Three highly-dangerous Middle East problems — Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the bloody civil war in Syria and the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict — pose a grave challenge to US President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team of John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at Defence and John Brennan at the CIA.
America’s vital interests in the Middle East, its political reputation, its ability to project power and influence are intimately tied up with the way it deals — or fails to deal — with these problems. So what advice might one be bold enough to give Obama and his team?
Each of these three problems is profoundly destabilising for the region as a whole and risks triggering a war of unpredictable consequences. Taken separately, each of them has so far defied resolution. One suggestion is that tackling them as a package might prove more effective.
Consider, for a moment, how closely inter-connected they are. No one is more concerned than Israel about Iran’s nuclear programme, which it sees as a threat to its military supremacy and ultimately to its security. It fears that a nuclear capable Iran would restrict the freedom, which Israel has enjoyed for decades, to strike its neighbours at will, when they seem threatening.
Iran, however, does not stand alone. Its fate is closely linked to that of Syria, its principal regional ally. Syria has also been the most ardent champion of Palestinian rights and of Lebanon’s freedom from Israeli control. Indeed, the so-called ‘resistance axis’ of Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah has sought to deter or contain Israeli attacks while challenging US-Israeli hegemony in the Levant.
Needless to say, Syria’s calamitous civil war has gravely weakened the resistance axis. Israel’s dearest hope is to destroy what remains of it by urging the US and its allies to bring down the Tehran and the Damascus regimes, thus freeing Israel from any constraint from these powers in its relentless drive for a ‘Greater Israel’.
It can thus be seen that Iran’s nuclear programme, Syria’s existential crisis and Israel’s land hunger are inextricably linked. Attempts to deal with these problems separately have so far failed. The obvious conclusion is that they may be better dealt with as a package. These are not marginal problems which can be left to fester. If the US wishes to protect itself, its interests and its allies in a highly turbulent environment it must make a supreme effort to resolve them.
Moreover, this is a unique moment: Obama has been re-elected for a second term. His political authority has been enhanced. The world is looking to him for leadership. Although many other foreign policy problems clamour for his attention — the rising colossus of China first among them — he knows that the Middle East, for all its maddening complexity, latent violence, and the current resurgence of Al Qaida, not least in Syria — cannot be ignored.
He should consider the possibility of a trade-off between Iran’s nuclear programme and a Palestinian state. The proposal is simple enough: if Iran were to agree — under strict international supervision — to give up, once and for all, its ambition to become a nuclear-capable state, Israel would, in exchange, agree to the establishment of an independent Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in occupied east Jerusalem. The exact terms of the trade-off would evidently need negotiation and refinement, but the main lines and necessary mutual concessions of an Israeli-Palestinian deal have been extensively debated and are widely known.
Such a bargain between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is not as far-fetched or as fictional as it may sound. Iran has boxed itself into a corner. It knows that the US will not allow it to become a nuclear power. It wants a dignified exit from its present predicament and an end to crippling sanctions. Israel, in turn, faces international isolation — not to speak of the permanent threat of terrorism — if it insists on stealing what remains of the West Bank. It, too, needs a dignified exit from the insanity of its fanatical colonisers and religious nationalists who, if unchecked, would condemn Israel to pariah status and permanent war. A trade-off would resolve two of the region’s most intractable problems to the great benefit of everyone concerned. Peace and normal relations with the entire Muslim world would be Israel’s very substantial reward.
What about Syria? It lies at the very heart of the regional power system. Its on-going civil war is threatening to destabilise its neighbours — Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Israel itself will not be immune. Islamist fighters, some linked to Al Qaida, are flowing into Syria, while refugees are fleeing out to neighbouring states in very large numbers. The toll of dead and wounded is heavy, material destruction great and human misery incalculable.
It is by now abundantly clear that there is no military solution to the conflict: neither the regime nor its opponents can hope to win an outright victory. No outside power wants to intervene militarily. Yet the regime and its enemies are incapable of negotiating an end to the conflict without outside help.
What should the international community do? First, the US and Russia (with active support from other powers) should join together in imposing a ceasefire on both sides of the conflict. This could involve deploying an international force around Syria’s borders to prevent the inflow of fighters, weapons, and other military equipment to both government and rebels.
Secondly, major external powers — Arab, western, Chinese, Russian and others — should solemnly pledge to contribute to a Syria Reconstruction Fund of some $10 billion-$15 billion. The money would be entrusted to the World Bank and disbursed only when a permanent ceasefire is in place and when some clear progress is made towards a negotiated settlement. The existence of the Fund will provide a real incentive.
Thirdly, the United Nations secretary-general, with unanimous backing from the Security Council, should summon a conference of national reconciliation in Damascus attended by regime representatives as well as by all Syrian factions, groups, parties and prominent individuals prepared to renounce war.
The task will not be easy. The wounds of the conflict are very deep. But for the sake of Syria and its neighbours — for the sake of peace in the region — a supreme effort must be made to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state and its possible fragmentation. The difficult task will be to reshape Syria’s political system on democratic lines. Political freedoms will have to be guaranteed, individual rights respected, police brutality ended, the rule of law observed, government services restored and minorities protected. An essential goal must be the preservation of the Syrian Arab Army as the indispensable institution of the state. In Iraq, it was the disbanding of the army which led to the collapse of the state, triggering the catastrophic civil war from which the country has yet to recover.
If Obama were to adopt the programme outlined above and throw his full weight behind it, his place in history as a great peace-maker would be assured.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.