Last week, I read an article I enjoyed by the American writer Thomas Friedman, about which Middle East the next American president will encounter. Before that, an Arab friend and scholar of international affairs in the United States gave me his opinion on my last article for Asharq al-Awsat on the legacy of Henry Kissinger in the region. He linked my article to his concern about the current administration’s complete retreat from the Middle East, and its interest in other areas of the world, most notably China. Whether or not one agrees with all of Friedman’s premises, there are some truths that Friedman points out in his article that I argue are indisputable. First, everything relating to the Palestine question; and second, that the Sunni-Shiite conflict unfortunately overwhelmed the Syrian Revolution — a peaceful, popular uprising launched by a people ground down over four decades by the scourge of corruption, nepotism and a police state.
In regards to the Palestine problem, I contend that Friedman hits the mark in his approach, which ultimately arrives at the “end of the two-state solution,” although one may choose not to blame all those whom he blamed equally. True, under the present circumstances, whoever occupies the White House as of next January must deal with a de facto occupation of all Palestinian land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. As for the architects of this situation, according to Friedman they are:
1. Groups of expansionist settlers determined to extend settlement into the West Bank in the face of all those who oppose them.
2. Wealthy American Jews who use their influence to protect Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from any negative position that Congress takes.
3. Benjamin Netanyahu himself, with his lust for power at the expense of political settlements.
4. Hamas, who Friedman accuses of provoking fear in every Israeli — moderate or radical — with its rockets and tunnels in Gaza. For what might happen if Hamas assumes control of the West Bank?
5. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for dismissing a statesman like Salam Fayyad who fought corruption, and believed in institutions rather than betting on United Nations resolutions.
As for the Sunni-Shiite conflict, Friedman thinks that in the near-term Washington will confront a “no-state” in Syria, a “non-state” called Daesh and a “rogue state” in Iran.* In all three cases Friedman hits the mark with his observations, as well as his view that Russia’s boldness in sowing destruction in Syria is nothing but a real war that Russia is waging on Europe, by opening the flood gates to refugees from the areas that Vladimir Putin plans to clear out.
Here, allow me to add my own opinion.
The “no-state” in Syria is a settled matter, regardless of local movements, because the political and military decisions in Syria are today made in Moscow and Tehran, not the presidential palace in Damascus. Bashar Assad has become an agent of bankruptcy, and a means of extortion and sectarian provocation — nothing more. The Obama administration is eager to endorse the imaginary role that both Moscow and Tehran are playing in the lie about “fighting Daesh,” and [the role] Secretary of State John Kerry is undertaking to spread this news without batting an eye.
What the Obama administration does not want to accept — something Friedman notices — is the existence of vital, reciprocal interests between Daesh and Iran. One side benefits from the extremism of the other, using it as a pretext to convince its patrons that this is the natural, self-evident — if not necessary — justification for its own extreme political line.
Indeed, in the minds of Sunnis — particularly Arab Sunnis — serious confrontation with Daesh has become impossible to justify while the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is running wild throughout the Arab world, and its leaders are boasting that they control four Arab capitals — Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana'a — through their proxies. But why are we going far off into speculation? Let’s take two examples: Bashar Assad and Qasem Soleimani’s abandonment of Raqqa and the Dawa Party in Baghdad, respectively, essentially hand delivering the city of Mosul to Daesh.
What need does a sectarian regime like Assad’s, which established the infrastructure of an Alawite state along the coast decades ago — even before Bashar Assad inherited power — and was an incubator for Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, during the three decades that it controlled Lebanon, have for distant Sunni lands like Raqqa and al-Hasakah? Why should this regime care about the Tayy, al-Jabor, al-Aqidat, al-Shaitat and other tribes along the Euphrates and in the Arabian Peninsula? And why should this regime intervene by resolving its dispute with a Kurdish entity it has always dealt with on the basis of mutual contempt and intolerance? Is it not more advantageous for Assad to cooperate with Iran to create sectarian militias that support the special forces, the Syrian National Defense Forces and other loyal, elitist organizations — past and present — for when the moment of truth arrives, and the lies of secularism, progressivism, unity and socialism end?
As for Iraq, the amount of hatred and the desire for revenge against the Baath Party — destroyed under the bayonets of the American Occupation — that was behind all the trials concerning Saddam Hussein and his men, was well known. These were political trials that reeked of ethnic and sectarian retaliation for a bitter past, instead of paving the way for an alternative, liberal and tolerant Iraq.
Even when al-Qaida exploited Sunni feelings of injustice and marginalization, the Anbar tribes nevertheless rejected extremism, endured the wounds opened by Nouri al-Malaki, and bravely launched the “Sunni Awakening.” However, instead of profiting from this and being respected in an appropriate, well-deserved manner, their marginalization continued, escalating to the point of prosecution and persecution. Thus, through a mixture of repeated subjugation and malevolence from regional and non-regional intelligence organizations, Daesh was born. Its members escaped from Abu Ghraib to Syria, and Mosul fell. And now western Sunni Iraq is threatened by the calamitous evacuation of millions, on the scale of Syria, if the Mosul dam gives way.
Obama’s Washington says that it does not want to drown in the mire of the Middle East. Perhaps it has deluded itself into thinking this is possible without losses. However, it seems they have forgotten the expression, “it takes two to tango.” It is clear that Putin is either not a good dancer, or he just does not like to dance. The same goes for the decision makers in Tehran.
*Editor’s Note: Each of these terms is defined in Friedman’s original article for the New York Times. Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.