The events of the Islamic world seem to have come full circle. Major western powers are now talking about negotiating peace as it relates to the long simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Afghanistan, and perhaps Kashmir as well. The most obvious question is, why now.
The aforementioned conflicts are not the only ones to be concerned about. Many off shoots of the Arab Spring connected revolts can now also be added to the list, which includes Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia etc.
Previously, the Cold War pretty much consumed the Islamic world. In recent times, War on Terror, Arab Spring, and the risk posed by rogue dictators have emerged as the chief worries emanating from the Islamic regions. While the Muslim world has its own demons to deal with, the West has tremendous stakes in how these tussles turnout.
Over the years, western security institutions, such as NATO, have devised far-reaching strategies to deal with the broad spectrum of these emergent threats. The opposing forces, represented by the informally connected extremists, have similarly created their primitive and deadly across the board responses. Caught in between these crosswinds are the moderate, western allied, but dwindling nation-states of the region.
Lest we forget, this dynamics is evolving as western economic prowess continues to diminish, while those of others, keeps growing. This has serious implications for western allies in the region that may not be able to rely on the same level of financial backing as they once did, and despite their lackluster performance. At the same time, this creates challenges for the West on who to support next: the liberals, conservatives, or the moderate Islamists.
The timing of this wave of peace initiatives from the Middle East to Afghanistan is peculiar. One of the reported explanations is; because Netanyahu’s new administration is more moderate than the past, and thus it’s more opt to make the necessary compromises. The other being, the application of force has not finished the job, and in fact non-state actors have now replaced the state actors as the adversary, producing even more unpredictability.
However, the most significant reason may have to do with the changing landscape of the Middle East. The transformation is so complete that what used to be an Arab-Israeli conflict is now simply termed as an Israeli-Palestinian one. This has been accompanied by a change in the threat perception of the region as well. While in the past most of Arab fears were associated with Israel and to settle the score of humiliations suffered at its hand, it has now shifted towards Sunni extremists and Shiite Iran.
In the past, Arab nations stood up against aggressive Israeli campaigns towards Palestinians, by merely rhetoric or by providing financial support. Since 9/11, the threat posed by extremists to these regimes, have changed the fundamental nature of the political landscape. The alarm from extremists and Iran has made the Arabs more dependent on the West, making their interests more aligned with Israel.
This caused Sunni Arab states to gradually loose credibility on the issue and this was most remarkably visible during the peace flotilla incident in 2010. The event fundamentally shifted the balance of perceptions in favor of Turkey as the champion of Muslim causes. The country subsequently terminated defense ties with Israel. However, the debacle of Syria has now pitched Turkey and Gulf States against Iran in Syria, and in favor of Israel and the West. In essence, the weakened and isolated Shiite Iran now stands as the only hurdle in the way of the peace process.
Political Solution, Use of Force, and Credibility
Other than Iran, Sunni state actors of the region literally abdicated, especially when Israel was unleashing its air campaigns on Gaza. Using its proxies, such as Hezbollah, Iran was perceived as attempting to counter Israeli aggression. Moreover, Iran also jumped the isle and started supporting Sunni Hamas when its traditional backing from the Gulf States was dwindling. The dynamics of the Syrian crisis, however, jumbled that. The new lines are drawn between Shiite and Sunni non-state actors.
The Sunni non-sate actors are the ones against which the war on terror is being fought. On the other hand, Iran is classified as state sponsor of terror while EU also recently added Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations. With extremist and religious forces gaining ground in Syria, northern Africa, and AfPak, there is a risk they may gain the credibility lost by Sunni moderate states. And, this is most likely to happen in the absence of any peace process.
Added to this scenario is the transformation underway in Egypt, where Muslim Brotherhood was recently booted out. Egypt has played a pivotal and key interlocutor role when it comes to matters between Israel and the fractured Palestinian representation: Hamas on the one hand and Fatah on the other. Just before being kicked out of office, Mursi had declared support for Sunni jihadist elements in Syria. This posed a dangerous prospect for Israel, as the tide could have easily turned against it in the future.
In the midst of this, the West is increasingly confused about who to back next. It cannot obviously support the extremists and it is therefore relying on the liberal moderate allies to sort things out. Moreover, the West no longer has the wherewithal to deal with the emerging threats directly or to support its allies in the same fashion it used to. This makes the alliances with Gulf States, India, Turkey and China etc. even more crucial.
The challenge is the liberal moderates have come to represent the force of status quo. This leaves the moderate Islamists to take the lead, but they are unlikely to fight the extremists in a manner the West wants. Jumpstarting the long stalled peace processes gives credibility to the secular and moderates and at the same time weakens the argument of the extremists. But, it is hard to imagine how peace will be achieved in 9 months when we may actually not have many of the existing states in a year.