The politics of the Middle East are undergoing a period of great turbulence emanating out of the changes in direction of the regional policies pursued by the United States. When the ship makes a turnaround, it has to be over an arc, and it is now possible to discern the reset of the compass.
This is primarily being felt in the Obama administration’s rethink on the Syrian conflict and its decision to constructively engage with Iran. Neither is an afterthought, but rather they took time to mature…
To take Syria first, Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York needs no introduction as an influential voice in the US foreign policy establishment. His views on the Syrian conflict will always merit attention – especially when aired through the Voice of America.
Gelb made four key points on Syria in an exclusive interview with the VOA:
· The spectre that haunts all the parties inside Syria as well as the US’s friends and allies who neighbor on Syria – Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Israel – is the rise of the ‘jihadis’.
· The elimination of the ‘jihadis’ will take time because they are seasoned fighters and it is best achieved through cooperation between the Syrian regime and the moderate rebels. The basis of such cooperation could be through “a power-sharing arrangement, mainly along federal lines.”
· There is urgency to lay the basis of cooperation between the regime and the moderate rebels – that is, “how they could compromise and live together.” Or else, Geneva 2 may not prove productive.
· The US is “beginning to change direction” as it has “finally figured out… that the only way to stop this fighting is to work something out between the moderate rebels and the Alawites. For example, we’ve (US) stopped that Syria’s president, Assad, must go. That used to be the hallmark of our policy. We don’t say it anymore. We just say he’s lost legitimacy. And we want him and his government to come and participate in negotiations. So that’s changed. Also changed has the notion that we can simply help the rebels because we finally realized that we don’t exactly know who they are and what they can do. They’ve never gotten fully organized. And there’s a big gap, it seems, between the rebels we deal with and that council [Syrian National Coalition] in Turkey and the good rebels fighting in the field.”
Indeed, it is palpable that the US is currently supportive of the series of diplomatic initiatives Moscow has been taking in the recent weeks in a renewed push for a Syrian peace conference. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met the Syrian National Coalition [SNC] figures in Istanbul last week. The SNC has also come under American pressure to accept Russia’s invitation to go to Moscow to discuss the peace conference.
Quite obviously, the Russian and American diplomats at their next meeting in Geneva on Monday will review the progress of their work and determine the exact date of the Geneva 2 conference, which according to the announcement on Monday by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon can be expected in mid-December.
Equally, there has been a sea change in the US-Iran standoff. The probability is high that the ongoing meeting of the P5+1 and Iran at Geneva, which began on Wednesday, would finalize an interim nuclear deal. Contrary to the widely held impression that the Obama administration’s push to reach an interim agreement with Iran would be torpedoed on Capitol Hill, the Democratic leadership in the US Senate, in particular the heads of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, and Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, have concurred that this would be a bad time to impose new sanctions against Iran when negotiations are under way.
Again, the former US national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft have written a letter to the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid strongly pleading, “More sanctions now as these unprecedented negotiations are just getting underway would reconfirm Iranians in their belief that the U.S. is not prepared to make any agreement with the current government of Iran. We call on all Americans and the U.S. Congress to stand firmly with the President in the difficult but historic negotiations with Iran.”
Indeed, Gelb himself is on record that short-term deal “would lead to the Mideast equivalent of ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union … [and] could reduce, even sharply, the biggest threat to regional peace, an Iranian nuclear bomb, and open paths to taming dangerous conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”
Thus, there is cautious optimism that an agreement can be finalized by the end of this week. The leaders of Russia, China and Britain have had telephone conversation this week with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The statement issued by the White House after a two-hour meeting President Obama, along with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice had with US senators on Tuesday said, "We have the opportunity to halt the progress of the Iranian program and roll it back in key respects, while testing whether a comprehensive resolution can be achieved." It warned that if there is not an initial agreement, Iran will keep making progress on increasing enrichment capacity, growing its stockpiles of enriched uranium, installing new centrifuges and developing a plutonium reactor in the city of Arak.
Meanwhile, Iran’s surprise announcement dropping its insistence that the world powers should acknowledge explicitly its right to enrich uranium deftly sidesteps a potentially tendentious aspect of the dispute and shifts the emphasis to the practical steps that can be agreed on in an interim agreement.
Of course, it is not going to be a cakewalk for the Obama administration and a showdown is still very much possible between the White House and the Congress on the Iran issue. The conflict in Syria is not so much a contentious (and emotive) issue for the US political establishment as the situation around Iran is, but then, on the other hand, everything is snowballing ultimately to how the Obama administration runs the US foreign policy in the Middle East in the remaining three years of this presidency.
What makes this a high stakes contestation is that this is both a real time fight within the US political establishment for control of current policies as also a struggle over long-term issues. Besides, the relations between the Obama administration and the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have entered uncharted waters and the latter has launched a full-scale attack on the entire trajectory of the US president’s Middle East policies. Compounding matters further, Israel’s concerns are not exclusively its, but are also shared by the US’s other key allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.
The point is, due to a combination of circumstances – the searing experience in Iraq, crisis of the US economy, war weariness in the domestic public opinion as well as against the backdrop of the rebalance in Asia – Washington wishes to reduce its military “footprint” in the Middle East, whereas, the US’ alliances in the region almost pushed the Obama administration into launching new wars against Syria and Iran. In his United Nations General Assembly speech in September, President Obama virtually admitted the US’ helplessness in modulating the Arab Spring and spelt out that Washington’s core concerns in the Middle East would narrow down to four areas – protect the allies from external aggression, ensure free flow of oil, prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and counter the al-Qaeda threat.
Conceivably, therefore, the US is distancing itself from its tangled alliances so as to avoid being hustled into conflicts or interventions under pressure from its closest regional allies in the event of any turmoil erupting in countries such as Egypt, Jordan or Bahrain. In a manner of speaking, the Obama administration is seeking an optimal regional policy to suit the US interests rather than the Israeli or Saudi interests. This does not mean a ‘strategic retreat’ from the region and it does not necessarily mean that the US interventionism is over and done with forever. But what it means is that Washington’s actions will be guided by the range of US interests rather than by one of playing second fiddle to Israeli demands or Saudi regional ambitions. If this reset is carried to its logical conclusion, the balance of forces in the Middle East will be transformed beyond recognition.
Suffice to say, if the P5+1 and Iran talks currently under way in Geneva do result in an interim agreement, the path leading to the Geneva 2 conference on Syria in mid-December becomes that much easier to traverse.