Where is the Middle East heading?

Where is the Middle East heading?

The most immediate source of instability in the Middle East today is the civil turmoil raging in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These conflicts are the manifestation of social, economic and political dysfunction in the Arab world and are fueled by the rise of sectarianism and the associated geopolitical rivalry between Iran, Turkey and key Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. 

Enduring stability will require the region’s actors to take three overarching step: accept each other as Sunnis and Shiites; agree on rules and norms for solving their territorial and other disputes; and address the governance, rule of law and economic challenges that underlie the region’s turmoil.  Unfortunately, this is unlikely in the immediate future.

Major efforts to transform the region have fallen short in recent years.  Hopes that regime change in Baghdad would democratize and stabilize the Arab world -- and undermine the extremism and terrorism that produced the 9/11 attacks -- did not materialize.  Liberal institutions were consolidated neither in Iraq nor in the region. Instead of using their historic opportunity to pursue a national compact that all Iraqis could buy into, Iraq’s Shi’a leaders, backed by Iran, opted for revenge by marginalizing the Sunni Arab minority. Sunni Arab leaders consequently refused to participate in the political process and many embraced violence and extremism.

With the notable exception of Tunisia, the region missed another opportunity with the Arab Spring. In Syria, the initial youth-led, peaceful demonstrations, aimed at addressing the underlying social, economic and political problems of their country, turned violent in response to the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown. That regime’s use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons and mass starvation to subdue the population spiraled the country into sectarian civil conflict and produced circumstances congenial to extremists. Al Qaeda (which had been weakened amid the Anbar Awakening, progress in Sunni Arab political participation and the U.S. surge of 2007) returned with force in its new guise as the Islamic State.

The civil conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have been exacerbated by regional powers, which see opportunities to advance their standing and relative influence.  In Iraq, Iran has acquired the upper hand by supporting Shiite political parties and militias. In Syria, it has bolstered an unpopular and marginalized regime.  Hezbollah and other recruits from the Shiite world, with their own para-military groups, have been deployed to support Iranian efforts. 

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, meanwhile, with limited U.S support, have assisted the opposition. Ankara has supported groups oriented toward the Islamic brotherhood while Riyadh has backed other Sunni Islamists.  
Syria has now fragmented and become a safe haven for the Islamic State.  It is a magnet for recruits from all over the world, even as its refugees flood into Europe.

The instability in the Middle East is the most urgent security challenge facing the world and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Any path to regional stability must run through Syria.  Continued fighting can only benefit the extremists -- both Sunni and Shiite.    

The recent Vienna meeting on Syria is a start.  However, the gap between Syria’s warring factions, which were not present in Vienna, is enormous. They cannot work out a political agreement by themselves, especially in the absence of pressure by the regional states that sponsor them.  At the moment, however, the gap between regional powers -- particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia -- is vast. 
An understanding among the major world powers, particularly the United States and Russia, may be more feasible as a first step.  With agreement on a road map for a political transition, the United States, European powers, and Moscow could bring regional states along, and that in turn could prod the Syrian combatants toward a settlement.

The most realistic way to resolve the Syrian conflict is a settlement that includes five elements: 

·       A cease-fire and transitional government that is acceptable to all principal groups, excluding the terrorists.
·       A national compact outlining a power-sharing scheme in Syria, along with a roadmap for rebuilding institutions
·       An agreement on a con-federal or federal system that is decentralized enough to allow different communities – notably the Allawites and Kurds – to run their own affairs.
·       An internationally-funded reconstruction plan informed by the lessons of state and nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
·       A commitment by the new transitional government to fight terrorists with support from the international community.

A settlement in Syria would mitigate regional tensions, and could generate momentum for agreements in Iraq and Yemen.   

The region’s underlying social, economic, sectarian and political factors that are ultimately driving instability and conflict, however, will not dissipate in the near-term.  Stability will require that the region’s leaders find an inclusive, positive vision based on mutual acceptance and consensus, and rally their populations behind it.

And they will need to agree on a regional architecture based around an equilibrium of power among key states, acceptable circumstances for secondary powers and minorities, and rules of the game for cooperation.

Confidence building-measures will be necessary to avoiding conflict as this new order takes shape.  

The histories of two critical regions may, in broad strokes, point to lessons for the Middle East.  The Westphalian system in Europe, born out of the continent’s sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants, brought a new era of stability through an imperfect but enduring order of nation-states.  More recently, institutions like ASEAN helped transition Southeast Asia from the “Balkans of Asia” in the 1970s, into a dynamic economic region that is steadily building stable, democratic societies.

Whether regional leaders in the Middle East will transcend their own ambition and embrace a larger positive vision remains to be seen.  At present, prospects are poor and the situation may well get worse.  However, the potential for reform is not altogether absent in the region.  We have seen it in Tunisia, where secular and religious political leaders came together in the interest of realizing a larger vision for their country.  Fear of escalating violence, extreme polarization, and poor economic growth can provide the impetus for changes once thought impossible.  Helping facilitate such a future should be a core strategic mission of the international community.

*Zalmay Khalilzad is the former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.