Middle East Revolutions Combined With Diplomacy Could Stumble Into Peace
Middle East Revolutions and Diplomacy May Lead to Peace
The Middle East has been a burning cauldron of warring factions for generations. Many of these have been created internally while others have been created or exacerbated due to foreign influences. Tribal conflicts have historically fueled frictions within the Middle East. The Sunni and Shiite divide within the world of Islam has drastically magnified this problem. This split has grown so bad that it potentially may evolve into a large war within the Middle East.
The long history of European colonization of the Middle East has fueled these divisions due to the partitioning of regions and the artificial drawing up of new national borders. Colonization also stunted the growth of representative government and taught Middle East leaders that authoritarianism worked at least in the short term. The involvement of the United States in the Middle East since World War II has been marked by alternating diplomacy, oil resource exploitation, and the threat or use of force.
Fortunately a recent mixed brew of revolutions, diplomacy, and threats of force have set the scene for possible peace talks on several fronts. Some of this has occurred by fortunate accident while much has been developed by way of earnest diplomacy.
I will analyze within this Hub the several countries within the Middle East which are haphazardly lurching towards a possible peaceful rapprochement with both their neighbors and the West. I will also examine the factors that precipitated this trend and how they interconnect. Finally I will analyze where these fortunate developments may be headed both positively and negatively. The future of the Middle East and its relations with the West are most certainly at stake.
The Arab Spring uprisings that swept much of the Middle East in 2011 created a tremendous political and social tumult within this region. The authoritarian governments of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya fell. Several others have been thrown into civil wars such as Yemen and Syria. These uprisings have precipitated cautious steps towards democracy in several countries. They have also created a dangerous dilemma.
Muslim extremist groups have been strengthened all over the Middle East mostly in response to tyrannical regimes. Countries that overthrew these despotic leaders now have a wide array of choices to vote for as their governmental leaders. Unfortunately Muslim fundamentalist parties are very strong and have built in structural advantages over the numerous other fractured parties.
The country that most vividly depicts this dilemma is Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a massive but largely peaceful uprising in 2011. The military subsequently administered the government after this episode until a new Constitution and resulting elections were completed. The Egyptian people voted and narrowly elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi in 2012.
President Morsi almost immediately began consolidating power and attempted to amend the new Constitution by initiating Sharia law compliant changes. Many rights of the people were restricted causing a powerful public backlash and resulting massive demonstrations. The military felt compelled to once again intervene. They overthrew and arrested the President and resumed administering the government until new elections can be held.
This turmoil continues in Egypt highlighting democracy's perils in this region but also its advantages. The Egyptian people rebelled en masse when the Muslim Brotherhood began usurping their civil liberties. Maybe they have learned and will get it right the second time around. The rest of the Middle East will be watching and absorbing its lessons.
The recent nomination and ratification of John Kerry as United States Secretary of State earlier this year ushered in a new period of concentrated diplomatic effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kerry's first diplomatic effort was a six week long campaign of shuttle diplomacy to persuade the Israelis and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. This is an encouraging development after years of talking over one another but still only a baby step.
Unfortunately the Palestinians are represented by split government. Hamas, who are in charge in Gaza, still refuse to negotiate with Israel and have even renewed a call to violence against them. Fortunately President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the West Bank Palestinians, is optimistic that a peace accord can be reached.
President Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel appears to be a reluctant convert to these peace negotiations. His reluctance may be a smoke screen to mollify his most conservative supporters. Ironically he may also be quietly trying to court the Obama Administration to take a harder line regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
There have been very positive signs coming from the new President of Iran. He appears to be softening the past hard line Iranian stance regarding the sovereignty and legality of the Iranian nuclear weapons program as well as its relations with the West in general. The Obama Administration has reacted positively to these overtures and they appear willing to explore more intensive negotiations with this new Iranian Administration. I will explore these developments more fully later in this Hub.
President Netanyahu appears alarmed by this new U.S. - Iranian diplomatic thaw and may want to exert more influence on the Obama Administration. He may be doing so by showing a greater willingness to engage at least nominally in negotiations with the Palestinians.
Syria has been involved in their own civil war for the past two years. United States policy in regards to this conflict was initially limited to calling for President Bashar Hafez al-Assad to step down while supplying the rebels with only humanitarian aid. Several months ago President Obama inadvertently placed himself into a political box regarding his policy towards Syria. He stated in an interview that if Syria employed their known supply of chemical weapons against the rebels or any Syrian citizens, it would be a red line crossed that would have to be addressed.
On August 21, 2013, the Syrian government shelled a rebel controlled area of Damascus with Sarin gas killing over a thousand people. The worldwide outcry over this atrocity forced President Obama's hand. He and his national security staff decided that they must retaliate against the Syrian government once its complicity in this act had been proved.
President Obama had a change of mind and heart practically on the eve of this military action. His legal background and inate spirit was to have a national debate regarding this military action so he submitted his plans to Congress for its approval. Unfortunately support for this attack in Congress began to wane almost immediately and on a bipartisan basis. Great Britain had already gone through this process with the Parliament denying its Prime Minister the approval to act against Syria.
All seemed to be lost until Russia intervened diplomatically with the Syrian government. Russia convinced them to submit to international inspections of their chemical weapons program. They also agreed to surrender these weapons once they were fully disclosed to the inspectors. This process is underway and Syria appears to be complying according to the inspectors. Doubts about their full intentions regarding these weapons are still there. Time will tell.
A total diplomatic disaster was averted by of all things, Russian diplomacy. Could this be a sign of new policies and cooperation with the West by Russia? I and many others have strong doubts. There are hopeful possibilities that they may wish to raise their standing with the West and gain the respect that they feel has long been denied to them. Hopefully they will continue with this constructive diplomacy.
I turn now to the most immediate and grave threat to peace in the Middle East. This involves Iran and their budding nuclear weapons development program. The Obama Administration had tried to revive talks with Iran regarding this program from the inception of President Obama's first term in 2009. Unfortunately this effort went nowhere due to the intransigence of Iran's President Ahmadinejad.
Hassan Rouhani won a new election for President of Iran on August 3, 2013 changing the entire dynamic between Iran and the West. President Rouhani ran as a moderate and he almost immediately began making positive overtures towards the West after his election. On September 25, 2013 President Rouhani made an important speech to the United Nations General Assembly in which he called for tolerance and understanding. He also reiterated that nuclear weapons had no place in Iran's future. President Rouhani is close to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei making this a much stronger statement.
The Iranian government has lied before so western leaders are approaching these overtures apprehensively. President Obama called President Rouhani shortly after his U.N. speech and they had a cordial fifteen minute talk. Secretary of State Kerry had already conducted substantive talks with his Iranian counterpart. Further negotiations regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program are planned for the near future.
There are two major obstacles to my scenario of a possible wider Middle East peace. The first is Israeli intransigence regarding Palestine and to a much greater degree towards Iran. Israel is highly wary of both due to terrorist attacks conducted by Hamas and backed by Iran against Israel. Iran and Hamas are both on record in favor of the destruction of Israel as a state making this an existential issue for Israel.
Hamas has recently stated that they will renew attacks on Israel. This is most likely an effort to sabotage the peace talks. Hopefully Iran, if they are serious about peace, will pressure Hamas to stop their terrorism. Iran helps fund Hamas making this a possibility. A strategic and diplomatic move such as this would go a long way's towards gaining Israel's confidence regarding their newly found peaceful intentions.
A second obstacle that has become increasingly worrisome is the growing rift between Sunni Muslim nations and Shiite Muslim nations. Saudi Arabia is at the heart of this new potential divide and threat to peace. There has always been great antipathy between these two religious sects going back many centuries. This divide has grown larger and become more dire since the U.S. - Iraq War.
Iraq was a predominantly Shiite nation ruled by a Sunni despot, Saddam Hussein. His overthrow opened up the country to democratic elections. Naturally a Shiite President was elected due to the country's demographics. This has given Iran much greater influence over Iraq and has sent shock waves throughout the Sunni Middle East. Iran no longer is the sole Shiite ruled nation. They also fear a nuclear Iran.
The Sunni Middle East nations fear this new potentially nuclear partnership to such an extent that an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been whispered about. Saudi Arabia has castigated the United States for warming up to Iran in response to their positive overtures in recent months. A major conflict between Sunni and Shiite Middle eastern countries would blow up all hopes for peace in this region on all fronts.
Where do all of these elements place us in regards to the potential for peaceful relations in the Middle East? As I have stated throughout this Hub, the outlook is murky. Yet there are more hopeful signs in the Middle East currently than at any other time since the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accord. These signs cannot be dismissed out of hand. It would be callous to do so.
The Israeli-Palestinian issue is at the core of most of the antagonism that Middle Eastern countries have with the United States. Diplomacy is always preferable to both violence and disengagement when it comes to this region. American relations with Middle Eastern countries inevitably suffer when we abandon the diplomatic stage in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are seen as acquiescing to Israeli dominance in Palestine whenever we do this.
Secretary of State Kerry has been working furiously to move Israeli-Palestinian peace talks along. President Netanyahu refuses to budge off his initial requirements. He refuses to discuss new borders, halting settlements, and opposes any concessions regarding Jerusalem. Hamas threatens renewed violence aimed at torpedoing the peace talks.
Fortunately U.S. diplomacy has been intensified even in the face of these enormous obstacles. This is a key signal being sent to the region. It will also have a strong influence on the Iran nuclear weapons talks. The signal is that the United States is serious about these issues and is in it for the long haul.
Israel is tremendously fearful of Iran and incredibly wary of their diplomatic overtures. Bringing Israel into our confidence regarding our Iran negotiations could provide us with valuable leverage in encouraging President Netanyahu to compromise with the Palestinians. Hopefully the Iranian talks will provide fruitful results in the near future facilitating this trust from the Israelis.
The situation in Syria perfectly depicts the importance of diplomacy over military action. President Obama, at the last minute, turned to Congress for approval of military action against Syria. Russian President Putin swept in at this point and convinced the Syrian President to acquiesce to chemical weapons inspections and the subsequent turnover of those weapons. Our behind the scenes influence on Egyptian political power centers helped to influence two despotic regime changes. This Egyptian democracy is most certainly a work in progress but it is proceeding.
The opportunity and lesson to be derived from all of these events in the Middle East is that persistent diplomacy and involvement in the Middle East will eventually improve relations and lay the groundwork for possible peace. The politics of force employed by the neo-conservative George W. Bush Administration led to years of war, massive distrust, and the further radicalization of larger swaths of the Middle East.
The fortunate confluence of events currently occurring in the Middle East has been nudged along slowly but surely by renewed American diplomacy. Secretary of State Kerry has employed a massive flurry of talks with several Middle Eastern countries in an attempt to accelerate events and to not allow peace efforts to atrophy. The jury is still out as to what the results will be. Nevertheless the effort the United States is showing in this region has proven that the Obama Administration is serious in promoting peace in the Middle East.
Hopefully the Middle Eastern countries with the biggest stakes in these peace efforts will reciprocate and negotiate with determination and honesty. If they do, with United States help, maybe, just maybe, a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East will emerge. The ancillary advantage for us is that with greater peace and prosperity in the Middle East, terrorism will surely decline. I most certainly hope that all parties will take advantage of this opportunity for our sakes and for theirs.