x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US influence wanes at a crucial juncture in Middle East affairs

This region will continue to demand a great deal of attention from Barack Obama in his second term.

As US President Barack Obama gears up to begin a second term, his Middle East agenda will be more complex and potentially more dangerous than the one he inherited from his predecessor four years ago.

Back then, the pressing priorities were winding down the US military presence in Iraq; pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace; rebuilding America's damaged image and frayed relationships across the region; confronting violent extremism; and reigning in Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Today, the US military is out of Iraq and a recent Zogby Research poll shows that, after a dip in 2011, there has been a marked improvement in the US approval ratings across much of the region. That, however, is the only good news. The rest of the story is deeply troubling, in large part because of the unsettling effects of the Arab uprisings.

While the US is limited in its ability to manage the Arab Spring, the Obama administration continues to believe that it is in US interests to assist and to mitigate the hardships and violence where possible.

The bottom line is that Washington will have its hands full in the Middle East in the coming years. First, look at Egypt, which will remain a key player in the Arab world because of its size, position, and cultural and political leadership role. When Egypt had its Arab Spring moment, the effect on the entire region was profound.

The past few weeks have made it clear that the revolutionary process that is reshaping Egypt is far from over. It appears that the Muslim Brotherhood has overreached - seeking not only to win elections, but to use its victory to monopolise power and silence its opponents. This has caused a backlash that has further destabilised the country.

The US has some economic leverage and is attempting to maintain a balance between respecting Egypt's fledgling democracy and insisting that the Morsi government protect political freedoms. How this will play out is far from certain.

To the north, the rights of Palestinians - always at the core of Arab and regional concerns - will continue to be front and centre on the administration's agenda. Palestinians continue to insist that their rights are recognised, the rightward drift in Israeli politics continues to lead to policies that inflame tensions, and US credibility is tied to the issue.

Meanwhile, the situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. The Assad government continues its bloody assault on its own people as it is confronted by an increasingly radicalised and militarised opposition that has taken hold in several parts of the country. US and allied efforts to fuse a broader political opposition have been somewhat successful, but serious questions remain about the ability of this group to control armed elements operating throughout the country.

Syrians remain deeply divided, with growing fears that we may see sectarian bloodletting similar to what occurred during Lebanon's long war and during the US occupation of Iraq.

There are voices in the US and the region calling for arming the opposition, the establishment of a no-fly zone and other forms of intervention. But none of these proposals address the "day after" questions. The nightmare will either drag on for the foreseeable future, or be resolved by the collapse of the regime. At best, a messy negotiated compromise would lead to a transitional government. Whatever the scenario, Pandora's Box has been opened.

Already the fallout from Syria is being felt across the region. There are heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Vulnerable Jordan has been affected as well. Kurds in Syria are demanding independence and being aided by their allies in neighbouring countries.

In other areas, Sunni-Shia tensions have been exacerbated, and Christians in Syria and elsewhere are feeling threatened. Add the looming humanitarian crisis caused by the influx of refugees.

Pressure continues from Israel's friends in Washington and from several Arab Gulf states for the administration to deal with Iran's nuclear programme. Should Mr Obama make a renewed overture to engage with Iran, it is hoped that the Islamic Republic will respond wisely. It would also be smart for Washington to take a page from its approach to North Korea, and include Arab allies in the conversation.

No one has an interest in a military confrontation. But there should be no doubt that pressure will continue and tough choices will have to be made to resolve the issue.

If all this were not enough, there are still fires burning in other areas that require attention. Iraq's internal political situation remains quite tense; Libya is largely out of control with armed militias still operating; Bahrain's sectarian tensions are simmering and unresolved; and, despite the death of Osama bin Laden, extremist groups have metastasised in several conflict zones.

Despite the United States' limited influence, Middle East issues will continue to require Washington's attention in the coming years. Thus begins Mr Obama's second term.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa