What is Happening in the Middle East?

Dr. Ahmad Youssef Ahmad: What is Happening in the Middle East?

  • 24 June 2008

Many important events are currently taking place in the Middle East region. Although events like the recent Lebanese compromise, secret Syrian-Israeli negotiations, and the state of truce between Israel and Hamas are unfolding independent of each other, they are still bound by a tenuous yet dubious link which needs to be understood. Many theories have been mooted for studying the nature and meaning of this link. These theories could serve as the first step toward a better and a more comprehensive understanding of events occurring in the Middle East, as well as of possible future developments.

In order to understand the undercurrents driving these events, we should bear in mind that the Middle East has been at the center of the political project launched by US neoconservatives. American power reached its apogee with the invasion of Iraq. Undoubtedly, its aim was to make Iraq a base for the full-scale political restructuring of the region. Occasionally, the project seemed to be making progress, such as when it compelled Syrian forces to withdraw from Lebanon after about 30 years of intervention. However, this major US undertaking has suffered more than its fair share setbacks in the regions, which is manifest in the rise of Iran's influence in Iraq, resilience of the Iraqi resistance, victory of Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, fortitude of the Palestinian resistance in the face of aggression, and finally the ability of Hezbollah to withstand Israeli assaults in the summer of 2006. 

Nevertheless, the US president has persisted with his policies and has been completely unwilling to make important changes to US policy on the Middle East. The US military, instead of withdrawing from Iraq, has increased the number of its forces. US relations with Iran have worsened to the extent that the two sides frequently threaten each other with military action. There is no effort by the West to resolve Lebanese crisis through mediation. Instead, the US has put its political weight behind Lebanese majority forces.  Even its differences with Syria have escalated amid dubious accusations of the latter's attempts to build nuclear weapons, which is reminiscent of Colin Powell's now infamous address to the Security Council in February 2003, one month before the invasion of Iraq, when he stated that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and insisted on blockading Hamas to put an end to its resistance.

Suddenly, everything changed. In may this year, US Administration could be seen as a mere spectator of the unfolding events in Lebanon. The French government, the new friend of the US administration, has reversed its foreign policy position under the presidency of Sarkozy. Still, both parties have not only watched events unfold in Lebanon on their own, but have even been supportive of the compromise reached in Lebanon, even though it lacked many of the important terms that both administrations had sought for following their open interference in Lebanese affairs. Meanwhile, , thanks to Turkey's mediation, Syria and Israel have started their indirect negotiations. These negotiations seek the handing over of Golan Heights to Syria in lieu of certain Israeli demands. When Israel attempts to scuttle these negotiations, it introduces new complications to Syria's relations with the Arab world (for instance, differences over Palestinian resistance factions and Iran). The Syrian regime is forced to overcome such hindrances and to this effect even sent a senior official to Teheran to clarify its position in peace negotiations with Israel and its implications on Syria's relations with Arab and regional countries.

It is noteworthy that Turkey is playing the role of a mediator in these negotiations. It is true that the Turkish-Syrian relations were frozen for many years. However, Turkey now seeks to play an important role in Middle East, to which its foreign policy needs to give top priority, especially if its dream of becoming part of the EU is not realized. On the other hand, it is also true that Turkey is a member of NATO, that it espouses balanced relations with Israel, and that its ruling "Islamic" Justice Party has won the approval and support of the US. Therefore, it would not be an exaggeration to consider Syrian-Israeli negotiations as among the key elements of a new political formula for the region.

In addition, the sudden and inexplicable French appreciation of Syrian policies has quickly translated into frequent visits by high-ranking French officials to Syria. The ostensible justification for these overtures is to reward Syria for cooperating in finding a solution for the Lebanese crisis, when the fact is that Syria has not cooperated with the West on this matter, but has merely sought to achieve its goals through the compromise.

Completing this picture is the implementation of a truce between Israel and Hamas, under the patronage of Egypt. This is a highly significant development as Israel has theoretically accepted to participate in talks after about a year-and-a-half of failed attempt to stifle Hamas in Palestine, and after a failed year-long attempt to break the will of Hamas in Gaza Strip. Israeli leadership has frequently talked about conducting large-scale military operations in Gaza, but was unable to do so until now. It is true, however, that the truce has suffered setbacks in some ways, but the talks are ongoing. This shows a willingness to settle matters through talks, or at least the attempt to reach some kind of an agreement in this regard.

Looking at the big picture, it seems that the siege against the "radical powers", who have opposed the US project in the region and have made real gains in recent times¿has failed. This fact forces us to move to the next and more difficult issue: the explanation for the change in tack.

In fact, there can only two possibilities for this change in approach. The first is that the US administration and its allies in the region have accepted their failure in defeating their adversaries in the region, which has led them to make concessions. This explanation is difficult to accept, as a similar situation exists in Iraq, but the US policy in Iraq and its position on Iran has remained unchanged. The US-European move to resolve the crisis with Iran is purely based on economic measures, while the issue is not related to economics. The second possibility is that US has re-arranged its priorities based on the multiplicity of threats to its interests in the region. Therefore, the US administration and its allies have decided to categorize these threats and have placed the perceived threat posed by Iran on top of its list, and have changed their approach toward the other threats in order to isolate Iran, and to gain additional benefits of engaging in negotiations and contacts. 

These actions thus seek to sever Iran's ties in the region, limit influence in Iraq, in order to facilitate a possible attack on a besieged Iran. This explanation reinforces the fact that the "US project" is facing adverse political conditions. In fact, the US president is at the fag end of his term in office, and reason dictates that caution is exercised at a time when the Republican candidate is campaigning for the next presidential term. Moreover, Israeli premier Ehud Olmert is also facing many accusations of corruption, while many contenders of power are vying to succeed him and seize power. Again, the popularity of the French president continues to recede alarmingly.

If this analysis is correct, it underscores the need for an inter-Arab dialogue over events in the region, their impact on Arab interests and the best way for dealing with the consequences of these developments. However, this is a different story altogether.