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Whose Middle East
Published in Ahram Online on 19 - 01 - 2021

The Middle East Donald Trump inherited from his predecessors in January 2017 was a place in tatters. The Islamic State (IS) was in control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria. Civil wars raged in Yemen and Libya. Iran and Turkey, each dreaming of hegemonising the Arab world, meddled in conflicts all across it. And Israel, feeling no restraint, went on oppressing Palestinians and consolidating its control over the West Bank. But instead of resuming Obama's efforts to defeat IS or reversing the regional dynamic, the Trump administration pursued a series of short-sighted, piecemeal policies. Rather than playing a leadership role in reducing and resolving them, Washington became an active participant in many tensions and conflicts, making them even more intense.
In Iraq and Syria IS may now be dismantled, but deep sectarian tensions remain and extremist forces continue to pose dangers. Wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya have become internationalised with multiple regional and global actors lining up on opposite sides of each conflict. Though weakened by coronavirus and US sanctions and embittered by Washington's withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran continues to wreck regional havoc. Turkey and its ally, Qatar , have come play an increasingly dangerous role in supporting politicised Sunni groups especially, but not exclusively, in Syria, Palestine and Libya, while regional anti-Iran alliances are forming between Israel and the Sunni states.
Emboldened by the carte blanche that the Trump administration gave it, Israel has felt free to strike Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria, Lebanon and even within Iran. It has also aggressively expanded its colonial presence in the West Bank, making the once dreamed-of Palestinian State almost impossible to imagine. And, dependent on the whims of the occupier and divided between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority , Palestinian leadership has been unable to project a liberation strategy. As we enter the century's third decade we are thus still paying the prices of Bush's devastating Iraq war and the inability of the Obama and Trump Administrations to undo the damage. This is compounded by the impact of the pandemic on the people of the Middle East and the inability of weaker states to deal with it.
As the incoming Biden administration begins to map out its approach to the region, it should be clear that it is simply not possible to return to the status quo ante, resurrecting the nuclear deal or restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. New realities must be recognised and the lessons of past failures taken into account. Washington retains significant strengths and resources but not its dominant leadership role of two decades ago, and whatever its approach it is no longer possible deal with issues piecemeal. All of the region's players are engaged, in varying combinations of ways, in each of the region's upheavals. What is happening across the Middle East may not be of the magnitude of the two wars that ravaged Europe in the last century, but it is time we addressed it as the equivalent of a world war.
If the US were to play any constructive role, it would ideally begin by building a broad international effort laying the groundwork for a comprehensive resolution to the crises tearing the Middle East apart. The immediate goal would be to convene an all-party international peace conference under the auspices of the United Nations. The main item on that conference's agenda would be the creation of a regional framework – like the OSCE – to provide all states with a platform for dialogue to discuss regional security guarantees and commitments to non-intervention and non-aggression. It would also lay the groundwork for regional trade and investment to advance greater economic integration and prosperity.
Such an international conference would necessarily divide into working groups in which the relevant participants addressed issues of concern. For example, there would be focused discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and the role played by sectarian religious extremism.
Such an approach is difficult, and will no doubt be quickly rejected by hardliners in some countries. But it holds clear advantages over the alternatives. Since each of these conflicts involves competing regional players, addressing them piecemeal as if they were products of local unrest can only lead to a dead end. A comprehensive approach by the P5+1 countries would make far better use of their combined strength and influence, and promoting a compelling vision of a peaceful Middle East that shows people the possibilities of a promising future may be what inspires the region's leaders and opinion shapers to stop current downward spiral. What our polling tells us is that the peoples of Middle East want regional unity and investment in a future that can bring peace and prosperity, stable employment, education, health care and a better future for their children. It is time we started listening.

The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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