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How to Eat an Elephant: A Road Map to Solving the Middle East Crisis

The military teaches the Navy Seals that the way to eat an elephant is actually easy: One bite at a time.

But when you are chewing the first bite, it is not only chewing that you should be doing. You are chewing and planning your second bite at the same time.

Let us see first the size of the elephant. Turkey and its Kurds. Iran with its Baloch and Arabs. The Arabs with their minorities. The Muslims with non-Muslims. Israel with the Palestinians. Civil war in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Political Islam. Terrorism. Radicalism. Iraq. Arab-Iranian conflict. Arab-Israeli conflict. Economic stagnation. Corruption. Oppression…and the list can take a few more. It is really an elephant.    

How could the next US administration deal with all this? Well, one bite at a time.

In fact, there are two optional approaches: Either to deal with the source of most of the immediate region’s troubles or to deal with those troubles themselves, one at a time. That is to say either try to reach an Arab-Iranian agreement of sorts or to deal separately with the problems of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, etc., etc.

Few months ago, in Washington and elsewhere, there has been a debate on this subject. Repeated attempts by US and European diplomats to try to open the clogged channel of an Arab-Iranian modus vivendi failed.

Then, there were efforts to reach a breakthrough in Yemen by the UN and the US and to reach a political solution in Syria by almost everyone, to no avail.

Therefore, both approaches, the retail and the wholesale, did not work. What will?

To answer this central question, we will have to first see why the previous attempts did not work. And the main reason that explains why is that the intermediators were totally separated from the issues they are dealing with.

In our personal daily lives and our normative way of thinking, we assume that an intermediator has to be colorless, odorless and tasteless-that is to say has “neutral” position between the two conflicting sides. But in international relations, an intermediator has to have leverages on both sides and has to be ready to use them if necessary to reach the objectives required. But above all, the two sides of the conflict have to have a clear perception that the intermediator can, and will, use his leverages if needed.

Therefore, US attempts to reach a solution in Syria could not have worked because Washington claimed the position of almost doing nothing to avoid being involved, then wanted to be involved diplomatically. An impossible equation.

But is not Russia involved now? Could it then intermediate? The answer is that Russia does not want to intermediate to reach any political solutions in Syria. It wants only to intermediate the terms of surrender of all Syrian opposition groups without exception and return time to the pre-2011 Syria. An impossible mission as well.

In international relations, the intermediator who wants to avoid a zero sum conclusion in the issues he will try to solve, has to have means of pressuring the conflicting parties and has to have a workable endgame in mind.

Therefore, the previous attempts, American and Russian, to solve Syria, for one example, were doomed to failure from the start.

Now, we have the Trump administration which will include people who know the Middle East very well. Yet, without a political decision to get involved, and without focusing the lime lights on means of pressure, credible demonstration of willingness to use those means, and a fair and acceptable plan to settle the dispute, there will be no successful intermediation neither between the Arabs and the Iranians nor on the bitter fruits of their conflict.

However, manifestation of capabilities and means of pressure should not be separated from a carefully preplanned project to handle the challenge of the Middle East. It is not a “general” manifestation of force. It is rather a tailored manifestation of force to fit specific steps decided beforehand.

To further explain this point, if we agree that it is important to trim Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, which is indeed the single most important factor causing all the instability we see, the “logic” behind solving any given regional crisis should include a dimension targeting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) presence in this crisis.

The reason why this important is that if the wound in any place in the Middle East is closed without cleaning it properly of regional polarization, sectarianism, terrorism and external intervention, it will soon burst in another problem, much as we saw in the case of the “defeat” of Al Qaeda in Iraq during the last decade to see ISIL emerge in the same place few years later.

This implies that manifestation of force must be incorporated into a plan to “clean the wound”. If regional intervention is pulled out, through blunt pressure and manifestation of force, it will be less difficult to handle the rest of the dimensions of the given crisis.

One important factor here is what we mentioned before in the case of the political balance of power in Iran. If the objective of the Iran nuclear deal was to change this balance of power in favor of the relatively moderate forces, we all know by now that the hardliners “digested” the deal, which was easy to digest anyway, and assimilated it into their continuous regional adventures.

So, if the Iran deal did not weaken the hardliners, the only way left to weaken them is to prove to ordinary Iranians in the street that the IRGC is a failure, a burden on their country and a paper tiger.

If most Iranians see that the IRGC is threatening the country, wasting its resources in failed adventures and moving from a defeat to another regionally, the domestic carpet would have been pulled from under the feet of the hardliners.

Therefore. A manifestation of force, or even the use of force, should not be decoupled from a comprehensive plan to settle the given crisis on long term bases all the while targeting general regional dimensions which actually play a role in that crisis as in other crises region-wide.

It is necessary to back any attempt to solve the Middle East with a visible readiness to use force and sufficient wisdom to make the use of force a very last resort. This necessity applies either the US intends to handle the regional crisis a bite at a time or wholesale. By wholesale we mean addressing the Iranian-Arab conflict.

If ever enough progress is achieved in solving the principle crises like Syria, Iraq and Yemen, this degree of progress should be used to test if the Arabs and the Iranian are ready to deal seriously with the problems between the two sides. If Syria, for example, is solved somehow, the momentum should be used to create the proper platform to get the Iranians and the Arabs to reach a regional deal, much like the Helsinki agreement during the times of the USSR, to pacify their region.

In other words, the last two years’ record proves that the two sides harbor hopes to decisively win the conflict and each has a zero-sum perception of their respective objectives. Therefore, pushing towards the “one-bite-at-a-time” approach should not mean solely focusing on that approach. The “wholesale” road should be left opened at all times, with enough flexibility to jump in it at any moment, if the regional weather allows.

Hopefully, a comprehensive deal will become more conceivable if the radicals on the two sides come out from their regional adventures with nothing but loss and humiliation.

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