Middle East Peace: Ground Truths, Challenges Ahead
Middle East Peace: Ground Truths, Challenges Ahead
Managing Crises, the Least-Bad Option
Managing Crises, the Least-Bad Option

Middle East Peace: Ground Truths, Challenges Ahead

Testimony by Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa Program Director, International Crisis Group to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Middle East Peace: Ground Truths, Challenges Ahead”.

Mr. Chairman: First, let me express my appreciation to you for the invitation to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  In the seventeen years since it was first launched, the peace process has gone through times that were better and through times that were worse, but none that were more complex, confusing or contradictory as today. That is because of late so much that had been relatively stable - in terms of the character of local actors, shape of the regional landscape and assessment of the U.S. role - has undergone dramatic shifts.  Only a handful of these recent transformations need mention: the death of Yasser Arafat, father of Palestinian nationalism, and incapacitation of Ariel Sharon, Israel's last heroic leader; Fatah's crisis; Hamas's electoral triumph and takeover in Gaza; the 2006 Lebanon and 2008 Gaza wars, which shook Israel's confidence and bolstered that of Islamist militants; the failure of the Abbas-Olmert talks; U.S. regional setbacks in Iraq and diplomatic disengagement elsewhere; Iran's increased influence; and the growing role of other regional players.  This is not a mere change in scenery.  It is a new world.  As the ground beneath the peace process has shifted, U.S. efforts have yet to fully adjust.

This hearing is entitled "Ground Truths, Challenges Ahead", and there could not have been more fitting title.  Only by taking a sober, honest look at where things stand today might we have an opportunity to overcome the challenges and begin to reshape the region in ways that serve our national interests.

Mr. Chairman, at the outset it is important to acknowledge several stark, uncomfortable realities.

Among Palestinians, the national movement, once embodied by Fatah and led by Arafat, is in deep crisis, weakened, fragmented and without a compass.  Fatah is divided, lacking a clear political program, prey to competing claims to privilege and power.  Rival sources of authority have multiplied.  Mahmoud Abbas is President, though his term has expired; he heads the PLO, though the Organization's authority has long waned.  Salam Fayyad, the effective and resourceful Prime Minister, cannot govern in Gaza and, in the West Bank, must govern over much of Fatah's objection.  Hamas has grown into a national and regional phenomenon, and it now has Gaza solidly in its hands.  But the Islamist movement itself is at an impasse - besieged in Gaza, suppressed in the West Bank, at odds with most Arab states, with little prospect for Palestinian reconciliation and with internal divisions coming to the fore.  Meanwhile, diaspora Palestinians - once the avant-garde of the national movement - are seeking to regain their place, frustrated at feeling marginalized, angered by what they see as the West Bankers' single-minded focus on their own fate.

Both symptom and cause of Palestinian frailty, foreign countries - Arab, Western and other - are wielding greater influence and in greater numbers.  All of which leaves room for doubt whether the Palestinian national movement, as it currently stands, can confidently and effectively conduct negotiations for a final peace agreement, sell a putative agreement to its people, and, if popularly endorsed, make it stick.  There is insufficient consensus over fateful issues, but also over where decisions should be made, by whom and how.

To this must be added more recent travails: the Goldstone affair, which damaged President Abbas's personal credibility; the U.S. administration's course correction on a settlements freeze, which undercut Palestinian as well as Arab trust in America; and steps as well as pronouncements by the Israeli government, which depleted what faith remained in Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The backdrop, of course, is seventeen years of a peace process that has yielded scant results, not a  few of them negative, and has eroded confidence in negotiations as a means of achieving national goals.  The Palestinian people, as much as its political elite, sees no real alternative option, and so for now will persist on this path.  The acceptance of indirect talks, after some hesitation and after rejecting their direct version, is the latest indication.  But the acceptance is grudging rather than heartfelt, and resigned rather than hopeful. They are hoping for guarantees now, a sense that talks will not last forever even as facts on the ground change in their disfavor.

In far less pronounced fashion, Israel too has witnessed a fragmentation of its political landscape.  Endemic government weakness and instability as well as deepening social splits have combined with the rise of increasingly powerful settler and religious constituencies.   Together, these developments call into question the state’s ability to achieve, let alone carry out, an agreement that would entail the uprooting of tens of thousands of West Bank settlers.   

Nor has disillusionment with the peace process been an exclusively Palestinian affair. Israelis too are losing hope; fairly or not, they read Abbas's rejection of former Prime Minister Olmert's offer as a sign that peace will remain elusive.   Instead, they focus on the violent aftermaths of their withdrawal from South Lebanon and from Gaza; on the rise of militant forces in Palestine and throughout the region that reject their nation's very existence; on those groups' acquisition of ever more deadly and far-reaching weapons.  Although still confident in their military superiority, Israelis have begun to doubt.  The Lebanon and, to a lesser degree, Gaza wars were warning signs to a nation for whom the security establishment has from the start been a pillar of strength even amid political turmoil. The threat to Israel, real or perceived, from Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah, supplants much else.   Israelis are looking for security guarantees that take into account these broader regional shifts in any eventual agreement; they also are looking for signs of genuine acceptance of, rather than temporary acquiescence in their existence.

