Middle East Meltdown

In a region now crowded with failed states, a murderous terrorist group has gained a foothold, changing the power dynamics and the United States needs to pay attention.


Go ahead: blame the rise of the Islamic State (IS) on George W. Bush’s unwise entry into Iraq in 2003 and Barack Obama’s early exit, if you like. You could even add to that charge the current administration’s willful aversion to militarizing the U.S. role in Syria, either by not supporting the centrist opposition or by not doing enough to weaken the Assad regime. Sprinkle in a bit of Obama’s "red line" on chemical weapons turning pink for good measure.

Playing the blame game of who lost Iraq and Syria can be fun, make you feel good, or satisfy those deep partisan urges to find someone to shoulder responsibility for the current mess. But this domestic political debate cannot satisfactorily explain the ascendance of IS (and assorted jihadi groups operating in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region) or the extent to which the current American predicament in Syria and Iraq has worsened in the past several years. Even if you factored in the woulda-coulda-shoulda dynamic — what might have been different had the United States taken other courses of action (e.g. bombing Assad, provided more weapons to his opponents, or having been tougher on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) — the odds that the storyline would have been fundamentally more favorable to America and its friends is a highly debatable proposition. Indeed, the main storyline in this region has less to do with the United States and more to do with the profound changes that have occurred in the region.

IS is the poster child for that story.

What is inarguable, however, is that IS emerged, gained power, and is now operating more effectively because it exists in an environment of failed or failing states. This, in an environment notable for its lack of a viable order — authoritarian or otherwise — and a coherent state that can offer an alternative to IS by offering good, reliable governance, political inclusion, and economic opportunity to both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Indeed, IS feeds on Sunni grievances created by bad governance — either in the form of the Assad regime’s murderous policies toward Sunnis, or Shia oppression of Sunnis in Iraq. In this kind of scenario, the absence of a serious opposition on the ground adds to the allure of jihadi ideology that makes IS new and different from terror groups like al Qaeda. Never has such a murderous and sociopathic terrorist movement had this kind of free reign over such a wide and deep sanctuary, and never has one been freer to terrorize, extort, train, and govern as it pleases.

It would be nice to think that this fundamental problem — the complete lack of coherent polities and functional states — is confined to Syria, and that somehow the contagion of bad governance (or no governance at all) could be contained as a "local" problem. But alas, that isn’t the case. The Arab world is melting down. Libya and Syria are torn apart by civil war; Iraq is decentralizing; Yemen now faces a determined Houthi insurgency; the Lebanese state has lacked the capacity to control its own territory for years; the putative state of Palestine is riven with political divides.

Even the functional polities, such as Egypt and Jordan, aren’t so functional when it comes to meeting the economic and political needs of many of their constituents. The kings, emirs, and sheikhs of the gulf have certainly fared better, and for many reasons have avoided the turbulence of the times. Is it really only lonely Tunisia and perhaps Kurdistan that offer the possibility not just of stability but a transition to what is perhaps a more genuinely popular form of governance?

Indeed, one of the more intriguing paradoxes in the region today is that the three non-Arab states — Israel, Turkey, and Iran — despite all their difficulties, remain the most consequential states in the region. They are all politically stable; all have tremendous economic potential, and all have the ability to project their military power beyond their borders.

So what does this Middle East mess and meltdown actually mean for U.S. policy in the region? Quite a lot, really, as America is on terra incognita, balancing tough choices in a harsh environment with few good choices and even fewer friends. And here’s why.

Trapped in an Arab-Persian maze and in an Arab cold war, regional politics have rarely been more complex. America is stuck in the middle of it. First, there’s the Shia-Sunni divide, embodied partly by tensions between Iran, Hezbollah, Assad’s regime, and the Sunni states like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. Washington must find a way to balance its ties with Iran and its more traditional friends in the Gulf worried about any tilt toward Tehran. And it must oppose Iran’s regional aims, even while it negotiates with Tehran on the nuclear issue.

As if this weren’t complex enough, there’s an internal Arab cold war between Sunni regimes like Saudi Arabia and the UAE and others like Turkey and Qatar who are less allergic to Hamas and other jihadists. In August, Secretary of State John Kerry stepped into the middle of this feud by trying to bring Turkey and Qatar — two Hamas supporters — into his diplomatic efforts to end the Gaza war. In so doing, he angered the Egyptians, Saudis, and Israelis who were trying to keep them at bay, effectively shuting himself out of further diplomacy.

