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U.S. faces changing alliances and rifts in Middle East as it seeks to form coalition

August 29, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
Relationships in the Middle East have changed drastically since the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Now, as Secretary of State John Kerry attempts to bridge gaps between potential allies against the Islamic State, new tensions have arisen. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Hisham Melham of Al Arabiya News and Steven Simon of the Middle East Institute to lay out the new political landscape.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now to help us understand this new landscape of the Middle East is Steven Simon, a former senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs on the National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2012.  He’s now a senior fellow at the Middle East institute.  And Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya news channel.

Welcome to both of you.

Hisham, it’s a given.  The world has changed, right?  Help us first by laying out the camps, so to speak, that we face.

HISHAM MELHEM, Al Arabiya News: As we know, the uprisings that began three-and-a-half years ago unfortunately have morphed into civil wars, Yemen, Libya and, worst of all, Syria.

Syria is the prototype place where it’s a proxy war for some regional powers.  The camps, so to speak, are the regime in Damascus, which is Alawi core Islam.  Alawi are an offshoot of Shia Islam, supported mainly by Iran, which is the major regional Shiite power, as well as by Hezbollah — Hezbollah is working for — essentially serving Iranian interests there — and also supported by militias from Iraq.

So you have the Shia coalition fighting to save the regime in Damascus.  And in that sense, Iran and Hezbollah are more important for the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime than Moscow.

On the other hand, you have the majority Syrians, who — happens to be Sunnis in case — in state of revolt against the regime.  They are supported by the Sunni powers in the region, from Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others.

Also, they are attracting “volunteers” — quote, unquote — from…


HISHAM MELHEM: … from all over the Sunni world, from North Africa, from the Caucasus, from Central Asia, as well as from Europe and the United States.

This is like the — in the 20th century, the prototype civil war was Spain…


HISHAM MELHEM: … which — in which everybody in Europe fought each other on Spanish soil and attracted volunteers from all over the world, including 3,000 Americans.  Syria essentially is our own version of the Spanish Civil War, as ugly as the Spanish Civil War.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Steven Simon, that’s complicated enough.  Do you see it — you see it playing out all over the place, Syria as a focal point, but elsewhere?

STEVEN SIMON, Middle East Institute: Yes.

Well, Syria has become a cockpit for the — for some of these rivalries that Hisham was just talking about.  But the camps can be viewed likewise as consisting of Iran and Saudi Arabia, sort of at the highest level, I guess, and then, within the Sunnis, you have Qatar and Turkey arrayed against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and even Egypt.

And then you have got a tacit alliance between Israel and the conservative Gulf monarchies directed against Iran and boosting Egypt.  So you have all this overlaid on a Sunni and Shia sectarian conflict that’s been largely mobilized by these bigger geopolitical tensions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are these shifting, still, as we sit here, or are these pretty well now set at this point?

STEVEN SIMON: That’s a good question.  I think they have pretty much consolidated.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think?

HISHAM MELHEM: I think so.

I think the Sunni-Shia conflict, which is, by the way, new.  It’s not, as people say, it’s 1,400 years ago.  It’s started 1,400 years, but it’s really new.  This is the first time in my lifetime, in modern Arab or Middle Eastern history where you have — where you can talk about one front stretching from Basra, the Gulf, to Beirut, on the Mediterranean, where you have Sunni-Shia bloodletting.

At the same time, there is a new Sunni shift and divisions.  And you have the — what you have seen recently, which is really breathtaking, UAE,  a small country, but a very assertive country in the Gulf, flying its own Mirage French jets to Egypt to launch an airstrike against the Islamists in Libya.

JEFFREY BROWN: Without telling the U.S.

HISHAM MELHEM: The United States knew about it, and they told them not to use American weapons.  That’s why they used the Mirages.


HISHAM MELHEM: So you have the camp of Egypt.  That’s another Sunni camp.  Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE against the Islamists.

On the other hand, you have Qatar, Turkey and Sudan supporting the Libyan Islamists in Libya and other places.  So here you have the two Sunni camps under this huge Shia-Sunni rivalry.  And, by the way, because of — the sectarian rivalry has been between the Saudis and their supporters and Iranians and their supporters, is extremely combustible because sectarianism is a very effective tool of mobilization because you can frame the issue in existential terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so when we see the president speaking yesterday, and Secretary Kerry going, how does all this impact U.S. policy?  That’s the big question.  Specifically, how does it impact Kerry’s ability to form a coalition against the Islamic State?

STEVEN SIMON: It complicates it hugely.

The United States is trying to essentially thread a needle between states that are fundamentally opposed to Assad and states that, well, think that he’s actually a good — a good stabilizing force.

Now, in terms of European partners to which he’s appealed, there’s very little that they can contribute as a practical matter, militarily, for example.  They can make some contributions, but not really — not really for the use of force.

Otherwise, you know, he’s dealing with countries that disagree on the role of the actual government in Baghdad, in terms of spurring the revolt in Iraq that the United States is now trying to tamp down.  And the administration has also got to ponder the consequences of trying to cut off ISIS’ safe haven in Syria and attack targets there, because the farther west they go, the more likely they are going to be seen as Assad’s air force and intervening in the Syrian civil war at long last, but on the side of the regime, which will anger some of its very close allies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, yes.  Well, I mean, you — Hisham, you have argued when we have had these discussions before for a more forceful U.S. role.

HISHAM MELHEM: Nothing significant is going to happen in the Middle East today without clear-cut, decisive American leadership role.

JEFFREY BROWN: But would what that — does that entail now, given the kind of — the camps we have talked about?


JEFFREY BROWN: Picking one?

HISHAM MELHEM: Yes, they have to pick one.


HISHAM MELHEM: You have to pick one.

We picked one during the — in civil wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan.  All of these are — in many ways and shapes and forms are civil wars.  We have to have American leadership here.

I’m not asking for American boots on the ground, but leadership can be knocking from heads, preventing Qatar from helping Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in Syria, work on a coalition that includes the like-minded states or strategic partners, from the Turks, to the Saudis, to the UAE, to others, and to Jordan.

And take a decisive role.  The problem — what we’re talking about here is lack of American leadership.  Why would UAE, a city state, go to Africa, a different continent, and do what they did last week if they were not convinced that there is no American leadership?  They tell you, we don’t trust the White House.  We don’t think that the president is assertive enough, whether he dithered too long about Syria, he left Iraq without leaving a residual force, he didn’t get rid of Maliki early on, he didn’t push the Iranian hard enough in Syria and other places.  Therefore, we’re picking up these responsibilities on our own.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we just have about 30 seconds.  But do you see that strong a role for the U.S., the ability to do it?

STEVEN SIMON: I think you have to accept the fact that there’s a serious difference of view on how to deal with some of these major problems, both with respect to Islamism in the Middle East and the conflict in Syria, differences of view between the United States and its allies that may not be reconcilable.

And if they’re not, then the U.S. and its allies are going to be proceeding on different paths.  When that happens, some will say, well, it’s lack of leadership.  Others will say, sometimes you can’t always get what you want.


On that, Steven Simon, Hisham Melhem, thank you both very much.