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Obama's Problem with the Middle East Tango!

19 March 2016

By Eyad Abu Shakra

Last week I enjoyed reading an article by the American writer Thomas Friedman entitled ‘The Many Mideast Solutions' about what Middle East the next US president should expect to see. Before that, a friend of mine who is a senior researcher in International Affairs at a leading American university, commented on an article I had written about Henry Kissinger's Middle East legacy; expressing his fear that the Obama Administration may be about to leave the Middle East lock, stock and barrel, concentrating instead on other areas, such as China.

Whether one accepts everything Friedman says or not, there were a host of irrefutable truths he mentioned in his article. One of the most noteworthy relates to the Palestinian question, second to the Sunni – Shi'i conflagration now – unfortunately – dominating the Syrian uprising that began as a peaceful uprising by a population oppressed by the evils of corruption, nepotism and the security apparatus of a police state for more than four decades.

With regards to the Palestinian question ,I think Friedman was right to conclude that the ‘two-state solution' is ‘dead', although one may not blame all those he blamed equally. True, the next occupant of the White House come next January will face a virtual state of ‘full occupation' from the Mediterranean to the Jordan valley. The culprits, according to Friedman, are:

1. ''… the fanatical Jewish settlers determined to keep expanding their footprint in the West Bank and able to sabotage any Israeli politician or army officer who opposed them…''.
2. ''… right-wing Jewish billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson, who used their influence to blunt any U.S. congressional criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu …''.
3. ''Netanyahu, whose lust to hold onto his seat of power is only surpassed by his lack of imagination to find a secure way to separate from the Palestinians …''.
4. ''… Hamas (which) devoted all its resources to digging tunnels to attack Israelis from Gaza rather than turning Gaza into Singapore, making a laughingstock of Israeli peace advocates …''.
5. ''… The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, sacked the only effective Palestinian prime minister ever, Salam Fayyad, who was dedicated to fighting corruption and proving that Palestinians deserved a state by focusing on building institutions, not U.N. resolutions …''.

As for the Sunni – Shi'i issue, Friedman rightly claimed that Washington under a new president is going to deal with ''a no-state solution in Syria, Yemen and Libya, a non-state solution offered by the Islamic caliphate (ISIS) and a rogue-state solution offered by Iran''. He was also right to say that Russia's Vladimir Putin was ''deliberately bombing anti-regime Syrians to drive them into Europe in hopes of creating a rift in the European Union, strain its resources and make it a weaker rival to Russia and a weaker ally for America''.

Continuing from the above, I would say that the ‘no-state solution' pertaining to Syria is now a fait accompli regardless of what happens on the ground. Political and military decisions about Syria are now taken in Moscow and Tehran, not Damascus. Bashar Al-Assad has become nothing but a ‘receiver' appointed by a bankruptcy court and a tinderbox of sectarian blackmail and agitation. Meanwhile, the false claim by Moscow and Tehran that they are engaged in a ‘war against ISIS' is finding an Obama administration eager to believe and a US Secretary of State willing to endorse and promote.

What the White House does not seem to accept – as Friedman seems to note – is the existence of vital mutual interests between Iran and ISIS whereby each is capitalising on the extremism of the other, using it as an excuse, and convincing its followers that its brand of extremist line is the obvious and right answer.

In the meantime, in the minds of Sunnis – especially Arab Sunnis – any serious campaign against ISIS is impossible to justify while Iran's IRGC continues to flex its sectarian campaign across the Arab world and boast that their agents control four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and San'aa.

Well, let's be more specific and take two clear cut examples; the way Bashar Al-Assad and IRGC's Qassem Suleimani relinquished control of Raqqah, and how the Da'wa Party – led Iraqi government almost ‘handed over' Mosul!

Why should a sectarian regime like Al-Assad's, which has founded – under the reign of the current president's father – the infrastructure of an Alawi sectarian ‘mini state' in the coastal region of Syria and has become an ‘incubator' of Iran's Hezbollah, bother about keeping the remote Sunni-majority provinces of Raqqah and Hasakah?

Why would this regime care about what befalls Tayy', Al-Jubour, Al-‘Uqaidat, Al-Shu'itat and other tribes of the mid-Euphrates and Al-Jazirah, and try to solve their intermittent problems with the Kurds whom it badly treated and discriminated against?

Wasn't it always more worthwhile for Al-Assad to co-operate with Iran on created sectarian militias whose task was to support the regime's Special Forces' ‘Defence Companies' and other trusted elitist tools, past and present, when the moment of truth comes and the big lies of secularism, ‘progressive politics', Arab unity and socialism are uncovered?

With regards to Iraq, the intense hatred, vengefulness and keenness to uproot the Ba'th regime under American occupation of the pro-Iran Shi'ites was common knowledge. These factors were very much behind the ‘political' sham trials of Saddam Hussein and his subordinates; which were basically nothing more than sectarian and ethnic acts of revenge against a painful past rather than a new beginning for an open and tolerant ‘Iraq of the future'.

Then, even when Al-Qaeda exploited Sunni bitterness at being marginalized, it was the Al-Anbar Sunni tribes which rose in arms against the extremist terrorists, overlooked the injuries inflicted on them by premier Nuri Al-Maliki sectarian policies, and fought the ''Sahwat' (i.e. awakenings) uprising. However, instead of being rewarded and compensated for this act of patriotism, the Sunnis continued to be not only marginalised but also persecuted.

Such an environment of sectarian bitterness as well as machinations of regional and international intelligence agencies provided the perfect incubator for ISIS. Indeed, many ISIS extremists ‘managed to escape' from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and headed for Syria, then Mosul fell to ISIS (almost without a fight), and now the whole of western Iraq is threatened with a catastrophe to millions of Iraqi Sunnis if the Mosul Dam collapses.

Obama's Washington claims it wants nothing to do the Middle East quagmire. It may have even convinced itself that it can afford doing nothing.

But it seems to have forgotten the term ‘It takes two to tango'; given what we now know that Vladimir Putin isn't a good dancer or doesn't want to dance, and the same applies to the decision makers in Tehran!

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.  

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