In a very candid moment, the president of the United States has admitted that his administration lacks a policy formulation to defeat the pseudo-state and terrorist organization known as IS or ISIL. This is indeed quite an admission. It was only five short months ago that the same administration was certain it understood the parameters for a successful conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this very short period of time the border between Syria and Iraq has been eliminated, the Gaza war has shown how vulnerable Israel might become if it ever gave up the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, Hamas and its program of Israel’s annihilation has become the majority opinion of Palestinians in those same territories, and the US is now transfixed on an IS enemy that resides six thousand miles (including an ocean) from its borders.
Yet President Obama has the temerity to suggest that Israel withdraw to the 1949 armistice line, which he misguidedly calls a border. From 1949 until 1967 this armistice line was the scene of hundreds of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, a fact little appreciated by an American leadership team that, for the most part, was born after 1960. Now, however, if you listen to official or unofficial Washington insiders, IS terrorism represents a near existential threat to the US homeland. While the attack on 9-11-01 was serious and devastating, in terms of per capita population statistics Israel has faced this level of terrorism dozens of times.
If there is a true existential threat to any nation in the world, caused by the chaos unleashed in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, it is to both Israel and Jordan. These countries are serious allies of the US, and the prospect of Jordanian internal instability is of grave concern to both the US and the Jewish state. Israel has never faced an enemy to its immediate east with an overt threat to its actual destruction. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has depended on Israeli power for protection (Black September), while Israel relies on Jordan as an important and somewhat friendly buffer state. Both countries remember the serious internal challenge they faced during the tumultuous years following the 1948 war. Palestinian terrorism was used to wear down Israel, while Hashemite vulnerability to Palestinian nationalism has been a constant in the conflict since its inception. The Palestinians have continually probed both countries for any sign of weakness. There is nothing new about Hamas (other than its name). At this point, Hamas would be willing to partner with anyone (Shiite or Sunni) in order to gain advantage over Jordan or Israel.
Of course the situation involving IS (like the situation with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas) will always place Israel and Jordan at risk. This is especially true if their chief international strategic partner, the US, admits that it doesn’t have a strategy for the region. Because a total regional strategy is what it is going to take to not only defeat IS, but to create the strategic balance necessary in order to accomplish that defeat. Everything must be on the table. The future of Syria and Iraq are vital components to any strategy. Therefore, the Saudi and Iranian competition for regional hegemony must be addressed. So, too, must the Iranian nuclear negotiations be included. The great Obama misunderstanding is to think that the Iranian nuclear program can be compartmentalized outside the totality of its regional strategic context. At this point, any deal that is perceived by Israel (or the Sunni states) to favor Iran would make attacking the Sunni IS organization extremely problematic.
The same is true in both Syria and Iraq. Sunni grievance with US policy in both countries is very high. Any perception of a US-Iran partnership will work against Washington in every Sunni state capital. A similar problem exists within Israel, especially over the nuclear negotiations. Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have a strong vested interest in rolling back the Shiite crescent. Without a significant anti-Assad element, and without the political conditions for a decentralized federal Iraq, US strategy against IS will not take root among Sunnis in the Levant. The proper balance between Iran and its allies on one side, and Saudi Arabia and its partners on the other, will be very difficult to accomplish by the US alone. Certainly Russia is going to have something to say about what happens in Syria. Earlier Obama administration hesitation about Syria (2012 and 2013) had a lot to do with the lack of Russian cooperation. IS makes the US task in Syria more difficult, and so does the situation of NATO expansion and the crisis with Moscow over the Ukraine.
But a UN Geneva 3 process must become an essential component of any political strategy for Syria. The Sunni community throughout the region must be convinced that Assad’s days are numbered before they would support any direct regional military action against IS. An anti-Assad campaign, in conjunction with an anti-IS component, probably cannot be accomplished without the backing of President Putin. So what would a deal look like? Its basic features would consist of the following: A regional Grand Bargain involving the future of all nuclear programs (a nuclear-weapons-free zone); a non-aggression treaty among all states in the region backed by the UN Security Council; the demilitarization of all non-state unauthorized actors; and the withdrawal of foreign military forces from the region. In other words, an international partnership between the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and all the states of the Middle East to outlaw nuclear weapons and to guarantee the sovereignty of each state within the region.
With this Grand Bargain as a backdrop, an international conference over Syria (based on the principles agreed to at Geneva 1) would most likely achieve Russian and Chinese support. This would assure both Sunnis and Shiites that all peoples’ human rights would be protected as the new Syrian constitution and interim government took shape. In the future, the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts along with the Iranian nuclear negotiations (the P5+1) would become a cooperative international project and the setting for a reset of relations between all five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
At the core of this Grand Bargain lies the absence of hegemony in the Middle East, both nuclear and conventional. But even with Security Council backing for the agreement, war will still be a possibility. Each nation of the region must still remain vigilant against potential aggression. This is especially true of Israel. A situation where the Jewish state must retreat to the “suicide” armistice lines of 1949, especially under the circumstances of a regional nuclear-weapons-free zone, is unthinkable. It just won’t happen. So for the Grand Bargain to work, the international community must agree that the so-called two-state solution (an independent West Bank Palestinian state) be declared defunct. A brand new peace plan will be needed.
Of course, any fundamental reorganizing of the Middle east will be a long and difficult process. But it simply can’t be done if the world is split into two hostile camps. For the UN to exist in the near future, the cleavage in the Security Council must stop. A new international order must be created through partnership and the deep understanding of each nation’s security needs. This is true in Europe and East Asia as well as the Middle East. After six years in office, it is time for President Obama to earn his Nobel Peace Prize. Not having a Middle East strategy or policy is an awkward admission. The correct policy of the president should be peace within a total regional structure. Anything else will be perceived as merely a part of the problem and engender opposition. The only solution is a whole solution. But it needs an international framework, and it must be consistent with diplomatic and political relations within the region. Nothing else will work. At least, I’m convinced of that.