The Caravan

Letter from Lebanon - Help Protect the Minorities

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dear President Obama,

During your second term as US President the Middle East will continue to occupy center stage in the domain of American foreign policy. Three key issues are certain to present you with particularly difficult challenges: the protection of native religious minority communities in the face of rising Islamist extremism; Syria’s civil war with the potential of spillover; and Iran’s nuclear program.

The Middle East today is going through an unprecedented period of turmoil that to some looks like a spring, but to others appears ominously as a looming winter. Included in the second anxious category are many from the indigenous non-Muslim communities rooted in their ancestral lands across the region. They fear the unleashing of a relentless region-wide slippery slope towards Salafism, Jihadism, and other forms of radical Islamism—violent ideologies that will continue targeting them as has already happened repeatedly in places like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Their apprehensions are not products of overactive imaginations or unfounded exaggerations. History in this part of the world has rarely been kind to vulnerable minorities, and this is a particularly delicate juncture for these exposed communities. The litmus-paper test for the success or failure of the Arab Spring to inaugurate an era of true democracy in the region is the treatment of religious minority communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Mounting abuses of these communities and attacks on their religious freedom will reflect badly on all those, including the United States, who have cheered on the popular uprisings against various repressive Arab regimes. In your third televised debate before the elections you referred to pressures you were putting on the government in Egypt to respect and protect religious minorities. New Arab governments should be made to feel they are under close scrutiny by your Administration and the international community on the question of minority rights, freedoms, and security. There needs to be an insistence that clear, forceful, and binding language safeguarding minority rights be incorporated in all the new constitutions of these emerging Arab states.

As for Syria’s festering internal conflict and Iran’s advanced nuclear ambitions your second term offers a real chance for peaceful resolutions of both these intertwined crises—something the peoples of the region desperately crave. The key to achieving this desired outcome is to work for a comprehensive deal, a grand bargain if you will, between the United States and Russia that would entail win-win bilateral agreements over a range of specifics. While it is no match for the United States in terms of superpower status, Russia does possess vast disruptive potential side by side with useful leverage capabilities in Damascus and Tehran requiring that it be engaged actively for the sake of averting any slide towards the abyss on both the Syrian and Iranian fronts. Moreover, Russia has legitimate strategic, security, and energy needs and interests that can and should be accommodated in any budding deal with the United States over Syria and Iran.

Such a deal could involve choreographing an acceptable exit for Mr. Assad and the establishment of a transitional government to oversee general elections. No de-Baathification Iraq-style should be undertaken, and everything should be done to protect the Alawite and other minority communities of Syria. The Syrian opposition must be pressured to purge its ranks of diehard Salafi fanatics if it expects to have any significant role in shaping Syria’s future. Tartous would remain accessible to Russian naval vessels, and the status of other Russian assets in country would be determined through negotiations. Short of a massive, costly, and uncertain NATO military operation in Syria this is the only way a swift end to the bloodletting could be achieved.

On Iran the prospective deal is straightforward. Iran would stop short of nuclear breakout accepting full nuclear transparency through very intrusive inspections by IAEA and other international bodies. Tehran’s compliance would determine the pace at which sanctions are lifted. During what will surely be arduous negotiations the sanctions screws would continue to be tightened, and decisive military action as the last resort should negotiations fail to produce an agreement would remain on the table. Europe’s growing energy requirements in coming years ensure that there is plenty of room for Libyan, Iranian, and eastern Mediterranean supplies alongside those flowing from Russia, so Russia’s substantial slice of Europe’s energy market would not be diminished.

Pull off this admittedly gargantuan set of achievements over the next four years as you straighten the US economy, and the stellar legacy you leave will be the envy of any President.


Habib C. Malik, PhD

Habib C. Malik is Associate Professor of History at the Byblos campus of the Lebanese American University


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 HillRobert Satloff, Asli AydintasbasReuel Gerecht, Leon Wieseltier, Tammy Frisby, Abbas Milani, and Fouad Ajami.

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