Making sense of Middle East’s intractable geopolitics

“15 years of the war on terror: much was said, but what was achieved?”

That was the question that occupied the minds of some of the region’s most well-respected diplomats, political analysts, academics and policy wonks at the second Al Arabiya Global Discussions Forum that got underway in Dubai today.

Assessing the steady resurgence of Al Qaeda and the emergence of the Islamic State in the region in the past decade and half, Brooke Middleton, a US-based political and security analyst said in her opening remarks that these were a consequence of two critical failures: “One of the Iraqi government to integrate the Sunnis” and “the international community’s spectacular inability to act against the Syrian conflict.

But Nathaniel Tek, the US government’s regional spokesperson countered that argument saying it has almost become “fashionable” to blame the Obama administration (in particular) for its so-called disengagement in the region and contend that its hands-off policy is what directly led to the strengthening of ISIL.

“The conflict is not about the US, but about the dynamics within the region,” said Tek, adding that the approach of the current administration has been to examine the root causes of the terrorist threat and support local partners and coalitions rather than engage in a bigger way by intervening militarily.

“We are working hard to build diplomatic momentum to tackle the crisis,” he added.

Engaging with Russia

The discussions happened in the backdrop of the lengthy talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow today. The US Secretary of State is reported to have said that there are fundamental similarities in the way both the US and Russia see the conflict in Syria.

In what appeared to be an explicit shift in the US’s stance towards Assad, Kerry said that the United States is not seeking a regime change in Syria.

Experts on the panel though, in varying contexts, seemed to hold the view that any co-operation with Russia would entail the repeated use of a failed tactic and ‘empower wrong actors’.

“The acts of Assad are equal to the barbaric acts of the Islamic state,” said Middleton.

“The Soviet Union is back – but where is the United States?” asked Salman Al-Ansari, a Saudi-based political commentator, hinting that the US was failing in its leadership role to combat Russia’s imperialistic expansionary attitude.

“The Obama administration is not leading at all; we are in a real need for the United States to go back to its stance as a leader,” said Al Ansari, also clarifying that Saudi Arabia will now be taking a leadership role in combating regional terrorism, the command structure of which will be based in Riyadh.

The kingdom has, this week, announced the formation of a new anti-terrorism coalition of 34 Muslim countries including the UAE that would share intelligence and deploy troops if necessary to fight ISIL.

“Arab leadership is what is needed in the region,” emphasized Julien Hawari, Co-CEO of Mediaquest (which publishes TRENDS magazine), adding that looking for a pivot in either the United States or Russia for problems that confront the region was a false choice.

US elections and Middle East policy

Nonetheless, 2016 will be a vital year for the region’s geopolitics as the United States elects a new president.

“The Arab world holds its breath when there is a change in the US administration,” said Faisal Abbas, Editor-In-Chief, Al Arabiya News, and what the US president’s regional policy will be remains a crucial question.

“This election is very important to the Middle East. It will rebalance US foreign policy after eight years of a very aggressive George Bush and eight years of a very passive Obama,” said Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief of Al Hayat Newspaper.

There are, in these elections, various schools of thought, said Karam, ranging from a very isolationist Rand Paul, a hawkish Ted Cruz, a centrist Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton from the democratic side and a ‘fake it till you make it’ Donald Trump, and it remains to be seen which one prevails.

The US must, however, confront the reality of the region and “deal with the Middle East, not as the US wants it to be, but as it is presently,” added Ali Khedery, a former US diplomat in Iraq who served in both the Obama and Bush regimes.