When the seemingly imminent threat of a United States strike on Syria was averted, the vast West Asia-North Africa region breathed a collective sigh of relief. No wonder, for the mere threat of unilateral actions that endanger human life inevitably leads to international instability. No matter how “surgical” or “limited”, such action is likely to inflict more loss of innocent lives and cannot be excused. Fortunately, the Russian-brokered diplomatic deal and the abrupt US volte-face both halted the rush to disaster in the short term, and even seem to have rekindled an American focus on diplomacy.
Furthermore, the United States and Iran have in recent weeks begun to engage in a phase of “talks about talks”. The discussion at foreign-minister level on 26 September 2013, followed by a short telephone conversation between the two presidents, has led to much speculation about a potential defrosting of relations between the countries. Oddly enough, it seems that, having stepped back from the precipice of a military strike on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons, the United States has pivoted favourably toward a state it has repeatedly accused of trying to obtain nuclear ones.
In the breathing space these diplomatic initiatives afford, it is worth asking how the crisis over Syria came so close to military escalation, and what lessons might be drawn for the future needs of West Asia-North Africa region.
A diplomatic shift
Whatever the immediate circumstances that led to the US's sudden change of direction, the broader context is a shift in the traditional drivers of American interests in the region. These might be described as the gorilla (referring to Israel and its advocates in Washington, which want the US to take a hard line against Syria and Iran) and the elephant (referring to the domestic military-industrial complex which is fixated on preserving American access to Arab oil and gas, whilst lining the pockets of the US arms industry).
Indeed, the regional strategic interests of the gorilla and the elephant are often aligned. Neo-conservative think-tanks in Washington and their counterparts in Israel are united in a desire to restructure the region to suit their own goals. This “new middle east”, as it is called, is predicated on Israeli exceptionalism, using the phrase “existential threat” as a catch-all to excuse Israel’s isolationist refusal to treat its neighbours as equals.
This is not to diminish the very real threats that Israel does face. It is news to no one that the Arab street detests the alliance between the United States and Israel, and many marginalised people turn to violent action to express their hatred. Jordan has on multiple occasions denounced these senseless acts of violence, and continues to do so. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the sense of separateness cultivated by Israel and its neocon ideological bedfellows in Washington prevents many in the Arab world from seeing Israel as a potential partner in regional development, a viewpoint that is only exacerbated by the intellectual intimidation of militant Islamist extremists.
Instead of nurturing intra-regional relations, Israel has strengthened its ties to the military-industrial complex abroad. With the discovery of offshore natural-gas reserves, Israel is on the path to become part of that same regional energy nexus of oil- and gas-producing countries as the Arab Gulf states. Moreover, Israel in February 2013 granted a local subsidiary of a US company, Genie Energy, the first energy-exploration license in the disputed Golan heights, an area of Syria occupied and illegally annexed by Israel during the 1967 war.
The Israel angle, however, does not explain the sudden unfreezing of US relations with Iran. After all, Israel was reportedly one of the main proponents of a strike on Syria as a way of weakening Iranian influence. It is possible, however, that a longer-term strategic calculation is in play, whereby the US, in addition to its greater self-reliance in energy, sees the posibility of expanding its access to energy resources abroad: in the form of more “Shi'a oil” (in countries like Iran) than “Sunni oil” (in its ally, Saudi Arabia), and of Russian gas resources. In this light, an opportunity to foster better relations with Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rowhani would be more attractive than carrying out military strikes vastly unpopular with the American public and which could not easily be justified in terms of US economic interests.
A wider framework
This speculation only highlights the need for a framework of regional cooperation to reorient the current obsession with military security towards an emphasis on human security. That framework has to include both Israel and Iran. People in the region, as we listen to President Obama discuss American interests, must ask ourselves what our interests are. Surely they lie elsewhere than in depleting our national budgets in a fruitless build-up of our armies and security apparatuses whilst we ignore the valuable civil-society institutions necessary to promote democracy.
The Arab spring of 2010-11 taught us that citizens across the region crave reform. President Obama’s United Nations speech on 24 September 2013 highlighted the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, but Tunisia is where the true battle for the Arab mind took place. The actions of Muhammad Bouazizi provoked a cross-regional desire for human dignity which can only be achieved through the creation of a supranational framework that promotes regional commons. The era of Nasser brought us Arab nationalism, but now we must insist instead on regional citizenship. West Asia–North Africa needs to engage in socially cohesive cooperation to address the numerous obstacles it faces. And if any meaningful change is to occur in the region, Israel must be an equal partner in it.
In his that UN speech, President Obama asserted that the United States would continue to engage in the region. I would add that the most useful US engagement would be to help West Asia–North Africa to grow the institutions necessary to solve our problems ourselves. More importantly, the United States can encourage Israel to acknowledge its own role as a stakeholder in regional stability and development. It is time for the proverbial room dominated by the elephant and the gorilla to be opened up, thereby to create more space for cooperation. I had hoped that Geneva would be the first step towards a regional conference and the creation of a new architecture for stability for the region. Only then can the region move forward to address together the myriad problems we face.
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