Much as he would like to disentangle himself from his Middle East inheritance, President Obama is having a rough time doing so. The obvious legacy is an unwanted war in Iraq and a bankrupt Israeli-Arab peace process. But equally constraining is a popular way of conceiving of the region — divided, schematically, between militants beholden to Iran and moderates sympathetic to the United States. While there is some truth to this construct, it assumes a relatively static landscape and clear fault lines in a region that is highly fluid and home to growing fragmentation. By disregarding subtle shifts that have occurred and awaiting tectonic transformations that won’t, this mind-set risks missing realistic opportunities to help reshape the Middle East.
Changes over the past few years have blurred the region’s purported lines. Qatar brokered the inter-Lebanese accord in May 2008, while Turkey started to mediate Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Neither country “belongs” to one axis or the other; both have earned reputations for talking to all sides. While Saudi Arabia had long echoed U.S. skepticism and overall objectives regarding Syria, engagement between the two has resumed. Riyadh and Damascus reached common ground in implicitly rebuking any Iranian role in Yemen, much to Tehran’s irritation, and in quietly opposing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who enjoys U.S. support. The Saudis also renewed contact with the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas after a period of estrangement.
From Syria, too, come interesting signals. Uncomfortable with what had turned into a monogamous affair with Iran, Damascus began courting Qatar, France and, most prominently, Turkey. Deep strategic ties notwithstanding, Damascus and Tehran are waging a discreet proxy war in Iraq, backing different allies and combating different foes. Damascus broke a historic taboo in dispatching an ambassador to Beirut. In Lebanon itself, segments of the two political camps — until recently split in ways that mirrored the militants-vs.-moderates divide — are signaling a desire to reshape the political landscape.
Measured against the region’s sluggish standards, these modest adjustments are remarkable. Meanwhile, members of the “moderate axis” (mainly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) have little in common — no collective willingness to engage with Israel, common system of government or shared approach to religious extremism. Egypt, their traditional standard-bearer, finds its status being eroded by challenges including a failing Sudanese state on its border, a strong Islamist opposition, popular discomfort at its policy toward Gaza, a discredited peace process and a looming presidential succession. Most crucially, the United States has failed to project a credible vision, without which it cannot rally allies nor form a coherent camp.
Today, the relevant competition in the Middle East is not between a pro-Iranian and a pro-American axis but between two homegrown visions. One, backed by Iran, emphasizes resistance to Israel and the West, speaks to the region’s thirst for dignity and prioritizes military cooperation. The other, symbolized by Turkey, highlights diplomacy, stresses engagement with all parties and values economic integration. Both outlooks are championed by non-Arab emerging regional powers and resonate with an Arab street as incensed by Israel as it is weary of its own leaders.
Their appeal is all the stronger for lack of a genuine U.S.-led alternative. Oscillating uncomfortably between those visions, the region is organizing itself less in accordance with U.S. policy than in the absence of one.
If Washington is taking note, it is not apparent. Its stance remains based on a worldview in which such developments acquire neither meaning nor value. If the goal is to defeat radicals to strengthen purported moderates, how do we assess Saudi Arabia’s resumed dialogue with Hamas or improved ties with Syria? If the measure of success is whether Syria undertakes an unambiguous strategic realignment, what to make of a regime that simultaneously intensifies arms shipments to Hezbollah, normalizes diplomatic relations with Lebanon, ostentatiously proclaims its alliance with Tehran, and opposes Iranian objectives in Yemen and Iraq? In a region imagined as segregated between two mutually exclusive camps, Turkey’s multifaceted diplomacy is at best mystifying and at worst raises suspicions of disloyalty.
The longer the United States remains encumbered by rigid mental habits, the longer it denies itself the means to influence events. Already, Washington has accepted bystander status regarding moves by Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Worse, it can do little to prevent more ominous and increasingly likely developments — a confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, or between Israel and the Palestinians over Jerusalem– all of which carry serious risks of spillover. President Obama is seldom better — and never more himself — than when he escapes the deceptive comfort of inherited certainties. His administration must start by discarding a reading of the region in which “moderates” fight “militants,” and “moderates” prevail. That vision has no local credibility or local resonance. It has no chance.
Robert Malley, Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and Peter Harling, who is based in Damascus, is the group’s project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.