Obama and the Middle East
Obama and the Middle East
Managing Crises, the Least-Bad Option
Managing Crises, the Least-Bad Option

Obama and the Middle East


By virtually every measure-name, race, origins, and upbringing-Barack Hussein Obama was a revolutionary presidential candidate. In Mideast policy at least, there is little reason to imagine that he will be a revolutionary president. The radical break with traditional US policy came with the Bush administration, during which the US invaded and then occupied Iraq, shunned Syria, and engaged in an effort, at once ambitious and irresponsible, to reshape the region. Bush's presidency represented an upheaval because it was both guided and blinded by a rigid ideological outlook and because of its uncommon proclivity to choose military over diplomatic means. Obama's first step will be to close that stormy parenthesis. It will be no small achievement.

His own agenda for the Middle East is at the center of greater speculation, and at the heart of that speculation is the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are signs-the fact that they are taking their time, reviewing their policies, consulting broadly-that the President and his team are committed to pragmatism and patience, qualities they found wanting in Bush's rash attempt to impose a new order on the Middle East but also in Bill Clinton's impetuous efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement. Their focus, at the outset at least, likely will be on improving conditions on the ground, including the West Bank economy, curbing if not halting Israeli settlement construction, pursuing reform of Palestinian security forces, and improving relations between Israel and Arab countries.

But there also are hints of a grand ambition biding its time. Obama has not staked his presidency on resolving the conflict, but he has not shied away from the challenge either. Judging by what the new president and his colleagues have suggested, attending to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a matter of US national interest. The administration seems prepared to devote considerable diplomatic, economic, and, perhaps, political capital to that end. And the goal, once the ground has been settled, will be to achieve a comprehensive, two-state solution.

At first glance, there's more reason to be confounded than convinced. If such is the President's objective, it will be pursued under unusually inauspicious circumstances. In Israel, a prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who never tired of reiterating his commitment to a Palestinian state has been replaced by one, Benjamin Netanyahu, who can barely bring himself to utter the words. His coalition partners-a mix of right-wing, xenophobic, and religious parties-make matters worse. Even the participation of Ehud Barak and his Labor party in the coalition is of scant comfort. Barak was prime minister when Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed at the Camp David summit in 2000; the principal lesson he seems to have drawn is to distrust all things Palestinian. As defense minister under Olmert, he barely concealed his disdain for the talks the Palestinians conducted with his own government, dismissing them as an "academic seminar." It is hard to imagine this new coalition going further than its predecessor, which, in Palestinian eyes, didn't go far enough.

On the Palestinian side, intense Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah have so far failed to stitch the national movement together. The price of their divisions, costly under any circumstances, has inflated several-fold as a result of the war in Gaza in December and January between Israel and Hamas. The conflict proved, if proof were still needed, that President Mahmoud Abbas cannot continue to talk peace with Israel when Israel is at war with Palestinians and that Palestinians cannot make peace with Israel when they are at war with themselves. Hamas possesses the power to spoil any progress and will use it. It can act as an implacable opponent against any potential Palestinian compromise. Bilateral negotiations that failed when Olmert was prime minister and Hamas was a mere Palestinian faction are unlikely to succeed with Netanyahu at the helm and Hamas having grown into a regional reality.

If, despite this desolate landscape, the Obama administration nonetheless is determined to push for a final agreement, it could be because the President has something else in mind. At some point, he might intend to bypass negotiations between the parties and, with support from a broad international coalition including Arab countries, Russia, and the European Union, present them with a detailed two-state agreement they will be hard-pressed to reject. The concept stems from the notion that, left to their own devices, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are incapable of reaching an accord and that they will need all the pressure and persuasion the world can muster to take the last, fateful steps.

It is one option. But before jumping toward it, basic issues should be explored. Getting the leaders to endorse a peace deal will be no mean feat, but it is not the only and perhaps not the most substantial challenge. The other question is how in the current climate the Israeli and Palestinian people would welcome a two-state solution. Would they view it as authentic or illegitimate? Would they see it as ending their conflict or merely opening its next round? Would it be more effective at mobilizing supporters or at galvanizing opponents? What, in short, would a two-state solution actually solve?


The challenge of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, of late, almost entirely revolved around tinkering with the details of a two-state agreement. Efforts toward a settlement, whether official or unofficial, focused on adjusting percentages of territorial annexation and land exchange; dividing and defining forms of sovereignty over Jerusalem; describing the attributes of a Palestinian state; and, more often as afterthought than central concern, finding technical ways to resettle and compensate the refugees. Successive failures and the repeated inability to satisfy both Israeli and Palestinian needs have been vexing. So far at least, these difficulties have not called into question the assumption that an equilibrium of interests exists or that it can be fully found within a two-state agreement. It's just been seen as a matter of trying harder.

That President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert were incapable of reaching a settlement in 2008 following the goals set at the Annapolis conference might not be conclusive. But it gives reason to doubt the premise that more of the same can yield something different. Abbas is widely hailed as among the Palestinians' most pragmatic leaders. Olmert took a more circuitous route to the peace camp, but he exhibited the faith of the late convert, intense and profound. After months of talks, Abbas declined a far more concessive Israeli proposal-on the size of the territory for Palestinians, for example-than the one Yasser Arafat turned down eight years ago and for which the then Palestinian leader was excoriated as an implacable enemy of peace. There is little reason to believe that more tweaking of the accord would have made a difference.

A workable two-state agreement would address a large share of the two sides' aspirations. It would preserve Israel's Jewish character and majority, provide it with final and recognized borders, and maintain its ties to Jewish holy sites. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would live free of Israeli occupation, they would govern Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and refugees would have the opportunity to choose normal lives through resettlement and compensation. If meeting those goals were sufficient, why have the parties proved incapable of settling the dispute?

Aspirations reflect historical experience. For Israel's Jewish population, this includes displacement, persecution, the life of the ghetto, and the horrors of the Holocaust; and the long, frustrated quest for a normal, recognized, and accepted homeland. There is a craving for a future that will not echo the past and for the kind of ordinary security-the unquestioned acceptance of a Jewish presence in the region-that even overwhelming military superiority cannot guarantee. There is, too, at least among a significant, active segment of the Israeli population, a deep-seated attachment to the land, all of it, that constitutes Eretz Israel.

For Palestinians, the most primal demands relate to addressing and redressing a historical experience of dispossession, expulsion, dispersal, massacres, occupation, discrimination, denial of dignity, persistent killing off of their leaders, and the relentless fracturing of their national polity.

These Israeli and Palestinian yearnings are of a sort that, no matter how precisely fine-tuned, a two-state deal will find it hard to fulfill. Over the years, the goal gradually has shifted from reaching peace to achieving a two-state agreement. Those aims might sound the same, but they are not: peace may be possible without such an agreement just as such an agreement need not necessarily lead to peace. Partitioning the land can, and most probably will, be an important means of achieving a viable, lasting, peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is not the end.


The idea of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel has an unusually interesting, troubled, and-from the British plan of the 1930s to the United Nations partition plan of 1947-mainly foreign pedigree. What it is not and, save for a brief period in the recent past, has not been is an indigenous Palestinian demand. Partition meant accepting less than the whole of the area of the British Mandate of Palestine; it also came to mean barring the return of refugees who were expelled or fled in 1948. For most of its history, the Palestinian national movement would have nothing to do with it. Israelis were no more enthralled. It took them even longer to warm up to the concept of Palestinian statehood, which they saw as both artificial, insofar as no such entity had existed in the past, and dangerous, because most Arabs and Palestinians denied Israelis the reciprocal right to a Jewish homeland.

Palestinians came to accept the two-state solution by the late 1980s, though that acceptance was always somewhat grudging. Statehood acquired the trappings of a national cause but it never truly matched national aspirations. For most, it appealed more to the head than to the heart; it was an arguably useful way of achieving greater goals but never the objective in and of itself. Unlike Zionism, for whom statehood was the central objective, the Palestinian fight was primarily about other matters. The absence of a state was not the cause of all their misfortune. Its creation would not be the full solution either.

Palestinian embrace of the idea of statehood essentially was the handiwork of a single man. With time, cunning, and shrewd politics, and because few dared challenge his militant credentials, Yasser Arafat fundamentally altered his movement's position. His efforts were not without ambiguity. He toyed with Palestinians and worried Israelis by presenting a Palestinian state both as a solution and as a way station toward one. He made compromise-the acceptance of an Israeli state within the 1967 borders-feel like conquest and he managed to pack into partition feelings of historical vindication, dignity, and honor. When it came to persuading the West and Israel that he genuinely believed in a two-state solution, his past record of militancy was a burden. But when it came to selling a two-state solution to his people, that record was his greatest asset.

