The events of 9/11 gave the United States an opportunity to enforce its domination in the Middle East. This is hardly unique in the history of the region, which has witnessed British domination and later American-Soviet competition.
The United States’ influence reached its peak in the Kuwait war of 1991 when it was able to lead the region and the world into a war it did not initiate against Iraq in order to restore the freedom of Kuwait. By the same standard, the status of the US in the region and the world reached rock bottom as a result of the war the US did initiate to occupy Iraq in 2003. The architects of American policy believed success in Iraq would open the doors to a solution to the Palestinian problem and a democratic transformation of the region.
Based on this premise, Washington excluded the possibility that the regional countries would play any role in Iraq. However, America’s lack of viable options there opened the door to chaos and a void that Iran has been able to fill, becoming the strongest regional power in the Middle East confronting Israel. America’s botch-up in Iraq was reflected in Lebanon. First, Syria was forced to pull out its forces following the assassination of a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and international pressure. Today, through its allies, Syria is once again a key player in the future of Lebanon. Furthermore, Israel’s lack of success in its war against Hezbollah weakened its ability to impose military solutions in the region. This followed the failure of its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza to guarantee peace for Israel or a solution to the Palestinian problem. At the level of democratic transformation, following the US setback in Iraq, Washington has realized that it needs moderate Arab countries to deal with the Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese cases. Thus stability rather than democracy became its priority. As for the war on terror, American policy in the post-Saddam Hussein era has had an adverse affect and has rendered Iraq a spawning ground for terrorism and a headquarters for Al-Qaeda’s activities. For example, the movement recently announced from Al-Anbar (western Iraq) the formation of the Islamic Iraq Emirates. While the ramifications of the US failure in Iraq are clear, the alternative for dealing with the Iraqi case and the problems of the region are not. The lessons learned from the events of recent years in the Middle East point to the following conclusions: The end of American domination in determining the fate of the region does not mean an end to its role or significance. The complex inter-relationship among the region’s problems means they cannot be isolated from one another.
The contradictions among the region’s countries make any victory of one side a defeat for another. America’s military victory in Iraq was an incentive for Syria and Iran to sabotage stability there; Iranian influence in Iraq makes a Gulf counter-intervention inevitable. Military power is no longer enough to end the ethnic, sectarian and national struggles. What is needed is an approach that links military strength with economic, political and geopolitical factors. Political reform and democratic transformation are a cumulative process. They cannot be enforced by military might, quick fixes or patronizing measures.
The international factor represented by the United Nations and the European Union proved its importance in Lebanon after it was disregarded by Washington and Israel. Hence, the US is no longer able to solve the Iraqi predicament on its own. But what is the alternative? One option is to deal with the Iraqi case through a regional approach in which all neighboring countries are involved, including Iran and Syria. The goal would be to create a security system for the region’s countries that ends the repeated cycles of conflict between Iraq and Iran and safeguards the legitimate interests of all the region’s countries.
Within this context, all warring Iraqi parties – including the armed opposition, with the exception of Al-Qaeda, which has an international rather than an Iraqi agenda, would be participants in a national conciliation conference under international auspices that grants legitimacy to any agreement reached on a new basis for a future Iraq and overcomes any differences resulting from the current Iraqi Constitution. This formula is predicated on there being “no winners, no losers, whether in Iraq or regionally. A solution must not come at the expense of any country in the area, lest the losing party turn into an opposition. Such a regional deal would be the most capable of creating a foundation of regional security with international legitimacy and support.
In this context, the foundations would also be put in place for a permanent settlement of the Palestinian issue based on the formula of land for peace and a two-state solution. It would also allow Lebanon to maintain its independence without becoming a battlefield between Israel on the one hand and Syria and Iran on the other. The problem with this option is the American position. The US may not consider the UN, Europe and Russia qualified partners. It might consider any opening to “nuclear Iran as an unacceptable concession and would therefore prefer a military and economic confrontation. Another option would be to persuade Syria to abandon Iran, especially since there are Israeli voices pushing in that direction. At the Iraqi level, Washington may prefer to work on creating new alliances. Still, Iran and Syria could stand in the way of such realignments if they consider themselves victorious in the long run and see no need to “save America from its predicament. All of these obstacles could render the creation of a new regional balance of power the preferable option in confronting Iran and Syria.
This new balance of power could take the form of an alliance that includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan (and implicitly Israel), and perhaps Turkey, in coordination with America in confronting the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. At the Iraqi level, the political process would be abandoned by imposing an emergency government and the dissolution of Parliament.
The sectarian conflict would turn into a regional sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, which would make Iraq (and Lebanon) the venue for settling accounts. History would repeat itself.
Ghassan Atiyyah is the director of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter