Edition 6 Volume 2 - February 12, 2024

Is there a positive domino effect?

I don’t know about anything positive coming out of the invasion of Iraq - an interview with  Osama Al-Sharif

I don’t know about anything positive coming out of the invasion of Iraq.

The wrong domino effect -   Akram Baker

To claim that Libya, Iran, and Syria have suddenly become open regarding their alleged weapons of mass destruction programs because they fear American military action a la Iraq is ridiculous.

Remaking the Middle East: A European perspective -   Alain Dieckhoff

If a regime's only option is its demise, it is unlikely to comply with the demands of the international community.

Will Saddam's removal change things? -   Max Singer

Saddam was a demonstration that the US and its goals could be safely defied.

I don’t know about anything positive coming out of the invasion of Iraq
an interview with Osama Al-Sharif

BI: Do you see a positive domino effect looking at what is happening in Libya, Syria, and Iran?

Al-Sharif: I would underline the word positive because this is a process that is going on. You can look at it from one point of view which is disarmament. This is definitely not from the point of view of stability and of finding solutions to the region’s problems.

BI: Do you believe that the US military intervention in Iraq directly led to the change in positions taken by the aforementioned countries?

Al-Sharif: That is definitely a factor. America is in the middle of the region right now. It is a key player. And the policy of direct intervention as demonstrated by the invasion of Iraq and the disregard for international law and the United Nations. Of course, that is a strong message for a number of regimes in the region. This is a reaction and we will probably have to wait a long time to see the effects of this. It might suit the interests of the United States, but that doesn’t mean that things are really falling into place with regard to addressing the real problems facing the region and its people.

BI: What are the real problems, in your opinion?

Al-Sharif: There are many problems, but in the center of this is the Arab-Israel conflict which has beset this region for a very long time and has camouflaged the legitimacy of a few regimes in the region. Other major issues are the support for military dictatorships in a number of areas, suppression of peoples’ rights to express themselves and to have a say in running their own lives. It is very complex with regards to Iraq and the message that US President Bush is sending; trying to create a democratic model for the rest of the countries in the region. You could punch holes in this whole approach by looking at what is happening right now in Iraq.

BI: Do you believe that Libya, Syria, and Iran are reacting to the same trends and events, or are the changes in their policy driven by completely individual factors?

Al-Sharif: I think you have to take each case separately. I believe that the dialogue with Libya started even before the events in Iraq and Libya was on its way to somehow normalizing its relations with the West, in particular with the United States. This was going on even before the talks about the Lockerbie deal. With Iran, putting it in Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and the pressure that has been building from within the Iranian establishment between the moderates and the clerics came at the same time as the pressure put on it by the International Atomic Energy Agency to disclose information about its weapons programs. Of course the invasion of Iraq has added pressure on these countries with regard to disclosing information about its armament policies.

With Syria we have to take into account that a lot of what is happening is taking place from an Israeli perspective. Syria is a country under siege or feels that it is with America on one side in Iraq and Israel on the other. It definitely is looking for ways to alleviate this pressure. Therefore the statements by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that he is willing to resume peace negotiations with Israel. Also note his visit to Turkey in order to normalize relations with his northern neighbors.

All of this expresses concern on the part of each country.

BI: Certain parties put Saudi Arabia in the same group as those three countries. Do you agree with that categorization?

Al-Sharif: Definitely Saudi Arabia is also under pressure with the neo conservatives in the United States who feel that the Saudis are eligible to be part of the ‘Axis of Evil’. The events of 9/11 and the role of Saudi Arabia in supporting fundamentalist groups are perceived as very negative in the United States. It is a country that is now going through a number of challenges, especially domestically by trying to address the process of reform while dealing with the very well entrenched clerical establishment on one hand and with young Saudis and their demands for more freedom and participation regarding their own lives. These internal issues come in addition to the external pressure of being so close to Iraq. With a large Shiite population of its own, centered in the oil-rich eastern province, events in Iraq affect Saudi Arabia quite directly. The fact that the Americans have shifted their geopolitical interests now into Iraq and have moved most of their military to Iraq, Qatar, and Kuwait makes the Saudis feel like thy are some kind of pariah state from the point of view of the Americans. So yes, they are going through a lot right now and I think we will be seeing many developments in Saudi Arabia.

BI: Do you think these changes in policy were a direct response to the invasion of Iraq and do you see anything positive coming out of this?

Al-Sharif: I don’t know about anything positive coming out of the invasion of Iraq. But definitely this region has been going under a number of crises in the past 20 year with the Iraq-Iran War, the invasion of Kuwait and second Gulf War. You call it the domino effect and I don’t know if that is the right expression. We are headed into a gray area where a number of factors will play a large role in the emerging political, social, and religious structures. There are so many things which will play a part. The solutions are not that simple.- Published 12/2/2004 © bitterlemons-international.org

Osama Al-Sharif is Chief Editor of Al-Dustur Daily Newspaper in Amman, Jordan.

The wrong domino effect
 Akram Baker

The question of a possible positive “Domino Effect” currently underway in the Middle East is really a mute point. To claim that Libya, Iran, and Syria have suddenly become open regarding their alleged weapons of mass destruction programs because they fear American military action a la Iraq is ridiculous. That these countries, which have been shunned internationally for a relatively long time now, have “altered” their stance is not in question. The reasons why are another thing.

The US intervention in Iraq is generally looked upon very negatively in the Arab world. It is seen as the sharp end of a US plan for hegemony in the Middle East, a dangerous spiel where the outcome is less than certain. Most Arabs want the US to fail in Iraq for a wide variety of reasons ranging from Arab nationalism to fear for their seats of power if a democratic regime emerges. Except for those working with the CPA in Iraq, rare is the Arabic voice that speaks out in favor of either the US invasion or its consequences.

On the surface, it may seem that the US’s wielding a very big stick has produced positive results vis a vis Middle East WMD (excluding Israel’s very real WMD arsenal, of course). But, let’s be realistic, Syria, Iran, and Libya know that the United States does not have the political support to do another Iraq on any of them at the present time. Already stretched thin by the Gulf deployment, America would be hard-pressed to politically and militarily engage another country of size, no matter how weak they may be. Iraq has proven that even a quick military victory against a conventional adversary does not necessarily translate into subduing a country. So to assume that Colonel Qaddafi or Bashar Al-Assad are now shaking in their shoes while waiting for the American hammer to fall on their heads is a real stretch.

So how can one explain their “sudden” changes of heart, with Libya paying major Lockerbie reparations and declaring itself WMD free (and inviting inspectors) and Iran opening its doors to inspectors and observers more than a crack? They are afraid of something, but it is not a positive WMD domino effect. They are slowly realizing that one day the middle can no longer hold. They are terrified of democracy and the empowerment of their peoples. It is dawning on them that the only way they are going to keep their seats is if they have as few enemies as possible. Sanctions are a much bigger threat to them than stealth bombers right now and they know it. So they cut their losses, realizing that these “weapons programs” were nothing but an empty farce which would lead to their eventual downfall. None of them can truly survive much longer while taking on the US, Europe, and their own peoples at the same time. So, in the end, it was much easier to neutralize the West by giving in to the international community on this issue. One can already see the enormous gains made by Qaddafi with little effort. He is being welcomed back into the community of nations with open arms both diplomatically and economically. The price, if you look at the big picture, was really quite cheap.

The case of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait only go to prove this point. Painfully undemocratic with scant respect for human, civil, or political rights, these countries’ rulers are allowed to thrive because they serve the West’s short-term economic/political interests in the region. Therefore, it is reasonable to understand why Col. Qaddafi and Co. would want to join this club, instead of wasting away on the edges of a cold exile. While this may seem prudent from Tripoli, Damascus, and Tehran, I don’t believe that such policies are sustainable in the long run. With the simplicity and speed of communications, which are only getting easier and quicker by the year, the threat of openness and democracy is growing all the time.

If the United States and the European Union would be willing to put their money where their mouths are in the Middle East by supporting reform and democracy through a series of economic carrots and sticks, there could be real and lasting change in the region—for the good of all involved. By underwriting autocratic regimes that tow the line and isolating those that don’t, the West will never achieve the stability it claim to desire. If one Arab regime would fall through popular and democratic change, then there would be a good chance that a positive domino effect in the region would take hold.- Published 12/2/2004 © bitterlemons-international.org

Akram Baker is an independent Palestinian political analyst. He is co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills, a platform for Arab professionals dedicated to reform and development in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Remaking the Middle East: A European perspective
 Alain Dieckhoff

Is the “axis of evil" starting to crumble? The question has to be raised after the successive announcements of last December: Syrian readiness to resume peace negotiations with Israel, Libya’s renouncing of its WMD program, Iran’s commitment to sign the additional protocol to the NPT (which allows IAEA inspections at very short notice). It is tempting to lump these three events together and to see these positive developments as a direct result of the war in Iraq and as the first steps of a global transformation of the Middle East. But is that assumption fully warranted?

