News / Middle East

    Column: Middle East in Search of a New Equilibrium

    Free Syrian Army fighters prepare to launch a mortar towards fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant from a street in the Kadi Askar neighborhood of Aleppo, Jan. 7, 2014.
    Free Syrian Army fighters prepare to launch a mortar towards fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant from a street in the Kadi Askar neighborhood of Aleppo, Jan. 7, 2014.
    Many U.S. veterans of the Iraq war are feeling understandable anguish about recent al-Qaida gains in Ramadi and Fallujah.

    More American servicemen and women died in Anbar province, where Ramadi and Fallujah are located, than in any other region of Iraq during the U.S. military intervention. Now the sheikhs of Anbar are fighting al-Qaida in an uneasy alliance with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. 
     
    The Obama administration is facing criticism for not doing more to bolster moderates in both Iraq and Syria. But Maliki rejected retaining U.S. troops after 2011 and there is no appetite in either Washington -- or Baghdad -- for American fighters to return or deploy elsewhere in the Middle East. That leaves the U.S. trying to contain the region’s conflicts, shore up fragile allies such as Jordan and convince local powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to expend more energy mediating wars than fueling them.
     
    The resurgence of al-Qaida three years after the death of Osama bin Laden reflects the failure of Arab uprisings to produce successful governments that incorporate  moderate Islamists. In Egypt, Sunni radicals had predicted that the Egyptian military and intelligence establishment would not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to rule the country for long. Last summer’s coup against President Mohamed Morsi and subsequent crackdown on the Brotherhood validated al-Qaida’s predictions and have served as a recruiting tool for extremists.
     
    The other reason for al-Qaida’s rise stems from rising Sunni-Shiite rivalry. While such tensions go back to the seventh century, the contemporary split dates to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was after the establishment of a theocracy by Persian Shiites that Saudi Arabia decided to pump more money into exporting its own brand of Wahhabi Islam to counter Iran’s anti-monarchical version (and defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan).

    For a decade, Iraq’s Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein – backed by the Saudis, other Gulf Arabs, Russia and the West – counterbalanced the theocrats in Tehran. During the 1990s, a weakened Saddam still kept the Iranians at bay in part by pretending to possess weapons of mass destruction.
     
    The Bush administration upset the Sunni-Shiite balance by overthrowing Saddam in 2003 and dethroning the Sunnis, who had governed Iraq for five centuries. Since then, the region has been seeking a new equilibrium without success.
     
    Saudi Arabia still refuses to accept the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and has not sent an ambassador there. When the uprising began against Bashar al-Assad in Syria three years ago, the Saudis and other Sunni powers decided to support the opposition in hopes of undermining another regime closely aligned with Iran and Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon. The result, however, has been carnage, not regime change: backed by Iran and Russia, Assad has prevailed in a war that has killed more than 130,000 people, many of them civilians.

    Meanwhile, more than 8,000 died in political violence in Iraq last year and scores were killed in Lebanon in terrorist bombings and assassinations fueled in part by the Syrian war. In Syria, as in Iraq, the bloodshed now involves Sunni on Sunni violence as more moderate factions take on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida affiliate that seeks to establish an Islamic state in contiguous Sunni areas of the two countries. 
     
    In the past, Saudis worked with Iranians to mediate such conflicts; together they put an end to Lebanon’s 15-year civil war with the Taif agreement of 1989. Hassan Rouhani, now Iran’s president, negotiated security understandings with Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s when he was head of Iran’s Supreme Council of National Security and tensions rose over allegations of Iran-backed terrorism in the kingdom.

    Former Iranian presidents Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami also reached out to the Saudis to resolve disputes. However, the Saudis do not appear to be in a mediating mood these days. Rafsanjani has been angling for an invite to Riyadh for months in vain.

    The Saudis also appear to have vetoed Iranian participation in a scheduled upcoming conference on Syria. Iran was not among those receiving invitations to the meeting in Switzerland from the United Nations this week although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that lower-level Iranians might take part “from the sidelines.”
     
    Experts such as Bruce Riedel, a former U.S. National Security Council senior official who is now at the Brookings Institution, are worried that the Saudis have lost their capacity for nuanced diplomacy as an aged, infirm leadership allows ambitious underlings to determine government actions.

    “You get reaction and pique rather than considered policy,” Riedel says.
     
    In recent months, the Saudis have rejected a seat on the U.N. Security Council that they once avidly sought, declared that they would stop coordinating with Washington on regional issues, pledged to create a Gulf security force and offered $3 billion in French weapons to the Lebanese Army.
     
    Many observers wonder who is actually in charge in Riyadh given the age and infirmity of King Abdullah, who is said to work only two hours at night, and of Crown Prince Salman, who is reported to be suffering from dementia.
     
    Subordinates such as Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, are acting without apparent supervision as they dole out money and weapons to Sunni factions in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq including some that may have links to al-Qaida.

    The royal family includes qualified people “one tier down,” Riedel says, mentioning interior minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef and Abdullah’s son, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, in charge of the Saudi National Guard. But “it is not clear if they are part of the decision-making process at the strategic level.”
     
    Ultimately, there must be homegrown solutions to the conflicts in the Middle East.

    For the foreseeable future, there will be no more American boots on the ground. The most the United States can do is to avoid new wars, urge Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia, to work toward cease-fires, provide humanitarian relief and shore up fragile allies such as Jordan which are being inundated with Syrian refugees.

    As Riedel put it: “We can try to contain the fallout. There is very little we can do about stopping the fire.”

    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

    You May Like

    Republicans Struggle With Reality of Trump Nomination

    Despite calls for unity by presumptive presidential nominee, analysts see inevitable fragmentation of party ahead of November election and beyond

    Spanish Warrants Point to Russian Govt. Links to Organized Crime

    Links to several Russians, some of them reputedly close Putin associates, backed by ‘very strong evidence,’ Spanish judge says

    Video US Worried Political Chaos in Iraq Will Hurt IS Fight

    Iraq needs stable, central government to push back against Islamic State, US says, but others warn that Baghdad may not have unified front any time soon

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limitedi
    X
    Katie Arnold
    May 04, 2016 12:31 PM
    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora