By Nawaf Obaid, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, and author of A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine. The views expressed are his own.
It’s hard to overstate the implications of the unfolding violence in Iraq for the prospects of stability in the Arab world. As tribal and Baathist opponents of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s regime have joined with the jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to seize major Sunni urban centers such as Mosul, the Iraqi army has simply melted away, consistently failing to offer even nominal resistance.
The problem for Iraq’s neighbors is that the current turmoil looks set to evolve into something even more destabilizing – a sectarian conflict and perhaps civil war that pits Sunnis against Shias. Indeed, the possibility of this only increased with al-Maliki’s apparent willingness to once again turn to Iran for support. But in his efforts to bolster his own Shia-led government, al-Maliki has stoked broader tensions in the Muslim world between the overwhelming majority Sunnis and minority Shias.
And Saudi Arabia is unlikely to sit idly by as all this unfolds.
Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
Fareed speaks with Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, about speculation that convicted spy Jonathan Pollard might be released from U.S. prison.
What do you think this, past week, the shenanigans have told us – maybe we're pardoning Jonathan Pollard, maybe we're not, the peace talks were going to fail, they were not going to fail? What's going on?
In the long run, it's irrelevant for the purposes of peace whether Mr. Pollard is in prison or not. It won't affect the basics. The real question, is the situation ripe? Are the leaders involved willing and able to make peace? I'm skeptical.
Let's just say for a second I'm wrong. So what? Right now, I think what we have to admit is that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, while it's of importance to Israelis and Palestinians, it's become a local dispute. It won't affect the dynamics of the Middle East. It's not going to affect the trajectory of the civil war in Syria or what's going on in Egypt between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood or what's happening elsewhere.
This has become a local dispute, that, quite honestly, is not worthy of the time and attention the secretary of state and the United States are giving.
By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter@FridaGhitis. The views expressed are her own.
What will happen if the current round of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians ends in failure? If the two sides cannot come to an agreement is there another option for solving the conflict?
As the talks continue with scant visible evidence of progress, a few prominent Israelis have started reviving talk of a third way: unilateral withdrawal of Israel from most of the West Bank – even without a peace deal.
The notion that Israelis could voluntarily withdraw from territories claimed by Palestinians without securing an agreement is nothing new. In fact, the term “unilateral disengagement” was coined by the recently-deceased former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who removed all Jewish settlers and military forces from Gaza in 2005. He ordered the withdrawal after saying he had concluded that peace with Palestinians was not possible, but that he also believed Israel should not rule over millions of Palestinians.
By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. You can follow him @DavidAWeinberg. The views expressed are his own.
In a controversial interview aired this week, Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum called for sanctions on Iran to be dropped. His proposal for prematurely unwinding the sanctions regime represents the most tangible success thus far for Iran’s efforts to weaken the Saudi-led consensus in the Gulf against Tehran.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, those actors most amenable to Iranian overtures have been Gulf leaders with a political or financial stake in engaging the Islamic Republic.
Shortly after Iran reached a short-term nuclear accord in November, its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, embarked on a regional tour of the Gulf, initially setting out to visit Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. At the end of his tour, Zarif also tacked on an unexpected trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he met with the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
By Fareed Zakaria
Over the past few months, the Middle East has become an even more violent place than usual. Iraq is now once again home to one of the most bloody civil wars in the world, after Syria of course, which is the worst. Watching these horrors unfold, many in the United States are convinced that this is Washington’s fault or that, at the very least, the Obama administration’s “passive” approach toward the region has allowed instability to build. In fact, the last thing the region needs is more U.S. intervention.
The Middle East is in the midst of a sectarian struggle, like those between Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the age of the Reformation. These tensions are rooted in history and politics and will not easily go away.
Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
By Fareed Zakaria
Here's a startling statistic: more than 8,000 Iraqis were killed in violent attacks in 2013. That makes it the second most violent country in the world, after its neighbor Syria.
As violence has spread and militants have gained ground in several Middle Eastern countries, people have been wondering how much this has to do with the Obama administration and its lack of an active intervention in the region. The Wall Street Journal and a Commentary magazine opinion piece have both argued this past week that the Obama administration's decision to withdraw troops from Iraq is directly responsible for the renewed violence in that country. They and others have also argued that because it has stayed out of Syria, things there have spiraled downward.
Let me suggest that the single greatest burden for the violence and tensions across the Arab world lies with a president – though not President Obama – and it lies with an American foreign policy that was not too passive but rather too active and interventionist in the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq triggered what has become a regional religious war in the Middle East. Let me explain how, specifically.
By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. The views expressed are her own.
Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved perhaps his most desired goal in 2013: He successfully positioned Russia as indispensable to resolving key international problems. And nowhere has his success been more visible than in the Syrian conflict and Iranian nuclear negotiations. The Moscow-brokered deal to put Syria’s chemical arsenal under control of international inspectors helped avoid military strikes against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, Russia also emerged as a strong voice in the P5+1 group, allowing Iran to avoid tougher sanction against its nuclear program upon reaching an interim deal in Geneva in December 2013.
But behind the scenes, Russia is playing an even more significant role, and is an increasingly assertive player throughout the broader Middle East. It’s a trend the West cannot ignore.
According to Russian press reports, the Kremlin struck a $2 billion weapons agreement with Egypt last month, the culmination of years of quiet Kremlin efforts to revive Russia’s Cold War relationships in the region.
By Georges Pierre Sassine, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Georges Pierre Sassine is a political activist who writes about Lebanon’s public policy issues at www.georgessassine.com. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Lebanese may have enjoyed celebrating 70 years of independence last week. But they will also have been fully aware of something much less welcome – nine months of political gridlock. Since March, Lebanon has been unable to form a new government, parliamentary elections held in June were postponed for 18 months, and the current caretaker government has no decision-making powers. As the gridlock persists, Lebanon is slowly losing its ability to manage the spillover from Syria’s war – and a cynical Lebanese society is debating three responses to tackle the country’s malaise.
The first response is simply a “wait and see” policy, rooted in a firm belief that geopolitics supersedes domestic politics. To succeed, this approach requires a resolution of the crisis in Syria. The second response is more inward looking, a belief that the gridlock can be overcome through constitutional reforms and a rethink of Lebanon’s political system. The third, more cynical, response calls for the complete partition of the country.
By Becca Wasser, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Becca Wasser is a research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. You can follow her @IISSBecca. The views expressed are her own.
Saudi Arabia’s careful silence in the immediate aftermath of the deal struck with Iran on its nuclear program at the weekend should have come as no surprise. From disagreements over how to handle Syria and Egypt, to its rejection of a non-permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, the Kingdom has been clear about its displeasure with Washington’s strategy in the Middle East.
The current head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, met recently with European diplomats in Riyadh to notify them of a “major shift” in U.S.-Saudi relations, while former Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Turki has for his part given several interviews suggesting that the Gulf States will become more independent.
Saudi Arabia’s public displeasure is largely a reaction to the U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, perceived U.S. inaction over the Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, differences over Egypt’s future, and a lack of support for Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies. The U.S.-Iran rapprochement in particular has shaken Saudi trust in the United States, and Saudi Arabia is not alone among the Gulf States in fearing that warming of U.S.-Iran ties risk coming at the expense of their own relationship. And while Saudi Arabia has been publicly quiet over the Iran deal, a senior advisor to the Saudi royal family has reportedly said the Kingdom is willing to steer a more proactive foreign policy course in future.
By Barry M. Blechman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Barry M. Blechman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are his own.
The world will be a safer place if the surprising agreement that led to the promised destruction of Syria’s stockpile of deadly chemical weapons can pave the way for the banning of such weapons from the entire Middle East and eventually the world.
The next move is up to Israel and Egypt.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad surprised the world in September when he agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention barring the use of such weapons and to permit the supervised destruction of all his chemical weapon stocks. The move was designed to halt an expected U.S. bombing campaign against his country after al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in the Syrian civil war.
By Ellen Laipson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are her own.
Following recent meetings in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “Our relationship is strategic, it is enduring and it covers a wide range.” But his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, politely acknowledged differences with the United States, stating that “a true relationship between friends is based on sincerity, candor and frankness.”
The Saudi foreign minister tried to tamp down talk of a major rift, based on recent pronouncements by senior Saudi officials that conveyed a deep frustration in Riyadh about international cooperation on the key issues facing the Middle East: the Syrian crisis, the Palestine question and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The Saudis have staked out positions on each issue that do not align with major world capitals, highlighting the limits of the kingdom’s efforts to shape the regional environment and project Saudi power and influence. And, as the kingdom expands its global role and seeks recognition as a more independent actor, its reliance on the United States is understandably under stress.