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, 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

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity

October 3 is a public holiday, marking the day in 1990 when East Germany and West Germany reunited More

Analysts: Russia's Syria Strikes Shake Regional Powers

If Moscow bolsters Assad, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries may feel obliged to step in More

Video Innovative Nano-Tech Water Filter Prevents Disease

It can absorb contaminants like copper, bacteria, viruses and pesticides, says Askwar Hilonga, who has been successfully trying out his product in Arusha More

This forum has been closed.
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.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs