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After Bush, Obama and Trump: What Biden can do

Jan 18,2021 - Last updated at Jan 18,2021

In January 2017, the Middle East that Donald Trump inherited from his predecessors was mostly in tatters. Daesh was in control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Civil wars were raging in Yemen and Libya. Iran and Turkey, each dreaming of becoming regional hegemons, were meddling in conflicts across the Middle East. And Israel, feeling no restraint, was continuing to oppress Palestinians and consolidating its control over the West Bank.

Other than continuing the effort launched by President Obama to defeat Daesh, instead of reversing the other negative regional dynamics, the Trump Administration pursued a series of shortsighted piecemeal policies. And instead of attempting to play a leadership role in reducing tensions and resolving conflicts, the US became a participant in many of them, causing them to grow more intense.

Today, Daesh in Iraq and Syria may be dismantled, but deep sectarian tensions remain pronounced in both countries and extremist groups continue to present a danger. The wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya have become internationalised with the engagement of multiple regional and global actors lining up on competing sides of each of these conflicts.

Iran, though severely weakened by the Coronavirus pandemic and the severity of US sanctions, and embittered by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, continues to wreck regional havoc. Turkey and its ally, Qatar, have come play an increasingly dangerous role in supporting politicised Sunni groups especially, but not exclusively, in Syria, Palestine and Libya. And now, new regional anti-Iran alliances are forming between Israel and Sunni states.

Israel, emboldened by the Trump Administration’s carte blanche, has felt free to strike Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria, Lebanon and even in Iran itself. It also aggressively expanded its colonial presence in the West Bank, making the once dreamed of Palestinian state almost impossible to imagine. And the Palestinian leadership, reduced to a dependency on the whims of the occupier and deeply divided between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, has been incapable of projecting a strategy leading to liberation. As a result, the region’s attention has turned elsewhere.

This is where we are as we enter the century’s third decade, still paying the price of the disastrous consequences of Bush’s devastating Iraq war and the inability of the Obama and Trump administrations to undo the damage. Added to this is the impact of the pandemic on the people of the Middle East and the incapacity of the weaker states of the region to deal with the continuing spread of the novel Coronavirus.

As the incoming Biden administration begins to map out its approach to this region, several things should be clear. The first is that it is not possible to simply return to the status quo ante — resurrecting the nuclear deal, as it was, or restarting Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Consideration must be given to the new realities that now exist across the region and lessons must be learned from past failures.

It is also important to acknowledge that the US, while retaining significant strengths and resources, no longer has the dominant leadership role it possessed just two decades ago. And finally, it is critical to recognise that it is not possible to pick around the edges and deal with issues piecemeal. Everything is connected. All of the region’s players are engaged, in varying combinations, in each of the region’s upheavals. What is happening across the Middle East may not be of the magnitude of the two wars that ravaged Europe in the last century, but it is time we addressed these connected conflicts across the Middle East as the equivalent of a world war.

This being the case, if the US is to play any constructive role, it would be best to begin carefully by building a broad international effort that lays the groundwork for a comprehensive approach to resolving the connected crises that are currently tearing apart the Middle East. The immediate goal of this effort would be the convening of an all-party international peace conference under the auspices of the United Nations.

The main agenda item for this conference would be the creation of a regional framework, like the OSCE, that would provide all states a platform for dialogue to discuss regional security guarantees coupled with commitments to non-intervention and non-aggression. It would also lay the groundwork for regional trade and investment that would help to advance greater economic integration and prosperity.

The international conference would of necessity break out into working groups in which all relevant participants would address the region’s issues of concern. For example, there would need to be focused discussions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the wars raging in Syria, Yemen and Libya, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and the role played by sectarian religious extremism.

Such an approach will no doubt be difficult and quickly rejected by hardliners in some countries. But it holds advantages over the alternatives. Since each of these conflicts involve competing regional players, working piecemeal by addressing each of them as if they are merely products of local unrest will continue be a dead end. Such a comprehensive approach taken by the P5+1 countries would a far better use of their combined strength and influence then just focusing on one problem. And promoting a vision of a peaceful Middle East that is so compelling that people can see the possibilities of a promising future may be the approach that will inspire the region’s leaders and opinion shapers to demand a change in course from the current downward spiral.

What our polling tells us is that what the peoples of Middle East want is regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They have had enough of war and want stable employment, education, healthcare and better future for their children. It is time we start listening to them.

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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