The current deal between the US and Russia over Syria’s chemical weapons may have brought some breathing space, but all the manoeuvring that passed before it has underlined the fragility of the region and put the spotlight squarely on US policies in the Middle East.
Washington spent two years firmly committing that it would not get involved in another country’s civil war. But in that time, it also toyed with the idea of arming a select band of rebels, and looked on as allies and friends such as Turkey , Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded and armed unspecified groups among those rebels. And eventually, it became seemingly imperative for Washington to draw red lines on the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.
The threat of the use of force, however restrictive its application, was more George Bush than Barack Obama, except it was to defend ‘principles’ and not national security. When opposition to military involvement spread within the US and the UK Parliament decided that Britain, one of the main advocates along with France of the use of force in Syria, should not get involved, there was a reverting to the Obama approach.
The issue was placed before the US Congress and efforts made to set up a ‘coalition of the willing’. The Russian compromise has been quickly taken up by the conflict-averse Obama and the UN Security Council, so far treated with Bush-like contempt, has been revitalised as a forum for a possible solution.
Most US statements and actions in this crisis reflect the ambivalence and confusion of the Obama administration regarding developments in the Middle East following the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.
US interests in the region are clearly at the core of what appears a contradictory and confused approach: the protection of Israel’s interests, terrorism, the region as a source of energy (both from oil, on which the US is increasingly less reliant to the 2011 finds of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean), and of course, Iran.
Therefore, while, as admitted by President Obama, Syria offers no direct national security threat to the US, Washington’s actions including the threat of military intervention serve US indirect interests. In the process, the US appears to be losing whatever influence it had among the major countries of the Middle East.
The world, including the Arabs themselves, seemed to have been taken aback by the rapidity of change in the Arab world in 2011.
More significantly, the ongoing turmoil has caught those extra-regional powers who had claimed influence in the region not only unprepared but confused as to how to react. They tentatively shaped their responses based on long held prejudices and perceptions of what essentially has remained alien territory.
Led by the US, the predominant narrative in the West was that since the Arab countries were majority Muslim, the eventual leadership would, and probably should, go to an Islamic government; and that it was best for the West’s interests to back what they perceived as ‘moderate Islamists’ for leadership. But revolutions are rarely neat or predictable, as has now become evident. Two examples illustrate both the misconceptions and the struggle by the US to retain some degree of influence.
There is no doubt that the US was perhaps the most influential power in the region prior to 2011, except for Iran and its allies, including Syria. The emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after that country’s ouster of one of the pillars of US influence, former president Hosni Mubarak, was greeted with enthusiasm after an initial period of caution.
It reflected the twin beliefs that the Brotherhood, as an Islamist entity, reflected the democratic preferences of the country, and that its influence over Hamas in Gaza made it valuable to US interests. This was justified by Egypt’s role in diffusing the crisis in Gaza and pressures on Israel, and in Hamas’ rejection of Iran and stoppage of support to Syria in the hostilities that had already broken out there.
The reaction to the ousting of the Brotherhood in June this year even though Obama had in his famous Cairo speech of 2009 stated that “elections alone do not make true democracy” were expected.
Today, there seems to be an effort to retain a degree of influence in that country through the long association between the US and the Egyptian military. The US has still to come to terms with the existence of a strong feeling of Egyptian nationhood among the people and has been seeking for leverage rather than an understanding of the causes of the changes unfolding there.
Libya, of course, did not have a sense of ‘nationhood’ as did Egypt; a collection of tribes and clans, a small population of three million powered by oil wealth had been governed by eccentric and cruel strongman Muammar Gaddaffi.
The Anglo-French sponsored intervention, albeit with some sort of fuzzy UN Security Council mandate, drew the US in to militarily support the misadventure in that benighted country. The current chaos in Libya reflects that in Iraq, where the US intervention resulted in an on-going orgy of violence.
Majority Shias battle erstwhile powerful Sunnis in the latter country with the Iranian-Saudi rivalry adding to the poisonous mixture, giving al-Qaeda a foothold in the heart of the region.
In Libya, the consequences of the intervention show no signs of diminishing and have spilled over into Mali while weapons from Libya find their way throughout the region.
It remains unclear what interests of the US were served by the Libyan action; on the contrary, it has bred suspicion within the international community and had stalled any action in the UN Security Council in the case of Syria.
Protecting what it perceives to be its interests in the region while retaining some influence in a vital part of the globe confronts the US with a situation of such complexity that it seems to have, at least temporarily, relegated its “pivot” to Asia to secondary importance.
The author is a retired diplomat and former ambassador to Egypt.