Harry C. Blaney III
We have tried in our earlier posts in this series to look hard at some of the challenges of the many elements that have created the Middle East. We have also suggested some paths for American long-term policy and strategy that might, just might, mitigate some of the worse disasters that seem to be the fate of this region absent some major interventions inside and from without that can change the trajectory of that chaotic and conflict ridden region. My assumption is that continuation of this trend would be a threat to world order and peace while setting a precedent for the further spread of disorder and conflict. America’s fundamental interest is in a secure, prosperous and peaceful world system.
As many experts in the region have pointed out, the fundamental mutual distrust and history of outbursts of brutal conflict over decades has brought alienation, deep sectarian hatred and insensitivity to human life. This has undermined not least the building of cohesive moderate nation states. It has created a lack of a simple sense of community within Iraq, for example, and in other states that no American army can alone repair with force of arms.
What we have seen in recent days is very complex conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. These are manifestations of exactly the kind of murky, always shifting, and not least, intransigence and extremism of the worst of Middle Eastern ethnic and religious elements. If anything our actions under Bush II only created or exacerbated these conditions by the chaos we caused and bad decisions for dealing with terrorism and inter-ethnic warfare.
In Syria we are rightly against both main fighting groups – the brutal Assad regime on the one side, and the even more brutal, if that is possible, ISIS or Islamic State on the other. If we take the side of the Assad regime we are supporting a mass killer of his citizens while ISIS has killed even more indiscriminately and in the most horrendous ways. President Obama’s reluctance to commit massive ground forces to this cauldron is quite understandable.
There are no good or even palatable options here as both sides are beyond the pale. The “bad” guys outnumber the “good” guys here. The need here is of for some kind of diplomatic and political arrangement that gets rid of both antagonists while also finding a space for a government of unity and conciliation. This will provide security and stability for all groups and a measure of stability in the country. No one so far has the right formula for putting back together the broken nation. The only strategy that makes sense is a long-term goal of getting rid of both malevolent entitles but having in place some substitute.
In Iraq, where the Sunni and Shia divide has cost hundreds of thousands of deaths, there is a weak, largely Shia government influenced by Iran. The Iraqi army consists of mostly Shia soldiers who too often disrespect the Sunni and don’t seem to believe enough in their own government to fight for the government. We have a skeptical alienated minority Sunni population which includes Sunni tribes that have some well armed tribal militia with mixed loyalties towards either Baghdad or ISIS. These Sunni tribes are however confronting a largely Sunni-ISIS brutal insurgency that kills non-conforming Sunni in large numbers.
Again is there a better path with a chance to change this trajectory?
Under President Obama we correctly have tried to bring both sides together and we are now committing added arms including shoulder held missiles. In addition, we have some 3,000 “advisors” in country maintaining still the wise rule for our main troops to not be in direct combat. Taking sides with either group would be a disaster for any effort to bring both sides to some kind of accommodation not just in Iraq, but in the entire region.
That means we need a wider regional set of solutions and actions.
What we are finding in the Middle East is a series of authoritarian, theocratic, military dominated, sectarian and divisive governments. The governments are filled with corruption and ruling by either extreme religious ideology, simply power mad leaders or groups that are the enemies of modernity and democracy. That does not give a lot of room for moderation and compromise.
Yet there are glimmers of hope in this barren desert of intolerance. Not least is the need for recognition of the brutal fact of “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” We need profound recognition by the leaders in the region of the reality and danger of imminent end of nations with so much dissent and discontent externally and internally. What both rulers and citizens need, want and should seek is stability, economic security, and space to run their own lives and see prospects for their children. This can’t be done in the landscape of the Middle East today.
We are, as we noted, also at a point when there are a multitude of voices that criticize the present American approach to the Middle East. Some are proposing simply to send in more troops without directly saying that, and some even are proposing war against Iran for example. Further, some favor giving the Sunni states a kind of NATO alliance status, others to take the side of Assad in Syria, and still others like Rand Paul who would have us withdraw almost entirely from the region.
Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations would have us go back to the early “Biden option.” This would mean accepting the breakup of Iraq between the three major factions and helping each directly fight ISIS, supplying arms and training. But that means accepting at the end of the day that the country would be redrawn as loose federation along ethnic lines or totally broken up. Nice if it would work, but it just might create a new three way war within Iraq without some external peace keeping force to prevent mass ethnic killings.
I will not here go into all the possible blowback that any of these opposition “proposals” would have on the region and on our interests, but suffice to say they might not have the results that their proponents assume or want. I above all doubt that any single of these “solutions” would themselves totally stop the advance of the ISIS forces or terrorism in general.
What few of these voices will tell you is exactly how to get there without great costs, or the possible secondary and tertiary consequences of such ideas for peace, and if and how any of these alternative ideas would stop the killing.
So what can be done? What path just might have a chance, if only a chance, of making it better rather than worse?
Obama, has rightly said that these issues will take a long time to reach some kind of solution, indeed likely decades in many expert’s views, if at all. But my view remains that America, with its key allies, are just about the only power that might, just might, be able to mitigate some of these conflicts. There must be some recognition within the region’s nations and their leaders that these upheavals must be dealt with by conciliation, compromise and diplomacy. Hopefully that creates some peace and mutual security with accommodation to the vital interest of all responsible sides.
This is what I believe President Obama has started to do with his GCC Camp David meeting summit. This is also what Secretary of State John Kerry is also working on in his meeting of regional leaders and with outside powers, even including Russia, in order to help reshape the Middle East’s chaos and trajectory of endless killing.
Thus, the reality is the Sunni and the Shia divide can’t be bridged by more U.S. troops in the region. Nor can American military bring Iran or Saudi Arabia together. Long-term diplomacy by those nations within and outside the region might help if a fair firm framework of security and dialogue were created and major “sticks” and “carrots” (in effect rewards) were on the table for all sides.
The question is, does the West, writ large with our Asian allies, have the wisdom, patience, resources, and political will to undertake such a difficult, perhaps thankless, task of putting back together a more peaceful Middle East “Humpty Dumpty?” It is a still an unanswered question. But only the United States has the capacity to lead such an effort.
Yes it is a huge task especially in a fractured and less capable “West” with so many challenges. Yet in some ways a joint effort might just energize these nations and have a wider benefit. The dialogue this week of the G- 7 is likely to have put on the table some glimmers of what our strategy towards the Middle East should be.
Building trust and taking on the enemies of peace and cooperation can only be done by putting on that table an offer that can’t be refused – and clearly showing the way towards a better landscape for all. That must include all the major players, such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel. And it is a task for a decade.
AN ACTION PLAN FOR MIDDLE EAST RECONCILIATION AND PEACE BUILDING
The start of this effort should include the following broad set of policies and actions:
ISIS AND THE SUNNI-SHIA DIVIDE
The first goal is to deal with ISIS and attacking its fundamental strengths and exploiting weaknesses. That means getting both Sunni and Shia factions and key nations to assess their venerability and address their own weakness. Together with Western help, they must undertake a full court press on ISIS’s own vulnerabilities and jointly undermine their military and financial capacities.
But this will only work, as I have outlined in earlier posts, if there is a diplomatic initiative that can at last bring together a measure of common interests and cooperation between the Sunni and Shia factions. This would be based on a common threat and realization that the present “war” between the two needs to be halted for the common good. Strong incentives are likely required to gain their cooperation.
This means getting rid of the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb and the Saudis and Gulf States playing a constructive role in the region. These states and developed nations need to provide financial help and investment to develop the region and put youth back to work. It also means the key “linchpin” states Egypt, Turkey, and their allies join the effort. A tall requirement. Addressing the nuclear issue of the region has to be on the table as the spread on nuclear weapons in the region can only bring catastrophe.
No matter what the GOP hotheads and neo-cons say, we are already starting to do this but under destructive resource constraints because of the Republican distaste for Obama success in any undertaking and their hate of the concept of “nation building.” Yet America and allied countries must put on the table a kind of “Marshall Plan” for the region and create an appropriate security framework that gives to all sides assurances of long-term security and stability short of a NATO type alliance.
As part of this we need other states and actors who are accepted by all sides to fully cooperate in this effort. This includes effective emergency resource interventions on the ground and civilian economic assistance on a more massive scale.
When, for example, ISIS distributes food to the Sunni population (yet chops off their heads), and when the Iraq government does nothing to help the same population, that is a condition for defeat. There is then a requirement for a reformulation of policies that permit an international group to provide, if needed outside the control of a weak Iraq government, food and necessities of life to threatened Kurds, Sunni, and Shia in crisis areas or retaken territory. Also putting people to work to rebuild communities immediately would strengthen their loyalty and commitment to peace and moderate, uncorrupted government. We need a reason for people to fight for their society.
The time has also come to think about the insertion, in selected areas, of an armed broad international peacekeeping force that will enter threatened but defended communities and retaken areas to provide to the local population of any ethnic group a measure of security and protection. It has worked elsewhere. They would help to create local entities that can long- term provide basic services and requirements for a vulnerable population. Early resettlement of refugees and displaced population should be a high priority to stabilize regions that were battlefields.
One option that needs to be examined is creating “neutral” armed and robust, incorruptible peacekeeping/peacemaking forces from within the region and without, under command of a respected neutral commander. This might be done through the UN or even NATO or another ad hoc body under a new international framework. This needs to be examined now.
Getting a strong nuclear deal is a sine qua non for a peace framework in the Middle East. Keeping the security of the sea lanes is another item that the West can insure. Also getting, as we have noted, Iran to think beyond endless aggression against fellow Islamic states and not least seeing a “win-win” solution being in their best interests. A more responsible Iran will be difficult but over time probably not impossible if we provide the necessary incentives.
ISRAEL- PALESTINIAN PROBLEM
Not least as part of this framework to bring peace to the region is a new approach to the Israel-Palestinian problem. The new realities call for drastic action. A far right-wing brutal Netanyahu government, with many in this new regime calling for the destruction of the Palestinian people’s hope for a state is not the answer. Given the marginalization of them as a people by the Israeli regime, combined with a weak divided and angry Palestinian leadership, it seems to be sadly, at last, time for a new external “force majeure” to enter the equation.
That may include at long last a UN Security Council compulsory resolution that mandates an international agreed outcome to create a fair and balanced solution to this conflict along lines that all know must be the basis of a fair deal. That deal must provide firm security for both sides and an independent state for the Palestinian people based on the agreed 1967 boundaries with possible exchanges, including a division of Jerusalem so both states can have it as their capital.
With this there may need to be the possible imposition of the strong and armed peacekeeping force made up of NATO countries and other neutral states to enforce the peace. This move will either drive both sides to find a solution between them or have it imposed by the entire international community as part of the UN mandate to provide international security and prevent war. The process may take years but would at least give a clear path to peace. Unfortunately U.S. corrosive political climate may prevent its realization, but there is clearly a need for a new set of external forced conditions to move both sides to peace.
Finally, to make all this work there is a vital need for the key outside powers, North American, Europe, key countries in Asia like Japan, South Korea, and others to support an effort to secure their own interests. These interests include access to energy, and prevent the spread of conflict to their own regions, and to at last address fundamentally the threat that unlimited brutal conflict in this region imposes on the entire international community and human rights. Its frankly a long bet but a start needs to be made and with Obama and Kerry we have a team that at least has the intelligence and heart for such an undertaking.
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