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Saturday, October 5, 2013

What Will Obama Do With His Middle East Policy Next?

by Barry Rubin

Turkish Reader: Haven’t you understood yet that the US does not care about whether a Muslim country is ruled by Sharia [dictatorship] or by secular [democracy] law as long as that regime is pro-American? Isn’t this U.S. interests “über alles”?

Me: Yes I do care. First, no Islamist government is really going to be pro-American or pro-Western. Second, it won't be good for that country’s people. Why should I feel differently to handing over Czechoslovakia to Nazi rule or Hungary to Communist rule than Turkey to Islamist rule?
Already there are starting to appear evaluations of what President Barack Obama's second term will be like. I think that even though the Obama Administration doesn't know or have a blueprint, it is clear and consistent what the Middle East policy would be. It is a coherent program, though, as I say, it is not necessarily fully or consciously thought out. The plan would be for a comprehensive solution which will leave the Middle East situation as a successful legacy of the Obama Administration.

There are three main themes of this plan, though I'm not sure it has really taken shape. By 2016 they will all fail, and leave the West weaker.

The first is with Iran policy. The goal would be to "solve" the nuclear weapons' issue by making a deal with Iran. One thing that is possible is that the Iranians just deceitfully build nuclear arms. The other possibility is that they will go up to the point when they can get nuclear weapons very quickly and then stop for a while. Probably either result will be hailed as a brilliant diplomatic victory for Obama.

This is how the nuclear deal is interpreted by Iran, in a dispatch from Fars new agency: "It seems that the Americans have understood this fact that Iran is a powerful and stable country in the region which uses logical and wise methods in confrontation with its enemies." In other words, America is an enemy of Iran that has backed down. One thing Iran might get in a deal for “giving up” its nuclear ambitions would be something in Syria perhaps.

It is possible that this deal would be in the shape of an unofficial partition of Syria, with the Bashar Assad regime surviving in 40 percent of the country including Aleppo and Damascus; another 40 percent would be controlled by U.S.-backed rebels, mainly Muslim Brotherhood; and 20 percent would be a Kurdish autonomous area. I want to stress that I don't believe that this would work and it would in fact be the object of another Iranian stalling technique and effort to gain total victory.

Iran wants primacy at least in the Shia world – meaning Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. It would just require Iranian patience if Iran is willing to devote extensive resources to this enterprise until it could seize the whole country. The U.S. probably won't provide ground troops, which is understandable. And would the U.S. provide military and economic aid to an al-Qaida-Salafi–Muslim Brotherhood regime? At any rate, the Iranians would either develop nuclear weapons or simply get to the point where they could if they wanted to and then stop, knowing that they could do so at any time. Of course, this would ignore Israel's security needs to some degree.

And if a nuclear deal with Iran doesn’t materialize, you can tell who will be blamed from an article entitled “A Nuclear Deal With Iran Is Within Reach, If Congress Plays Its Part,” in the prestigious magazine Roll Call.

The second theme would be an illusion that it would be possible to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a two-state solution but actually moving toward the Palestinian real goal which is an Arab Palestine. Period. Regarding this issue it is probable that both sides would stall. Only Secretary of State John Kerry believes otherwise.

The Israeli side would mount a strategic retreat by gradual concessions hoping that the Obama Administration would end before too much damage was done. It is clear, for example, that prisoner releases, the granting of economic benefits and the entry of more laborers would be among the concessions given. Of course, this would also relatively ignore Israel's security needs.

Meanwhile the Palestinians will also stall and constantly flourish the threat that they will seek unilateral independence, which might result in more U.S. concessions. But it is unlikely that the United States will pressure the Palestinians much or criticize them, no matter what they do. In the classical formulation of President Shimon Peres, "We will give and the Palestinians will take."

The point is that probably not much progress—which is really moving backwards–will be made on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Also of course the so-called "peace process" won't affect any other regional issue positively.

The Islamists, Sunni or Shia, don't want progress toward peace and will try to wreck it. That goes for the Muslim Brotherhood government in Tunisia and Gaza; the Islamist governments in Lebanon, Turkey and Iran, or the government and the rebels in Syria. In fact the harder the United States works on peace, the angrier they will be.

The third theme has to do with the Sunni Muslim Islamists. The theory is that this movement is the best protection against al-Qaida. But if that's true why does the U.S. support the Syrian rebels when they form a united front at each opportunity to support al-Qaida? Similarly, while al-Qaida is much weaker in Egypt, the U.S has now backed the al-Qaida movement,by refusing to back the army coup and by failing to back the army's war against Islamists, especially in the Sinai.

Case study Note:

"CIA Ramping Up Covert Training Program for Moderate Syrian Rebels": The CIA is expanding a clandestine effort to train opposition fighters in Syria amid concern that moderate, U.S.-backed militias are rapidly losing ground in the country's civil war. But the CIA program is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month, enough to help ensure that these militias don't lose, but not enough for them to win. The CIA has trained fewer than 1,000 rebel fighters this year and has sent additional paramilitary teams to secret bases in Jordan in recent weeks to double that number. By contrast, U.S. intelligence analysts estimate that more than 20,000 have been trained by Iran and Hizbullah to fight for pro-Assad militias. (Washington Post)

Trick: The Islamist Syrian rebels have about 60,000 men from the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and al-Qaida! Moreover, the moderates could easily defect to al-Qaida with their weapons and who is going to do anything about it?

In other words that's about 60 regime; 60 Islamist rebels and 2 "moderates."


More subtly, Turkey has an Islamist government and it is the favorite ally of the United States in the Middle East.

To summarize, it is likely that the last three years of the Obama Administration are going to be spent pursuing these three failed themes.
  • Iran will continue to pursue nuclear weapons or at least aggression and that it will fool naïve Americans. Iran will be strengthened; U.S allies will be weakened.
  • On Israel-Palestinian policy likely no progress will be made toward a peaceful solution, but the Palestinians will try to make gains toward destroying Israel, although they would benefit more by grabbing a Palestinian state and then using it to strengthen (the two-stage solution). Instead they will lose their chance to get a two-state solution.
  • And finally it is likely that the Sunni Muslim Islamists will let down the United States because, after all, they will never be pro-American. And they will intensify Sunni-Shia bloodbaths. So there will be much activity within the Obama Administration over the next three years and media reports will cheer it. As the Bard of Avon said, "It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.      

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