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A Coming Arab Winter?

The Fatah-Hamas deal may presage a new Iranian approach to the Middle East.

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By LEE SMITH
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It can’t give many Americans much lasting pleasure that the Israeli prime minister humbled our commander in chief this week on his home turf. To be sure, a president who seems to relish provoking public confrontations with an ally may have had it coming, but in the end Netanyahu’s speech before Congress won’t satisfy too many Israelis either—or for that matter many other Middle Easterners who have come to depend on American stewardship. The fact that an Israeli leader makes the case for American exceptionalism and U.S. power better than Barack Obama is a signal that Washington has forsaken its traditional role in the Middle East at a dangerous time.

A Coming Arab Winter?

Jonathan Rashad

Netanyahu was only the first to state the obvious in public, but other U.S. allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, convinced that the Americans are living in a fantasy world, are also starting to strike out on their own. If no one knows yet what new architectures and anatomies the Arab Spring will engender, putative U.S. allies and genuine adversaries, states, and even non-state actors like the Muslim Brotherhood are scrambling for position.

Iranian aggression, and not the peace process, as Netanyahu was careful to remind his American audiences this past week, is still the key regional issue. With the administration turning on traditional American allies, some observers are starting to see similarities between Washington and Tehran, in one important respect. “If Obama says the status quo is unsustainable,” says Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “and won’t do anything to sustain it, then Washington, like Iran, is an anti-status quo power. Others have to take it upon themselves to defend the status quo.”

Because Riyadh no longer trusts the Americans to take on Iran, a Saudi initiative led by Prince Bandar, the Wall Street Journal reports, is putting together a large alliance, including Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Central Asian states, to stand against the Islamic Republic.

In the Arabic-speaking states, there’s also a proposed expansion of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to include one North African nation, Morocco, and another from the Levant, Jordan (which would gather all of the region’s hereditary rulers—sheikhs and kings and sultans and emirs—under one umbrella). The Arab press is awash with rumors that the GCC’s leading member, Saudi Arabia, has promised Rabat and Amman large influxes of cash so long as they resist Washington’s entreaties to reform—reform that, in the Saudi view, would pave the way for their own demise and eventually the fall of the House of Saud. 

In any case, this onetime regional organization has now become a de facto alliance of pro-U.S. states that no longer believes it can count on the Americans to advance their interests. The major Sunni Arab players outside the enlarged GCC would be Fatah, now reconciled with Hamas, and Egypt, formerly the central pillar of Washington’s Middle East policy, and now after thirty years once again up for grabs.

In a sense, the Arab Spring has also turned Syria into a wildcard. Up until now, Damascus was for Iran what Cairo was for the United States, the key to its Arab strategy. Not only does the alliance with Syria allow the Iranians to arm Hezbollah easily, but Damascus also gives Tehran an Arab face to confront the Sunni states and win points with the Arab masses. However, the continued Syrian uprising is taxing the Damascus regime’s regional prestige, as even Turkey and Qatar, as well as Doha’s satellite network Al Jazeera, have turned against the Syrian rulers. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah may continue to praise Bashar al-Assad’s resistance credentials and argue, along with Hillary Clinton, that the Syrian president is really a reformer at heart, but a death toll that is conservatively estimated at 1,100 and climbing has many around the region concluding the Syrian strongman is more interested in killing Arabs than in resisting Zionists.

The Iranians want to protect their investment in Syria, but at some point Tehran may come to feel that the Alawite regime’s sectarian cleansing of Sunnis is bad for business. The Obama administration has believed, not incorrectly, that turmoil in Syria might prove a setback to the Iranians—but that could happen only if Washington actually moved to tilt the regional balance against Assad. By passively observing the situation unfolding in Syria, the White House has given Tehran time to consider its options. Presumably, Tehran is watching the new Palestinian concord with great interest, and may be learning from its client there, Hamas.

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