Will conflict in the Middle East trigger the next great power war?
We need a strategy for the Eastern Mediterranean.
This is not a new crisis. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy lived and wrote in Egypt a century ago. One of his short, evocative poems is entitled "In Alexandria, 31 B.C." It is about an itinerant peddler who comes to the city to hawk his wears and is beaten badly by the crowds. The poem ends:
And when he asks, now totally confused, ‘What’s going on here?’
someone tosses him too the huge palace lie:
that Antony is winning in Greece.
Here, in a few lines of poetry, is a metaphor not just for Egypt, but for the entire Eastern Mediterranean: crowd violence, confusion on the ground, economic disruption, and failing strategic communications.
In the midst of such frustration and seemingly intractable hatreds, it may feel like time to simply disengage and walk away. There is enormous Middle East fatigue in the United States — the majority of Americans oppose intervening in Syria, and few even try to comprehend it all: Palestinians and Israelis, Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Jews, Iran and Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf, Christians and Druze. To analysts, the region is an arc of crisis; to the public, it is just a mess.
But sailing away would be a huge mistake. Like the Balkans in the years leading up to World War I, the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean are a pile of tinder that could ignite a much wider conflict. As with the assassin’s shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it is difficult to predict precisely what could broaden the conflict, but it is impossible to ignore the possibility.
Conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites are bubbling over. Old tensions persist and new ones have arisen over economic resources, notably natural gas fields — portions of which are claimed by Cyprus, Israel, Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. And great power interest remains as high as ever, with Russia and the United States routinely operating warships in the region. China and India have also sent naval assets to the Eastern Med, where they join traditional NATO deployments from the navies of the 28-nation alliance. The ships merely reflect a broader military presence.
Today, the Syrian civil war is ground zero, with Iran, Russia, and China on one side, and the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and much of NATO on the other. The spark could come with a confrontation between warships, a major terrorist attack by Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, or the use of chemical weapons, either in the civil war itself or, worse, in Europe.
So the question with which the United States must grapple is what is our strategy in this complex part of the world, lying as it does next to one of our closest allies, Israel, and on the edge of our strongest alliance system, NATO?
First, we should focus on strong relations with our closest ally in the region: Israel. The relations between the American military and the Israel Defense Forces continue to be vital to both nations. We rely on our Israeli friends for intelligence and context in understanding the region. Likewise, we have excellent military-to-military relations with Turkey, a NATO member and a nation with which we stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight against the Kurdish terrorists who threaten it. In addition, we are very close with Jordan and have good ties with the Egyptian military.
Over many years, our military has built deep relationships with counterparts at every level. This includes exchanges of military personnel in schools and training commands in the United States; a great deal of military hardware provided, from ships to tanks to planes; assistance in exercises, many of them highly complex; and significant levels of key counterpart visits, conversations, and exchanges. Gifted diplomat-warriors like Jim Mattis, John Allen, Marty Dempsey, Mike Mullen, Dave Petraeus, and many others count their opposite numbers as not only colleagues but, in many cases, good friends. All of this provides some entrée and leverage. We should continue measured military-to-military contact, training, assistance, intelligence sharing, personnel exchanges, and arms sales — trying to get partners in sync.
Second, we must work in a multilateral context diplomatically. We must continue to pursue the possibility of a Geneva II conference on Syria, as well as strongly supporting the opposition with political, economic, and military assistance. The Assad regime cannot be allowed to remain in power. Similarly, Secretary Kerry’s efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian question are worth pursuing. And we have to work with partners like Saudi Arabia to move Egypt toward stability and democracy — they are in many ways the key to the region, and the ousting of the Islamist Morsy regime appears to be an honest manifestation of the will of a majority of the Egyptian people. A key relationship over time will be between Turkey and Egypt, and finding linkages between them and Israel is squarely in U.S. interests.
Third, there are cyber and strategic communication activities that can help here. We will be unable to fully dominate the flow of information in the strategic communications space, nor can we fully control the cyberworld. But we can work to strengthen the use of social networks ourselves and by our friends to gain information and intelligence; reinforce democracy, rule of law, and due process; and convince "the street" that the United States wants to be part of constructive solutions. Likewise, cyber provides opportunities to advance our agenda while frustrating those of our opponents.
Fourth, we should work on the maritime and strategic resource questions of the region. There will be naval and commercial conflicts, which must be managed. This can be done through confidence-building measures, making sure counterpart navies are in contact and bringing the parties together at conferences, like the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Symposium in Newport this fall and NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue.
Above all, we should not give up on the region in frustration. It is worth remembering how long it took us from our own American Revolution in 1776 to simply draw up and ratify a constitution in 1789, put down several revolts and rebellions, create a single currency, and indeed decide what we wanted to be as a nation and a people. Jefferson said, "One should not expect to be carried to democracy on a featherbed." The Eastern Med is far from a featherbed, but U.S. engagement will be an important element in helping bring these nations further along the path to democracy and stability.