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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.
By Will Marshall, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.
President Barack Obama has demoted liberty and democracy as primary U.S. foreign policy goals, at least where the Middle East is concerned. So the president informed the world in his address to the United Nations last week.
Obama said four “core interests” would henceforth guide U.S. policy toward the Middle East and North Africa: protecting our allies, ensuring the flow of oil, fighting anti-American terrorists, and preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction. While he said U.S. efforts to “promote democracy, human rights, and open markets” will continue, they are now relegated explicitly to the second tier of U.S. interests.
Not so fast Mr. President. Shouldn’t Democrats at least be questioning Obama’s logic, if not raising objections? After all, the president’s embrace of realpolitik is at odds with the party’s liberal internationalist outlook, which on balance has served America and the world well for seven decades. And it collides with America’s strategic interest in banking the fires of political violence and extremism in the world’s most turbulent region.
By Danny Danon, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Danny Danon is Israel’s deputy defense minister and the author of Israel: The Will to Prevail.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States this week has provided yet another reminder of how our country’s “volunteer advisers,” pundits and columnists are always quick to lavish their counsel upon us. Often forgotten once these thoughts of the day are neglected in favor of new topics is how much of this advice is proven by history to be dead wrong.
The Golan Heights and Israel is one such topic worth examining. International focus on Syria today centers on the heinous chemical attacks and its war-torn urban landscapes replete with rubble, bombs and bodies. These are heart wrenching scenes, and in Israel, as everywhere, we pray for a speedy end to this conflict and its wanton destruction. But simmering beneath these tragic headlines has been another key issue that sheds much light on the “value” of the advice Israel’s government receives – the Golan Heights, that slender tract of land along the Israel-Syria border.
The al-Assad regime has withdrawn thousands of its troops from the Syrian side of the Golan, mobilizing them for the defense of Damascus. This has created a power vacuum in the south of the country as the most significant troop redeployment of its kind in 40 years took place from the buffer zone.
By Nawaf Obaid and Jamal Khashoggi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Jamal Khashoggi is the editor in chief of the Al Arab Satellite News Channel. The views expressed are their own.
While the U.S. media spends countless hours discussing the vagaries of American non-involvement in Syria, little is being said about the conflict's ramifications for the stability, borders and realpolitik of the Middle East – or the changing role of outside nations in the region's affairs. Yet there are massive, historic and intensely important implications that we need to understand. Indeed, the Syrian civil war is but a catalyst for numerous shifts taking place in the regional and global power structure.
First and foremost, the Syrian tragedy is a turning point in the long established tradition of Western intervention in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. The quagmire has brought to the fore the new reality that the United States and its European allies no longer have the political and economic stomach to openly engage their militaries in another regional conflict. While the so-called Arab Spring brought with it huge expectations to the Arab world of freedom and democracy, the dawning era of Western military disengagement from the region is going to have even more widespread implications as shifting borders and military alliances usher in a transition phase.
Absent outside intervention, the Syrian conflict has the potential to continue for many years. Given the support that the al-Assad regime is receiving from Russia and Iran, and arms being delivered to the rebels from the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the United States and France, one is reminded that the Lebanese civil war lasted for 15 years.
By Fareed Zakaria
A new internet game – “Where is Damascus?” – asks you to pinpoint Syria’s capital on a map. Even if you are off by 100 miles, you will probably have done better than 80 percent of the people who played the game. According to its creators, a number of the people inside the U.S. Department of Defense tried it out as well…and only 57 percent managed to locate Damascus. Some of the guesses were as far off as India and South Africa! Let’s hope those folks weren’t tasked with targeting the air strikes.
So, as a public service, here are three facts about Syria:
First, it became a nation recently and with much turmoil. Until World War I, the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the Middle East, plus parts of Europe and North Africa. It had ruled much of this land for six centuries. But when the Empire collapsed after World War I, it led to a complete fragmentation of the region. France and Britain carved up parts of the empire. Syria broke free of French influence after World War II. Then followed a series of failed governments, then briefly it actually joined up with Egypt to create a new country, the United Arab Republic, and then seceded from that republic three years later. In 1963, the Baath Party organized a coup – and that is the beginning of the Syria we now know.
By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The prospect of a U.S. military strike on Syria has focused new attention on the role and influence of Islamic extremist groups – including Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and jihadists from Chechnya, Pakistan and other countries – opposing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In his address to the nation on September 10, President Barack Obama asserted that “al Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”
Syria’s neighbors share some of those concerns. Indeed, a new Pew Research Center survey shows extremism is also a matter of great concern to Muslims in the countries surrounding Syria, with many also worried that the turmoil will spread across their own border.