by Sol Schindler
One cannot discuss the Middle East today without taking into account the deep schism that has divided the Muslim world for centuries: the Sunni-Shia conflict. True, the Arab-Israeli struggles have long been a bone in the throat for most Arabs but the passage of time and past defeats have taken the ardor out of most anti-Israel war sentiment. That nation may still be cursed and pilloried but no country wants to go to war with it. Instead the Shia Iranians have become the prime and existential threat to the Sunni world which is one reason why the Syrian revolution has turned into a sectarian war. The majority Sunni population is rebelling against a regime dependent on foreign Shia aid, particularly from Iran. From the time the mullahs came to power in Iran up until the last election government heads ended their speeches with cries of Death to the Great Satan, Death to the United States. Some still do. Because of this the Sunni Arabs, particularly the Saudis, felt they had a common interest with the United States in checking Iranian adventurism. When rioting in 2009 shook the foundations of the Iranian regime the Saudis, among others, thought the time for American action might have arrived, but they were proved wrong. When peaceful protesting in Syria became armed rebellion in response to regime organized massacres, and when a number of prominent Americans urged the sending of arms to the newly organized rebels the Saudis were again amazed at the permanence of American non-action. When the Syrians used chemical weapons (gas) against its civilian population, an action that President Obama had specifically warned against, calling it a “ game-changer” that would bring a devastating American response, the Saudis and the world saw a bumbling American administration desperately looking for a corner to pass the buck into. A grinning Russian dictator came to the aid of his American adversary and now UN officials are side by side with Syrians officers busy counting and disarming gas bombs at scattered Syrian arsenals.
No one could object to such action except that our Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has hinted publically at the possibility that the Syrian regime has not fully listed all their chemical weapons. This can hardly be surprising since the Syrians like most Mid-Eastern countries have a very long history of dissembling, but Ambassador Power has no real proof, proof that would satisfy our judges in the White House, and so we follow the time honored practice of turning a deaf ear.
In due course the Saudis did the inevitable and declined an invitation to join the UN Security Council. The explanation they offered is that the Security Council is a useless appendage to a not very efficient international body. After more than half a century of negotiations the world was still faced with an impasse between the Palestinians and the Israelis nor after two years of fighting and over 100,000 fatalities in Syria Is there any sign of peace. This message of course went to the UN but the target was, as Saudi comment at the time showed, the United States. The Saudis were tired of our indecisiveness and began to perceive us as the unreliable ally others had accused us of being.
The separation of the United States from the Kingdom of Arabia in the conduct of foreign affairs may for some be a good thing. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy notorious for its maltreatment of women, its religious intolerance, and its general disdain for civil liberties. If we had said that we respect their right to worship as they please but we cannot condone their abuse of women, or people who worship differently, or who openly speak their minds, this separation might have gained considerable popular support at home. But we did not separate for any of these good reasons. Rather the Saudis said they could not condone our weaving back and forth. How deep and long lasting this separation will be is hard to say, but at the least it will impede rather than facilitate cooperation in areas where we need it such as controlling Jihadist terrorists in the rebel ranks in Syria.
In Egypt everyone thinks we are pro-Moslem Brotherhood except, of course, the Moslem Brotherhood who by their stated goals are anti-American. We have cut aid to Egypt as they teeter on insolvency and assure them it means nothing. They are conducting sporadic talks with Russian officials and make no attempt at assurance.
The Turkish government which attempted for a long time to secure more permanent American backing for the Syrian rebels is now negotiating with China for new anti-aircraft armament. How they can mix these new weapons with the American batteries along the Syrian border is not clear.
The Israeli Prime Minister was furious when he heard of a possible agreement between the U,S. and Iran concerning nuclear arms development and called it a fool’s deal. The French Foreign Minister agreed and negotiations ended. Secretary of State Kerry has not lost hope, however, and promises negotiations will resume soon, even though the Palestinian delegation to the negotiations with Israel he had sponsored had just walked out.
As the year 2013 comes to an end our Mid-East policy of being friends to everyone has brought us to the ironic point where we have none. Could it be that leading from behind, as 21st Century as it sounds, is not really the best position to assume?
The views expressed by the author are his own.
Sol Schindler was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1924, served in the army (ETO) 1943-46, MA Univ. of Iowa 1951, majored in English, minored in philosophy. USIA 1952-1980 served mostly in Asia, Indonesia, Burma, India, Viet Nam, Pakistan, Korea, with the exception of 3½ years in Yugoslavia. Final assignment, Deputy Chief of Programs, ICS, USIA. Upon retirement worked part time for the State Department, Freedom of Information, 1980-2003. After retirement published more than 100 op eds and book reviews in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Mediterranean Quarterly, the Middle East Quarterly, and a number of smaller publications.