The Future of the Middle East

The horror that will follow if revolutionary Islamism takes over the region.

In recent weeks, the emerging Middle East has given pause to the early optimists of the Arab Spring. Egypt reopened its border with Gaza, Amr Moussa seems poised to win the presidency there, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has been ruthlessly cracking down on anti-regime protests, Yemen has descended into something close to civil war, and a Hamas-Fatah unity government is set to call for a vote at the UN General Assembly on unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.

To get a sense of where these and other issues in the region are headed, I spoke with Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor and publisher of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. He is the author of more than a dozen books on the Middle East.

Seth Mandel: What are the major events to watch for, and what are their most likely consequences?

Barry Rubin: First, on June 12, Turkey will have an election. That election will probably be won by the government, whether or not it gets a two-thirds majority. The current rulers are going to take this as a signal to take a much tougher line toward Israel and the United States. It is possible that the extent of the increase of Turkey’s enmity toward Israel after that election will astonish the world.

If the governing AK party gets a two-thirds’ majority, that means it will have control of rewriting the Turkish constitution. They will try to create a presidential regime, Erdogan will run for president, and we will see Turkey moving into an increasingly visible alliance with Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. That’s not alarmism, that’s a serious analysis.

Number two. The Palestinian effort at the UN to gain unilateral recognition for a Palestinian state will fail; the U.S. will veto. But it’s going to be a mess, and it’s a mess created by the incompetence of the Obama administration, which could have prevented this.

Number three—the big one: Egyptian parliamentary elections in September. As of now, the moderate democrats have not organized any serious party. The only serious parties organized are Islamist parties—not only the Muslim Brotherhood but others—and left-wing parties or radical nationalist ones.

I do not know whether there will be an Islamist majority, but there will be a radical anti-American majority in parliament. I have no doubt of that. It literally can’t be any other way. So this is going to have to be covered in the media.

It will be interesting to try to predict what the headlines will look like in the New York Times the day after the election. How will they spin this? What will they say? What can they say about this? This is very, very serious. At that point it should be clear that the Obama policy has been a catastrophe. He helped bring down the Egyptian regime and the result is a radical anti-American regime that’s ready to go into conflict with Israel.

SM: What is the significance of the opening of Egypt’s border with Gaza?

BR: The opening of the Gaza border is one step in that direction [of conflict with Israel]. So what does it mean that they’re opening the border, even if not now but when a new elected president and parliament take office? It means that weapons, terrorists, and money will flow freely into Gaza.

And what does that mean? It means that Hamas will become bolder. And at some point, let’s say in the next year, it will attack Israel with rockets and mortars. And Israel will have to respond militarily.

But at that point we are all going to have to ask the question, What will Egypt do? What will the Egyptian government do? If Amr Moussa is president with a radical parliament or even an Islamist parliament they could send troops. It could become an Egypt-Israel war.

But there are other possibilities. Perhaps they will simply let thousands of Egyptian volunteers go into Gaza to fight. Perhaps it will allow, or not be able to stop, or not try too hard to stop, attacks across the Egypt-Israel border. Again, this is not some alarmist fantasy but realistic scenarios that must be prepared for.

If Amr Moussa is elected president, he is not an Islamist and not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. But is he going to resist pressure from parliament and the masses for a tough stance? Won’t he try to take advantage of this to promote his own interests and anti-Israel beliefs? This is especially true as Egypt’s terrible economic situation does not permit him to offer the masses a better life or even food at current prices.

Now one can say: Don’t worry, they won’t do anything because the Egyptian military wants to keep getting American aid money. Now that is an argument. But is that enough? Can we base our entire Middle East strategy on that hope?

We have seen cases where countries and governments have been willing to throw away American aid for political goals. Remember that the Iranian revolution threw away all the American aid and military sales. So merely to maintain that everything will be OK because of that money issue is not a satisfactory argument. In addition to that, keep in mind that Egypt is going to face a major economic problem for which there is no solution, and no amount of U.S. aid is going to resolve that problem. The price of food is going to continue to go up.