Political fragmentation has hit the regional scene as well and the balance of power has been one victim. So-called moderate Arab regimes on which the U.S. long relied no longer can dictate or expect compliance from their counterparts. They too have suffered from the peace process dead-end, the Lebanon war and the conflict over Gaza which exposed them to their people as impotent or, worse, on the wrong side of history. Increasingly, they appear worn out and bereft of a cause other than preventing their own decline and proving their own relevance.  Gradually, they are being upstaged or rivaled by other, more dynamic players, states (such as Iran, Syria or, to a lesser degree, Qatar) or movements (most notably Hamas and Hizbollah). They still can carry the day - witness the Arabs' decision to back proximity talks. But they do so with greater difficulty and so with greater reservations, feeling the pressure of dissenters both domestic and regional.

The final change, and one that arguably must concern us most, is the United States' loss of credibility and influence.   There are many reasons for this - setbacks in Iraq; Iran's rise; the failure of diplomacy in the 1990s and the disengagement from diplomacy in the decade that followed; and the unavoidable disappointment of unreasonably high Arab expectations coupled with the avoidable U.S. missteps that followed President Obama's election among others.  The bottom line is that large numbers in the region wonder what the U.S. stands for and seeks to achieve and that - an evolution far more worrisome - growing numbers have begun not to care.

U.S. peace efforts toward a two-state solution have a chance to succeed only if they take into account these profound alterations and adapt to them.  They cannot assume that our credibility, the outlook or nature of the Israeli and Palestinian polities, or regional dynamics in 2010 are even remotely similar to what they were in 2000.  In this sense, the fate of some of the administration's early efforts should serve as a warning sign.

1.  Any approach must take account of reduced U.S. credibility and influence while seeking ways to restore them.  

The first lesson, self-evident but too often honored in the breach, is to define a clear and achievable goal, assess what actions are required - domestically, regionally and internationally - to realize it and make sure there is a strategy to cope with the fallout in the event one or both parties resist.  It means avoiding high stakes risks at a time when neither the U.S. nor the region can afford another high level failure.  It means avoiding raising expectations and allowing actions to speak for themselves.   And it means working closely with others to increase our leverage.

One particular idea that receives regular attention is for the U.S. to unveil a set of parameters that can serve as its terms of reference for negotiations - e.g., a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with one-to-one swaps; Jerusalem as the capital of two states based on demographic realities; a third party security presence in the West Bank.  I believe the time for such an initiative almost certainly will come.   It would not be a concession to either of the parties but rather the prudential step of a mediator seeking to narrow negotiation positions within realistic bounds; if such terms cannot be agreed upon, it is hard to see what purpose negotiations might serve or how they could possibly succeed.  Nor would it be dictating a specific outcome so much as defining a zone of possible compromise, making clear to leaders on both sides what the U.S. believes to be a reasonable outcome, giving their publics something to debate and rally around, and suggesting the costs of forfeiting this chance.  But this should be done only at the right moment, in the proper context.  It should only be done with strong regional (especially Arab) and international backing.  And it should be done only if the U.S. is prepared to deal with the prospect of either or both sides saying no.   

2.  Our strategy must be mindful of, without being captive to, both sides' politics and the mutual, collapsing faith in the old plans and formulas.  

Mahmoud Abbas's refusal to engage in direct talks under the auspices of a more sympathetic and engaged administration was, seen from the U.S., frustrating and puzzling almost to the point of incomprehension.  Much of it was explained on account of his personal trauma - what the Goldstone humiliation meant to him and his close ones - and anxiety.  Yet the impasse must be understood as going far beyond personal pique (though there is some of that) or the apprehensions of a single man (though he has a considerable amount of that too).  

Abbas's reaction is, above and beyond all, a reflection of an enormous popular disappointment in the process that began in 1993.   He is, in a sense, the last true believer, holding out hope in the promise of a negotiations strategy of which, among his colleagues, he was the first and most ardent supporter.  But even he could no longer ignore that he sits at the centre of three concentric circles of failure: 16 years since the Oslo accords, five since he was elected president and one since Barack Obama took office.  And so it has become that much harder for him to justify or defend a process that is deprecated in Ramallah, whether to a skeptical population, to his Fatah movement or even to himself.  His demands for a settlements freeze (prompted, he believes, by the U.S.), then for robust terms of reference are not a sign that he has given up on negotiations.  They are a sign that he wants to enter them under conditions that, in his mind, offer a chance of success.  It would be a mistake for us, or for Israel, to see Abbas as a temporary obstacle rather than as the more moderate expression of a deeply entrenched collective disillusionment.

The same is true on the Israeli side. Benjamin Netanyahu can be maddening in his grudging acceptance of a two state solution, numerous caveats, political maneuvering and foot-dragging. His coalition partners - a mix of right wing, xenophobic and religious parties - certainly complicate the path toward a peace agreement.  But Netanyahu's insistence on Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state as much as his demands for far more stringent security - and thus, territorial - arrangements - are not mere pretexts to avoid a deal and are far more than the expressions of a passing political mood. They reflect deep-seated popular sentiment regarding the yearning for true Arab recognition and acceptance and fear of novel, unconventional security threats. New coalition partners or new elections might change the atmosphere.  They are not about to change the underlying frame of mind.  In short, we should no more underestimate how deep runs Palestinian skepticism than we should downplay how broadly Netanyahu's positions resonate.

3.  A successful strategy must reflect the changing nature - and increased fragmentation - of both Palestinian and Israeli politics.  

New actors and forces have emerged on both scenes. As a result, we need to find a way to reach out to skeptical constituencies that often are the most energized, the most dynamic and the most indifferent to talk of a two-state solution. These include settlers and religious groups on the Israeli side; the diaspora, refugees and Islamists on the Palestinian.  This will entail finding ways to communicate with them, but also to reflect some of their concerns in an eventual peace deal.

Mr. Chairman, any talk of inclusiveness inevitably raises the difficult, controversial question of Hamas and how the U.S. ought to deal with it.   I have long believed that the issue of direct U.S. engagement with the organization is a distraction, a diversion that prevents us from thinking clearly and rationally about a more basic issue - namely, whether we believe a politically and geographically divided Palestinian national movement is in a position to reach, implement and sustain a historic deal.

My view is that it cannot.  By challenging President Abbas, Hamas can make it more difficult for  him to resume direct negotiations.  By resuming rocket attacks from Gaza, it can once again disrupt talks should they begin.  By mounting a campaign in the territories and refugee camps, it can torpedo the chance of passage in a referendum, should a deal be reached.  And, throughout - by its activities, rhetoric and presence in Gaza - it lowers the Israeli public's belief in peace.  Hamas almost certainly has lost popular support and its freedom of maneuver in the West Bank has been sharply curtailed.  But it remains a powerful political and military presence, with strong domestic backing and the capacity to act. Conventional wisdom has it that Hamas should be dealt with only once the peace process has shown significant progress; the theory neglects the Islamist movement's ability to ensure that it does not.

It ought not to have escaped notice that, amid the flurry of discussions between Abbas and Olmert and then the drama surrounding the initiation of direct or indirect talks between Abbas and Netanyahu, some of the more practical, implicit arrangements and serious negotiations have been struck between Israel and Hamas - over Gaza for example, or the prisoners exchange.  That does not mean that Hamas - any more than Fatah - can claim to represent the Palestinian people or speak on their behalf.  It does not mean that the U.S. must deal directly with Hamas.  And it does not mean that the U.S. should openly promote Palestinian unity, a Palestinian decision that they need to take themselves.  But at a minimum, the U.S. should stop standing in the way of a possible reconciliation agreement and signal it would accept an accord to which President Abbas lent his name.

4.  A successful strategy must adapt to changing regional dynamics.

The Middle East is far more polarized and decentralized than a decade ago and our traditional partners no longer have the power they once had to carry the region with them.  With too many actors able and willing to intervene, an Israeli-Palestinian track cannot proceed on its own, let alone succeed on its own.  This has major implications on how we deal with.

Syria is not a central or perhaps even decisive actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But it undoubtedly is a crucial one, and its importance has risen as the regional landscape has changed.  In particular, its allies - Hamas and Hizbollah - have gained considerable power.  Damascus can take on a spoiling role or a stabilizing one.  It can facilitate Middle East peace or retard it.  How U.S.-Syrian relations evolve will go a long way toward determining what part the Syrian regime ultimately chooses to play.

Improved relations between the U.S. and Syria as well as a resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks are, in this respect, of critical importance.  It used to be feared that movement on the Syrian track would impede progress on the Palestinian one.  No more.  There are several reasons.  On its own, an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but without agreement with Syria or Lebanon, would not produce peaceful relations between Jerusalem and the rest of the Arab world.  Without Syria, in other words, the most powerful incentive for Israelis to make the compromises required for a peace deal - recognition and normalcy - would be lacking.  Nor would Syria see any reason to discourage its allies in Palestine from undermining the deal or Hizbollah from maintaining military pressure in the north.  In other words, the benefits for Israel of a Palestinian deal are partial and political costs are high.  A comprehensive accord, by contrast, would magnify the payoff: Arab states would establish normal relations with Israel; Hizbollah and Hamas would have to readjust their stance; even the Iranian leadership would be compelled to adapt. At a time when growing numbers of Israelis are questioning both the feasibility and usefulness of a peace agreement, this factor looms large.

Progress on the Syrian track also would bolster the Palestinians' ability to move in their talks.  Palestinians need Arab backing and cooperation to legitimize compromises, most notably on issues that are not strictly Palestinian - the status of Jerusalem or the fate of the refugees - and for which Damascus's acquiescence would  make a difference.  This is all the more true given the state of Palestinian politics, weak, divided and susceptible to outside interference.  Should Syria feel excluded, it could undermine the accord and mobilize its allies to do the same.

Finally, U.S engagement with Syria could be put to use to seek to establish new redlines between Israel and Hizbollah.  The border between Israel and Lebanon might seldom have been calmer, but the threshold for renewed - and large-scale confrontation - rarely has been lower.  Should conflict re-erupt and its ripple effects spread, this once again deal a devastating blow to diplomatic prospects.

To date, the Obama administration's experience with the Syrian regime has left many doubtful.  Despite signs of engagement, including high level visits and the decision to dispatch an ambassador, Washington sees little evidence of reciprocity.  To the contrary, it sees are signs of deepening ties to Hizbollah and Iran and, most recently, opposition to indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks.

