U.S. turns the page on old Middle East order

A “new regional balance” could be forming shape, as the U.S. turns the page on the old Middle East order

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

A “new regional balance” is a phrase you often hear among policy wonks in Washington dealing with the Middle East. On the surface, it refers to obvious new realities that have shaped the region post-Iraq war and the Arab Spring, but it also reflects the Obama administration’s mindset in approaching new challenges, accepting that the old order is gone, and recognizing new elements of stability.

Practically, the U.S. strategy of embracing a new order translates today in pursuing a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program, a deep recognition that Syria will be a long-winded conflict, and a determination to work on enforcing areas of stability and to sustain relationships with traditional allies including Saudi, Egypt and Jordan.

Engaging Iran and accepting Syria

Most telling about Washington’s acknowledgement of a new regional order is how the administration views Iran’s role and the key negotiations happening in Vienna towards a comprehensive agreement on the nuclear issue. In his interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg last month, U.S. President Barack Obama did not mince any words while talking about “shifts that are taking place in the region” and that have caught U.S. allies off guard. Obama told Goldberg “I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran.”

That old existing order has changed even before Obama took office in 2008. Iran greatly benefitted from policies during the George W. Bush administration, mainly the Iraq war, a degrading situation in Afghanistan, an expanded nuclear program and more empowered proxies in Lebanon and Yemen. Undoubtedly, Obama’s desire to quickly withdraw from Iraq and pivot the U.S. attention more towards Asia has also helped enforce this new reality. Today, Washington sees a priority in reaching a peaceful resolution with Iran on its nuclear program as soon as this summer, with the prospect of extending the current interim deal another six months.

Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia, as well as increasing defense and economic cooperation with GCC countries reflects a broader theme that even when the U.S. minimizes its military footprint in the Middle East, such alliances stand at the core of U.S. strategy.

Joyce Karam

As it adjusts to Iran’s ascension, Washington is also doing so to Syria’s fall. The “war of attrition” as U.S. officials like to call it, has the potential to last for a longtime, with major repercussions on the central state of Syria, the al-Qaeda presence and sectarian strife. In that respect, the U.S. is mostly trying to accept the Syrian instability, and do its best to contain and minimize the risks. This is achieved mainly by implementing the chemical weapons deal, drafting a counter-terrorism strategy with regional allies that at its heart supports the moderate rebels, and driving for a political solution.

Sustaining stable alliances

Neither in its rapprochement with Iran, nor in its non-interventionist role in Syria, does the Obama administration want these goals to come at the cost of stable alliances. Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia, as well as increasing defense and economic cooperation with GCC countries reflects a broader theme that even when the U.S. minimizes its military footprint in the Middle East, such alliances stand at the core of U.S. strategy.

Egypt is another area where Washington appears to be making a detour and emphasizing stability over a transition to democracy. A big chunk of military aid continues today and there is little evidence that the administration, despite its cold relations with Egypt’s former head of the army Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will not work with him if he wins the presidency next month. The administration’s designation yesterday of Egypt’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis as a terrorist organization echoes mutual concerns for stability, and the rise of al-Qaeda affiliates.

While it still pursues the peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it is unclear how high this issue is on the U.S. president’s list of priorities. The current hurdles include facing indirect negotiations, and Secretary John Kerry’s inability so far to deliver a framework agreement cuts the momentum and enthusiasm behind the peace process.

As things stand, reaching a final deal with Iran, maintaining key regional alliances, containing the Syrian fire while also shying away from military interventions in the Middle East define the U.S. policy today. The success or failure of this approach will be a major part of Obama’s legacy and his attempt to redefine the U.S. role in the region and turn the page on the old order.
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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.