They are not going to be able to build new housing. They are not going to be able to handle the problem of unemployment. They're not going to be able to create jobs. This is the reality. So what happens when, as is fully predictable, Egypt’s government is unable to deliver on its promises and the country will go into crisis? What’s going to happen?

SM: What’s your impression of the West’s reaction to these changes taking place in the region?

BR: The things that I’m talking about are totally predicable things. And yes, they are being ignored in the media. Now the new line is that the Muslim Brotherhood are good guys and moderates, the problem is these radical jihadist Salafi groups. Muslim Brotherhood is good; jihadists are bad. But the Muslim Brotherhood is a jihadist group and is in an alliance with these groups. It’s ridiculous to make this distinction.

So basically we are going into a series of totally predictable crises in which there is no serious analysis of the problems, much less the solutions, by the U.S. government, media, experts, and the public debate generally.

And even those three crises leave aside other issues. It’s now June but the U.S. government has still not done anything on Syria at all. Sanctions on Iran are leaking, and we know the three main reasons why they are leaking—it’s China, Russia, and Turkey. And the U.S. government is doing nothing about that. In fact, it’s consciously permitting leaks to continue.

So we are facing a serious crisis of what I might call the return to the 1970s with Islamists in place of Arab nationalists. And again all of this is totally predictable.

SM: How should we be approaching these issues?

BR: What is needed is a strategy that recognizes that the principle regional problem is the challenge of revolutionary Islamism, and what is needed is for the United States to take the lead in developing an alignment that brings together the U.S., the Europeans, the relatively moderate Arab regimes, and Israel, a strategy that supports the oppositions in Turkey, Iran and Lebanon, that recognizes the enemies are Iran and Syria and Hamas and Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood and Iraqi insurgents, and then deal with that in the manner that the Soviet Union and its allies were dealt with in the Cold War. It’s very simple, and of course you have to get into the details but they are not going to do it.

SM: How should Israel respond?

BR: There are options in dealing with these threats. Israel can deal with this to a large extent successfully or as successfully as possible. The first thing, which is already happening, is the need to rebuild what in Israel is called the Southern Front, which is the defense along the border with Egypt. And that is going to cost a lot of money and people are going to have to do more reserve days, but it can be done.

Israel is going to have to deal with the flotilla, which arrives in mid-June. And Israel is going to have to deal with any attempts of people to cross its border. And what Israel does or doesn’t offer the PA in negotiation is pretty much one of the least important issues for Israel now. I mean it is not a central issue. It’s not an important issue.

The ideas held by Western governments, experts, and pundits are very much out of date. We’re not talking about what borders Israel has. We’re not talking about the future of Jerusalem. We’re talking about strategic issues. We have to deal with 2011; we’re not in the 1990s or 1980s anymore.

But by returning to the 1970s I mean going back to a time when Arab governments were radical or intimidated by the radicals; when Arab governments seriously contemplated and did go to war with Israel. When Arab governments did not respect the United States as the world’s sole superpower and movements genuinely believed they would lead a revolution throughout the region to transform their societies in a radical and undemocratic manner.

And today, Iran and Turkey have joined in that destabilizing set of beliefs and policies.

SM: Is the administration of Barack Obama putting too much pressure on Israel?

BR: There is no real U.S. pressure on Israel. The Israel-Palestinian issue isn’t the core problem in the region. It’s a sideshow. It’s not important.

At any rate people focused on the wrong sentence in Obama’s speech. They focused on the sentence about the pre-1967 borders. The important sentence was the sequential plan, which was that, Israel turns over the entire West Bank to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for some unspecified security guarantees and you have a de facto Palestinian state.

What’s important is NOT this sentence:

“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

But these two sentences:

“The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.”

Obama says, again it is important to repeat it: Israel should withdraw to the 1967 border, Palestine should become a non-militarized state. And then the two sides will negotiate about refugees, Jerusalem, and final borders. So Obama was calling for the 1967 borders, with Israel giving up all of its bargaining leverage, and then—in reality we should say maybe—the independent Palestinian state would agree to some border swaps. In effect that means that Israel will return to its 1967 borders without “mutually agreed swaps.”

