The Middle East: A Region in Chaos?
Last December, the Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace co-sponsored an event on turmoil across the Middle East with four experienced analysts and practitioners. We agreed to gather again a half-year later to review our observations and conclusions. Six months later, our veteran analysts reconvened to address these and related issues in a region whose volatility shows no signs of abating.
The Middle East: A Region in Chaos?
Last December, the Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace co-sponsored an event on turmoil across the Middle East with four experienced analysts and practitioners. We agreed to gather again a half-year later to review our observations and conclusions.
Six months later, a scan of the landscape reveals many changes: a new phase in the ongoing war in Syria; recent elections in Iraq, Tunisia, and Lebanon; and U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. At the same time, we see a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process – and yet, the possibility of a new peace initiative from the Trump administration; the continuing war in Yemen; a continuing rift within the GCC; and potential for a serious Israeli-Iranian conflict in Syria.
Our veteran analysts reconvened to address these and related issues in a region whose volatility shows no signs of abating.
“[One] trend line is the decline in significance of oil from the Middle East. This isn’t just a comment on price. Many countries, including ours, have much more diverse energy portfolios and can grow our own in many respects.”
“[Another] trend line is – this relates to my last employer – the incredible shrinking of the United States Congress’s influence. The last authorization to use military force that still applies in the Middle East was the 2011 AUMF that really was focused, for those of us who voted for it, on Afghanistan and those who attacked us on 9/11.”
"You can quickly point to some changes -- the moving of the embassy in Jerusalem and pulling out of the nuclear deal -- as some discontinuities. But, I wonder, if we could pull back a bit further and talk about overall U.S. policy towards the Middle East… In the current Trump administration, has there been more continuity or discontinuity?”
"The Iraqis have claimed that ISIS has been defeated. There is still fighting going on in Syria against ISIS, but they are up against the ropes. What happens now to these transnational actors? What happens to ISIS? What does it transform into? What happens to the foreign fighters, when they return home?
Aaron David Miller
“Three key Arab states that have dominated Middle Eastern politics for decades are, in my judgement, offline: Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Burdened with their own internal disputes and problems, they seem less willing and/or able to project their power in the region in the way that they have [for] decades."
“Empty spaces where there is no governance or bad governance create extraordinary opportunity for transnational actors – Al-Qaeda for sure, remnants of the Islamic State, and other transnational jihadis – to delegitimize fledgling polities who are trying to regroup after the Arab Spring, [and] to plan and to operate terror attacks.”
“I met Mr. Kushner for the first time, and I said to him, ‘I wish my father-in-law had as much confidence in me as your father-in-law has in you, because he’s given you mission impossible and mission improbable.'"
“We are stuck in a region that we cannot transform and we cannot extricate ourselves from. That’s a reality. That would have been true for this president [and] that would have been true for a democratic president. How do you navigate a course between no transformation and no extrication? We haven’t found that balance.”
“Diplomatically, Iran is on the offensive, and that is, I think, a striking headline. Zarif continues to tour the world as he has in the aftermath of the Trump decision to withdraw from the deal. I think this will continue through the UN General Assembly in September. They’re trying to keep the five other major powers – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China – on board.”
“The revolution took a lot of people by surprise in 1979, but we saw it coming over 14 months. If you look at the last 14 months, Iran has gone through a presidential election in that period…The winner in a four way contest won 57%. So I think, even if you don’t like the regime, even if you want to see change, that we all have to be a little realistic about what’s going to happen. Even though I think the public is despondent, very unhappy about what’s happening inside Iran, I say 'stay tuned,' but I don’t think we’re at the precipice yet.”
“[For the Trump administration], the goal is stability in the region, whether it’s support for President el-Sisi in Egypt [or] the fact that it is kind of an unspoken given that they are going to allow Bashar al-Assad to stay until the next presidential election in Damascus, which is 2021.”
“These transitions take a long time, and we saw people who were genuine, who had the momentum, and they had the numbers, but they didn’t have the resources, the political maturity, the parties, to create alternatives. And so, I am a great believer that the Arab Spring was the beginning – and it’s going to take a hell of a long time to get there.”
“The hallmark of Saudi national security policy under King Salman and his son Mohammed bin Salman... for the last three years has been recklessness, unpredictability, impulsiveness – a capriciousness that is very different than anything we’ve seen in Saudi Arabian foreign policy before.”
“I think if we look at the last six months, there has been a bit of a turn here. I’d call it a bit of a retrenchment. I think Saudi Arabian foreign policy is trying to return to a more risk-averse, more normal, and more in the traditional Saudi Arab arena.”
“If you scratch the surface a little bit, one thing that’s really interesting is that the Saudis just don’t listen to the Trump administration.”
“Women driving? This is a huge deal. This is a big, big deal. This is going to change the nature of Saudi society in ways that no one understands today, and Mohammed bin Salman deserves a lot of credit for it.”
“The last six months in Syria have been the most dangerous phase of the now-seven-year-plus conflict to date. We’ve seen erupting fault lines all across the country: We’ve seen conflict between Turkey and the Kurds… We’ve seen the U.S. and Russia directly going at in in eastern Syria... And maybe most dangerously, the increasing escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria.”
“We are seeing continuing spillover into Syria’s neighbors, and I would put the protests in Jordan in that category… It’s inability to manage the Syrian refugees that are there – about 670,000 – as well as longstanding governance issues and an economy that is barely limping along…We’re starting to see the real impact over the many years of the conflict in Syria, which has essentially stunted any trade, any sort of possibility for economic growth.”
“One key, consistent objective that the Obama administration had in Syria was the counter-ISIS mission, and I think President Trump’s announcement to pull the troops…is going to have an enormous impact on the post-ISIS stabilization mission.”
Aaron David Miller
Journalist and author/editor of eight books, and contributing writer for The New Yorker
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more