What Do We Do About Syria? And Iran, Israel and Egypt...

Toward the end of a New America event this week that considered American policy in the Middle East against the backdrop of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, panelist Marc Lynch made a provocative observation about the debate over whether to arm Syrian opposition forces as they battle to oust the despotic regime of Bashar al Assad.

“As a rule of thumb, if you’re saying to yourself, ‘If we don’t give this guy a gun, he might join al Qaeda,’ you probably shouldn’t give him a gun,” Lynch, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, quipped, drawing laughs from the crowd who had gathered for the fourth event in an election series sponsored by New America, the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for a New American Security. “The idea that if we give [the Free Syrian Army] weapons, we will then have influence over them strikes me as deeply flawed.  There’s no reason to believe they will stay bought just because we’re giving them weapons.”

That logic struck panelist Danielle Pletka as deeply flawed.

“I want to smack Mark for what he said about guns and al Qaeda, because it’s not an end or a choice,” said Pletka, the vice president of Foreign and Defense Policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, “I don’t think anyone who’s suggesting that we arm the Free Syrian Army…”

“Don’t give her a gun!” interjected Lynch.

“I already have one - but not here,” she retorted, and continued: “It’s not a choice between al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army. It’s a choice between a future of Syria that is better managed, and one that devolves into a civil war with lots of different factions, including Al Qaeda.”

Lynch and Pletka’s spirited debate was one of many during the event, where panelists aired disagreements over whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria’s civil war, the likelihood that peace talks between Israel and Palestine will resume, and how we should approach diplomacy in Iran.  

Ambassador Dennis Ross, former special assistant to President Obama and special adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, opened the discussion by explaining why dubbing last year’s uprisings as the ‘Arab Spring’ has contributed to a collective misunderstanding of the current regional situation. “ [The term Arab Spring] always somehow creates the image that there was going to be a quick transformation – that we’d see a quick flowering of a new Middle East,” Ross said. “That was never in the cards. The more appropriate term to use is ‘awakening.’”

Arabs across the region now find themselves imbued with the rights of citizens, rather than subjects, Ross explained. As citizens, they can make demands of their government and create mechanisms to hold leaders accountable. But those apparatuses will take time to construct.

Islamists have the advantage in this new landscape because they spent decades building trust and legitimacy among large swaths of the electorate. Under regimes like deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s, “the one institution [he] couldn’t take on was the mosque,” so as a result, it was “the one place you were free to speak and organize,” Ross said. The Muslim Brotherhood flourished because it harnessed the public’s dissatisfaction with the secular regime to create a loyal following: It built food distribution centers, and clinics, disseminated food and blankets after disasters, painting itself as an efficient institution of social justice.

In contrast, the secular population didn’t construct a common sense of identity, nor did it have an incentive to organize. It also didn’t bolster ties with lower classes. “It should be no surprise that in Egypt and other places the Islamists have won the election,” Ross said. “If liberal secular forces are to take over, it will take a while.”

The need for patience and perspective as the region’s political situations develop underpinned much of Ross’s analysis.  He noted that though Americans are focused on domestic issues in November’s election, that could change quickly – especially if Israel strikes Iran, or if the situation in Syria worsens.

Would the geopolitical situation in the Middle East look different today with President Romney piloting our policies? It could, especially in the case of Israel’s showdown with Iran, suggested Pletka.”There’s a level of mistrust [in terms of] what Americans will do against adversaries,” she said, underscoring Israel’s deepening wariness. “If Israel had a higher level of trust in the American government, would they feel compelled to act against Iran? I suspect it might be different if there was someone else in the White House.”

But for now, Ross offered a tweak to our current diplomatic approach to Iran that the present administration could employ. The current problem, he says, is that Iran believes the 5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) fear the consequences of diplomatic failure more than they do. For diplomacy to succeed, the 5+1 must convey audacity, not anxiety, and tailor its questioning to produce a desired outcome no matter what the Iranians do.

Sounds quixotic. But according to Ross, we need only bait Iranians with the prospect of civil nuclear power to win diplomatically. Here’s the breakdown: Iranians claim they only want civil nuclear power. That means their uranium would only be enriched to a level where they could use it as a fuel, rather than as a weapon. If we offer civil power to them with restrictions so they don’t acquire breakout capability, we’ve succeeded. If they don’t accept those terms, “then you’ve exposed them,” Ross said. If we do end up using force, it “needs to be used in a context where it’s clear that diplomacy was exhausted, and Iranians demonstrated that they wanted nuclear weapons capability.”

Pletka suggested that the administration isn’t pushing sanctions hard enough, and that we should cut deeper into the Iranian economy.

Ross and Pletka join a chorus of policymakers who’ve recently weighed in on diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, intervention in Syria, and Islamism in Egypt. But, as Ross pointed out, the flurry of activity across the region has eclipsed a topic that, for many years, was the centerpiece of any debate on Middle East policy: the Israeli-Palestinian process.

For that complex impasse, Ross offered up 12-step program -- six ways both sides can convince the other that they’re committed to the two-state outcome. Israelis, for example, could build housing and provide compensation for settlers who voluntarily leave the West Bank. Palestinians could put Israel on their maps, and recognize that the Jewish people also have a historic connection to the land.  

Ain’t gonna happen, Lynch claimed later. “I see no prospect for movement on Israeli- Palestinian peacemaking anytime in the near future or in the medium future,” he said.

One final point of contention among the panelists: How much can the U.S. influence regional politics?

According to Douglas Ollivant, a New America senior national security studies fellow, our recent history offers lessons on the limits of American power. “We can remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq, we can remove Qaddafi in Libya, we could remove Assad from Syria and we could exercise a military option in Iran – but what the politics look like after that is largely unforeseeable,” he said.