The Middle East’s New Game

For long years under the yoke of Arabs, Turks and Iranians, the Kurds saw in the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and now in the dismemberment of the other Arab autocracies an opportunity to join the new Great Middle Eastern Game that was unleashed by the Arab Spring.

1. Strategic Realignments.

Whether or not the Arab Spring will usher in credible democracies across the Arab world remains uncertain. But, while the dust has not yet settled after months of turmoil in Tunis, Cairo, and elsewhere, the Arab revolts have already had a massive impact on the strategic structure of the Middle East. 

Until recently, the region was divided into two camps: an incoherent and weakened moderate Arab alignment, and an “Axis of Resistance,” formed by Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah, against American and Israeli designs for the region. Driven by a strategy of “zero problems” with its neighbors,” Turkey’s quest for a leading role in Middle East politics brought it closer to Syria and Iran. 

The Arab Spring exposed the fragile foundations upon which the entire Axis of Resistance was built, and has pushed it to the brink of collapse. The first to opt out was Hamas. Fearful of the consequences of the demise of its patrons in Damascus, Hamas tactically withdrew from the Axis and let Egypt lead it toward reconciliation with the pro-Western Palestinian Authority on terms that it refused under former Egyptian Hosni Mubarak. 

Nor do Iran and Turkey share a common vision with regard to the strategically sensitive Gulf region. Turkey, whose 2008 treaty with the Gulf Cooperation Council made it a strategic partner of the region’s monarchies. The stability and territorial integrity of the Gulf States is a strategic priority for Turkey; that is clearly not the case for Iran. 

The Iran-Turkey rift reflects not only ideological differences, but also a competition for mastery in the Moslem world. Both Turkey and Iran expect the new regimes to rally behind them in radically changing the region’s strategic equation through a policy that would position them as an alternative to the US-led strategic priorities in the region. 

With the West focused on the formidable challenges posed by the Arab revolts and now also with the momentous struggle against ISIS, Iran finds it easier to divert the world’s attention from its nuclear program, and also to circumvent the international sanctions regime designed to curtail its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. 

2. The Fragility of the Arab States. 

The revolutions that swept the Arab world in the last two years have exposed the extraordinary fragility of key Arab states. 

It is not entirely far-fetched to see in the future new Arab states emerging out of the debris of the old artificial ones. What happened in Yugoslavia, an ill-conceived product of Wilsonian enlightenment, can happen in the more cynical exercises of colonial state creation in the Middle East. 

Democratization in the Arab world is not only about toppling dictators; it is also about redressing the politico-ethnic map of the region. Arab states kept too many ethnic and regional groups dissatisfied. Such was particularly the case of the Kurds that were split among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Libya was created out of three former Italian colonies, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan , each of them essentially made up of a different Confederation of Tribes ( The Sa’adi in Cyrenaica, the Saff al-Bahar in Tripolitania, and the Tuareg nomads in Fezzan ). The fall of Ghadafi opened the Pandora box of their old tribal rivalries with Cyrenaica developing into a semi-autonomous entity known as Barqa. 

A major share of the responsibility for the tumult in Iraq – not to mention Syria – undoubtedly lies with the West’s pernicious colonial legacy and wrongheaded policies in the Arab Middle East. But, ultimately, the turmoil in the Arab world is a problem of the difficult encounter of an old civilization with the challenges of modernity. 

Arab countries are imploding precisely because of their incapacity to reconcile such diversity. Today, the Middle East is experiencing the collapse of the notion that Arab states can accommodate religiously diverse societies. This is not a problem that a foreign power can resolve. 

The mistake that the US has made in the Middle East has been to attempt to cut short the maturation process that major historical changes demand. Indeed, by invading Iraq, the US was effectively trying to circumvent the logic of the historical cycle. 

If Europe had to endure centuries of religious wars and two successive world wars to settle its national and ethnic disputes, how could the US expect to be able to export democracy and respect for minorities to the Middle East on the wings of F-16s? It is telling that the two most successful democratic transitions in the Arab world in recent years – Tunisia and Kurdistan – occurred with minimal meddling from the West. 

3. Palestine: Time for a New Paradigm. 

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, stymied by irreconcilable differences between the parties, has always depended on the regional strategic context. These days, the process is shaped by two major regional dynamics, the so-called Arab Spring and the Iran nuclear deal. 

The Iran deal and America’s “betrayal” of the Arab autocrats that were toppled by the Arab Spring have turned into one of the most serious crises of trust ever in the United States’ relations with its Middle East allies. Short of real alternatives, both Israel and the Arab states will find it difficult to trust future American commitments to their security. 

Nor do the Arab revolutions counsel Israel’s strategic planners to take security risks. Israel, they would say, is now surrounded by imploding, failing states (Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula), as well as by a strategically vital buffer state, Jordan, whose long-term survival cannot be taken for granted. The anarchy along Israel’s borders is becoming a breeding ground for Sunni extremists for whom the Jewish state is the ultimate enemy. To create a Palestinian state when existing Arab states are crumbling – and with a part of Palestine controlled by Hamas – does not seem like a brilliant idea. 

It is this reality that has led the Americans to endorse two Israeli positions – recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and intrusive security arrangements – that the Palestinians were bound to reject. Recognizing the “Jewish state” would be a betrayal of the constituent ethos of Palestinian nationalism, while intrusive security arrangements would be a standing invitation to radical groups to fight what would be seen as occupation in disguise.

Iran will not change its regional policies overnight even if eventually it reaches a nuclear deal with the international community; it would rather aspire to challenge America’s policies, to represent an alternative idea for the region. 

The international acceptance of Iran as a nuclear-threshold state, together with the threat emanating from imploding Arab neighbors, flatly contradicts Netanyahu’s assumptions about the conditions that must be fulfilled for Israel to offer “painful concessions” to the Palestinians. 

But, the collapse of the Kerry process should do more than provoke finger-pointing. It should spur a fundamental reconsideration of a paradigm of peacemaking – direct bilateral negotiations, under US guidance – that lost its relevance long ago. 

While the US remains an indispensable global actor, it is no longer willing to use coercive diplomacy in its quest to build a new order. 

In the Middle East alone, the US has overstretched its capabilities in two controversial wars; repeatedly failed to broker a peace between Israel and Palestine; estranged key regional powers; and performed disappointingly on issues like Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war. All of this has diminished its capacity to shape the region’s future. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in his bid for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, operated as if conflict resolution could be achieved through non-coercive solutions, deriving from the good will of the relevant parties. According to this plainly naïve approach, the negotiation process operates according to its own embedded logic, independent of considerations of power, coercion, and leverage. 

But treating force and diplomacy as distinct phases of foreign policy gives the negotiating parties the sense that American power lacks purpose and resolve. Diplomatic ripening sometimes requires the mediator to be a manipulator and an arm-twister.

Indeed, America’s only successful attempts at peace diplomacy in the Middle East involved a masterly combination of power, manipulation, and pressure. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used it to lead Israel toward groundbreaking interim settlements with Egypt and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur War. President Jimmy Carter used it to conclude the 1978 Camp David Accords, establishing diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. And Secretary of State James Baker used it to overcome the recalcitrance of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. 

If the US cannot provide this today, it must relinquish its monopoly on international conflict resolution. It is time for the US to recognize that it cannot resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, defuse the Iranian nuclear dispute, change North Korea’s behavior, or stop the Syrian civil war on its own.

Over the last two decades, the world grew accustomed to US-led international coalitions for war in the Middle East. America should now try to form a different kind of coalition ¬– one aimed at achieving peace. Such an alliance would entail a larger role for the other three members of the so-called “Middle East Quartet” – the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations – and key Arab countries. 

Within this new peace paradigm, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would become amenable to a truly international solution. If Iran’s nuclear program demands negotiations with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, and North Korea’s requires the so-called “six-party talks,” why should the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be left exclusively to the US?

Under a truly international paradigm, the principles underlying a peace deal – two states along the 1967 border, with territorial swaps to accommodate Israel’s settlement blocs, two capitals in Jerusalem, an agreed solution to the refugee problem that, and robust security arrangements – could be enshrined in a Security Council resolution. After establishing the terms of a fair deal, the international alliance – under US leadership – could devise an implementation strategy.

Such an international approach would also require a broader peace process, aimed at achieving a regional settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. This is critical, because the future Palestinian state could not offer Israel much security. Even now, Palestine is a relatively minor security challenge for Israel; the more formidable threats, which have compelled Israel to build up its military considerably, come from the Arab states that surround it.

The promise of a regional settlement offering Israel the needed security guarantee – not to mention a considerable boost to its international standing – would make it more digestible for its leaders to make the painful concessions, including compromises on borders and Jerusalem, that are critical to the creation of a Palestinian state. The initiators of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative understood this; perhaps now the US will come to appreciate it as well. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.