Among Palestinians, the concept of statehood has not aged well. It has suffered several punishing blows, mainly at the hands of those who purported to buttress it. This is not chiefly related to its substance, which, through a series of formal and informal Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has not varied much and, if anything, has come closer to mirroring what the Palestinians could live with. It has everything to do with who is promoting it, for what reason, in what way, and in what domestic and regional context. Palestinians do not judge the idea of a state on its merits. They judge it by the company it keeps.


The new millennium began with the near-universal acceptance of the idea of a Palestinian state, which is precisely when its support among Palestinians began to slip. President Bush, the first US president to have ardently endorsed it, framed it as the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and then hurriedly narrowed the challenge to the mundane task of building state institutions. Gone was the revolutionary aura with which Arafat imbued the idea; the struggle, no longer about freedom and the end of occupation, became about erecting responsible structures of government.

One of Bush's least noticed but most profound and pernicious legacies in the region might well turn out to have been this transformation of the concept of Palestinian statehood from among the more revolutionary to the more conservative, from inspiring to humdrum. A small fraction of Palestinians, mainly members of the Palestinian Authority's elite, saw the point of building state institutions, had an interest in doing so, and went to work. For the majority, this kind of project could not have strayed further from their original political concerns.

Today, the idea of Palestinian statehood is alive, but mainly outside of Palestine. Establishing a state has become a matter of utmost priority for Europeans, who see it as crucial to stabilizing the region and curbing the growth of extremism; for Americans, who hail it as a centerpiece in efforts to contain Iran as well as radical Islamists and to forge a coalition between so-called moderate Arab states and Israel; and even for a large number of Israelis who have come to believe it is the sole effective answer to the threat to Israel's existence posed by Arab demographics. Those might all be good reasons, though none is of particular relevance to Palestinians; and each only further alienates them from the vision of statehood, the purported object of their struggle.

Universal endorsement has its downside. The more the two-state solution looks like an American or Western, not to mention Israeli, interest, the less it appeals to Palestinians. It is hard to generate excitement among Palestinians for a project explicitly aimed at protecting the interests of their historic foe (Israel), defeating one of their political organizations (Hamas), or rescuing pro-Western Arab regimes for which they evince little sympathy. Many Palestinians feel that the notion of statehood has been hijacked by their historic detractors who rejected it when it was briefly a Palestinian idea only to endorse it when they made it their own. The process of legitimizing a state in international eyes has helped discredit it in those of its intended beneficiaries.

The two-state concept has been further tarnished by what has become of its Palestinian promoters. Today, many Palestinians no longer see their leaders as carrying out a national project but rather as instruments of foreign designs aimed at bolstering one faction of Palestinians against another. When the Palestinian Authority seeks guidance, it appears to look outward: to the US to judge whether the program of a putative national unity government would pass muster or to help devise a security plan; to Israel for assistance coping with the Islamist challenge; to Egypt and the rest of the world for how to deal with Gaza.

In all this, the PA's policy choices pose less of a problem than the method through which they seem to be reached-based not on an indigenous Palestinian notion of national self- interest, but rather on a foreign concept of what it ought to be. On their own, Palestinian leaders might opt for confrontation with Hamas, for unity, or for something else. The decision might work or it might backfire. At least it would be theirs. Instead, they currently speak and act as if they are at the head of some Palestinians-the more respectable ones-while leaving it to others to handle the more troublesome lot. All of which diminishes the PA's standing, even in the eyes of many otherwise most prone to support its program, and inflates its opposition, even among many who share nothing in common with the Islamists' agenda.

None of this was preordained. Abbas came to power in 2005 with the historic legitimacy of forty years of arduous struggle; with authority that neither Fatah nor Hamas dared to challenge; and with a then-credible vision, the two-state solution, which had long formed the core of his beliefs. These could have been put to good use to fulfill his original plan, which was to moderate Hamas's policies by gaining the cooperation of the Islamist movement and turning the Palestinian president into the necessary intermediary between Palestinians-all of them-and the international community for the achievement of a peace agreement with Israel. That was not to be.

Abbas's legitimacy was eroded by the West's suffocating embrace-a bear hug made worse for its being American, and worse yet for coming from President Bush. His authority was blunted by intrusive US meddling as Palestinians questioned whether decisions were made by their president or imposed by others. And his vision was blurred by the two-state solution's metamorphosis from a national idea to a foreign one.

Abbas's predicament stems from the help he has been denied as well as from the support he has been ill-advisedly given by those who claim to wish him well, the US and Europeans in particular. Time and again, they have pushed him in directions his instincts initially resisted but to which, bereft of a support team and the instruments of power needed to stand firm, he ultimately succumbed-away from national unity and toward greater reliance on foreign benefactors. Condescendingly justifying their actions by alleging that he was powerless, the US and the Europeans only made him appear more so. Abbas is an opportunity that has never ceased to be missed.


Statehood was and could at some point again be a Palestinian achievement, but for now it has become somebody else's prize. That is not necessarily fatal. Obama has what no US president before him had and, one could venture, few following him will possess: an ability to speak to a foreign audience and, without in any way diminishing America's dignity, elevate theirs. His appar- ent etermination to broaden Israeli- Palestinian talks so as to involve in one way or another tens of Arab and Muslim states might give American diplomacy a further, notable lift. With time and tenacity, a strategy predicated on building an international coalition, pressing the two sides to make necessary compromises, and presenting them with a final two-state solution might succeed. A state packaged by Bush is one thing. Wrapped up by Obama, it would be something else altogether.

Then again, it would be a gamble. Should a significant number of Palestinians or Israelis construe such a solution as promoted by the wrong people for the wrong reasons in the wrong way, they will not see it as a solution at all. They will object and seek to mobilize those without whose support a deal would stand on tenuous grounds. For some time at least, the benefits of a deal will be less evident than the concessions it requires. For opponents, that time will be precious. An agreement that is not implemented or that does not last would produce a radicalizing effect that no absence of agreement could ever accomplish.

There may be another way. Its starting point would be less of an immediate effort to achieve a two-state agreement or propose US ideas to that effect. Rather, it would be an attempt to transform the political atmosphere and reformulate the diplomatic process. This would entail, first, identifying and recognizing fundamental Israeli and Palestinian concerns and aspirations and then placing them at the core of the process. In turn, this would involve altering how a US-supported solution is conceived and presented to both sides so that Palestinians see it as the outcome of their national struggle and Israelis as the culmination of their historic quest rather than as the byproduct of others' strategic pursuits. The end result might well be the same-two states, living side by side. But the journey would be more authentic and its destination more acceptable.

The task, in other words, would not be to polish up answers to questions of borders, security, Jerusalem, or how to compensate refugees. That approach increasingly is becoming a sideshow, chiefly of interest to official negotiators. Nor would talk center on creating Palestinian institutions or extolling a two-state solution's value in combating extremism or reshaping the region. When Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, calls for dropping timeworn slogans-land for peace, two-state solution-he has a political purpose. He also has a point. Endless repetition has not brought realization of these goals closer, and it has chipped away at their credibility. America's discourse can reconnect with both sides' hopes and needs if it addresses them and reverts to basics-namely, acknowledging and redressing injustices suffered by Palestinians and providing Israelis with the recognition and normalcy historically denied them.

A new language would help; so too would a broader audience. Peace camps on both sides have long been sold on the two-state idea. They cannot sell it any longer. The more they are identified with the proposal, the less appealing it will be. The US should reach out to skeptical constituencies that would make a difference but are left indifferent by current talk of a two-state agreement. One example is the settlers, an active and dynamic Israeli group yet one that the outside world typically treats as modern-day lepers. A more inclusive political process could recognize their views and concerns, consider their interests, and invite them to take part in discussions.

Another such case, certainly, is the Palestinian diaspora, whose opinions have defined national aspirations from the outset and will shape the collective response into the future. Walter Russell Mead puts it well in a recent article: "Any deal," he writes, "must address the issues of greatest concern to the dispossessed refugees, who best embody Palestinian nationalism and remain the ultimate source of political legitimacy in Palestinian politics."[*]

President Obama will give a speech in Cairo, though in view of the state of Arab polarization, it carries equal risk of dividing as of uniting public opinion; he also likely will make the traditional pilgrimage to Ramallah. But why not consider a speech that will make even the most cynical pause-one that addresses the Palestinian refugees' concerns, is delivered to refugees, and given in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon? President Obama, flanked by President Abbas, surrounded by refugee leaders, speaking to a cheering crowd of thousands hailing from camps across Lebanon and, through them, to millions of Palestinians scattered across the globe: the sight, powerful and stirring, could do more than any US plan to change the mood, minds, and emotions.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have to be tackled within the 1967 boundaries. But it can be resolved only if it deals candidly with its 1948 genesis. In fact, the more the refugees' plight is openly acknowledged by the US, the easier it will become to end the indecent prolongation of their current misery on the dubious pretext that if their lives could be improved, this would eradicate their cause and obliterate their rights.

It will be equally important for the United States to modify its dealings with domestic Palestinian politics and, in particular, the Palestinian president. Abbas is a man in desperate need of being left alone. If his actions are to be seen as legitimate and his endorsement of an agreement is to carry weight, he cannot appear as the president of only some Palestinians but must appear as the president of all; he cannot hand over, under pressure, critical decisions to outside parties but must assume them himself. He must be allowed to do what he considers right. Washington need not openly promote Palestinian unity. But it could stop standing in the way by signaling its acceptance of any reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah to which the Palestinian president lent his name. The US should continue to support Abbas. But it could stop placing him in that politically confining and damaging position where the fate of his people seems to be decided by others. If the goal is to strengthen Abbas, there is no better way.

How a peace initiative is received also will be a function of the regional climate. The more it is polarized between so-called moderates and radicals and the more the purpose appears to be to bolster the former while harming the latter, the more opposition will be energized. Militancy will find sympathetic ears. Among Palestinians, the sense will grow that the US is waging a battle in their name but not for their sake.


From the first day of his presidency, which began as the Gaza war that traumatized the region and radicalized it further came to an end, Obama's Middle East challenge has been plain. He must win over the large pool of disaffected Arabs and Muslims who have ceased believing in the United States.

The climb will be steep. His election was a beginning, raising questions where not long before had reigned near-undivided, and negative, conviction. The new president can rely on more stirring rhetoric; he will enjoy a more receptive audience and will be looked at in a fresh light. That will take him only so far. He will be given the benefit of the doubt, but the doubt will remain colossal.

For the new president, the starting point should be recognition of some uncomfortable, brutal realities. These include the depth of inherited anti-American animus; of cynicism toward old plans and tired formulas; of popular estrangement from the regional leaders on whom Washington has come to depend; and of popular attraction to militant activists, militant behavior, and a radical worldview.

The consequence is that some well-worn recipes cannot work. Claiming eagerness to end the Arab-Israeli conflict or reach a two-state solution has become stale by dint of sterile repetition. President Bush did so, possibly more passionately and fervently than any predecessor. Yet few listened because few believed in what he said, least of all the Palestinians who were his supposed audience. Relying upon and bestowing aid to traditional Arab allies or seeking to improve their ties with Israel will not help much either. It would be preaching to the choir, burdening the Obama administration with the weight of unpopular figures and entrenching the notion that, at least in this respect, America is content with prolonging the past.

The time will come for the US to unfurl a grand diplomatic initiative. Not now. The most urgent task is to prepare the way for that day by countering the skepticism that has greeted and torpedoed every recent American idea, good or bad-from Secretary of State William Roger's 1969 plan to the road map. The time is for a clean break, in words, style, and approach.

For many in the US, the notion of such radical change often is reduced to the question of whether or not to talk to Hamas. That is a diversion. The challenge is whether Obama can speak to those for whom Hamas speaks. They are the people who have lost faith in America, its motivations, and every proposal it promotes.

The broader point is this: a window exists, short and subject to abrupt closure, during which President Obama can radically upset Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim preconceptions and make it possible for his future plan, whatever and whenever it might be, to get a fair hearing-for American professions of seriousness to be taken seriously. It won't be done by repackaging the peace process of years past. It won't be done by seeking to strengthen those leaders viewed by their own people as at best weak, incompetent, and feckless, at worst irresponsible, careless, and reckless. It won't be done by perpetuating the bogus and unhelpful distinction between extremists and moderates, by isolating the former, reaching out to the latter, and ending up disconnected from the region's most relevant actors.

It won't be done by trying to perform better what was performed before. President Bush's legacy was, in this sense, doubly harmful: he did the wrong things poorly, which now risks creating the false expectation that, somehow, they can be done well.

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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