It was always to be expected that engagement with Syria would be an arduous, painstaking affair; prospects remain uncertain.  But to judge results at this stage or on the basis of its ties to traditional allies is to misunderstand the regime and how it makes its decision.   Syria itself sees little of value emerging from the first 14 months of the administration - continued sanctions; repeated calls for it to sever ties to reliable allies; paralysis on the peace process; and lack of cooperation on regional issues.

There is a broader point.  In Western capitals as well as in Israel, considerable time and energy is spent on the question whether Syria is genuinely interested in a peace deal; whether it would be prepared to fundamentally shift is strategic orientation – shorthand for cutting ties to current allies; and, if so, what it might take (returning the Golan, neutralizing the international tribunal on the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri, lifting U.S. sanctions, or providing vast economic support) to entice Damascus to make that move.   

At its core, the question is ill-directed and the conceptual framework underpinning it is flawed.  However much Syria aspires to these political or material returns, and notwithstanding the importance it places on the bilateral U.S. relationship, the key for the regime relates to its assessment of regional trends, domestic dynamics as well as the interaction between the two.  The end-result is a debilitating perceptions gap: whereas outsiders ponder how far Syria might be willing to go in helping reshape the region, Damascus considers where the region is headed before deciding on its next moves.  What Washington can do for Damascus matters; what it can do in and for the region may matter more.

The temptation in Washington so far has been to test Syrian goodwill - will it do more to harm the Iraqi insurgency, help President Abbas in Palestine, loosen ties to traditional allies or stabilize Lebanon?  On its own, that almost certainly will not succeed.  The U.S. is not the only one looking for evidence.  So too is Syria - for proof that the risks it takes will be offset by the gains it makes.  The region's volatility drives them to caution and to hedge their bets pending greater clarity on where the region is heading and, in particular, what Washington will do.

Ultimately, we do not know how far the Syrian leadership can or will go.  It likely will make up its mind only when it deems it absolutely necessary  - when it is faced with a concrete and attractive alternative strategic role in the region an peace offer.  Today, Syria's incentives - strategic, economic and social - to adjust its posture and policies are high but uncertain; the risks are profound and tangible.  In particular, as long as the current situation of neither peace nor war that defines Syria’s relations with Israel endures, Damascus most likely will seek to maintain – and play on – the multiplicity of its relations and will continue to use its ties to Hizbollah, Iran and Hamas to provide it with what it considers a form of leverage and deterrence.  For Washington, the challenge was and remains to adopt regional and bilateral policies that help Syria's calculations in the right direction.

One thing is clear: Syria will be careful not to move prematurely and risk alienating current allies without at a minimum having secured complementary ones (regional or international).  In this sense, Syria’s ability to adjust its strategic stance also will be, in part, a function of its allies’ situation and perceptions at the time.  The more Iran, Hizbollah or Hamas feel pressured, the more they interpret Syrian moves as betraying them at a critical juncture, the harder it will be for Damascus to display signs of greater autonomy or distance from them.  As a result, the more Syria's historic partners are embattled and the U.S. clamors for a break between Syria and them, the more Damascus will redouble signs of loyalty toward them.  The recent summit meeting between presidents Assad and Ahmadinejad, and the highly dismissive tone adopted toward the U.S. are exhibit A.

Because sanctions will not be lifted until Syria changes its relations with its allies and because Syria will not modify these relations in the absence of far more substantial regional changes, a wiser approach would be for the U.S. and Syria to explore together whether some common ground could be found on specific issues and work on a blueprint for their relationship.  If successful, this could provide a more realistic test of both sides' intentions, promote their interests and start shaping the Middle East in ways that can reassure Syria about what the future holds.  On Iraq, Damascus may not truly exercise positive influence until genuine progress is made toward internal reconciliation.  The U.S. could push in that direction, test Syria's reciprocal moves and, together with the Iraq government, offer Damascus the prospect of stronger economic relations with its neighbor.  In Palestine, Syria claims it can press Hamas to moderate its views but again only if there is real appetite in the U.S. for an end to the internal divide.  Likewise, both countries could agree to try to immunize Lebanon from regional conflicts and push the state to focus on long-overdue issues of governance.  Given the current outlook and suspicion in Damascus and Washington, these are all long shots.  But, with little else in the Middle East looking up, it is a gamble well worth taking.

One cannot conclude an overview of the situation in the Middle East without warning about real and potential flashpoints, either one of which risks steering the region in unpredictable - but predictably perilous - directions.  There are many - the explosive situation in Jerusalem is one, the tense situation on Israel's northern border another - but I will focus briefly on one.

Mr. Chairman, you have visited Gaza recently and so there is no need to describe the appalling humanitarian conditions of a population, forty to sixty percent of whom are unemployed, in excess of that living beneath the poverty level.   Israel has legitimate security concerns; it also has an interest in obtaining the release of Corporal Shalit, held in captivity in Gaza for over 1,300 days.

But to inflict collective punishment on the people of Gaza is both morally unconscionable and politically self-defeating.  Hamas has lost backing as a consequence of the siege, it is true, but at what price and to what end?    It is nowhere nearer losing control over Gaza and elections are nowhere in sight.  The end of all legal commerce and flourishing of a tunnel-based economy is destroying the business class and granting more power to those who currently hold it.  A generation of Gazans is bring brought up knowing nothing but want and despair.  Hamas - although hardly eager for renewed confrontation after Operation Cast Lead - might soon conclude its best bet is to provoke a new escalation in order to break out of its current impasse.  Arab public opinion, which harbored such high expectations for President Obama, increasingly is viewing U.S. policy through the lens of Gaza's ordeal and Washington's seeming obliviousness to this plight.

It is hard to see how any of this is good for Israel's security or U.S. national interests.  There are options for opening Gaza up to normal trade - through Israel, through Egypt or by sea - in ways that meet Israel's legitimate security concerns.  We should press for them and help put them into place.

Mr. Chairman, at the dawn of this new presidency, my colleague Hussein Agha and I wrote:

so much of what the peace process relied upon has been transfigured.  It was premised on the existence of two reasonably cohesive entities, Israeli and Palestinian, capable of reaching and implementing historic decisions, a situation that, today, is in serious doubt; continued popular faith and interest in a two-state solution, which is waning; significant U.S. credibility, which is hemorrhaging; and a relatively stable regional landscape, which is undergoing seismic shifts.

The challenge for the administration is to devise a strategy that strives for our traditional goals but in a radically transformed environment.  It will take persistence and flexibility, determination and creativity, a retooled approach toward local parties and the region.  It likely will take time.  There are no shortcuts.  There is no choice.

Managing Crises, the Least-Bad Option

Conflict management in the MENA region has little chance of succeeding as conflicts increasingly intersect and tensions driven by larger, regional triggers become even more unpredictable.

The year 2011 was a watershed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as the popular uprisings that cascaded through the region precipitated the collapse of several regimes at astonishing speed. These developments in turn triggered civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen that converged in dangerous ways, raising the potential for a wider conflict between regional actors, directly or through proxies, including potent armed groups supported by powers external to the region.

Over ten years later, Yemen is going from bad to worse, but the big war in Syria is for now frozen. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a shadow of its former self, and the Libyan civil war isn’t raging on as it used to. Some of the intersecting disputes have calmed down—at least for the moment—as states in the region direct greater energies toward diplomacy.

Yet, the situation remains fragile and could turn at the merest incident. This could be a rocket fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen landing in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh; a Hezbollah rocket striking a school in Israel; an Israeli raid on Iranian assets in Syria to which Iran retaliates by attacking the U.S. military base at Al-Tanf with drones; an accidental confrontation between the Iranian and U.S. navies in Persian Gulf waters; or any event of similar impact, including what may follow a possible Donald Trump return to the White House in 2025.

The complexity of the region’s conflicts has created unprecedented challenges for conflict management and resolution. This is because wars may have more than one fundamental driver. Addressing one may aggravate another. Take Libya, for example: a deal to end the conflict by forming a unity government will likely come at the expense of improving governance and accountability, thus potentially giving rise to new popular protests. Or Iraq: when the United States and the Kurds fought ISIS together, Iraqi Kurdish leaders felt empowered to try for independence in 2017. But their bid escalated an old conflict over secession with the central government in Baghdad and neighboring countries, triggering a fight in disputed territories.

External intervention also tends to exacerbate conflicts more often than help resolve them.

External intervention also tends to exacerbate conflicts more often than help resolve them. Such meddling draws in competing forces, directly or by proxy— for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen, or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey in Libya. Another challenge is that armed non-state actors, presenting themselves as state-like entities but without the true trappings of states, are less accountable. Meanwhile, the region’s states themselves often start to crumble through their partial loss of territorial control, sovereignty, and authority. An additional complicating factor is that the “international community” as a whole is going through a period of severe turbulence, in which multilateral institutions are increasingly driven by internal zero-sum competition and are losing legitimacy and influence.

The continuation of conflicts in the MENA region without the prospect of a durable resolution—even if they are temporarily stalled—raises two critical dangers. One is that any conflict can metastasize at any point, covering even larger territories and involving a greater number of actors. The second is that external power interventions in places such as Syria where their interests collide can generate hair-trigger situations that could spiral rapidly out of control, possibly with global consequences. That is in addition to the constant presence of regional conflict drivers such as the struggle between Iran and the Gulf monarchies or the continued Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories, which prevent conflicts from coming to a negotiated conclusion.

Under these circumstances, there is no direct or optimal approach to tackling the region’s conflicts. What we are left with is trying to find ways to manage and contain conflicts before they intensify. This will require diplomatic efforts and tactical deals, as well as the creation of channels of communication and dialogue between adversaries that can help prevent unintended and uncontrollable escalations.

Regional Turning Points

In the century since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the modern Middle East maintained a certain coherence: the initial post-Ottoman borders remained in place for the most part (despite some opposition to established boundaries), and the states survived (even as political systems changed), at least until 2011.

Yet, the region’s history has been dotted with several turning points. The first of these upheavals was the region’s birth from the remnants of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. The victorious great powers of Britain and France divided the spoils by appropriating territories through a series of accords, starting with the famed Sykes-Picot Agreement. They demarcated Arab lands and established within them direct or indirect administration or control, in many cases mirroring their own monarchical and republican systems, respectively. These countries have survived for a hundred years, and counting.

The next upheaval came in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel following a gradual three-decade-long build-up culminating in a war with neighboring Arab states. Arab leaders saw Israel’s ability to implant itself in Palestine as a Western attempt to divide and weaken an Arab World in which nationalism and decolonization had become the dominant ideologies following the Second World War. Ever since, Israel has remained a sharp Western-backed wedge stuck in the Arabs’ backs. It is only recently that Israel started to partially overcome its isolation by establishing closer relations with a handful of Arab states, such as the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan (after earlier agreements with Egypt and Jordan delivered a cold peace in each case).

Arab nationalism had its major triumph in 1952, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers Movement overthrew the British-backed monarchy in what became known as the July 26 Revolution. This ushered in dramatic change throughout the Arab World, and placed Egypt and others on a non-aligned course in the worsening Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Domestically, the new secular republic outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, its main potential challenger.

Fifteen years later, the tide turned in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which Israel refers to as the “Six-Day War”. It spelled the end of Nasser’s standing as the most widely admired regional strongman, and ushered in the gradual end of Arab nationalism as the ideological glue unifying the region. Islamism started to slowly overtake Arab nationalism as the only ideological alternative that enjoyed widespread popular support. However, it would take decades of grassroots organizing and struggling against state repression before Islamist forces could turn their political ambitions into formal power; this materialized in Egypt in 2012, with the Muslim Brotherhood taking up the presidency.

The next upheaval came in 1979 in two pivotal events. The first was the Iranian revolution, which saw a popular uprising oust the Shah’s repressive secular monarchy, and supplant it with a Shiite theocratic republic, a system known as vilayet-e fakih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist), no less repressive than its predecessor. The second was the so-called siege of Mecca later that year. Here the near-success of Sunni radicals in overthrowing the House of Saud prompted Saudi Arabia to further empower its religious establishment and export its particularly intolerant brand of Islam, Wahhabism, by using its growing oil income to fund mosque building, literature distribution, and recruitment of preachers throughout the Muslim world. While there is no direct link between Saudi Arabia and the establishment of Al-Qaeda, the generation of Muslims steeped in Saudi-fed Wahhabist Salafism provided a fertile ground from which Al-Qaeda could recruit followers and fighters in several wars—first in Afghanistan, later in Iraq and Yemen, and then in Syria and Libya.

[The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq] provided the space and motivation for Al-Qaeda ... to rebrand itself.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq unleashed another wave of jihadism (following jihadists’ successful effort to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan over a decade earlier; the return of volunteers from fighting against the Soviets to join insurrections elsewhere; and a series of Al-Qaeda attacks on Western interests that culminated in the September 11, 2001 attacks). It provided the space and motivation for Al-Qaeda, which had been scattered and on the run after losing its safe haven in Afghanistan and never had a presence in Iraq, to rebrand itself. Its newly established Iraq branch, under the leadership of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, increasingly confronted a perceived Iran-backed Shiite ascendancy and helped fuel sectarianism within the country. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was the basis for what would become the Islamic State a decade later.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and its mismanaged aftermath had other implications: it caused enormous harm to the U.S. standing in the world, and arguably marked the beginning of the decline of its influence in the region. At the same time, the Bush administration’s decision to move forward with the invasion against the strong advice of Arab leaders who feared Iran’s rising power convinced them that they could no longer confidently count on Washington to protect them. Some, like the UAE, became even more convinced of the need to gain greater political and security autonomy from the United States. This disposition first began to emerge in the 1990s and increased especially after the 2011 popular uprisings.

These became the final transformative events of regional proportions. The home-grown revolts precipitated not only the ouster of a number of long-time autocrats but also the collapse of several Arab states. Capable regional actors such as Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar stepped into the security vacuum that opened up in a number of countries, most notably in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. In these wars, upstart non-state actors recognized opportunities to advance their respective causes, the jihadist groups most aggressively among them. Kurdish groups challenged the post-Ottoman Iraqi and Syrian borders in pursuit of a state of their own while the Islamic State rejected the whole notion of the nation state, seeking to reinstate the long-lost Caliphate instead.

In brief, the uprisings exposed the bankruptcy of the century-old order in the region. From the inchoate voices in the squares, a single message rang loud and clear: a rejection of the status quo and the forces upholding it. But the protesters, who had no coherent vision for the future, nor leadership or organization, failed to present a workable alternative and were quickly outflanked by powerful military actors. These were driven by the need to fill a political and security vacuum, while pursuing objectives that reflected longstanding and deep regional fault lines.

Regional Conflict Drivers

Triggered by these political earthquakes, four conflict drivers were propelling parts of the region into four separate but increasingly intersecting areas of conflict.

The first one concerns the borders and the nature of the state systems established a century ago, and how well they held up their end in the social contracts between states and their citizenry. These states may have survived, but not without challenges to their rule. Chronically incapable of reliably providing infrastructure, services, jobs, and sometimes even security, the legitimacy of these states in the eyes of their citizens is constantly tested and often found wanting. Yet, their autocratic nature leads them to hold onto power instead of fostering a greater degree of political participation; they ultimately cannot sustain themselves, as the 2011 uprisings showed. In some ways, it is a miracle that the borders have endured when states themselves have faltered. Part of the reason may be that the elites in these countries have bought into the notion that the nation state is preferable to an overarching (yet unachievable) Arab nation or an all-encompassing Islamic caliphate.

The second fundamental conflict driver is the tension between Israel and its neighbors and Iran, and especially the way it projects itself as an outsider imposing itself militarily while professing an innate legitimacy through its origin narrative. In the adversarial dynamic between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Arab actors, and Israel and Iran, armed conflicts are endemic. The overall confrontation between Israel and these various actors has contaminated the region, putting states up against one another and people against their governments, while offering Arab leaders an excuse to indefinitely postpone long-overdue fundamental reforms.

The third driver is the ongoing struggle between Iran and the Gulf monarchies— an outcome of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Islamic Republic continuously tries to replicate its ideological victory throughout the wider Shiite community and beyond, while Saudi Arabia attempts to counter that. Iran’s attempt to export vilayet-e fakih has been met with only mixed success, but it has been very effective in projecting its power throughout the Middle East—first and foremost through Shiite communities—but also in Syria and with a group as closely aligned with the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood as Hamas. The Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s and the stand-off between Iran and Gulf Arab states today, with the UAE choosing to side with Israel as part of an anti-Iran front, attest to the potency of this particular conflict driver.

The fourth one concerns the unsettled debate in the Sunni world over the role of Islam in politics. (In the Shiite world, the Iranian revolution settled the matter for now.) It stems from the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt early last century in response to secular Arab nationalism—although it has far deeper roots—and has spread throughout the Muslim world. This debate fuelled the rise of jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State that challenged the sitting secular regimes, as well as the Brotherhood itself. It also incited conflict that is evident in the relatively recent rivalry between the UAE and both Qatar and Turkey, playing out in battlefields such as Libya, Syria and Yemen; in the 2013 seizure of power from the government of President Mohamed Morsi that was elected following the 2011 uprising in Egypt; in the 2017 spat between Saudi Arabia and the UAE at one end, and Qatar at the other, which was only partly overcome early in 2021; and most recently in the Tunisian president’s grab for greater power in the face of an Islamist-dominated and paralyzed parliament.

More often than not, [external actors] side with one party to a conflict, deepening internal fault lines and elevating them to regional ones.

Outside interventions, especially of the military kind, dangerously interact with these four basic conflict drivers. External actors can play a constructive role as relatively non-partisan mediators, but more often than not, they side with one party to a conflict, deepening internal fault lines and elevating them to regional ones. Witness the separate Russian and U.S. interventions in Syria (one to protect the regime, the other mostly to fight jihadists in what at times became overlapping efforts), which raised the dangers of an inadvertent clash in the skies between their respective air forces.

In Syria, all these conflict drivers, compounded by external interventions, converged, and thereby rendered a peaceful solution more elusive. The war, which first erupted as a popular challenge against an unresponsive, unaccountable, and repressive regime, soon evolved into a civil war between the regime and an externally backed insurgency, and then, into a proxy war in which regional powers, and later Russia, the United States, and Western members of the anti-ISIS coalition, came face to face. These powers included Turkey, which pursued the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, and Israel, which struck back at its Lebanese enemy Hezbollah, as well as Iran, which had used Syria as its main transit point for arms shipments to Hezbollah.

Syrians’ popular insurgency ultimately failed, in part because the financial support that Gulf actors, who disagreed over the role of Islam in government, funnelled to different rebel factions sowed division among them. Russia’s 2015 intervention then provided the final and fatal blow. Jihadists thrived in the chaos. The war became the mother of all perfect storms, one that is far from having spent its energies, even if it appears frozen for the moment.

Spreading Risks

The ways in which such drivers of conflict intertwine have complicated efforts to bring these conflicts to an end through negotiations leading to ceasefires and transitional political arrangements. Diplomacy’s traditional instruments have proved to be insufficient, especially if they are not backed up by the unified actions of the world’s greater powers. The most a UN envoy can hope to achieve is to emerge from the assignment having avoided a sharp escalation, with his or her reputation intact.

Under these circumstances, the risks posed here are obvious. First off, it is unclear how these conflicts can be contained within certain territorial boundaries and without exerting a certain degree of lethality. The Syrian war, in particular, has highlighted how conflicts can suck in new actors, and spread to engulf wider areas. What began as a popular anti-regime protest in the provincial town of Daraa in March 2011 soon consumed the capital Damascus and the entire Sunni Arab heartland; it then prompted military interventions by Hezbollah and Iran on the regime side, and financial and material backing from Turkey and Gulf Arab actors on the other.

Global powers also entered the scene. Turkey, which has vital interests at stake as Syria’s neighbor, remains lodged militarily in Idlib province; an incursion by the regime and its allies, which would prompt a new refugee flow into Turkey, has sparked repeated direct confrontations between Turkey and the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. Moreover, Hezbollah extended its military power from Lebanon into Syria. The Islamic State then built on its territorial gains in northern Syria to invade (or return to) Iraq, erasing the official border between the two countries; the anti-ISIS coalition followed suit, chasing ISIS in both countries. Both sets of actors thus jointly infected an entire sub-region with armed conflict.

The Syrian war also saw the reintroduction of chemical weapons on the battlefield (by both sides, but most intensively and lethally by the regime), the first time since the Iran–Iraq war. The war’s most defining feature may have been the regime’s wholesale use of barrel bombs dropped over civilian areas in which rebels were active. That level of lethality prompted the United States to respond with missile strikes. If the stakes had been higher for the United States, perhaps it would have introduced even heavier weapons, as it did in Afghanistan in April 2017, when it dropped the most powerful conventional bomb in its arsenal on an Islamic State cave complex. As it was, Russia and Iran together appeared to have “escalation dominance” through their superior strategic interest in Syria and therefore comparatively greater willingness to counter U.S. military moves.

