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

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: Iraq President Vows to Fight IS 'Until They Are Killed or We Die'

In wide-ranging interview with VOA Persian service reporter, Fuad Masum describes conflict as new type of fight that will take time to win More

Video Russian Anti-Corruption Campaigner Slams Putin’s Crackdown on Dissent

In interview with VOA Alexei Navalny says he believes new law against 'undesirable NGOs' part of move to keep Russian president in power More

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

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.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs