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Averting the 'Perfect Storm' in the Middle East

By Pierre Atlas

Things have become more volatile in the Middle East in the last few days.

Sunni and Shia Iraqis are killing each other in record numbers, 100,000 refugees are fleeing the country each month, and Iraq's expanding civil war threatens to spill over to neighboring countries. The assassination of Pierre Gemayel has brought Lebanon the closest it has been to civil war since the Taif Accords were implemented in 1990. Saturday's parliamentary elections in Bahrain, headquarters of the US 5th Fleet, might empower that country's long marginalized and repressed Shia majority, which could have profound implications for other Gulf states unnerved by Shia mobilization in region.

Meanwhile, Iran is moving steadily forward both in its nuclear program and in its attempt to establish hegemony in the Shia areas of Iraq. A tenuous truce has just been reached between Israel and the Palestinians that looks promising, but no one is holding their breath as both sides have already violated its terms. And the unresolved Israel-Hezbollah conflict remains on hold but could easily be reignited by regional players with their own agendas.

A "perfect storm" is brewing in the Middle East as Sunni-Shia tensions and the problems of Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine converge upon each other.

Given this new reality, the US approach of compartmentalizing our various Middle East concerns into distinct boxes is no longer tenable. President Bush is on his way to Amman to meet with Iraqi prime minister al-Maliki. He should seize the opportunity to broaden the scope of his mission and address the other conflicts as well.

Iran and Syria may be thorns in the side of moderate forces in the region, but at the same time neither regime wants to see Iraq's destabilizing sectarian conflict spill across their borders. Both regimes are engaging in dialogue with the Iraqi government, and they have an incentive to work with us in facilitating a graceful exit of US troops from Iraq.

Saving Lebanon's flawed but functional confessional democracy, let alone preventing the outbreak of a new civil war there, will require the US to engage Syria and will also necessitate addressing the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. But the Hezbollah issue will not be successfully dealt with until the broader Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved.

While the world waits with baited breath for the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, Jordan's King Abdullah has already signaled a way forward. Speaking on ABC's "This Week," he warned of "three civil wars" facing the region, in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, and suggested that concerted action is needed by the international community if we are to "avert the Middle East from a tremendous crisis."

The core conflict, Abdullah correctly observed, is Israel-Palestine. This unresolved, century old conflict fuels radical Islam like no other cause and is a blessing to authoritarians like Syria's Assad and Iran's Ahmadinejad. "It is linked to what's going on in Lebanon" Abdullah said. "It is linked to the issues that we find ourselves with the Syrians. So, if you want to do 'comprehensive'--comprehensive means bringing all the parties of the region together."

If we are to diffuse these crises before they explode, we will need flexible and imaginative thinking that sees the "linkages" as opportunities to be seized. This means engaging with all the major Middle East actors (as unsavory as some of them may be to us), and also being willing to leverage our influence with Israel to encourage positive movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

It is likely that James Baker, et al, will recommend a set of options for the Bush administration that are based more on our "interests" than our "values," on foreign policy realism rather than idealism. Realism assumes that states are rational actors whose behavioral choices can be encouraged or deterred by other states or alliances. Realists see Syria and Iran in such terms, and downplay the radical rhetoric of their leaders as bombast rather than as predictions of future behavior.

Non-state actors and religiously motivated groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas are more problematic from the realist perspective, but their patrons and primary sources of funding tend to be states, which again can be influenced by other states. And if the conflicts that motivate ordinary people to join or support their causes can be managed or even resolved, the legitimacy and attractiveness of those movements will be reduced.

Today the United States has the means, motive, and opportunity to engage in serious diplomacy and deal-making. The US could even take up Abdullah's suggestion and convene a regional conference that would bring all the major players to the table. With various Middle East crises converging in alarming and unpredictable ways, it's time to think outside the box. The major actors have interests that might be satisfied by other actors. For example, Syria might cut off its support for Hezbollah in exchange for the Golan Heights. Israel might return the Golan to Syria in exchange for full peace and US and international security guarantees.

With all issues open to negotiation, who knows where the horse-trading might lead. Given the dismal alternatives, it would certainly be worth a try. And imagine the diplomatic shock and awe such a proposal from President Bush would produce in the region.

Pierre M. Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.

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