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The Mideast balancing act

Jun 18,2014 - Last updated at Jun 18,2014

The recent gains made by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) confirms that, more than a decade after the war in Iraq began, stability in the Middle East remains on a knife’s edge.

ISIL — with its transnational commitment to a caliphate that encompasses vast swathes of territory from western Syria to central Iraq — exemplifies the interrelated nature of the challenges facing the region, and the threat it poses highlights the urgent need for a new framework for action in the Middle East.

ISIL began as an affiliate of Al Qaeda, following America’s invasion of Iraq. Though it was expelled from Al Qaeda last February for, of all things, its excessively violent tactics, it has thrived, finding fertile ground for expansion in a civil-war-ravaged Syria and among Iraq’s Sunni population, which is increasingly alienated from the country’s Shiite-led government.

Iraq’s location on a major fault line between Sunnis and Shiites — whose sectarian rivalry has become the main axis of confrontation in the region — has been a source of instability in the country for decades.

The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime led to a surge in sectarian violence, except in the northern region of Kurdistan, which enjoys considerable autonomy vis-à-vis the central government in Baghdad.

But Iraq’s current travails are the direct result of the war in neighbouring Syria, where ISIL has claimed thousands of lives.

Moreover, the rise of ISIL will have repercussions far beyond Iraq’s borders, as the organisation competes with Al Qaeda to lead the global jihad — a competition that will undoubtedly involve violent efforts by both sides to demonstrate their anti-Western bona fides.

ISIL’s rise underscores the urgent need for fresh, creative diplomacy in Syria that can break the deadlock both on the battlefield and in the negotiating room — a challenge that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s recent electoral victory has deepened.

New negotiating parameters are also needed to resolve the conflict in Iraq, reach a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine, and, ultimately, establish a stable balance of power in the Middle East that reconciles the influence of Sunni Saudi Arabia and that of Shiite Iran.

America’s unwillingness to use the kind of “coercive” diplomacy that it did in the past makes such a framework all the more urgent — not to mention difficult — as it changes the way that regional actors view the United States. 

For starters, the West’s decision not to intervene directly in Syria, particularly after the official exposure of the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons, has diminished confidence in the US among its traditional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia, along with other Sunni countries, doubts the wisdom of negotiating with Iran, fearing a normalisation of relations with its regional competitor.

And the failure of the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, spearheaded by US Secretary of State John Kerry, has underscored America’s inability to lead the peace process alone.

Clearly, the US cannot stabilise the Middle East without help; it needs a wide range of actors to commit to this goal. 

Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has recently outlined a new peace paradigm for the negotiations between Israel and Palestine, in which the participation of actors like the European Union, Russia and key Arab countries would facilitate the rise of a truly international solution.

This paradigm should be extended to the Geneva negotiations on the Syrian civil war, with countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt assuming a greater role.

Of course, involving regional powers could complicate already-muddy negotiations further. The goal must, therefore, be clarity and equilibrium.

Only with a balanced negotiation process, guided by regional and global actors, can a stable balance of power in the Middle East be achieved.

If the regional balance of power is not introduced into negotiations, any future conflict — however small — could spread rapidly, with unimaginable consequences.

An inclusive framework of conflict resolution in Syria is particularly critical today, as it would establish a precedent for cooperation among regional powers, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia.

International negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme have provided some reason for optimism, which could lend impetus to efforts in Syria. But, again, success there would require the commitment of key regional and international actors.

While it is true that international powers have their own troubles — from Europe’s concerns about Russia’s new foreign policy to China’s territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas — it is in their interest to take an active role in addressing chronic instability in the Middle East.

After all, disorder there is a serious threat to their security, with Europe at risk owing to its geographical proximity and countries like China and India facing the prospect of energy supply disruptions.

The Middle East has been a source of volatility and violence for far too long.

With a new, creative approach and a strong commitment from countries worldwide, a stable regional balance of power can and should be achieved once and for all.

The writer was EU high representative for foreign and security policy, secretary general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain. He is currently president of the ESADE Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. ©Project Syndicate, 2014.

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