Six conflict-zones of the greater Middle East are in danger of erupting into fresh violence. In all six, the US and its allies seem unable — or perversely unwilling — to contribute to a peaceful solution. Instead, in each case, they are adding fuel to the fire.
When President Barack Obama assumed office on January 20, 2009, he had a chance to put an end to America’s 30-year estrangement with Iran. There was even talk of a ‘grand bargain’ which would have resolved fears about Iran’s nuclear programme and stabilised the Gulf by recognising Iran’s legitimate place and role in it. There was also a chance that US engagement with Iran would calm Sunni-Shiite tensions across the region brought to boiling point by the Iraq war.
These hopes have proved vain. Instead, the US has chosen to wage an undeclared war on Iran. It is crippling its economy by means of sanctions and has joined with Israel in subverting its nuclear and oil installations with cyber-attacks.
Moreover, in this year’s three rounds of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1), the US has refused to compromise. A deal was on offer whereby Iran would give up enriching uranium to 20 per cent in exchange for an easing of sanctions and a recognition of its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to master the nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes. Instead, the US has hardened its position by embracing Israel’s demand that Iran be forced, by means of further sanctions and military threats, to suspend all enrichment.
In piling on the pressure, the real goal of the US and its Israeli ally would seem to be regime-change in Tehran, rather than putting an end by negotiation to Iran’s so far non-existent nuclear weapons programme. Israel’s friends in the US Congress are already pressing the Obama administration to suspend the talks with Iran and resort instead to military measures.
Just as Israel’s friends in George W. Bush’s administration pushed the US into destroying Iraq, so the aim now would seem to be to push the US into destroying Iran. Needless to say, if Iran is pressed too hard, the danger of a hot war breaking out is ever present.
The US has also entered the fray in Syria, where the beleaguered Al Assad regime is facing a widespread urban guerrilla war together with terrorist attacks — suicide bombings, assassinations, destruction of public buildings — in large cities, including Damascus.
All the major US media — Fox News, Time, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal — have reported that CIA officers in southern Turkey are ‘coordinating’ arms shipments from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebels, especially, it would appear, to armed Islamic groups. Needless to say, arming the opposition is undercutting Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria.
It is Russia rather than the US that is calling most urgently for a negotiated settlement of the crisis. In the Huffington Post of June 21, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov wrote: “We need to bring all the weight to bear on both the regime and the opposition and make them cease fighting and meet at the negotiating table”.
He called for the convening of “an international conference of the states directly involved in the Syrian crisis... Only in this way can we keep the Middle East from sliding into the abyss of wars and anarchy”.
Lavrov rightly sees the assault on Syria as “an element of a larger regional geopolitical game”. Indeed, instead of joining Russia in pressing for an evolutionary transition of power in Syria, the US has adopted as its own the Israeli ambition of bringing down the whole so-called ‘resistance axis’ of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, which has dared make a dent in Israel’s regional hegemony.
Campaigning for re-election and under intense pressure from the Israeli lobby and from a pro-Israeli Congress, Obama is silent when it comes to Israel’s continuing land grab on the West Bank and the unpunished violence of fanatical colonists against helpless Palestinians. Just as he has lost control to Israel of US foreign policy when it comes to Iran, so Obama has collapsed in front of the Greater Israel ambitions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Some commentators are already predicting the outbreak of a third intifada. Palestinian frustrations are very great. They know that Israel will not grant them a state unless it is forced to do so. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has protected Israel from Palestinian militants but has received absolutely nothing in return.
His Hamas rivals in Gaza have, for their part, been greatly encouraged by the election to the Egyptian presidency of Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The coming phase could be very bloody.
The fourth, fifth and sixth conflict-zones in the Greater Middle East are in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Yemen, and increasingly in the Sahel, where Nato’s violent overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi has had the unforeseen consequence of spreading mayhem in Mali, Niger and other countries bordering the Sahara. Hungry violent men, once recruited as mercenaries by Gaddafi, have now returned home with their weapons. In Mali, the northern half of the country has fallen to a Tawareq rebellion stiffened by armed Islamist groups close to Al Qaida.
Algeria and all the West African states are deeply concerned by these developments but do not quite know what to do about them. It will no doubt not be long before US drones carry out targeted assassinations in the region.
In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, long-distance killings by US drones have become the instruments of choice in America’s counter-terrorist operations, to the rage of local populations and the loss of legitimacy of their leaders. In American thinking, drones and cyberwarfare are now a substitute for large-scale military operations — and also a substitute for negotiations and the peaceful resolution of conflicts.
In Pakistan, a Taliban commander has banned polio vaccinations in the tribal belt of North Waziristan until the CIA halts its drone campaign. This is because a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, helped the CIA find Osama Bin Laden by running a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad, which led them to Bin Laden’s hiding place in that city, and his subsequent killing by US Special forces in May last year. Dr Afridi has been convicted by a tribal court in Pakistan to 33 years in prison.
American practices of doubtful legality have provoked a despairing cry from former president Jimmy Carter who, in an article in the International Herald Tribune of June 25, declared: ‘As concerned citizens, we must persuade Washington to reverse course and regain moral leadership according to international human rights norms that we had officially adopted as our own and cherished throughout the years.’
Is Obama listening? Or is he thinking only of his re-election?
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, Al Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.