A second, and related, risk is that any proverbial flash in the pan could set off a wider conflagration. Several armed stand-offs in the region would need just a small trigger to push the conflict into a rapid and uncontrolled escalation, causing a chain reaction of destructive events. The following scenarios share the same premise: that none of the primary actors involved in them seeks a direct confrontation with the other for the time being.

In the first scenario, conflict would arise if any of the principal actors on either side of the Israeli/Lebanese or Israeli/Syrian border were to inadvertently cross the other’s (often undeclared) red line. For example, a Hezbollah rocket barrage retaliating for Israeli airstrikes on Hezbollah assets hits a school in northern Israel, with casualties. It is inconceivable that Israel would not launch a major assault in response. Both Israel and Hezbollah have observed mutual deterrence across the Israel–Lebanon border since the 2006 war.

Transplant the scene to northern Syria. Confrontation between Turkey and Russia may arise, for example, should a Syrian regime rocket attack on a Turkish forward base in Idlib kill Turkish troops, and Turkey retaliates, accidentally hitting Russian military advisors deployed alongside Syrian troops. It is very difficult to imagine that Russia would not take significant retaliatory measures, even if it has avoided harming Turkish soldiers in Idlib so far. Retaliation could even take the form of a combined Syrian regime-Russian frontal assault on Idlib in an attempt to wrest the area from Tahrir Al-Sham and Turkey, and restore Damascus’s authority.

Attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz or Gulf of Oman are nothing new. But a naval mishap between U.S. and Iranian vessels could lead to an undesired confrontation in the absence of instant communications in the form of a hotline or otherwise. In 2016, the United States could have met Iran’s detention of U.S. sailors who had entered Iranian territorial waters, possibly because of navigational errors, with an attack on Iranian assets inside the country or on the high seas. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry’s calls to Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, almost instantaneously led to a quick de-escalation and the sailors’ release after 15 hours. During the Trump administration, a similar incident might have had a different outcome, as the circumstances surrounding Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone in June 2019 suggest; the United States reportedly was within minutes of carrying out a retaliatory military strike on Iran before Trump’s aides persuaded him to undertake lesser drastic actions.

And a final example: after ISIS was defeated in Iraq, Iran and its allied paramilitary groups stepped up the pressure to drive U.S. troops away after their partial return to the country, mainly through rocket attacks on facilities in which U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were housed together. This tactic carries great risk, because the United States may retaliate—as it has in the past—and this could cause casualties. One such incident came in the wake of the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike at Baghdad airport in January 2020. Iran struck back by launching missiles at Iraqi bases that housed U.S. and other Western soldiers, injuring many. What reportedly prevented further escalation was an Iranian message to the Trump administration, transmitted through a Swiss diplomatic backchannel, that Iran did not intend to carry out further strikes; fortunately, Trump decided to leave it at that.

Managing Impossible Crises

What, in this fragile state of affairs, could be done to prevent the region from sliding into greater chaos and the expansion of armed conflict to all-out war? “Very little,” is the correct answer. If there is any change for the better, it appears to be mostly unrelated to diplomatic activity and more tied to a political or military event, such as, for example, the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House and the expectation in the region that the United States would return to the nuclear deal, reset relations with Iran, and start balancing the books diplomatically between Iran and U.S. Gulf allies. It is because of this latter perception that Saudi Arabia reached out to Iran in 2021 and, perhaps, also mended its ties with Qatar. This set off a chain reaction, allowing Turkey to start rebuilding diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE. The overall result has been a lowering of the temperature, but the fundamental problems remain. Another major political or military event could easily reverse all these surface-gains. Available options to address the underlying tensions and grievances are limited but there are steps that could at least minimize risks of a wider escalation.

The first relates to activating the UN’s special mechanisms, such as the SecretaryGeneral’s envoys, which are meant to mediate between conflict parties and bring a conflict to an end through negotiations, a ceasefire, and a political transition. Although heroic, such efforts have a low rate of success in bringing individual conflicts to an end, or even preventing further escalations. Even in helping to contain these conflicts, the envoys should communicate more actively, not just with headquarters in New York, but also with one another in the region, as the various conflicts are interlinked through their historic drivers and through countries’ political leaderships who see these connections and use them to their advantage region-wide.

The second relates to those actors external to the region that have an interest in its stabilization. They should open their own channels to non-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and encourage enemies to talk to one another at various levels. This could take the form of military hotlines, direct talks between political leaders or intelligence chiefs, multilateral security dialogues, or Track-2 discussion forums involving a broader spectrum of political and security elites. Such channels of communication are no panacea, but they can help prevent the worst in a situation where more ambitious progress remains improbable.

As long as the region’s principal actors seek no direct confrontation but think they must engage in brinkmanship in order to manage their disputes, accidental escalations based on miscommunications or a misreading of events are very likely to happen again and again. The best way to prevent them from turning into something bigger is to ensure that working channels of communication at the right level of leadership are open and available in moments of acute crisis.

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