Let us start with the obvious: the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime is clearly a proof of United States determination to go to war in order to change a geopolitical situation deemed unbearable for American vital interests in the aftermath of 9/11. The message could not be ignored by Middle Eastern so-called rogue states, all the more as there is today a huge American military force in Iraq, a reality that has deeply changed the regional equation.

Thus, for instance, the fact that Iran is squeezed between two countries where American troops are stationed is necessarily in the minds of decision-makers in Teheran. The overthrow of Saddam had a deterrent effect on both the Iranian leadership and Libya's Muammar Qadhafi and led them to opt for a realist path rather than to adopt a risky confrontational line. And Syrian President Bashar Asad’s relative openness also has something to do with a desire to show goodwill towards Washington—although the gesture is a minimal one and does not mean in any way that Syria is ready to depart from its traditional demand for return of full sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

If the new geopolitical situation has favored these evolutions, it would nevertheless be a mistake to think that they have vindicated the neo-conservative perception that only an assertive policy is able to make things move in the Middle East. The Iranian decision was the result of a combination of the demonstrative effect of force and the vital role of diplomacy. Without an American armada along its borders, the Islamic Republic would have certainly been reluctant to sign the additional protocol, but without a diplomatic horizon (the joint British-German-French initiative, last October), Tehran would also not have been as cooperative.

Indeed if, for a regime, the only option left is its demise, it is doubtful its leaders will be in a hurry to comply with the demands of the international community. Things may change if the same leaders are convinced that if they show more accountability, their regime will be spared. The new regional equation could thus have positive effects on the “rogue states” when their compliance to legitimate concerns on security matters (on WMD or support for terrorist groups) is followed by a progressive normalization of their international status (for instance lifting of sanctions such as embargos and freezing of financial assets).

Although realists in Washington would be satisfied with such an outcome, “idealist neo-conservatives” will surely not be content with mere accountability. They look for more: a general transformation of the Middle East and the disappearance of all regimes that do not totally fit with US strategic interests. The objective is not just to work towards more accountable behavior, but towards a substantial change of the nature of those regimes, meaning their overthrow (more softly called “roll back”). Such a perspective does not necessarily require a military intervention, as in Iraq; it can also be reached through a combination of sanctions, propaganda and support for opposition groups (in exile or within the country).

Thus, if despite having taken positive steps that have improved regional security (such as control of WMD), states like Iran or Libya continue to be pointed to as dangerous and non-reliable, two consequences can be expected. The first is domestic: conservative forces that stick to uncompromising positions will be vindicated, while reformists will be challenged and undermined (the parliamentary elections in Iran will be an interesting test-case). Thus, at least in the short run, rather then being weakened, the regime may well tighten its grip over society.

The second consequence is regional: these regimes will try to find allies in other neighboring states that are also concerned with the destabilizing effects of a reframed Middle East. The rapprochement between Syria and Turkey, symbolized by Asad’s recent visit to Ankara and linked with a common concern over the emergence of a quasi-independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, is an indication of possible unexpected realignments.

To conclude, the fact that the US is today a direct regional player has had a moderating effect on “rogue states”. But it will only be a lasting one under two conditions: a successful stabilization of Iraq, both politically and on security matters (and here uncertainties remain); and a reasonable American policy looking for incremental improvements rather than brutal breaks, because a forceful strategy is a recipe for major trouble in a Middle East based on complex internal dynamics.- Published 12/2/2004 © bitterlemons-international.org

Alain Dieckhoff is senior research fellow at the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (Sciences-Po, Paris).

Will Saddam's removal change things?
 Max Singer

While liberating the people of Iraq would have been enough justification for the removal of Saddam Hussein, the US had additional purposes in leading the international effort that ended his rule. Of course one can know only actions, not purposes; even individuals often have complex motivations, and a nation and an international coalition inevitably have mixed motives. The following is my interpretation of President Bush’s purposes-- without having had an opportunity to discuss the matter with him.

