The Caravan

Letter From Istanbul

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

As I write these lines overlooking the Bosphorus on a warm autumn day, a blast on a civilian bus shook the streets of Tel Aviv only a few minutes ago. That explosion came after six straight days of an Israeli air campaign in Gaza, not only flaming Palestinian anger, but also lining up a new post-Arab Spring coalition against Israel. Hamas is no longer an isolated entity; it has the new Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and the Arab League as guardians.

That’s not all. The death toll in the bloody civil war against the Asad regime in Syria has been pretty steady lately; averaging between 100 and 200 lives every day.

Oh and don’t let me forget to mention that Iraq is on the brink of a civil war, with the government of Nuri el-Maliki massing up troops on the oil-rich town of Kirkuk this week, seemingly against the Iraqi Kurdish forces there.

While all this was happening, President Barack Obama was on a mediagenic tour in Asia, his vision summed up by his deputy national security adviser as "continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the president's second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy."

All of this falls neatly in line with the White House declared strategy of “leading from behind” – or leaving “light footprints” as former CIA chief General David Patraeus told Congress –which has so far translated into a deliberate American lack of interest in the Middle East.

And it is not even working. Despite the Obama administration’s desire to disengage from the messy Arab affairs, the region is poised to become a larger headache for U.S. interests over the next few years.

Take the case of Syria for example.  Its troubles have begun to engulf key US allies in the region.  As Iran throws its weight behind the Asad regime, the mullahs also tighten their grip on the Shiite government in Iraq. Storms of sectarian warfare are already gathering in countries neighboring Syria and Turkey’s efforts to convince Washington for a coordinated effort against Bashar Asad has so far resulted in a prolonged period of hand wringing.

Ultimately, however, U.S. will have to act. “We cannot allow for an Afghanistan to emerge next door to us,” a senior Turkish official told me, underlining that Ankara expects Washington to “do more, now that the elections are over.”

No one, including the Turks, wants a U.S. military intervention in Syria. It is a bad idea for all involved. But short of putting boots on the ground, Washington could help end the brutal regime in Damascus and establish a healthy relationship with the new Syria. One obvious policy option is to create safe zones – or informal no-fly zones—for Syrian refugees to escape on Turkish and Jordanian border regions. Another formula would be to arm moderate rebel groups and improve command and control among the Free Syrian Army forces. Currently, the regime is able to offset the rebel gains on the ground by a reckless aerial bombardment campaign across the nation. The only way to break the deadlock is to arm rebels with anti-aircraft missiles. That some of the rebel groups are made up of Islamic extremists is no excuse for abdication.

Another reason to engage deeper with the Middle East before too late is the fragility of the Arab Spring. From Libya to Egypt, the new coalitions that have replaced old dictatorships are still in need of hand-holding—struggling between the legacy of the ancienne regime and the absence of an Islamist democratic precedent. As new constitutions are written, Washington must enhance its institutional and political support to efforts to marry Islam and freedoms.

And finally, Iraq. Once the epicenter of U.S. designs in the Middle East, Iraq hardly comes up in U.S. foreign policy debate these days. U.S. officials would like to assume that, with a strongman in Baghdad and an end to U.S. military presence, Iraq is a settled matter.

Not so.

Maliki has been durable as a leader and enjoys the backing of the Obama administration, but he has not ruled harmoniously – or fairly. In fact, the political pact between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiite is more fragile than ever.

President Obama is no enthusiast of Middle East affairs and has so far assumed that his brand of remote-control foreign policy would be enough to keep waters calm— calm-enough— while he focused on the U.S. economy and his domestic agenda. It will not. Navigating through ancient rivalries and frozen conflicts may look like a thankless job. But it is much safer than ignoring them…

Ms. Aydintasbas is a columnist at the Turkish daily Milliyet


This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Obama’s Second Term – Middle Eastern Memos is provided by Russell Berman, Itamar RabinovichCharles Hill, Robert SatloffHabib Malik, Reuel Gerecht, Leon Wieseltier, Tammy Frisby, Abbas Milani, and Fouad Ajami.