x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

US must be clear about its objectives in the Middle East next year

Next year will require the resetting of relations in the Middle East, between the US and its allies in the Gulf and between the US and Iran.

For American relations with the Arab world, 2014 must be a year of clarification. An unprecedented series of question marks accumulated throughout 2013 about the role of the US in the region. This trend cannot continue. Long-standing strategic relations require renovation, and the onus for this cannot fall exclusively on either Arabs or Americans alone.

Both the regional landscape and American policy have been in tremendous flux. Americans worry that the region is spinning out of control and question their own ability to influence these events. Those in the Middle East who look to the US to play a stabilising role seem flummoxed by America’s apparently cautious and occasionally unpredictable reactions.

In one instance, though, calculated ambiguity has proved helpful. John Kerry’s extraordinary efforts to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have yielded talks amid the utmost secrecy. Rarely has there been such a tight lid both within Washington and among the parties involved, despite dubious leaks from marginal figures.

Mr Kerry has protected the process from domestic politics on both sides, but at the necessary cost of allowing scepticism to grow.

No one should expect 2014 to deliver a final peace agreement. But an understanding to extend the talks has now become far more plausible. A potential formula could include Palestinian acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and Israel’s acceptance of the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps as the basis for a future border. If negotiations are extended for at least an additional year, this could provide a basis for further progress.

Next year will also clarify the trajectory of American negotiations with Iran. The interim agreement is supposed to set the stage for a broader resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.

One interpretation holds that the US and Iran must have seen some possibility of deeper rapprochement, and that this is the ultimate goal both seek. Another view perceives them as buying time. A third perspective takes the negotiations at face value, believing the parties are engaging without any firm assumptions.

If a wide-ranging nuclear deal is to be achieved, it will probably start to take shape over the next year. And, if it involves any broader Iranian-American understanding, there will surely be signs of that too. If, on the other hand, the interim agreement is simply extended without additional progress, that would indicate this year’s “breakthrough” was just a play for time.

Finally, there is a strong possibility of a breakdown of negotiations altogether, and a return to the standoff that logically culminates with American military action.

The future of US-Iranian talks will have profound implications for the security concerns of America’s Gulf allies. Doubts, and even grievances – most dramatically aired in an unusually blunt New York Times op-ed by the Saudi ambassador to the UK – are therefore also likely to either be exacerbated or attenuated in the coming year.

Egyptian-American relations require significant attention as well. Mr Kerry has toned down some American reservations about the removal of Mohammed Morsi from office. But aspects of US-Egyptian relations remain suspended, particularly military cooperation, as Washington is still uncomfortable with some of the Egyptian government’s policies.

Given how the political landscape is developing, strategic relations between the US, the Gulf states and Egypt are likely to move in similar directions. In 2014, these relationships will either improve or deteriorate from the current unusual and unsustainable ambiguity, depending on what both sides do and say.

The most difficult policy challenge facing both Arab governments and the US will be Syria. There has long been a predominance of opinion in Washington that the United States “lacks good options” in Syria and therefore should do little.

The rise of Al Qaeda-linked groups, and fading fortunes of non-Islamist armed opposition, has produced an increasingly vocal constituency in the American establishment for actually endorsing Bashar Al Assad’s continuation in power.

The self-fulfilling notion that the US has “no good options in Syria” seems increasingly vindicated to its proponents. But the hands-off approach that followed has been a major factor in ensuring options are limited. This is a self-defeating, self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating policy mistake. And it could persist for years.

Moreover, as long as the US insists that Mr Al Assad must go, while simultaneously working with him as a partner in destroying his chemical weapons, American policy will continue to seem at cross purposes with both itself and the interests of its Arab allies.

Syria’s horrifying conflict is the most urgent regional issue because of its intense violence, huge casualties, refugee crisis, destabilising “spillover” effect and function as a sectarian proxy battlefield. But it’s also, unfortunately, the conundrum most likely to prove resistant to clarification, let alone resolution.

Nonetheless, 2014 ought to provide clarity on several difficult questions between the US and some of its key Arab allies.

The interests that first drew them together haven’t fundamentally altered.

Therefore neither should the core strategic calculation of cooperation, so 2014 should be the year of repairing the American-Arab strategic partnership where it has been recently fraying.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a columnist for Now Media and blogs at www.ibishblog.com

On Twitter: @ibishblog