Conflict & Justice

Middle East is an expanding swamp of quicksand of mostly lose-lose choices for Obama

BEIRUT, Lebanon — It's been a tumultuous week across the Middle East.

Arriving last Saturday night in Lebanon, often the least stable country in the area, one would have thought that peace and harmony prevailed throughout the region.

Driving just before midnight down the Corniche, Beirut's seaside boulevard, was more like Times Square New Year's Eve than the capital of a small country where 50 miles away a bloody civil war was knocking at the gates.

As Lebanese look at the slaughter across the Syrian border, it's easy to think theirs is an "eat, drink, and be merry" approach "for tomorrow we may die." But the tiger has long been at their gates. Almost every Lebanese you ask about the future responds, "Who knows." They used to add, "Only God knows." You don't hear that much these days — they know even He doesn't know. Draw them out, and the best answer I got was, "we just live minute to minute — as we always have."

At a school dedication I attended, the resigned/acting ex-prime minister (two months on, the government has not found a replacement) spoke about the necessity of Lebanon avoiding the turmoil surrounding it. And nearly 25 years after the end of a 15-year long civil war, Lebanese of all factions, political and religious, are doing everything they can to avoid being sucked into the turmoil across its borders. Not so President Obama, who last week announced the US will begin supplying the Syrian rebels with military weapons.

Meanwhile, in Iran, Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate of the six candidates running to replace President Ahmadinejad, won an overwhelming victory in the Iranian elections. While it's undoubtedly true that Supreme Leader Khamenei calls the shots, the fact that his preferred choices got less than a quarter of the vote is certainly a sign that, regardless of Ahmadinejad's anti-Western belligerence, the Iranian population would prefer to see better relations between Iran and the US.

Rouhani, who avoided a run-off by getting more than 50 percent of the vote, indicated his interest in improved relations with the US, referring to the status quo as "an old wound, which must be healed."

The White House response was guardedly positive, but if things are going to improve between our two countries, it will require careful US diplomacy through third country back channels. Upfront public demands, setting out boundaries on their nuclear development, could foreclose any forward movement before it starts.

As the predominant power, the US should be taking the initial conciliatory steps; if they lead to a dialogue, Obama would have moved himself a step back from the red line of a war he doesn't want. If his overtures were rebuffed, at least we would have tried.

And, still meanwhile, in Turkey, the economically strongest and politically most advanced of all the Islamic countries, more than two weeks of protests seem to be winding down. While Prime Minister Erdogan, Turkey's democratically elected but authoritarian-style leader, backed off from his plan to build a shopping center in one of downtown Istanbul's last public parks, the likelihood is remote that he will moderate both his dictatorial manner and his Islamist tendencies, the underlying reason behind the country-wide demonstrations.

In Afghanistan, a ceremony held to formalize the transfer of the responsibility for overall security to the Afghans, a sign presumably meant to be positive though the fact that for security reasons the ceremony had been kept secret until the last minute said all one needed to know about Afghan security.

Just before the ceremony began, a bomb exploded near the Afghan Parliament building in Kabul killing three people. And in a press conference following the event, President Karzai announced that negotiations between the US and the Taliban, whom we have been fighting for over a decade, would begin shortly; a day later he denounced the possible peace talks. So as we pack up, our enemy wants to talk. But our Afghan friends don't. Who, one wonders, thinks they'll be negotiating from strength?

Less newsworthy perhaps because it's become so commonplace was a series of well-organized bombings aimed primarily at Iraq's majority Shiite population. More than 2,000 Iraqis have been killed in such violence since the beginning of April. Their Shiite government, in place courtesy of the US, allows Iranian overflights to provide arms for the US's enemy, Syria's President Assad.

The Taliban's spreading strength in Afghanistan coupled with Baghdad's obvious siding with Iran and Assad hardly stimulates optimism as Obama sidesteps his way into another military conflict in the Middle East.

US policy towards Syria seems less a well thought-out strategic plan than a knee-jerk reaction to military reversals by the rebels and domestic criticism, most recently from ex-President Clinton. Hezbollah's entrance into the war on Assad's side apparently is making the decisive difference in the battle to retake the strategically located town of Qusair. This followed hard on the heels of the Russian announcement of additional shipments of air-defense missiles.

Whether it was Clinton's jab or Hezbollah's action or a Cold War-style reaction to Russia, it's hard to believe the White House has asked itself serious questions about its Syrian venture. What's the end-game? What happens if, as is almost a certainty, the US's minimum arms shipments have little impact on the battlefield? Will we then ship in more lethal offensive armaments?

And if such an increase is matched by an up-step in Russian support and additional Shiite fighters from Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere, will the US impose a no-fly zone over parts of Syria? And if that proves ineffective, or if a US plane gets shot down? Or if the US substantially raises its military support, the Assad government collapses, its soldiers flee, and the Sunni rebels start massacring Alawite civilians, what then? Or when the victorious rebels start fighting among themselves, with the extremist Islamist forces beating "our" rebels, how will we react?

Presumably, the timing of the US military commitment was directly related to the proposed peace talks in Geneva between the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad and the rebel forces. Certainly, the recent military achievements of Assad's forces were aimed at strengthening his negotiating position in a Geneva conference originally scheduled for later this month but now delayed until August or even later. But when, or if, they finally take place, does Obama seriously believe that Assad will agree to step down?

One can also guess that Obama's military move, coming as it did just before his talks with Putin at the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland, was no doubt aimed at encouraging Putin to be more forthcoming. He wasn't. The G-8 statement, clearly designed to get Russia's sign-on, was a study in ambiguity. Did Obama expect otherwise?

Maybe, on reflection now that he's back in Moscow and seeing the hole Obama has dug for himself, Putin will graciously toss him a ladder, force Assad to step down, and work with the US to pick a moderate leader from the dozens of rebel factions fighting Assad's forces.

No. Putin will just sit on the sidelines as Obama weighs his lose-lose choices: escalate our initial, unsuccessful, military involvement; or cut our losses and back out in disgrace, leaving the waters further muddied.

Today's Middle East is a swamp of quicksand, a descent into an ever-wider Sunni-Shia conflict, with rare islands of hard ground scattered about: Lebanon still, Iran maybe.

It would be worth taking a diplomatic initiative with Iran’s newly elected government. And if we try and fail, we would be no worse off for the effort.

Senator McCain and ex-President Clinton have said that they believe we should try a military approach in Syria, and if it doesn't work, they both said, well, we would have at least tried. But failure from our military initiative in Syria will leave the US strategically weakened. And victory, without a substantial military commitment, is simply not in the cards.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.