by Emile Nakhleh
Could the unrelenting Russian-Syrian air strikes against the people of Aleppo have been avoided on such a horrendous scale? The Obama administration’s changed view of the Middle East and downplaying of the significance of the region in American strategic calculus have inadvertently encouraged Vladimir Putin to jump in and fill the ensuing vacuum, ensuring the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This action has emboldened Assad’s barbarism and empowered Putin’s air attacks on Aleppo and other parts of Syria.
Putin calculated that America’s apparently diminishing role as a key regional player could afford him the opportunity to resurrect Russian economic, military, and political influence in the region, akin to what it was before Egypt kicked Russia out in the early 1970s. Ironically, it was American diplomacy and Egyptian national pride and policy calculations that persuaded President Anwar al-Sadat in 1973 to expel the Russians.
The next American president should elevate the Middle East to the level of “vital” interests of the United States, seek effective ways to topple the Assad regime, bring Assad and his fellow “butchers of Damascus” to justice, and check Russia’s war-like forays into that region.
Critical Regional Factors
The following factors make the Middle East critical to U.S. strategic interests.
Geography. The Middle East boasts four strategic waterways, known as the “Commons,” which are crucial to international trade, shipping, and the movement of people and war materiel. These waterways, which connect the Middle East to Asia in the east and Europe in the west, are the Suez Canal, Bab al-Mandab, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bosporus and Dardanelle. For nearly a century, the United States, because of its global status as a superpower and a trading nation, has guaranteed the safety of these waterways and protected their legal status as international strategic trade routes.
Demography. The movement of populations in and out of the region, most recently as massive waves of refugees, has spread to Europe and the rest of the Western world, including the United States. President Obama has argued that the sectarian, tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts that have generated these population flows are regional and should be addressed by regional states and therefore do not rise to the level of sending American troops to resolve them or to produce an outcome that would be relatively palatable to the United States. The immediate unintended consequence of this position has been the creation of a dangerous power vacuum, which the Russian leader has been trying to fill.
Religious Ideology and Terrorism. It’s become abundantly clear that the radical jihadist Sunni ideology, which underpinned Osama bin Laden’s message a generation ago and continues to fuel the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) today emanates from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the home of Islam’s two holiest mosques in Mecca and Medina. For centuries, this strand of intolerant interpretation of Islam—known as Salafi Wahhabism—stayed in Arabia and did not affect the outside world.
Once the Saudi king in the late 1960s decided to include the proselytization of Islam as a cardinal principle in his country’s foreign policy, radical interpretations of Sunni Islam spread across Muslim-majority and -minority countries worldwide. The preaching of Islam was underwritten by unprecedented oil wealth and driven by Saudi government-supported Islamic NGOs. Many poorly educated, unemployed, alienated Muslim youth listened to this radical version of Islam and saw it as a validation of their identity. Bin Laden emerged as the proselytizer par excellence of this brand of extremism and used it to justify the use of violence by his followers against the perceived enemies of Islam—local and global.
As far back as the early 1990s, US government analysts spotted these trends across the globe, from Turkey to Indonesia and from the Balkans and Central Asia to rural hamlets in Africa.
Radicalization and terrorism have wrought havoc on Middle East countries and communities—Muslims and non-Muslims—as well as Western countries. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have preached the same ideology to radicalize some Western youth and recruit so-called lone wolves as far away from the Middle East as Europe, Australia, the United States, and Canada.
The Salafi Wahhabi ideology that existed in the Arabian Peninsula for centuries has become a worldwide phenomenon, which Muslim and non-Muslim societies can no longer ignore. Nor can the United States be oblivious to the purveyors of bloody extremism in the Middle East and across the globe.
Nuclear Proliferation and Cyber Security. Some countries in the greater Middle East have been involved in nuclear proliferation and could pose a long-term threat to the United States through WMD and cyberwarfare, especially hacking. Nefarious actors in the region and elsewhere could acquire the fast-spreading cyber technology relatively easily. The recent aggressive Russian hacking of American government institutions, including the electoral system and the Democratic National Committee communications, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Since cyber expertise, unlike nuclear power, can be acquired without huge resources and sophisticated expertise, some Middle Eastern states and non-state actors could pose a credible threat in this area over the next five years. “What we can do them today,” cyber experts told journalist Fred Kaplan, “they would be able to do to us tomorrow.”
As a nuclear power committed to nonproliferation, the United States should be concerned about overt and covert efforts by some Middle Eastern countries to acquire nuclear facilities, whether for peaceful or aggressive purposes. The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was a major diplomatic achievement, but it does require constant inspection and analysis of Iran’s long-term intentions and actions regarding their centrifuges and nuclear enrichment levels.
The nuclear “diplomacy” of other countries—for example, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Syria and North Korea, the United Arab Emirates and other potential partners—must be watched closely. Washington cannot afford to take a hands-off approach to this potential threat from the region.
What Does Reassessment Entail?
The next president will quickly realize that the Middle Eastern conflicts, especially Syria, radical ideology and terrorism, geography, demography, and the potential threat from nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare make the region an area of vital interest to the United States. In order to pursue policies that would reflect this reality, the next administration should appoint a presidential taskforce to make specific recommendations on these issues within three months.
The taskforce should include folks with substantive expertise and deep knowledge of the region. Taskforce members should not have consulting or lobbying contracts with regional states or with major companies that do work in the area. If the taskforce members are to advise the president honestly on our relations with the region, they should have no vested financial or other interests with any regional state or non-state entity.
The primary mission of the taskforce should include specific policy recommendations on how to:
- Bring about the end of the Assad regime and the territorial defeat of the Islamic State, which could require targeted military operations by the United States.
- Negotiate with Turkey, Jordan, secular and Islamic anti-Assad groups, other than IS, on setting up a post-Assad provisional government that would pave the way for national elections within a practical timeframe.
- Utilize in conjunction with the UN Secretary General, the Security Council, and the International Court of Justice the appropriate mechanisms to charge Assad and his gang with war crimes for their actions against the people of Syria.
- These charges could extend to Russian military and civilian leaders for their participation in the destruction of Aleppo.
- Negotiate with regional and European states on how and where to settle the massive numbers of Syrian refugees and to return many of them back to their home country.
- Balance American national interest—economic, political, commercial, and security—with American values of good governance.
- Engage regional autocrats on the need to hold fair and free national elections and respect for human rights.
- Engage Saudi Arabia and other regional states on how to curb the spread of extremist religious ideology.
The greater Middle East obviously falls within the vital interests of the United States, the pivot to the Far East notwithstanding. The next president must not allow Putin or any other hyper-nationalist leader seeking regional hegemony to exploit the power vacuum that could ensue from American regional disengagement. Putin’s determined intent to destroy Aleppo and the rest of Syria in order to save Assad and emasculate American influence in that part of the world is an ominous illustration of what could happen if we abandon the Middle East.
Photo by Beshr Abdulhadi via Flickr.