When peace enters quietly

Diplomacy takes off in the Middle East as the US role diminishes.

Saudi Press Agency via Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is received by Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in Doha, Qatar, Dec. 8.

Less than two months ago, the United States was forced to end its combat role in Afghanistan with a bang. Taliban forces suddenly took power Aug. 15 with scenes of Afghans clinging to fast-departing U.S. planes. On Thursday, the U.S. ended another overseas combat role, this time in Iraq. Only it was with a whimper, not a bang. A tweet from an Iraqi official announced a well-planned transition of some 2,500 American troops from fighting remnants of Islamic State to simply training and advising Iraqi forces.

The quiet step-down of U.S. involvement in Iraq reflects a possible new reality in the Middle East. The region has lately seen a flurry of trust-building diplomacy between longtime rivals, driven in part by the U.S. – long the region’s security umbrella – focusing more on China.

Troubles still remain – a war in Yemen, Lebanon near economic collapse, and Israel threatened by Iran – but many old contours of acrimony are shifting.

For the first time in nearly two years, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is traveling the region. His first stop, Oman, is most telling. The sultanate has played a mediating role in the Middle East between Arab states and Iran. But he is also reknitting ties in the Gulf after ending a long feud with Qatar earlier this year.

His travels came as another Arab Gulf state, the United Arab Emirates, sent a top security official to Iran to patch up strained ties. In November, UAE leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited another regional power, Turkey, the first such visit in nine years.

These pauses in enmity between Mideast states may not lead to a permanent peace. But leaders feel the pressure from restive youth, drought, and pandemic-struck economies. Radical groups like the Muslim Brotherhood are less powerful.

Iraq itself has found some civic unity based on a weariness with conflict and from protests in 2019 that helped revive its democracy. Like Oman, it is now a regional mediator and a seeker of peace. With little fanfare, Iraq let go of a role for U.S. combat forces. The small steps toward peace sometimes receive the least attention.

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