To try to see good news in Middle Eastern developments, one has to be an eternal optimist and one’s mind has to be wired for reverse logic. Consider the following: the situation in the Middle East is so unsustainably bad, that there cannot not be a change, and it cannot change to the better; or, the threat of the Islamic State group can even generate a positive outcome if it compels old antagonists to rally around a common cause.
The Islamic State group poses such a massive threat to those in the Middle East and beyond, that other real or perceived threats – such as the Iranian nuclear arms issue, Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial rule, Hamas, Hezbollah, US militarism, European colonialism, Israeli occupation, Shia-Sunni schism – pale in comparison.
If the Islamic State group expands no further than the territory it currently holds, every single country in the region, as well as Europe and the United States, will be under constant threat. This is an organisation unlike any other – fiercely brutal, well-financed and organised with unlimited ambitions for territorial expansion and recruitment of human resources.
At present, they are a stone’s throw away from Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city with the region’s largest Christian population. They have begun to encroach on Lebanon and will soon aim for Jordan. Even Israel should feel threatened by their fundamental aim to unite Iraq and the entire Levant – which includes Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and parts of Turkey.
During the group’s initial ascension a few months ago, I wrote to argue for an international effort under a UN mandate to fight this unpredictable danger. Today, US President Barack Obama is contemplating a coalition of the willingfrom the Middle East, Europe and Australia to take up the challenge of such a new world threat. One way or another, Obama must take the leadership because this is a global cause worth fighting for. Surgical air strikes will not do the job. It will require boots on the ground and a broader coalition as well as some sort of institutional legitimacy.
Surgical air strikes will not do the job. It will require boots on the ground and a broader coalition as well as some sort of institutional legitimacy.
First, however, the situation must be diagnosed correctly for the appropriate cure to be prescribed.
The Islamic State group, or its prototype, emerged as a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and two subsequent blunders: the elimination of Iraq’s security structures and the de-Baathification of its politics. Lately, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian and exclusionist policies strengthened the Islamic State group’s foothold. Meanwhile, the civil war in neighbouring Syria has drawn Sunni jihadists into the rebellion against Assad’s regime. The group has used this opportunity to expand its operational and territorial reach.
To address the problem, the US and others involved must tackle the issue at its roots. An inclusive government in Baghdad is necessary but not sufficient. The marginalised Sunni population must be given a serious role in running the country; a broader region-wide process of Sunni-Shia reconciliation must begin and it must involve Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In other words, the Islamic State group needs to be confronted and driven into oblivion. For that, force is necessary – not just from abroad, but from the region as well.
Syria and Iraq
Syria and Iraq need to be addressed together. The essence of their problems is different, but the current state of affairs and the solutions they require are similar. Both Syria and Iraq have their political and institutional traditions anchored in the ideology and the modus operandi of the Baath Party. Both populations have problems with their leaderships and both countries are susceptible to sectarian divisions. The Islamic State group, whose presence is contiguous and expands over vast territories on either side of the border, threatens these two countries most of all.
In Syria, the United States must recognise that its half-hearted support of the moderate opposition has been a failure and has made things worse for everyone, except the Islamic State group. Even then, it was clear that arming a series of fragmented pro-democracy rebels would not have helped the cause.
In today’s tense, explosive and terror-ridden environment of the Middle East, both the West and Iran must double their efforts to overcome the last hurdles to reach a sustainable deal on Iran’s nuclear issue. The new US sanctions on Iran were disappointing for many and frustrating for Iran. Yet, Iran said it would continue the talks and remains committed to a solution. One hopes it was a tactical move by the US to add pressure on Iran in light of a promising compromise being worked out on the sidelines of the talks.
This makes Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s job much easier in de-escalating the Sunni-Shia confrontation. Both countries do not want to be faced with a nuclear Iran, fearing the emergence of an asymmetric power relationship.
Turkey and Iran, too, haven’t seen eye to eye on Syria. But now, they must. The issue is no longer about Assad’s departure. Nor is it even about Syria. It is about the spread of the Islamic State and penetration of other borders. The conflict now is about preventing human tragedy of historic proportions.
Finally, it is good that an open-ended cease-fire was struck between Hamas and Israel. Both sides claimed victory. In reality, there is more to this agreement than meets the eye, and that is the real good news. Hamas is no al-Qaida nor is it Islamic State. Israel knows this best. Hamas and the Islamic State are quintessential antagonists. Now is the time to meet some of Hamas’s demands for a better life for its inhabitants.
Israel should also turn back the clock to June 2014 when the two rivals – Hamas and Fatah – formed a unity government, ending a decade-long dispute, and instead welcome that as a momentous opportunity to pursue the two-state solution.
Yes, this is a laundry list of the Middle East’s fundamental challenges, and yes, it takes an eternal optimist to see positive outcomes. But there have been transformational events in history which are the consequence of friends and foes coming together to defeat a common threat or enemy by sidestepping their own hostilities, albeit temporarily. There is such a moment now for the Middle East.
Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.