In effect, what Obama told the PA is: No, don’t go through the UN. We’ll give you what you want in exchange for very small things. Of course, according to Obama’s plan the PA will have to agree to security guarantees and demilitarization, both of which they can disregard as an independent state.

And what’s Israel going to do when it’s back on its 1967 borders and the state of Palestine builds an army and lets cross-border terrorist attacks take place? Launch an invasion of a neighboring country? Oh, the world will love that! Depend on Obama to force the state of Palestine to keep its commitments?

He won’t even force the PA to keep its commitment not to partner with a group that rejects the entire peace process framework (Hamas) or to force Egypt to maintain its commitments under the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, guaranteed by the United States.

Obama has no credibility and no country—not just Israel, but nobody—can rely on him.

At the same time, though, there is no pressure on Israel at all from the U.S. government. Obama is telling the truth when he says that in fact the security relationship is quite good. So his talk about the peace process is just words. But his conduct of U.S. strategy is dangerously real.

SM: What should the administration do with regard to Syria?

BR: The U.S. should call for the downfall of the Syrian and Iranian government. Even a purely verbal policy is superior to what we have now. It would encourage the oppositions in those countries. These people are publicly saying, “Nobody is supporting us. Nobody is helping us.”

And it’s true. The first step is a purely declaratory policy. Whatever possibility there is of an Islamist takeover in Egypt and Libya, there is less such prospect of Syria. For one thing lets remember something here, the Sunni Muslim Arab population of Tunisia is 100 percent. The Sunni Muslim Arab population of Egypt is 90 percent. The Sunni population of Syria is 60 percent. And from all my research I believe there are proportionately more moderate democrats among Sunni Arab Muslims in Syria than in Egypt. Is the Muslim Brotherhood a threat in Syria? Yes, definitely. Is it less of a threat than in virtually every other country except for Lebanon? Also yes.

SM: Does the Syrian opposition have what it takes to overthrow Assad?

BR: Probably not. But maybe. And they should be supported and the people of Iran should be supported (and those in Lebanon and Turkey also should be supported). And at present none of them are being supported by the United States.

Why have a policy of being nice to your enemies and nasty to your friends. But again, when we talk about this, it is not just a matter of Israel. It is a matter of wide variety of political forces.

SM: What is the future of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty?

BR: For Egypt, the end of the peace treaty in practice is a certainty. Here’s the problem: if Egypt no longer adheres to the treaty but do not publicly say that, then it becomes a judgment call for the United States. In other words, the Obama administration will have to decide whether or not it believes that the treaty is being kept.

So we can get a situation where for all practical purposes the treaty has been torn up, and the United States refuses to acknowledge it.

We are facing a situation where on June 6 the PA is going to announce a new cabinet, and they will try to do it in a way that they can say, “Oh, no, Hamas is not part of the government.” The U.S. government then will have to interpret whether or not it deems Hamas to be part of the government. And therefore whether or not that triggers something having to do with U.S. aid to the PA.

The Obama administration can say no, Hamas is not part of the government, we should continue to give aid. Then Congress is going to have to decide whether or not it views the PA to be in violation of the congressional law on aid and relations with the PA. Will there be a massive battle between Congress and the administration? Again, this is something that is terribly predictable, and people are not dealing with it.

The Obama administration can say that, Hamas or no Hamas, supporting the PA is a vital U.S. interest. It can, indeed already is, saying the same thing about Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanon’s government. Soon it will have to decide on the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s government, though Obama has preemptively said that it is OK with him. So the U.S. government will have no problem with the participation in governments of three different groups calling for genocide against the Jews and jihad against America.

What truly amazes me is that all of these things are visible. And yet people in positions of power—political, media, and intellectual—are just pretending it’s not happening.

Seth Mandel is a writer specializing in Middle Eastern politics and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Horowitz Freedom Center.