters that would be a hugely positive step…”
As for Iraq, it appears that the Government in Baghdad still remains unable, reluctant or at least hesitant in taking steps to reconcile with its Sunni population and provide them with the means to combat ISIL. The political implications of PM Abadi’s new anti-corruption drive remain to be seen.
On August 6, a suicide bomb attack claimed the lives of fifteen members of the Saudi security forces in the city of Abha close to the Yemeni border. The attack was claimed by the ISIL which had previously claimed two deadly attacks on Shia mosques in May. This may be yet another reason for Riyadh to review its priorities and start focusing on ISIL and its likes since they represent an extremely serious internal security threat.

Yemen:
The UN has constantly been warning of a humanitarian disaster in Yemen with 80% of Yemenis in need of aid but the fighting is escalating. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has now sent a military brigade to aid pro-government fighters battling the Houthis. These fighters have recently made some gains with the support of the Saudi-led coalition but there is no question that a victory over the rebels would only be a Pyrrhic one. The US, while publicly supporting the Saudi-led military campaign must be advising an end to it behind closed doors.

Libya:
Four years after the fall of Gaddafi Libya remains plagued with instability. The country is under the control of hundreds of armed groups which are divided on multiple lines. According to the UN a new round of talks are scheduled to be launched in Geneva today in a push to persuade warring parties to agree on a unity government and end the violence. Continued failure to compromise may raise the risk of Libya becoming a failed state.

Europe’s refugee problem:
Despite hundreds and hundreds of deaths in the Mediterranean the exodus towards Europe continues unabated. The UNHCR has called the refugee crisis on the Greek islands of Kos, Chios and Lesbos “total chaos”. All the new arrivals are from the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Italy is also struggling to cope with refugees setting out from Libya underlining the negative consequences of the hasty Western military intervention in that country. The situation is leading to strains among EU member states and there could be more trouble with Turkey belatedly waking up to the reality of 2 million Syrian refugees who are mostly to stay for good.

Iran nuclear deal:
With the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) approved by the UN Security Council the world is now watching the battle being waged by PM Netanyahu against the deal and President Obama, a rather surprising picture for one of world’s few lasting “strategic” relationships. Whether this is totally about the Iran deal or also the venting of pent-up anger with the Obama administration’s efforts to promote İsraeli-Palestinian peace remains to be understood. Whatever his reasons, it appears that during a time of increasing Western frustration with Israel, PM Netanyahu has surprisingly turned his opposition to the nuclear deal into a vendetta to humiliate the US President before his country’s legislative branch. Internal political calculations both on the Israeli and American side are also playing their part in this nuclear drama.
By contrast, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt have given “cautious” support to the deal reflecting a more realistic approach.
In the meantime high level delegations from Europe are racing to Tehran with a view to securing their share of the economic benefits that would accrue to Iran with the lifting of the sanctions.

In a nutshell, the US is lobbying its friends in the Gulf and adversaries on Capitol Hill to support the Iran nuclear deal. Israel, principal US ally in the region is waging a battle to defeat it. Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia had cooled because of disagreements over the ouster Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt only to warm up later by the shared desire to defeat Assad. Unconfirmed reports that the Saudis are talking to Assad can upset the Turkish Government. All three countries are threatened by ISIL. Yet Riyadh and Ankara on one side and Damascus on the other accuse each other of having given it some support at some stage. Reviled Iran is now seen by some as a future candidate for the role of a partner for the West. Iraq which had fought an eight-year war with Iran is somewhat out of favor because it is siding with Iran on Syria and is not doing enough to combat ISIL. The US wants to leave Afghanistan but the Taliban is extending its hospitality.
What are the conclusions I draw from this broad Middle East picture as a student of international relations?
The two proverbs which are often referred to in the context of conflict management, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and “may the snake which does not bite me live a thousand years” have once again proved to be wrong.
So how about,
“The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend,
“No one can even tell who is a real friend.”

And,

“A snake is always a snake,
“Beware of what it can fake.”

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