All of this calls into question the evolution of Iran’s position as a regional player, and how the IS crisis has effectively enhanced its role and influence. And as the Nov. 24 deadline for a deal on the nuclear issue looms, Tehran has become even more important to U.S. policy. Washington needs Iran to stabilize the situation in Iraq, particularly with the Shiites. It may well also be that the Obama administration’s reluctance to take military action against Assad is tied up with an unwillingness to anger the mullahs and undercut Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Indeed, it is Iran, rather than any Arab state, that sits at the nexus of almost every issue America cares about in the region, from Syria, to Lebanon, to the nuclear issue, to Iraq, to the Palestinians. And the Saudis and the Israelis know and resent it, further complicating their ties with Washington.  

And the United States is more dependent on Israel, too. As the Arab world melts down, Israel’s leverage only increases. Tensions at the top between Netanyahu and Obama notwithstanding, America’s capacity to pressure its close ally decreases as the region becomes more unsettled. Not only are the United States and Israel together in the same trench against IS, but Israel and Egypt are now closer than ever, making it unlikely that Cairo would press Washington to hammer Israel on the Palestinian issue.

So too, Washington needs to keep Jerusalem close on the nuclear issue. If there’s a deal, Washington will have its hands full trying to get Israel and congress to support it. If there is no deal, the United States will want to make sure Israel doesn’t overreact. Quite simply, with the exception of the ongoing behind-the-scenes trash talk, pressuring Israel on any issue while IS beheads Americans and the Arab world is in turmoil just doesn’t compute. Tough words aside, the administration has all but acquiesced on Israeli settlement policies.

Four years after the promise of democratization swept the Middle East, America’s best friends in the Arab world are the kings — hardly the epitome of democracy. The Obama administration wanted to be on the right side of history in Egypt when Mubarak fell. Now Washington just wants to be on the right side. In an effort to maintain its ties with the Gulf and Egypt too, that means cooling it on pushing for serious reforms. John McCain may be right that our values are our interests. But other than reading the talking points, it’s unlikely that the United States will revert to using serious pressure to press Egypt to democratize. One only need look at the absence of the Obama administration’s reaction to Egypt’s recent crackdown on NGOs and media.     

But nowhere are the limitations and contradictions of the new, messy Middle East more apparent than in U.S. policy toward Syria. We’re training opposition elements with the notion that the war is against IS, when they believe the real battle is against Assad. We’re cooperating with an Arab coalition that may fear IS too. But most of its members believe that it’s Assad who must go. Meanwhile, we’re trying to enlist the non-Arab Turks in the campaign against IS, when Ankara also believes that we really need to direct our fire at Assad. To make matters worse: if we do hit Assad, we’ll anger his Iranian allies who may react by stirring the pot in Iraq. Striking against Syria may also simply enlarge opportunities for IS to spread its evil throughout the country.

The fact is the president was right when he said the United States didn’t have a strategy. He still doesn’t have a workable one now. That’s why instead of thinking about some grand strategy to transform the region into a game of three-dimensional chess – which, I might add, we’ve never been able to play — we need to transact, keep it simple, and just play checkers. Nothing fancy. Just a simple strategy: protect core U.S. interests. A strategy that begins with pursuing counterterrorism in Syria, not nation-building. The balance between all in and all out is hitting IS and other jihadi groups hard and continuously preempting and preventing them from hitting the homeland.

Second, we need allies, democratic or otherwise. You might hold it against me for saying so, but that means maintaining ties with the Arab non-democrats and keeping the Israelis close too. We don’t have to give up our hopes for political reform, human rights, and the Palestinian deal. But those things aren’t possible now — so why push for something we can’t have? Finally, we need to do everything we can to put as much time on the Iranian nuclear clock as possible and keep them from weaponizing. Hopefully diplomacy can buy that time; if not, and the Mullahcracy wants to actually go for a weapon, we need to consider a kinetic response.   

So we have to forget Hollywood endings, heroic diplomacy, or any of the other fairy tale-like views of this region. It is an angry, broken, and dysfunctional place. We are stuck in the middle with interests and allies we can’t abandon. We can’t leave and we can’t transform it. Above all, let’s stop pretending. The Middle East is a mess. We can’t save it from itself. But we can protect our vital core interests and not get sidetracked by discretionary ones. Let’s keep our feet on the ground and head out of the clouds, and we may just find a way to muddle through.

Aaron David​ Miller is a geoeconomic and strategy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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