The president does not even consider the use of force to achieve ordinary US policy goals, such as purchasing oil at moderate prices or encouraging international trade. His action against Saddam was part of the pursuit of two goals required to protect the lives of Americans; inducing governments to stop harboring terrorists and terrorist organizations, and preventing the spread of nuclear and biological weapons.

The president’s belief in freedom also influences his purposes. Before September 11, 2024 he thought that countries would need to move toward freedom each at their own pace, and that encouraging that movement was not an immediately decisive part of American policy. He has become increasingly convinced that his essential immediate goals concerning terrorism and WMD require supporting movement toward greater freedom in the Middle East.

There was no chance that the president’s goals could be achieved until after Saddam was removed, because Saddam was a demonstration that the US and its goals could be safely defied. There are a number of governments whose motivation to harbor terrorists and/or to acquire nuclear or biological weapons is so strong that they will only cease pursuing those goals if they believe that doing so endangers their ability to remain in power. The US could not begin to negotiate with such countries with any hope of success until they understood that the US had sufficient power, will, and international support to make it dangerous for them to continue to support terrorism or to acquire WMD. All of these governments are so weak that they are vulnerable to political action because they lack popular support at home.

The message that President Bush wanted to communicate by leading the effort to remove Saddam was not that countries have to do anything the US tells them, or that the US seeks to dominate any part of the world, much less that the US is opposed to Islam. (After all, it was Muslims who were liberated by Saddam’s removal, as it was Muslims who were protected by NATO-led action in the Balkans.) The US used its power in Iraq for only two purposes: to prevent terrorism and to prevent the spread of nuclear and biological weapons. The only message it intended to deliver in Iraq was that no government that supports terrorism or acquires nuclear or biological weapons is safe. Those are the only purposes for which the US has been willing to use its power.

Countries like Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, that support terrorism and/or try to acquire WMD, can respond to the US-led action in Iraq in either of two ways. They can decide that prudence requires giving up terrorism and WMD, or they can try to defeat the US in Iraq so that it will be safe to continue their support for terrorism and pursuit of WMD. (Or they can lie low and try to conceal their policy.)

Libya seems to have decided to be prudent. Syria and Iran have, up to now, followed a mixed strategy. They are primarily fighting to defeat the US in Iraq in order to weaken the US, but they are also making some concessions and conciliatory gestures intended to encourage the US and the Western European powers to think that they can be dissuaded from continuing support for terrorism and pursuit of WMD. This is part of the reason that Syrian President Asad is talking about reopening talks with Israel, perhaps in the hope that if he is engaged in a “peace process” the US will refrain from political action against him. Iran is also using deception and conciliation to gain time until it acquires nuclear weapons. To that end it has recently made some apparent concessions concerning its nuclear weapons program.

All of the above has been simplified by ignoring internal disagreements: within the US, among and within the other great democracies, within the Guidance Council in Iran, and within Saudi Arabia. These internal disagreements are often of critical importance.

In the end all of these countries will have governments that reject support for terrorism and the pursuit of nuclear and biological weapons. The rate at which other countries decide to follow Libya’s example depends on what happens next. If the US is defeated in Iraq, then Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia will move slowly or not at all to change their policies. If these countries succeed in inducing the US to change its policy and not to insist on ending support for terrorism and pursuit of WMD they will not change their basic policy. Substantial terrorism in the US would increase the likelihood that the US will insist that Middle Eastern governments stop their support for terrorists.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have domestically fragile regimes that may well not continue in power for five years if the US does not help them. This is especially true if the Iraqis succeed in creating a reasonably free government, and even if the US does nothing further to encourage regime change in either country.

In conclusion, “dominos” is not the right metaphor, because nothing happens so automatically, but it is likely that the removal of Saddam is an early piece of a pattern of causes that will gradually lead to a major change in behavior in the Middle East. In some cases, such as Libya, this will happen because the regime recognizes the need to accommodate US goals concerning terrorism and WMD, and in other cases it will happen because different regimes come to power—either because of US efforts or because of internal considerations, or through a combination of both. One result of the changes that flow in the wake of Iraq will be a movement in the direction of freedom—a movement that is not likely to be either rapid or steady, but which will eventually result in the Middle East becoming much less different from the rest of the world than it was a year ago.- Published 12/2/2004 © bitterlemons-international.org

Max Singer, author of The REAL World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil (with Aaron Wildavsky), is an independent analyst of public policy who is associated with the Hudson Institute in Washington and the BESA Institute in Israel.

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