For decades, many foreign policy officials, academics and
commentators across the West and the Arab world have argued that there is a key
to stability and peace in the Middle East.
For generations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been portrayed as the key to making regional peace. Proponents of this concept have claimed that a solution of the protracted conflict would pave the way to Middle East peace, less terrorism and less anti-Americanism, and would eliminate Iran’s regional expansionism and nuclear pursuits.
According to this logic, if Palestinians had a state, all the Arab countries would become secular constitutional democracies run by rulers respecting human rights, Turkey would guarantee the right of self-determination to Kurds, Iran would cut support for its proxies, and militant Salafists would call off their jihad.
There is no similar case in diplomatic history that was so misunderstood by so many entities for such a long time. Roots of this belief can be traced back to British foreign policy by the end of the 1930s. The British believed that their concerns in the region – such as access to oil, their relations with the individual Arab countries, undercutting French positions and keeping Nazi Germany from gaining more of a foothold – would play out once the problem of Palestine was solved to the satisfaction of the Arab countries.
After the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent OPEC oil embargo, US presidents started repeating this “Israeli-Palestinian conflict key to peace” mantra, which became conventional wisdom in the White House. Jimmy Carter, influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser, formulated that “the US has a vital interest in the establishment of a stable peace in the Middle East” via solving the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Even in 2008, after the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War (one of the deadliest conventional wars ever fought), the Gulf War and the Iraq War, Carter claimed that “without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem,” and Brzezinski added that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world.”
Although this myth was discredited by other violent events connected with the Arab Spring, including the Syrian civil war and the genocide of Yazidis by ISIS, Donald Trump (the same applies for Barack Obama) repeated it – thus effectively denying his 2017 National Security Strategy – in saying that “if we can make peace between the Palestinians and Israel, I think it’ll lead to ultimately peace in the Middle East, which has to happen.”
Unfortunately, this is not going to happen, since there is no key to Middle East peace. This myth is based on the false assumption that the Middle East is a highly interconnected structure where the solution of one specific armed conflict will solve a bunch of other armed conflicts.
However, the Middle East, regardless of how one defines it, is an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous region characterized by many complexities and fault lines which throughout the years have produced multiple intrastate, interstate and transnational armed conflicts among countries and violent non-state actors, each of which holds competing, overlapping and sometimes contradictory interests.
Any attempt to simplify affairs in the region and analyze them through the lens of one particular conflict (currently via the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran) creates the impression that all conflicts in the region, their sources and solutions are connected and not independent.
This wishful thinking about some kind of domino effect in the volatile Middle East has proved to be a very dangerous game with disastrous and long-lasting consequences. For example, US President George W. Bush, influenced by neo-conservatism, launched a war in Iraq, in the belief that regime change in the country would be a catalyst for stimulating democratic change that would “domino” throughout the Middle East.
Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, even linked the Iraq invasion with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, claiming: “It is not true that the road to Baghdad leads through Jerusalem. Much more likely, the road to Jerusalem will lead through Baghdad.”
However, the hope for a democratic Baghdad, and so ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, did not materialize, and post-invasion Iraq has become a repellent example of a failed state defined by widespread political violence, disorder and leadership with authoritarian tendencies.
Moreover, by ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein, Washington inadvertently eliminated Tehran’s overriding challenge, thus allowing it to project its influence in Iraq.
The Arab Spring demonstrated that the notion of democratic dominoes in the region is a mirage. Early hopes for positive shifts in Middle Eastern politics, while ignoring the lack of democratic tradition, influence of Islamism, the weakness of secular forces and widespread poverty, were profoundly misplaced. Although the upheavals in 2011 had similar roots, that does not mean that their outcomes must be the same. The Tunisian revolution inspired other countries to revolt. Regrettably, its relatively successful transition into “flawed democracy” did not become an inspiration for other countries, such as Syria and Libya, which, rather, descended into civil wars.
In February 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “confronting Iran” is the key to stability and peace in the Middle East. In truth, increasingly powerful Iran destabilizes the region with its pursuit of regional hegemony, characterized inter alia by a policy of systematic interference in other countries – such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – through the sponsorship of local Shiite militias. Iran has mastered the art of proxy wars.
Although it is important to stop Iran’s aggressive expansionism and prevent it from building a contiguous sphere of influence from its Western border to the Mediterranean, that still will not be enough to bring stability, let alone peace, to the region. Even if Iran abandons the states, there still will be conflicts ongoing on their soils. Iran is an opportunistic player that looks for vacuums in failed states, exploits sectarian conflicts to increase its influence, while using Shiism as the main tool to attract foreigners to cooperate. These countries will remain fragmented and deeply divided, even without Tehran’s presence.
Needless to say, other countries with hegemonic ambitions in the region – namely, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – have not contributed to stability either. The list of their stability-undermining activities is difficult to fathom. Turkey invaded northern Syria in order to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state. Saudi Arabia trapped itself in the civil war in Yemen, after invading it in August 2015; and, together with other Gulf countries, it has helped to worsen conflicts in Syria and Libya.
Russian intentions in the region are far from being a salvation. Russia tries to brand itself as a problem solver; however, its conflict-mediation strategy tends to be effective in freezing disputes rather than solving them. This approach is evident in conflicts that Russia tried to handle, specifically in Abkhazia, Chechnya, South Ossetia, Transnistria or Ukraine.
Pursuing stability in the current Middle East seems to be chimerical. The region is going through a time of perhaps unprecedented instability and turmoil – all enabled by the fact that the region lacks a collective security framework of any kind that would guide local actors to manage inevitable disputes with minimal violence and disruption.
The current regional order is fundamentally one of disorder, and pointing out one simplistic frame obscures from view the complex issues plaguing the region.
There is not one key to stability in the Middle East. It is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, democratic Iraq or pacified Iran. Stability requires multiple keys to multiple issues, what seems to be a Sisyphean task just to imagine, let alone to do.