In his prescient book World Order, Henry Kissinger raises questions about the importance of reconstructing a world order for a contemporary world whose regions have become pronouncedly distinct and in many ways vying to amend or reduce to insignificance the Westphalian system that heretofore underpinned the international state system. He posits that a required coherent strategy should establish a concept of order within the various regions, and to relate these regional orders to one another, bearing in mind that these goals are not necessarily identical or self-reconciling. He asserts the paramount role of United States in this quest as resting on pairing the celebration of America’s universal principles and exceptional nature with recognizing the reality of other regions’ histories and cultures.
This pragmatic approach to foreign policy takes into account the difficult task of vindicating a common system whose regional components share divergent cultures, histories, and traditional theories of order. Yet, he bases the success of reconstructing such a world order on the ability of the system to reconcile on the individual and leadership levels freedom with order within regions balancing legitimacy and power. As such, the common order needs to be cultivated and not imposed.
Nowhere reconstructing such a system is more complex than in the Middle East. The Middle East has no regional order. Its tenuous past order was shattered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which underscored the limits of U.S. power. The inability of the U.S. to build a new regional order only widened the gap of the region’s divergent cultures, peoples, states, sects, concerns, ambitions and outlooks. At the heart of this region is an Arab Sunni world battered by lack of freedom, legitimacy, education and opportunity. It is a world tumbling forward from one crisis to the next since the sacking of Baghdad as the capital of the Arab Abbasid dynasty by the Mongols in 1258.
True, the West (Great Britain and France) had a negative colonial impact on the culture of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I; nevertheless, Arab leaderships and politics championed hopes of revival in the name of illusionary ideals and slogans, which only served to protect the survival of Arab regimes. The universal values of Arab nationalism, which marked the initial stages of Arab politics, were superseded by Leninist and fascist-inspired nationalist principles. The Ba’th party (and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party) demonstrated those principles by imposing a totalitarian order in the capitals of high Arab civilizations, Damascus and Baghdad. Coterminous to this totalitarian order, a conservative order emerged in the Arab Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia, which ruled, absent a magna carta, under the twin banner of the Saudi tribe and fundamentalist Wahhabi-Salafist Islam. Eventually, the mask of Arab solidarity fell off and the abuse of power was revealed despite the false claims of protecting the Fatherland from Zionist aggression.
Islam, as the panacea to Arab Muslim political and social stultification, emerged as the clarion call for Islamists. Nevertheless, Islamism, as a political ideology geared to regenerate Muslim society, embraced and justified violence against those who lived in jahiliyah, a concept that transformed the pre-Islamic society in the Arabian Peninsula into a condition that could exist anywhere and at any time where the Islamist ideal had not been actualized. Arab society fell between the hammer of Arab tyrannical rule and the anvil of Islamism’s ruthless protest. Meanwhile, Salafism, as an authentic way of life and ideological means to bring back the glory and pristine state of Islam, evolved into a global religious movement, justifying religious violence in the name of the saved, victorious sect of Islam. Psychological barriers were created to seclude Salafists from non-Salafists, turning them into the infidel others who deserve unrequited death by Salafi-jihadis.
Rebelling against the abuse of power, Arab youth took the street, but little they knew about the resilience of Arab rulers who fine-tuned their machinery of repression. Before long, socio-political grievances stoked simmering sectarian impulses, sinking the Middle East to a new low. Syria has become the playground for settling political, sectarian and regional scores. Significantly, Salafi-jihadi organizations forcefully entered the fray, led by ISIS (lastly branded as the Islamic State) and al-Nusra Front (recently branded Jabhat Fath al-Sham). ISIS established what it called the long awaited Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and called on its Muslim supporters to make the obligatory migration to the Caliphate.
In response, the U.S. organized an international coalition to fight ISIS, which has inadvertently commingled with attempts by international and regional actors to shape the new regional order, further deepening geopolitical and sectarian fault lines.
Paradoxically, mass murder, unspeakable atrocities and forced displacement inured public discourse. The painful truths that many Arab intellectuals tried to conceal in Fouad Ajami’s “The Dream Palace of the Arabs” turned into public outbidding wars of brutality. This is the Middle East reality into which the United States finds itself.
It’s hardly possible that any major U.S. policy would succeed where no freedom, legitimacy or order exist in the Middle East. Washington needs to more or less cooperate with regional and international powers, especially Russia, to manage the Middle East chronic and overlapping conflicts. Only in this way can Washington stem Iranian regional projection of power and reduce to a minimum the scourge of terrorism. In fact, American cooperation with Russia in Syria is more vital than that with American allies and friends, if only because they are beset by deep internal and external problems.
Egypt, the most populous Arab country that had set the tone of Arab politics, is in the throes of an economic and security crisis. Notwithstanding the intelligence and military support Cairo receives from Washington and Jerusalem, Cairo has barely made a dent in the shield of ISIS affiliates in Sinai. Nor has Cairo succeeded in ensuring security and co-existence among its nationals, all at the expense of declining foreign direct investment and tourism.
Turkey’s “Strategic Depth Doctrine,” which aspired to transform the country from a central power to a global power by partly achieving “zero problems” with its neighbors, has catastrophically collapsed. Notwithstanding a governance problem thanks in large measure to President Recep Tayyip Erdoghan’s autocratic and nationalist-Islamist policies, Ankara is intensely preoccupied with both its longstanding Kurdish issue within Turkey and recently in Syria, as well as with Salafi-jihadism, which has seeped into some segments of Turkish society.
Israel, which has achieved miraculous technological advances and resourcefully strengthened its economy, is still consumed by the Palestinian issue and hemmed in by tenuous or hostile relationships with its neighbors.
Saudi Arabia, which has embraced an assertive foreign policy led by a shoe-in brash young prince, has experienced more unsettled open-ended conflicts, especially in Yemen, and serious setbacks, especially with Qatar. Moreover, the Kingdom is clearly pursuing a regional policy not only meant to counteract Iran’s projection of power, but also to forcibly prevent a potential new Arab rebellion. No less significant, the Kingdom remains the promoter of the fundamentalist Salafi-Wahhabi version of Islam throughout the world.
Obviously, Kissinger’s variables for reconstructing a regional order as part of a world order are missing in the Middle East. Hence, cooperation with Russia and potentially with China is necessary to prevent further chaos in the Middle East. To be sure, Russia has played a vital role in Syria, not only making Moscow’s participation in any negotiated settlement indispensable, but also leading the way in trying to broker and set up cease fire agreements and de-escalating conflict zones, respectively. Apparently, Moscow has had a better reading of the political map of the Middle East in general and Syria in particular.
Russia has sustained the Astana talks with Turkey and Iran, whereupon the parties have more or less deescalated the fighting in four conflict zones in Syria. Next, Russia has concluded an agreement with Jordan and United States to deescalate the conflict in South-West Syria. Russia has also concluded a similar agreement with Egypt regarding Ghuta and Homs countryside. At the same time, it has not yet made any arrangement over Idlib, where al-Qaeda affiliates predominate. Russia may be leaving the door open to another agreement with United States involving the defeat of al-Qaeda affiliates there. Reports abound in Lebanon and Syria that Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy forces are not happy with Russian step-by-step approach in Syria, which limited their presence in de-escalating conflict zones and kept their militants far from Jordan and Golan’s borders.
Russia would not have concluded these agreements had it not been for the vulnerable acquiescence of regional actors. Herein, United States has an opportunity to coopt Russian policies as part of an international plan, whereby both countries could draw the red lines with which the regional countries could live. No doubt, it is a herculean task involving addressing a) the future of territories freed from ISIS, b) Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and the countervailing Turkish concerns over the implications of these aspirations for its own Kurdish population, d) protection of Israel and Jordan’s borders from Iranian encroachment, and e) the defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda’s affiliates.
Simultaneously, Washington and Moscow would discuss the future of the Syrian state as part of a UN-led effort. Conversely, barring cooperation, Russia would be forced to improve its military relationship with Iran and its proxies so that Moscow could protect its interest in the Middle East in general and Syria in particular without deepening Russian military involvement in Damascus. This may entail providing Iran with sophisticated weapons, especially game-changing missiles. For example, in September 2010 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree banning the sale of weapons, including S-300 air defense systems, to Iran (and Syria) in compliance with United Nations sanctions against the Middle Eastern country. Once sanctions were lifted and despite Israeli concerns, Russia was swift in supplying Iran with the S-300 missiles the minute it became militarily involved in Syria.
This is not to say that Washington should acquiesce to Moscow’s meddling in United States’s internal affairs, including the country’s presidential elections. It means Washington needs to compartmentalize its relationship with Russia with the objective of reducing the scourge of terrorism and instability in the Middle East, without deepening Washington’s capricious military involvement there. In other words, Kissinger’s words ring so true. Washington cannot on its own build a regional order in the Middle East as part of a world order, partly because most states in the region lack freedom, legitimacy and order, and partly because it is difficult to reconcile America’s exceptional nature with the current harsh realities of the Middle East.
*Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon; Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East; Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism; Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism; and most recently The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities. He tweets at @robertgrabil.