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Last updated: June 17, 2013 6:54 pm
Should the west arm the Syrian rebels? That is the issue of the day in Washington, London and at the Group of Eight summit. But behind this debate lies a bigger question. Can western powers continue to shape the future of the Middle East as they have for the past century?
The current, increasingly fragile borders of the Middle East are, to a large extent, the product of some lines on the map drawn by Britain and France in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. The era when Britain and France were the dominant outside powers ended definitively with the Suez crisis of 1956 – when the US pulled the plug on the two nations’ intervention in Egypt. During the cold war, the US and the USSR were the big players. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, America stood alone as the great power in the Middle East: organising the coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein in 1991, protecting the flow of oil from the Gulf, containing Iran and attempting to broker a peace settlement between Israel and the Arab states.
Those who are urging the US to get more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict now are living in the past. They assume that America can and should continue to dominate the politics of the Middle East. But four fundamental changes make it no longer realistic, or even desirable, for the US to dominate the region in the old way.
These changes are the failures of the Afghan and Iraq wars; the Great Recession, the Arab spring and the prospect of US energy independence.
Over the past decade, the US has learnt that while its military might can topple regimes in the greater Middle East very quickly, America and its allies are very bad at nation-building. A decade of involvement has left both Afghanistan and Iraq deeply unstable and wracked by conflict. Neither country is securely in the “western camp”.
The result is that even the advocates of western intervention in Syria, such as Senator John McCain, proclaim that they are opposed to “boots on the ground”. Instead, they are pushing to supply weapons to the Syrian rebels – arguing that this is necessary to secure a more desirable political outcome.
President Barack Obama has given some ground to the “arm the rebels” camp. But his reluctance and scepticism are evident – and amply justified. If a full-scale western occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan was unable to secure a decent outcome, why does anybody believe that supplying a few light weapons to the Syrian rebels will be more effective?
The Great Recession also means that the west’s capacity to “bear any burden” can no longer be taken for granted. European military spending is falling fast – and cuts in the Pentagon budget have begun. With the direct and indirect cost of the Iraq war estimated at $3tn and the US government borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, it is hardly surprising that Mr Obama is wary of taking on new commitments in the Middle East.
The third new factor is the Arab spring. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was a long-time ally and client of the US. Nonetheless, Washington decided to let him fall in early 2011 – much to the disgust and alarm of other long-term American allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the Obama administration was right to drop Mr Mubarak. He could not have been propped up without risking a Syria-style bloodbath.
More fundamentally, the US has recognised that, ultimately, the people of the Middle East are going to have to shape their own destinies. Many of the forces at work in the region – such as Islamism and Sunni-Shia sectarianism – are alarming to the west but they cannot be forever channelled or suppressed.
Finally, the ability of the US to take a more hands-off attitude is greatly enhanced by the shale revolution in the US, which lessens American dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Accepting that western domination of the Middle East is coming to an end, however, should not be confused with saying that western nations will not defend their interests.
The US has large military bases in the Gulf and, together with its allies, will still try to prevent the Middle East becoming dominated by a hostile power. Despite its role in Syria, Russia is not a plausible regional hegemon. But Iran worries the US; an attack on its nuclear programme remains an option, despite the encouraging result of this weekend’s presidential elections. Jihadist forces, linked to al-Qaeda, will also encounter western resistance – one reason why the Syrian opposition continues to be treated very warily. And the US and its European allies will remain deeply involved in regional diplomacy over Syria.
Western humanitarian instincts will play a role too – as they did in the decision to support the Libyan rebellion. But, as Syria is demonstrating, there is a limit to what the west will take on. Even former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, the intellectual godfather of the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” civilians, is warning against military intervention in Syria.
Despite the US decision to begin to supply military assistance to the rebels, Mr Obama is obviously still wary of deep involvement in the Syrian conflict. More than some of his advisers and allies, he seems to appreciate the limited ability of outside powers to control the new order that it is emerging in the region. The era of direct colonialism in the Middle East ended decades ago. The era of informal empire is now also coming to a close.
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