US Foreign Policy

The Changing Middle East: Updating the Security Agenda

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Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s travels across the Middle East this week put the spotlight on a daunting and dynamic list of security challenges for the states of the region, whether on the path to democratic change or not.   The Secretary is conveying the dual message of opportunities for useful security cooperation and aid to build local capacity in the countries in transition, and growing concerns about the consequences of Syria’s instability for the region.

In the Tunisian and Egyptian cases, Panetta has praised the role of the armed forces in enabling largely peaceful transitions of power.  It is truer in Tunisia than in Egypt, where considerable uncertainty still reigns over the long-term intentions of Egypt’s formidable military, and the capacity of new civilian leaders to resist military domination and reshape incentives for the military to fundamentally change their role in national life. 

Both countries, and their neighbor Libya, place internal threats from extremism above traditional geopolitical rivalries and competition with peer adversaries as their security priority.  For Egypt, the rise of lawlessness and crime in the Sinai Desert has emerged as a key issue that affects Egyptian-Israeli relations and the new government in Cairo’s relations with their Islamist confreres in Gaza.   US counterterrorism training is a natural arena for cooperation, and resonates with regional priorities, given the recent pledge by five North African states to deepen their security cooperation in light of threats from Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).  But US policy is equally attentive to the need to develop security cultures and institutions for more democratic governance.  US programs for the police and internal security forces of these countries has to balance both the immediate and tactical, and the longer term institution-building and human rights-sensitive components. 

The internal focus does not suggest an absence of cross-border considerations.  AQIM appears to have troubling capacity to move across the region, from areas of open desert and ungoverned space in the southern regions of Arab North Africa, and in the northern parts of Sahelian states, with Mali, south of Algeria, as the most acute arena of radicalization and instability.  The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is working with key Arab and African partners on counter-terrorism and broader security cooperation that includes both land and maritime border training and coordination.  While this work engages the armed forces of the partner countries, it also has a critical civilian dimension, and includes domestic agencies such law enforcement, the judiciary, and finance.  

Further east, Syria and Iran generate security risks and dangers far more acute and compelling for the armed forces of the region, and for the US military.  Engaging Iran on its nuclear activities through multilateral diplomacy has been slow and unsatisfying, and pressures to ratchet up sanctions and to make military threats more credible dominate the US conversation this summer.  Frequent visits by US officials to Israel to consult not only may be intended to dissuade Israel from taking military action soon, but also may generate tensions and uncertainty even among states that share the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran. 

It is Syria’s crisis that draws the US defense secretary into the most important consultations of his trip this week.  With no prospect of a “soft landing” transition to the post-Assad era, with the prospect of a more catastrophic state collapse, and with the humanitarian costs of the crisis mounting daily, the US and its friends in the region are focused on very concrete contingencies: securing Syria’s chemical and biological sites, providing security and basic services for the tens of thousands of new refugees and internally displaced, attempting to slow  the flow of arms and fighters across Syria’s increasingly porous borders, and preventing a breakdown in cooperation among the states of the region, as they each brace themselves for further instability.  For example, Jordan, Israel, and Turkey may need to coordinate efforts, but may lack the political will or flexibility to be seen as cooperating.  Even within the Gulf region, nominal allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council are backing different contenders for power in the Syrian sweepstakes, and may not find US strategies compatible with their own political interests.

What is missing from this daunting list of challenges is a high probability scenario of inter-state conflict.  Despite the many frictions in the region between those who loved the Arab spring and those who loathed it, there are few signs of conventional conflict over borders or ideology.  Wars can happen by accident or miscalculation. Regime collapse in Syria could prompt an increasingly jittery and insecure Hizballah, for example,  to overreach, perhaps by initiating armed conflict with Israel that could spin out of control; Jordan could find itself using military force to prevent Syrian defectors or regime supporters from undermining the Kingdom’s stability.  Turkey and Syria could come to blows if the Assad regime were to chase its opponents across the frontier, and Turkey could take action to prevent the Syrian Kurds from making territorial claims or otherwise enabling Turkey’s own Kurds to continue their fight against Ankara.  

Secretary Panetta will likely complete his trip with a sober appreciation of the security environment in the region, and the Middle East is infamous for its August surprises.  But the publics in the region – with the notable exception of Syria – are not stoking the fires of conflict.  Preventing conflict and investing in more modern and open security institutions and processes in the region are worthy of American attention and support, even while planning for very real and pressing contingencies.   

Photo Credit: DOD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo,

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