Diplomatic oil on Middle East's trouble waters

The region is in unprecedented turmoil, from Islamic State to Libya’s civil war, but almost as unprecedented are the attempts to negotiate the many conflicts.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (L) and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 23, where the three met to discuss Syria.

In the view of American diplomats, the Middle East is experiencing unprecedented instability. Armed conflict has split apart Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Sunni-Shiite tensions are running high inside Iraq and Lebanon and especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Dozens of nations have joined the fight against Islamic State. And Israeli-Palestinian violence has flared anew in the form of random stabbings.

What may also be unprecedented in the region, however, is the number of negotiations to calm or eliminate these trouble spots. Talks to find a political solution in Syria are due in mid-December. In Yemen’s war, preliminary talks are under way between the warring parties with the help of the United Nations and Oman.

In Libya, neighboring countries are meeting with a special UN envoy to find new ways to persuade the two main Libyan factions to accept a plan for national unity. The United States, meanwhile, still mediates any new dangerous differences between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

These attempts at peacemaking don’t receive as much attention as the violence, refugees, and other effects of the conflicts. Yet this high level of diplomacy is a telling sign of a desire to alter the course of the Middle East away from solving its many problems by force. The region also has a new model for a negotiated settlement of a difficult issue: the deal in July to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

While the UN and US play a big role, the region has a few countries able to act as mediators. Oman, with its distinctive brand of peaceful Islam, is especially suited to talk to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco have also relied on their own traditions to influence events toward a resolution.

The most difficult negotiations are over Syria. Iran and Russia, the main backers of President Bashar al-Assad, will need to be persuaded that a military solution is impossible. They need to allow a transitional government to take over. The US has been assembling a range of Syrian opposition leaders to participate in the talks expected to take place in New York.

In October, the Middle East received a strong message about the importance of diplomacy from the Nobel Committee when the 2015 Peace Prize was given to the National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia. Four nongovernmental groups have been a critical force to mediate differences and quell violence as Tunisia struggles to build a democracy.

One of the recipients of the prize, Hussein Abassi, told Reuters: “This prize is a message for our region to put down arms and sit and talk at the negotiation table.”

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