Syria – another sign that US needs to recalibrate Middle East policy

As the US backs into Syria and other Mideast crises, China is proactively and strategically engaging in the region. Its actions point out what America has to lose if it continues to hesitate in the Middle East.

Mladen Antonov/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (r.) in Moscow May 7. The two pledged to convene an international conference about Syria's civil war, and the US is considering arming Syrian rebels. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'As welcome as these steps are, they are in another sense vaguely discomfiting. This should have happened much, much sooner.'

Escalation of the Syrian civil war seems finally to be attracting more serious international attention. The United States and Russia have agreed to host an international summit on ending the war. Washington and other Western powers are meanwhile considering plans to arm the opposition. 

As welcome as these steps are, they are in another sense vaguely discomfiting. This should have happened much, much sooner. Delay has only made the task in Syria more complicated. Not only is the opposition more fragmented and radicalized, with jihadist elements more influential, the popular mood in the region is also decidedly against the US sending weapons to the rebels.

According to a new Pew Research poll released May 1, less than 33 percent of people in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories back the US and other Western countries arming the Syrian rebels. Most of those surveyed in neighboring countries fear the conflict will spill into the region. Among Washington’s European allies, the poll found, support for arming the rebels is also low.

Had the US been thinking more proactively about the region, it might have had a much greater chance of shoring up the opposition and helping to shape a democratic outcome before jihadist elements muddied the picture or the conflict threatened to engulf the region. As with the opposition movement in Libya, and before that, in Egypt, Syria has revealed a hesitant, reactive America.

American policy in the Middle East and Central Asia needs recalibrating, not only from one in which America is forced to act, but from one which relies too heavily on force. More than a decade of war-fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have exhausted the US military and sapped the Treasury. It has also distracted from diplomacy and development, resulting in missed opportunities and diminished influence.

One part of the globe where the US is thinking strategically is the Pacific, where it is engaged in a military and economic “pivot.” But it musn’t let that translate into neglect elsewhere.

Despite the homegrown attempts of Arab societies in recent years to shed corrupt and repressive regimes for democracy, the region has neither the structures nor conditions to build stable democracies and vibrant free economies on its own. It has no regional trade and development communities to prop up transitioning national economies or security institutions to counter Islamist extremism or sectarian flare-ups.

Nor do the national security forces cobbled together by departing US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan engender confidence. April was Iraq’s most violent month since 2008. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are deteriorating quickly.

In Syria, meanwhile, President Obama’s red line seems only to have delayed inevitable and necessary decisions by the United States, France, and Britain about whether to arm the rebels, impose a no-fly zone, or take out the regime’s air force capability. Israel’s recent airstrikes in Syria, reportedly to destroy Iranian missiles potentially bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon, reflect growing concern over arms shipments from Tehran to Damascus and growing evidence of participation in the conflict by Hezbollah and other Islamist extremists.

As the US backs into Syria and other Mideast crises, meanwhile, China is proactively and strategically engaging in the region. Its actions point out what America has to lose if it continues along its present course.   

In his new book, “The Dispensable Nation,” Vali Nasr, a senior adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke, special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan during most of Mr. Obama’s first term, eloquently argues that departing from the Middle East would put Washington at a significant disadvantage with Beijing.

“The Middle East remains the single most important region of the world – not because it is rich in energy, or fraught with instability and pregnant with security threats, but because it is where the great power rivalry with China will play out and where its outcome will be decided,” Mr. Nasr writes. “The various strands of our Middle East Policy – in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with regard to Iran and the Arab Spring – already intersect with our broader interests with regard to China.”

The US already faces a strategic divide with China – and to a lesser extent with Russia – over how to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and oust President Bashar al-Assad from Syria. While Beijing happily takes advantage of the security umbrella of US bases to pursue investment in the region, it has sidled up to the regimes in Syria and Iran politically in a play for influence.

As the US “pivots” toward Asia, Beijing is accelerating its presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. China enjoys a $23 billion trade surplus with Turkey, but offsets that with an influx of direct investment – and Chinese companies are setting up shop across the country. This week, China is hosting both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In just seven years, China will import half of Saudi Arabia’s daily crude oil output. Emblematic of its strategic ambitions, China has pledged $12 billion to develop Pakistan’s Gwadar Port – the same vital port facility Moscow coveted when it invaded Afghanistan 34 years ago. From military hardware to nuclear power plants to software production, Beijing is expanding its presence and influence across a region from which the US is rolling back.

Nations and regions are seldom set right by war alone. The successful democratization of fragile states in transition, stability in the global oil supply, and eradication of Islamist extremism require sustained diplomacy. As the US winds down a decade of war-fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than disengage, it needs to accelerate the painstaking work of developing regional trade agreements to offset long-simmering rivalries; promote economic liberalization and infrastructure development; and expand education and trade.

From Libya to Pakistan, the most volatile region in the world is undergoing its most significant transition since the end of the British Empire. It needs the kind of lasting, multi-dimensional engagement that only the US can provide.

Kurt Shillinger was a national political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and Africa correspondent for The Boston Globe. He conducted political research in Syria in the mid-2000s.

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