Middle East Strategy Task Force Executive Director Stephen Grand writes for Foreign Policy on domestic and international challenges to strengthening the Middle East.
Some people in the new administration have suggested they would not be interested in arresting the unraveling of global politics in this direction. But they will ultimately find themselves compelled, for the sake of American power and prosperity, to try revitalizing for a new era the rules-based international order constructed following World War II. At that time, the United States, eager to prevent Europe’s bloody wars from ever recurring and the scourge of communism from spreading, helped design a web of international and regional institutions to shore up its European allies and encouraged cooperation rather than armed conflict among states.
A somewhat analogous challenge faces the United States today in the Middle East. The region is likely to be the fiery cauldron in which the global order either gets reforged for a new era or melts down entirely. Syria may provide the first test. The Russians would like the United States to accept Assad’s continued rule of that shattered country, in return for a partnership to fight the Islamic State and al Qaeda together. But that is not how stability will be achieved in the Middle East. Assad has alienated too many Syrians through his misrule and brutalities to be able to put his country back together. In the absence of a viable and vibrant Syria that offers its citizens some hope for the future, any battlefield gains against the Islamic State and al Qaeda are likely to be ephemeral.
Instead, the United States should seek to negotiate a resolution to the Syrian conflict that safeguards the interests of all parties and provides broad latitude for local and provincial self-government. The Russians need to be persuaded that the war is unwinnable and that Assad is not capable of stabilizing the country. If words alone fail to sway them, then a policy of greater humanitarian protection for civilians trapped in the conflict — combined with a stepped-up U.S. effort against the Islamic State in tandem with regional partners — should provide greater leverage to nudge them toward a negotiated settlement.
For the region more broadly, the agenda needs to be no less ambitious. The measures required to put the Middle East on a more positive trajectory resemble those undertaken in Europe 70 years ago: stop the fighting, negotiate equitable and inclusive political settlements (in this case to the region’s other civil wars), shore up weak states to make them resistant to subversion, encourage political leaders to govern in ways that strengthen their legitimacy and unleash the talents of their people, and develop regional institutions that help mitigate conflict and enhance the prospects for cooperation. To achieve this, the United States should partner with states in and outside the region that share its interest in a more stable Middle East. It is high time that those in the region took the lead, providing the vision and doing the lion’s share of the work, but the United States, Europe, and potentially Russia and China should help, as a matter of self-interest.
Read more of “Donald Trump Will Design a New Middle East.”