A shorter version of this paper, commissioned by the Bertelsmann Foundation, is available here.
The summer of violence in the Levant has highlighted the many predicaments faced by local, regional and international actors in addressing the sources of Middle East volatility. If anything, this most recent episode demonstrates how the different conflicts that plague the Middle East are interconnected at the rhetorical and symbolic, but also political levels. It also illustrates the potential for strategic miscalculation by all actors. In this volatile environment, there are unfortunately more obstacles to peace and stability than opportunities, not the least because the main players all seem unwilling and unable to reflect on the potential for more conflict, reconsider their agenda and work constructively together.
While the Lebanon war did not open a new era in Middle East politics, it did confirm what had become obvious since the Iraq war: the rising capacity of non-state actors to shape regional dynamics, the growing assertiveness and influence of Iran and the inability of traditional Arab powers to address both developments while undertaking much-needed political and economic reforms. Indeed, the much-maligned Arab state system has failed to deliver anything tangible to its peoples and is now challenged from within by political Islam and from without by Iran. It also highlighted the inherent contradictions between the US democracy promotion agenda and core US interests.
By traditional standards, the first round of the Lebanon war ended without a clear victor and vanquished. But the emotionally and symbolically charged Middle East seems to have decided otherwise. Despite the apparent imbalance of power, Hezbollah managed to hold its ground and, in the eyes of many Arabs, emerge triumphantly. While Israel has arguably altered the status quo in Southern Lebanon and inflicted significant damage to Hezbollah’s military capabilities, the very asymmetry of this war and its aftermath allowed the Lebanese Shia militia to change the Arab world’s reading of Israeli power and capabilities. How much this perception will affect regional dynamics remains uncertain, but the danger is that Arabs will misinterpret the lessons of this conflict by equating Israel’s failure to achieve its objectives and the ensuing debate with a fundamental weakness in Israeli society that can be exploited.
Israel did itself no favor in launching this war. Its government comes out weakened from 34 days of fighting. It alienated the few Arab governments on which it was on speaking terms. It shattered the image of Israeli invincibility and the power of Israeli deterrence, even if this is mostly the case in Arab eyes. At the same time, it failed to put forward a political strategy to resurrect a peace process that remains the only way to prevent violent conflict. Israel has good reasons to fear its environment (after all, its very existence is continuously questioned), but its own treatment of the Palestinians and failure to empower moderate politicians are costing it dearly.
The crisis in the Levant seems to have assuaged Syria’s fears. Syria, a pivotal if disruptive state in the region, has suffered from isolation after a series of strategic mistakes, especially in Lebanon. The Assad regime, concerned with its survival, has re-asserted its place in the region, even if in negative terms. Through clients, it maintains considerable influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, links that have proven essential in the most recent period. For some, the Assad regime is a lost cause, a regime incapable of reforming and whose demise, induced or not, is worthy of consideration. For others, the prospects of even more instability in the region and the great uncertainties that would follow such a change are terrifying. Syria is not helping itself by espousing a negative agenda that has brought key European countries and the United States together.
The position of the United States was further undermined by the Lebanon war. Condoleezza Rice’s unfortunate remark about the “birth pangs of the new Middle East” is reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s declared optimism about Iraq and was equally imprudent; it highlighted once again how US political engineering in the Middle East has fallen victim to its own rhetoric and contradictions. The United States encouraged holding elections in the West Bank and Gaza, but refused to engage the victorious Hamas government. In Egypt, the hope of fair and open political competition failed to materialize when the Muslim Brotherhood emerged stronger in the latest elections and the Mubarak regime moved to suppress dissent. Elsewhere in the region little political progress is noticeable. And as the United States realizes that it needs the support of friendly if authoritarian Arab regimes to ward off growing Iranian influence, US leeway and willingness to promote reforms will diminish.
Moreover, that Washington purposely delayed a ceasefire to let Israel achieve its military objectives demonstrates how Arab ties with the United States do not necessarily translate into tangible diplomatic and political gains. This has greatly damaged the position and credibility of US allies in the Middle East vis-à-vis their own populations, as well as the rejectionist alliance formed by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Palestinian radical groups.
The Lebanon war has also reinvigorated the debate over an emerging “Shia crescent” inspired by Iran. As the thinking goes, Tehran is actively undermining the authority and legitimacy of the Sunni-dominated Arab state system by supporting militant Shia organizations, including Iraq’s main parties (Dawa, SCIRI and Sadr) and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The centrality of a non-Arab actor (Iran) in this perceived momentous upheaval is profoundly unsettling for the traditional Arab leadership, who are fearful of domestic unrest linked to transnational developments.
Yet the notion of a region-wide Shia ascendancy driven by Iran is simplistic and counter-productive at this stage. The Sunni-Shia divide is more complex than a simple competition between two branches of Islam, and talk of a Shia crescent is more an abstract concept than a political reality. The long-ignored grievances of the different Shia communities in the Arab world have much in common (incidentally, they also often reflect deep-seated complaints by all segments of Arab societies), but they pursue agendas and operate in political spaces that are distinctly different one from another. In many cases, Shias seek to redress perceived injustices within the framework of the states they live in, but if the systematic refusal of Arab regimes to reform and address the political and social needs of their citizens were to endure, it could lead to a greater convergence of Shia agendas, perhaps under an Iranian umbrella.
Sunni-Shia tensions are worsening in the backdrop of Iran’s growing activism and assertiveness, especially on the nuclear front. By rejecting UN demands to stop the most controversial aspects of its nuclear program, Iran sets the stage for a diplomatic showdown that could precipitate yet another military confrontation in the region. In dealing with the international community, Iran demonstrates defiance but also confidence. As a nation-state with considerable human and other resources, Iran aspires to achieve preeminence in the Persian Gulf and become a recognized middle power on the world scene.
Iran’s nuclear intentions remain unclear, but Tehran’s continued defiance only heightens the concern of the international community about its suspected ambitions. The package put forward by the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany failed to sway the Iranian regime, driven by both the fear of US-induced regime change and the sense that Iran’s regional position is improving. The key obstacle to a peaceful solution to this crisis remains the estranged ties between the United States and Iran. Europe has tried to work around this fundamental hurdle by offering economic and other incentives, but the US reluctance to make the most significant concession — to repudiate regime change as an option — has hindered the goal of countering proliferation.
In this explosive environment, the outcome in Iraq remains the key determinant of the future of the Middle East. Iraq has entered a new phase in its difficult transition from an authoritarian state into an increasingly improbable democratic system with a unified polity. Indeed, despite the many elections and political accomplishments, success in Iraq remains elusive.
Three times as many Iraqi civilians were killed than Lebanese while war was raging in Lebanon, a stark reminder of the magnitude of the violence that afflicts Iraq. Neither the much-celebrated elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the gruesome icon of the insurgency, nor the endless security adjustments by American and Iraqi military commanders have dampened the violence. In fact, recent months have validated the view that Iraq is undergoing a complex civil war, one that scarcely resembles the long-portrayed battle between a central and legitimate government and a rejectionist coalition of Saddam loyalists and foreign jihadists. Rather, the gruesome acts of violence, including mass killings and bombings, are linked to sectarian competition between the major religious groups and political competition between Iraq’s political parties (mainly between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades). Government institutions are not spared by this vicious dynamic. This multifaceted security and political challenge alarms regional and Iraqi actors who, at the same time, also fuel the violence. They are stuck in a vicious cycle of violence whose spillover potential only grows as time passes.
Iraq is beset by a myriad of challenges that cosmetic signs of improvement cannot hide anymore. While delivery of public services is improving in many regions, Iraq’s government is proving ineffectual at providing the single most important public goods, individual safety and public security, without which all other progress is rendered meaningless. In fact, the proven involvement of some Iraqi governmental forces in sectarian violence and the growing power and impunity of militias linked to political parties inside and outside the government suggest that the state is both undermined from within and overpowered from without.
Moreover, the Iraqi political process is stalled. The Constitution failed to solve some of the key problems facing the country, including the nature of federalism or the question of Kirkuk, but it did create processes whose outcomes will prove crucial in determining the future of Iraq. The Parliament has not yet produced significant pieces of legislation or exercised competently its oversight mission. Various governmental institutions have been criticized for their corruption and incompetence. Instead, regional and local governments are stepping forward in providing the services and political space. Indeed, in many regions outside Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle, a good degree of personal security is guaranteed thanks to local efforts. This is particularly the case in Kurdistan and some regions in South Iraq like the Mayssan province where competent local authorities, backed by government forces, have created good conditions for local development. The problem is that good local governance is not and should not be a substitute for an effective and legitimate central authority, but should seek to complement and improve it.
Most importantly, modest progress has been made to uphold the 2005 pledge to the Sunni community to consider constitutional amendments, but there is considerable aversion in many quarters at opening a new round of negotiations. The Kurdish community openly cultivates its specificity and does not shy of displaying its hope for an independent state. The Shia community is divided regarding federalism, with SCIRI’s Hakim forcefully advocating a Shia region and young firebrand cleric Muqtada Sadr opposing the very idea of autonomous regions. The Sunni community, which stands to loose most should Iraq be divided in three or more autonomous regions, contemplates with great anxiety the direction of this political debate. Already, Sunni parties have clearly expressed their principled opposition to this project, but Sunni-generated violence only gives the other communities more reasons to consider partition.
In the struggle to shape the contours and character of the new Iraq, the United States is losing control, to the benefit of local and regional players, including Iran. With the writing and approval of a constitution and the elections of a permanent government, the role of the United States as the key facilitator of the Iraqi political process has come to an end. The United States is now fulfilling the responsibilities of an unloved and unsuccessful security guarantor of an Iraqi government struggling to keep the country together. But its inability to defeat the insurgency combined with the growing dissatisfaction among the Iraqi people about US presence puts extra and unwelcome pressure on Iraqi authorities. Indeed, the withdrawal of US troops would probably bring down the fragile institutional edifice that keeps the country together. The disconnect is increasing between the pragmatism of the Iraqi authorities and the overwhelming desire of the Iraqi population to see the United States leave the country.
At the same time, America’s commitment to Iraq is declining, a function of both US domestic politics and of the human, political and economic cost of its engagement there. There is great frustration in the United States both at the course of events in Iraq and at the perception in many quarters that events in Iraq may well benefit most the United States’ own enemies. In this regard, the controversy over Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s comments about Israel and Hezbollah on the eve of his visit to Washington is most telling. Not only do Iraq’s domestic politics fail to conform to America’s pre-war hopes, but also its foreign policy seems less dictated by US preferences and interests than by those of its environment. At the same time, the prospect of being entangled in a civil war in which US troops would receive deadly blows without a clear understanding of the situation and an adequate strategy leads many in the United States to call for an immediate withdrawal.
This complex and bleak picture leaves the international community in general, and the European Union in particular, in dire straits. Good or satisfying outcomes seem no longer possible. Yet, the proximity of the Middle East, the potency of the threats emanating from there, and the multidimensional relations that tie both regions compel Europe to be at the forefront of efforts in the Levant, Iraq and Iran.
At this point, European efforts and resources should be focused on averting yet another showdown that would crush for good any hopes of a peaceful Middle East. Europe has been instrumental in dealing with Iran, but has fallen short of convincing Tehran to change its nuclear calculations. The key to a solution is not in European hands, but Europe is the mandatory middleman between inflexible foes. There is too much distrust between Washington and Tehran to make significant progress on the nuclear front, but convergent US and Iranian interests in Iraq provide an opportunity for engagement, even if indirect. The European Union should therefore promote more forcefully the idea of a contact group that would encourage US-Iranian interaction. It must continue to engage both sides and try to modify their basic assumptions about each other.
The European Union should not shy away of crisis management, as unpleasant it may be. It successfully if laboriously stepped up to the table during the Lebanon crisis and its contribution to the beefed-up international force will be a key element of stability in the Levant – provided that the European Union demonstrates the diplomatic dexterity to make all the actors understand the stakes, and, if necessary, the will and capacity to sustain casualties. It should be a driving force in rebuilding Lebanon and strengthening its institutions. It should make it clear to Syria that its cooperation will be rewarded, but its obstruction doubly punished. It should think of ways of providing much-needed aid to the Palestinians, especially if a cabinet of national unity is formed. To think that depravation and despair will strengthen moderates at the expense of radical groups is wishful thinking. The key is to slowly undermine and split radical groups through the political process.
The Middle East is in crisis. While this conclusion sounds cliché, it has never been as true as today. Sadly, the ingredients for more violence are many, and the hope for a better tomorrow is slim. But this very possibility must reenergize the international community into coming up with bold ideas and concerted efforts.