Can Obama and the GCC strike a balance at Camp David?
The GCC officials who arrived in Washington this week are not looking either for lip-service or lecturing from the Obama administration
While the Camp David venue has been associated in the Middle East with historic or futile efforts to broker Peace between Arabs and Israel since 1978, the current gathering of Obama and the GCC leaders at the retreat is an attempt to manage disagreements and bolster security cooperation ahead of a potential nuclear deal with Iran.
At Camp David, both Obama and his guests realize that achieving a balance by focusing on the strategic and broader objectives of the relation is in their long-term interest. While their disagreements will continue and could escalate on key Middle East policy issues related to the crisis in Syria, and Iran sanctions relief, no one has interest in losing sight of the bigger alliance with Washington.
More than lip-service
The GCC officials who arrived in Washington this week are not looking either for lip-service or lecturing from the Obama administration. They have seen many promises delivered eloquently by the administration in Cairo and in Istanbul and in Geneva but later being broken in Washington. What they are pursuing and what United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba insisted on prior to the summit was “we need something in writing” to guarantee a security architecture for the Gulf which lasts beyond the Obama administration.
It is highly unlikely that U.S. reservations will derail the events on the ground in Syria, partly because of the waning influence Washington exercises inside Syria, with Russia, and with its GCC allies and TurkeyJoyce Karam
A senior Gulf official describes a very business-like approach that surrounded the preparations for Camp David. “We came with many requests, some asked for a defense treaty, some for specific advanced weaponry sales and these were rejected” he says. The GCC countries have also rejected some of what was offered says the official: “the administration offered us defense programs that we thought would invite lot of U.S. surveillance or limit our options and we rejected.” A nuclear race is one aspect that worries the administration if a potential deal with Iran is violated or privately rejected by the region.
The draft statement for the summit, as leaked by Al-Hayat on Sunday, focuses on speeding up significantly the delivery military sales to GCC countries, conducting military exercises, boosting maritime security, and working towards a long-term security architecture. The leaked draft falls short of a defense treaty or providing F-35 fighters or laser-guided jets that the GCC had asked for.
The final statement is also expected to have a section on counterterrorism, reiterates a commitment to fight ISIS and combat funding for terrorism.
Agree to disagree on Syria
On the political side, the U.S.-GCC Camp David summit will be indicative of how much leverage both sides lost with one another in agreeing to a political roadmap or a strategy for the Middle East.
The disagreement between the Obama administration and the GCC is most evident on Syria. A senior White House official who is involved in planning the summit told a guest recently about the administration’s concern and discontent with the gains that the anti-Assad rebels are making in Northern Syria. The senior official was worried about these gains playing into the hands of Jabhat Nusra and blamed Turkey for allowing the advances against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Obama called on to step down in August 2011. But this new dynamic in Syria is largely supported by the GCC and security cooperation with Turkey on this issue is at an all-time high.
It is highly unlikely that U.S. reservations will derail the events on the ground in Syria, partly because of the waning influence Washington exercises inside Syria, with Russia, and with its GCC allies and Turkey.
On Iran, the final statement is expected to include a phrase that a potential “comprehensive and verifiable deal” is in both the GCC’s and the U.S.’s interest. While the GCC has traditionally supported negotiations with Iran, its main issue pertains to sanctions relief and the risk of the Iranian government using more than $130 billion on destabilizing activities across the Middle East. It is unlikely that Camp David will ease those fears. A recent Arab official who visited Washington and met with senior policymakers was told in response to this concern that “Iran needs to build bridges and universities.” The U.S. has also used the “snapback” theory to assure Arab leaders that sanctions will be reinstated if Iran violates its commitments.
While the Camp David summit will emphasize the longstanding defense and security relations between Washington and the GCC irrespective of the name of the leader in those capitals, the split between the Obama administration and a more unified Arab front is evident on key political issues. These will likely continue absent of a U.S. strategy on Syria or phased verifiable sanctions relief on Iran.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam