Erbil Meeting Report
KRG Pres. Massoud Barzani with MEI staff (see caption below)

The Middle East Dialogue is a regional Track II forum that meets twice a year and brings together current and former officials and senior experts from the Middle East, the United States, Russia, China, and the EU to discuss emerging political & security trends in the region.  What follows is a report from the latest meeting of the Dialogue in Erbil, Iraq, on March 30-31, 2014, led by MEI’s Director of Track II Dialogues Randa Slim and VP for Policy and Research Paul Salem.

Executive Summary

The Middle East Institute’s Dialogue on New Political and Security Dynamics Shaping the Arab Region met March 30 and 31 at the Rotana Hotel in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.  It brought together experts and policymakers to discuss under Chatham House rules developments in Syria, the Gulf, Iraq and Egypt with a view to improving international and regional cooperation in dealing with current Middle East challenges.  

Main conclusions include the following:  

Syria

  • The failed Geneva 2 negotiations produced some positive steps forward:  most of the armed opposition (other than Jabhat al Nusra, ISIS and other extremists) accepted the idea of a negotiated settlement, the opposition put forward a detailed proposal on how to start negotiations on a transitional government, and opposition supporters Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar made it clear in sideline discussions that they too will accept a negotiated solution.
  • There is growing battle fatigue among the revolution’s supporters, but the regime is still wedded to a military solution. All participants were concerned about the possibility of state collapse, havens for extremists, and what comes after Bashar al Assad, who is part of the problem and not part of the solution.  Regime-conducted elections will not help.  There is a need for supporters of dialogue without preconditions from both sides to emerge as a third way.    
  • This could be encouraged by Track 2 (or 1.5) framework to discuss outside official channels details of what a political solution would entail.  
  • Such a dialogue should involve people familiar with the views of the P5 (permanent UN Security Council members) as well as the regional powers (R5: Iran, Saudi Arabia or GCC, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan).  
  • There is growing consensus on guiding principles for dialogue:  preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Syria and its people as well as the continuity of its state institutions, engaging all Syrian stakeholders in a political process about the future of the country, basing decisions on majority rule but with strong protection and guarantees for minorities, the army and the civil service, and ending any haven in Syria for terrorism, clearly defined.
  • Key questions for discussion include how to sequence the steps in a transition (agreement on principles, ceasefire, deployment of observers, humanitarian assistance, formation of a transitional government, elections). Discussion of guarantees will be necessary:  for the opposition about the length and character of the transition and for the regime about a role in future power sharing. There should be no preconditions for such a discussion, which should be conducted out of the public eye and without prejudice to official efforts.  

The Gulf

  • The GCC countries, assessing that the Arab regional system is proving itself incapable of managing the Syria crisis, are concerned with Iranian support for the regime as well as Iranian subversion of Gulf Arab states by means of proxies.  They are also fearful that a successful nuclear negotiation will ignore Iranian support for terrorists.  U.S. and European engagement is vital to preventing Iran from establishing hegemony in the Gulf.
  • Iran believes the GCC countries have been encouraging attacks by the U.S. Iran wants de-escalation and creation of a Gulf-wide security architecture that includes the GCC, Iraq and Iran. 

Iraq

  • Iraq faces growing sectarian (Sunni/Shia) and ethnic (Arab/Kurdish) tensions, aggravated by an increasingly authoritarian prime minister unwilling to share or decentralize power.  
  • The Kurdistan Regional Government is facing serious problems paying its employees due to a cutoff of financial resources by Baghdad.  This is giving the Kurds greater incentive to ensure that they can explore for, produce and export oil and gas without Baghdad’s approval, as well as receive the revenue without Baghdad interference.  
  • Large parts of Sunni-majority provinces in western and northern Iraq are now under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which also seeks to control the flow of oil from Kirkuk to the Beiji refinery.  
  • The Najaf Marja’aiya has an important role to play in trying to reduce sectarian tensions and supporting peaceful resolution of Iraq’s internal strife.

Egypt

  • For those who support Egypt’s new constitution approved in a January, its May presidential election represents an opportunity to stabilize a chaotic situation and return the country to normality. Muslim Brotherhood supporters will be reintegrated into the political system, but there is no near-term possibility of reconciliation with the Brotherhood as an organization. 
  • If General Sisi is elected president as anticipated, he will face colossal economic challenges and will need to lower expectations, so as to limit the strain on army resources and try to avoid widespread disappointment.  
  • Sisi will want to preserve good relations with the Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are supporting Egypt financially.  He will seek support from the U.S. as well but hesitate about relations with Russia, despite the current courtship.  His political and economic policies are still unclear.     
  • The GCC supports Egypt’s efforts to stabilize its internal situation and meet the aspirations of its people. Egypt’s weakness advantages Iran in several ways.

Full Report

The Middle East Institute’s Dialogue on New Political and Security Dynamics Shaping the Arab Region met March 30 and 31 at the Rotana Hotel in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. It brought together experts and policymakers to discuss developments in Syria, the Gulf, Iraq and Egypt with a view to improving international and regional cooperation in dealing with current Middle East challenges.  

All participants, including those who have official roles, participated in their personal capacities with the understanding no statements would be attributed to identified individuals, in accordance with “Chatham House” rules.   Participants included citizens from the Middle East (including Turkey and Iran as well as the Gulf) and major international powers, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council.  Policy recommendations from the group will be communicated to government officials, in addition to being published here.  

The Middle East today is a deeply troubled region where some Arab countries have initiated transitions away from post-colonial autocracy.  The ultimate outcomes are in doubt.  But it is already clear that the turbulence exceeds the region’s own capacity to manage the transformations in progress.  The diplomatic, political, economic and cultural resources of outside powers—including the US, Europe, Russia and China—will play important roles.  How to combine regional capacities with international resources and norms requires a thorough airing of issues at many levels, official and unofficial.  

Syria: a multi-tiered conflict needs multi-tiered solutions

The Syrian conflict is central to the region.  There is no sign of an end to more than three years of war. No one is “winning.” The UN-sponsored Geneva 2 negotiations failed to make progress.  A negotiated political solution is far off.  The Ukraine crisis has now caused a deterioration of US/Russian relations that will make Syria diplomacy even more difficult.  

All participants nevertheless agreed that they would like to see Syria stabilized and transformed from its current state of chaos to a situation that reflects the peaceful aspirations of the majority of its people. The Assad regime cannot remain in power and expect to regain control of the entire territory. The war will not end until there is a political transition. Many participants were worried about what comes after Assad.

The reality today is dramatic. The pace of events in Syria is quick, unrelenting and deadly. The ingredients for mass atrocity and genocide are already present in the daily lives of millions of Syrians, who are prisoners of a Kafka-esque situation. Syria is a hotbed of dangerous extremist forces, especially in al Raqa and al Hasaka provinces, who will pose global risks for many years to come. Extremism is a real and present danger. Violence, displacement, deprivation, distrust, and sectarian and political fragmentation are rampant. Sectarian segregation is growing. High levels of mistrust between different components of Syrian society make dialogue difficult. As one participant put it, “Syrians don’t talk to each other.” The ingredients for genocide are present in Syria. There is a giant gap between what is going on inside Syria and the diplomatic discussions in Geneva, where the cynical positions of the regime, the opposition forces and the international community participants were all too apparent.   

There is nevertheless wide agreement among international actors as well as most Syrians on some key objectives:

  • preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Syria and its people as well as the continuity of its state institutions, including the army and the civil service
  • engaging all Syrian stakeholders in a political process about the future of the country allowing all Syrians to participate in deciding the future of their country
  • basing such decisions on majority rule but with strong protection and guarantees for minorities  
  • ending any haven in Syria for terrorism, clearly defined

There is a genuine grassroots revolution occurring in Syria, but one in which only a numerical minority has so far taken up arms, which other Syrians reject. The silent majority of Syrians wants a political solution, as does the international community. The Syrian army, despite all that has happened, has a role to play in the political transition, as do other state institutions. Participants pointed out the importance of giving guarantees to the Syrian security establishment and the Syrian army leadership that they will have a role in the future power structure. Demonizing the army will not facilitate the process of change in Syria. Minorities look at the Syrian army as the guarantor of their rights and security. Reasonable people in both the opposition and the regime need to be talking with each other and looking for a third way, a bridge to a stable and democratic Syria.  

The international community should boost moderates, who want to protect civilians and put the country on a peaceful transition path. The regime should be expected, including by its supporters, to cooperate in confidence building measures to ensure assistance to Syrians and prevent atrocities. It is not doing so at present but instead is beginning to behave like North Korea: denying atrocities, mistreating its own citizens and defying international norms against killing civilians. To prevent this from getting worse and to break the deadlock, all concerned need to explore middle ground.  

Current diplomacy lacks agreement on whether President Assad may play a role in the transition and specificity about how a political transition should occur. This is what Geneva 2 was supposed to produce: a solution for Assad and a transitional government subject to mutual vetoes by the opposition and the regime. This would include power sharing with some regime officials as well as security arrangements to protect Alawites, Christians and other minorities, as well as guarantees by international and regional powers. A primary task of this transitional administration would be the fight against Al Qaeda and other extremists, who are a growing threat regionally and globally. One participant underlined that it is the revolutionaries who are now fighting against Al Qaeda and other extremists.  He argued forcefully that they should be assisted in this effort, even before a political settlement is reached.  

Geneva 2 failed, but three positive elements emerged:

  • Most of the armed opposition (other than Jabhat al Nusra, ISIS and other extremists) accepted the idea of a negotiated settlement; their representatives were present in Geneva, though not in the talks.   
  • The Syrian Opposition Coalition put forward a detailed proposal on how to start negotiations on a transitional government that did not say Assad had to depart immediately, though that is what they want.
  • Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which have supported the opposition, made it clear in discussions outside Geneva that they too will accept a negotiated solution.  
  • Further discussions between the regime and the opposition cannot be expected to produce results in the immediate future. This leaves open two possible future paths:
  • A negotiation among internationals and regional powers to develop a detailed agreement for eventual presentation to the warring parties.  
  • An effort by internationals or regional powers to adjust the balance of power on the ground, so as to enable a negotiation to succeed.  

The P5 cooperation in Yemen, which produced a so-far successful transition in cooperation with regional powers, provides a possible model for the framework needed in Syria.  Such a joint effort, including Iran as well as Saudi Arabia (or GCC), Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan (the R5) might succeed. One participant emphasized the importance of not setting preconditions for the negotiations but rather settling all issues in the negotiation process.  The agenda of a P5 + R5 meeting should include

  • security and terrorism;
  • political transition.  

It will be difficult to deal with security and terrorism in isolation from political transition. The question of Assad’s fate is unavoidable. But are the Syrian regime’s supporters willing to exert the pressure necessary to implement a P5 + R5 decision?

Determining the will of the Syrian people is one of the key current challenges. The warring parties, regional powers and P5 have little idea what Syrians want, as polling is difficult under current circumstances. One possibility is to bring key Syrians out of the country to discuss their future, which will require social as well as political reconciliation.  

Participants thought no election in the foreseeable future can be legitimate, free or fair, given the conditions inside Syria. Sequencing will be important. A premature election may well increase social tensions and worsen the situation. Opposition supporters thought agreement on principles should come first (including equal citizenship and official recognition of pluralism), then a ceasefire (perhaps starting with local ceasefires) monitored by international observers, ample humanitarian assistance, implementation of the principles through formation of a transitional governing body and in due course UN-organized elections. Others thought the Assad regime’s plan to hold an election in May could initiate a transition process, or that ceasefires should come before principles. Agreement on a plan of action in a P5 + R5 forum might lead to a postponement of elections.   

Participants did not agree on the origins of extremism in Syria. For some, it is a consequence of the Assad regime’s over-reaction, reminiscent of Algeria in the 1990s, in trying to repress peaceful political activity. Extremism feeds on the Shia/Sunni divide as well as the divide between the regime and the Syrian people. For some participants, Hizbollah involvement in Syria, without which Assad would not survive, has heightened sectarian tension and incentivized Gulf financial support to revolutionaries.  Other participants thought Hizbollah’s involvement necessary to protect Lebanon. It can end only when Gulf financing of terrorism ends. Sectarian war they thought is not in Hizbollah’s interest. Whatever the explanation, all agreed the spiral of escalation is causing tragic, destabilizing consequences.  

The Syrian war is not only a civil war brought on by revolutionary aspirations but also a regional and international crisis with profound political as well as security repercussions within and beyond Syria.  Terrorism is a symptom of the blocked transition. It should be solved, not just managed. The solution has to be a political one within Syria brought about in part by regional and international pressure on both the revolutionaries and the Assad regime. The warring parties inside Syria need to convince their regional supporters to support negotiations. Arming and financing of both should end. Saudi/Iranian dialogue is vital. One possibility is a UN Security Council resolution imposing a regionally agreed political solution on both opposition and regime. In the absence of a political solution, the war may continue for years more, collapsing the state.  

Several participants expressed doubts about US commitment to regime change in Syria. Does Washington seek Assad’s fall, or does it merely want to weaken the regime? Washington is hesitating much more than it did in Iraq in 2003, when it helped the Iraqi opposition to unify with clear leadership under an explicitly secular umbrella. In the absence of decisive US action, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Jordan may find ways to intervene, as Syria did in Lebanon in the 1990s. Washington might also intervene if a Chapter 7 UN Security Council resolution provided a mandate.  

The Iranian perspective on Syria focuses on the role of the international community in the search for a solution and the UN as mediator. Direct Iran/US cooperation, as in Afghanistan, has less likelihood of success in Syria because there are Arab countries who do not want to see that kind of cooperation or improvement in US/Iran relations. 

The group examined several wars often proposed as historical analogies to Syria:  Lebanon, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. All are sui generis. The Taef agreement for Lebanon is perhaps the closest parallel to Syria, but its sectarian basis should not be transferred. These other wars illustrate the difficulty of achieving a political settlement, the positive contributions of decentralized governance and power sharing at various levels, the long time periods needed to align internal and external factors in favor of peaceful settlement, and the importance of third party enforcers (Syria in Lebanon, NATO in Kosovo and Bosnia, the US-led coalition in Iraq). Outcomes in these other cases include weak central executive authority, sectarian and ethnic organization of political life, and lack of transitional justice.  

The fragmentation of the Syrian political opposition was a concern for many participants.  Diplomats understand states, not revolution, which they fear. They want certainty, not uncertainty.  But left to their own devices Syrians at the local level may be able to work out accommodations that help to stabilize the situation. Local councils in opposition-controlled areas have legitimacy for many Syrians. They are talking with regime forces every day. But if the war continues, Islamist factions, including extremists, will strengthen further, making the negotiation and post-war efforts all the more difficult, especially if a decentralized political framework results. That will make concerted policies against terrorism more difficult.  

Others expressed concern about the regime. It doesn’t understand the language of compromise or try to bridge the gap with its opponents. It is glad to see the emergence of extremists, who justify its brutality, which in turn helps extremists to recruit. This downward spiral helps the regime to continue playing what it regards as a zero sum game, which it frames as an existential one for the Alawites. The humanitarian consequences not only for Syria but for the region are catastrophic. Assad has created problems that will endure for a decade or more. Iran, some participants thought, will eventually regret its support for the regime, which has undermined its position in the region.  

Tensions in the Gulf

The conflagration in Syria is one among a number of factors heightening tensions throughout the Gulf, where the leading regional protagonists are Iran and Saudi Arabia. The ongoing nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran, as well as the Arab uprisings, are making Saudi Arabia and the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which suffers also from internal frictions, nervous. The regime change wars the US led in Iraq and Afghanistan made Iran nervous. China’s rise as an economic and military power that depends heavily on the Gulf for oil supplies is also an important development with implications for the region.  

The GCC views the current security environment as perilous. With instability in Egypt and war in Syria, the Arab regional framework is disintegrating. There is no regional security architecture capable of managing the current crises, which leads to their globalization. Non-Arab regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel are playing a growing role, as are non-state actors like Hezbollah. Sectarian tensions are increasing, fueling not only the proxy war in Syria but also a general atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Extremists are thriving.  

The GCC welcomed the election of Iranian President Rouhani but remains skeptical about the depth of change in Tehran, where the president’s weight relative to other institutions like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is in doubt. Well aware of Rouhani’s charm offensive, Gulf Arabs are still wondering whether there will be major reform in Iran, economic or political. Is the change only about tone and style, or will it be substantive well?

Tehran’s role as a trans-national champion of Shiism raises doubt in the GCC about whether Iran can be dealt with as a normal state. Will Rouhani’s Iran continue to claim a role as universal defender and leader of Shiism against Sunnism, which Tehran stigmatizes as promoting terrorism? That role, which is not endorsed by the highest Shiite Marja’aiya in Najaf, makes normal state to state relations impossible because it undermines the loyalty of Shiite citizens in the Arab Gulf states. The Najaf Marja’aiya by contrast limits the demands of loyalty from Shiites to the religious sphere. It encourages political loyalty to the states of which Shiites are citizens.  

The GCC welcomed the interim nuclear agreement but disliked its emergence from “clandestine” talks, disapproved the lack of prior consultation, and was disappointed in the failure to address intervention by Iran and its proxies in the Gulf. The GCC wants any permanent agreement with Iran to be comprehensive, because it fears American retrenchment will put too much power in Iran’s hands. Nuclear issues are not just technical. They have political and strategic implications, potentially rebalancing Gulf relations in a way that will weaken an increasingly fractious GCC, which suffers from frictions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, relative to Iran.  

So far as the Arab uprisings are concerned, the GCC experts still believe its monarchies have responded relatively well to their citizens. Morocco has set a good example of serious, but gradual, reform. Kuwait has taken important steps toward parliamentary government. The Bahrain rebellion was a genuine one, not an Iranian plot and requires a more serious response. There is no doubt the paradigm of relations between rulers and ruled is shifting. Populations are increasingly assertive in demanding freedom of expression. Women are demanding equal rights. The ruling families may dislike what they saw happen in Egypt, but the grassroots are sympathetic with its revolution. The monarchies know they will need to strike new political deals with their populations over the next 5 to 10 years.  

Iran is approaching the Gulf with confidence. Washington openness to engagement with Tehran is just six months old. It already vaunts two serious achievements: destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and the interim nuclear agreement. The US is retreating from the Third World. It will remain a security guarantor to the GCC but no longer needs so much oil from the Gulf. It wants to resolve tensions with Iran and pivot to the Asia Pacific.  

The Iranian view is that continued confrontation by the GCC will fail. Engagement is the only way. The GCC exaggerates Shia/Sunni confrontation, which is not in Iran’s interest. The Islamic Republic has good relations even with (Christian) Armenia, with which it has sided in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute against Shiite-majority Azerbaijan. Iran’s engagement with other countries is done on the basis of strategic interests, not religious ideology. The GCC is cooperating with Zionists. The GCC has pushed the US to attack Iran and refuses regional cooperation. While Iran has been willing to share nuclear technology, it has heard only rejection from GCC, which encourages the United States to attack Iran.  There have been 30 years of hostility and mistrust.  

n the Iranian view, the way to lay a new foundation is regional cooperation among the GCC, Iran and Iraq. Security assurances should come within this framework. The common threats are organized crime and terrorism. Iran, which has both nuclear and chemical weapons capability, would be willing to negotiate a package deal, including a WMD-free zone for Iran, Iraq and the GCC as well as other regional security arrangements (like a conventional arms treaty) and removal of all cultural, economic and social limits on relations between Iran and the GCC.  

An American participant, asked to elaborate on US policy, said:

  • The Americans don’t seek confrontation with Tehran but Washington is serious about Iran not getting a nuclear weapon. There is a broad political consensus on this goal across a wide spectrum of Democrats and Republicans. No means of achieving the goal have been ruled out.
  • Washington is happy with the interim nuclear agreement, which is not linked to the regional situation. There will be no tradeoff between the nuclear issue and Syria. The US understands and distrusts the role of the IRGC and Iran’s proxies in Syria.
  • American relations with the GCC constitute a vital national security interest. Washington will support a stronger regional role for the GCC.  
  • The Arab Gulf countries will face demands for political reform, human rights and democracy that the US has supported after the end of the Cold War. Washington is serious about the need for dialogue in Bahrain and about support for the gradual, peaceful political evolution in Yemen.  
  • America’s pivot to the Asia Pacific merely recognizes reality. It is already happening in American business and diplomacy, but it doesn’t come at expense of Gulf or Middle East.  

A Chinese participant said Beijing has been interested in Saudi Arabia as a priority partner in the Middle East, but the Arab uprisings cooled relations over the last few years, due to differences over regional developments. Things are now improving. Recently, Crown Prince Salman visited China, which wants a free trade agreement with the GCC, energy cooperation and counter-terrorism cooperation, in particular with regard to extremists returning to China from Syria. China already has strong energy and economic cooperation with Iran, whose right to peaceful use of nuclear energy it recognizes. Beijing opposes additional sanctions or military attack. The usefulness of China’s participation in the P5+1 nuclear talks is much debated in China, and there is some concern Iran will give up on China and look more to the West. But the Supreme Leader has made it clear cooperation with China is strategic for Iran.  Beijing wants to expand infrastructure and security cooperation with Iran and Afghanistan, which are important parts of the “new silk road.” In Syria, Beijing sees that Iran/Saudi competition is creating problems, so it wants a comprehensive, collective security arrangement for the region.

A Russian participant emphasized that Moscow is debating the balance between justice and democracy. The former might be more important in some situations than the latter. He also wondered about the position of Iraq within the Gulf, whether business there could continue as usual, how generational change (especially of the Saudi monarchy) will affect the situation, and whether the idea of a Gulf Union is dead.  

An Iraqi participant expressed sympathy with Iran’s security concerns and said Tehran has not created the problems in Bahrain. Iraqi Shiites see Saudi Wahabism as profoundly anti-Shiite. Najaf’s religious leadership insists that Shiites be loyal to the countries of which they are citizens.  It is the cradle of Shiism and does not support pan-Shiite ideology, or the Iranian wilayat al faqih. The UAE has made Shiites feel at home. Hostility to Shiites in other Gulf countries serves Shiites on a silver tray to the Iran, enabling it to expand its influence. The Gulf has to deal with Iran as a peer. Iraq finds itself a battlefield between Shiites and Sunnis. What it wants to do is to act as a bridge and encourage understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  

An Iranian participant said Tehran wants to expand relations with the GCC to avoid foreign (mainly US) intervention in the Gulf, which it regards as vital to its internal security. Iran is not trying to dominate the GCC but rather to extend the “resistance block” in a way that will increase Iranian security.   Tehran is reacting to the anti-Iranian strategy of the US supported by GCC. Iran will change its policy when the US gives up on regime change. There has been no real change yet in Washington, which is still trying to contain Iran through the GCC. Tehran can offer some accommodation in Syria if the P5+1 nuclear talks are successful. Other regional issue should come after that.  

An Egyptian participant observed that the situation in the Gulf is more difficult because of the absence of Cairo from the international scene. No one, he thought, can stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but no one can stop Saudi Arabia either. This would not be good. The GCC feels threatened by Iran. Egypt stands with the GCC, which has two legitimate concerns: the Muslim Brotherhood’s relations with Iran as well as the pan-Shiite ideology Iran advocates. It is important that Shiites feel that they are citizens with full rights in the countries in which they live. Iran helped in the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Tehran’s own account. The US may have a reduced interest in GCC oil, but stability of the region is still an issue for Washington because of Israel and terrorism.  

GCC participants said no one wants war with Iran. The GCC is not conspiring to encourage US strikes. Relations with Iran are not all black and white: Kuwait and Iran have had positive relations since 1991. Iran and Qatar have good relations. The GCC needs to respect differences and diversity, overcoming religious issues with respect for human rights and equal citizenship. Engagement with the new Iranian leadership is highly desirable, especially for Saudi Arabia.  

But there are also legitimate concerns and an atmosphere of distrust: Iran uses the Muslim Brotherhood against the Arab Gulf states, it lumps the GCC together with the US and sends hostile signals by threatening attacks and meeting ostentatiously with the Arab Shiite oppositions. The IRGC in particular is a problem. The GCC sees Iran as a big regional power next door and a revolutionary Islamic state that represents a trans-boundary threat. The GCC, trading nations without an ideological or military agenda, will not develop soon into a Union but want to expand relations with China and Russia in order to diversify away from the US. Tehran needs to stop talking at the GCC and start talking with the GCC. It also needs to be sensitive to the worries Arab and other Muslim states have about Iranian relations with their Shiite populations, especially in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Somalia. The sanctions against Iran are justified because of its nuclear ambitions.  

Iraq in trouble

An Iraqi participant said Baghdad is looking to restore its historical role as a heavyweight in the region, whose states sowed sectarian and ethnic strife after the US invasion (Iran helped the Shia and Kurds while Turkey and the Arab Gulf countries helped the Sunni). Nor is the GCC being helpful now.  The moment is ripe for an Iraqi resurgence, as Egypt is preoccupied with its internal issues and Iraq’s oil reserves rival those of Saudi Arabia. Iraq has the natural gas Europe needs. Turkey will be prepared to ship it there. But there are serious obstacles: terrorism (in particular from Al Qaeda), relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil and Baghdad, and other internal political frictions.  

The internal frictions center on Prime Minister Maliki, who is looking to renew his mandate in the April elections. He has centralized power, enlarged the security forces under his control, attacked Sunni politicians, angered the KRG and lost support among the Shiites. Iraq has undertaken little political and economic reform. Extremists are exploiting sectarianism, which both Shiite religious leaders and Sunni religious scholars deplore and try to contain. The strife in Anbar province is not between Shiites and Sunnis, but between Sunnis and Maliki. Al Qaeda, in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is in control there because Maliki has lost legitimacy among the Sunnis.   

The KRG also has problems with Maliki, who unsuccessfully sent the Iraqi army to capture Kirkuk and has failed to fulfill political and budgetary commitments to Kurdistan. In the absence of a hydrocarbons law, which has been the subject of negotiation for many years, the KRG has unilaterally signed oil and gas contracts, including with foreign countries. Oil sector management within Iraq at the national level has failed. The KRG feels Iraq cannot survive as a centralized state of the sort Maliki wants.  It will collapse. Many Sunnis are coming to the same conclusion. The KRG, which has repaired its relations with Turkey, feels confident it can go it alone if need be.  

Iraqis are concerned about the conflict in Syria not because of Iranian pressure but rather because they fear it will spread to Iraq. Ninewa and Anbar are in ISIS hands. Salaheddin province is headed in that direction. There are a lot of gray zones where ISIS and other groups operate. ISIS is trying to control the pipeline between Kirkuk and Beiji. The Iraqi army is incapable of fighting ISIS, which claims to be the protector of Sunnis. Sunni tribal leaders have been unwilling to help Maliki. The bombardment of Fallujah has been ineffective. Even Karada in central Baghdad is no longer secure, despite the heavy security presence there.

Many Iraqis doubt the April elections will take place. The election law has been changed to allow smaller electoral units and open lists, which is expected to encourage turnout and allow smaller political parties to gain more seats. But the Elections Commission has resigned (and since the late March meeting has been re-instated). If the elections do take place, Maliki has the upper hand and will have largest block in parliament, even if somewhat smaller than in the current parliament. Still, he may not be able to form a government. The Kurds don’t want to support him. The Najaf Marja’aiyah is skeptical of Maliki because he has not performed well. It will be up to his Shiite rivals to decide whether to back him, or instead to join with Sunni and Kurdish parties against him. That would represent a turn in the non-sectarian direction, if it happens. But it is unclear whether Maliki would leave power, or where he would go. The slow transition to democracy is still a work in progress.

GCC participants are alarmed at the situation in Iraq. They deny financing terrorism there and believe that Maliki’s strength is due in part to Iranian support.

Iranian participants said they want an independent Iraq that is stable, stays united, and is friendly to Iran. There are important historical, religious, trade and cultural ties between Iran and Iraq.  The prime minister should be Shia, which requires that the Shia blocks remain allied. Maliki may not be the right man to do that, because of his strained relations with Kurds, Sunnis and the other Shiites.  Tehran supported Maliki in 2005, but they are not wedded to him. An overly centralized Iraq frightens Iran because historically a strong Baghdad has always represented a threat to Iran.  

Egypt: Trying to recover

An Egyptian participant supportive of the July dismissal of President Morsi reviewed the phases of the revolution and the difficult situation in which Egypt finds itself more than three years later. He thought the January constitutional referendum an important turning point on the way to recovery, as will be next month’s presidential election. While some in the Muslim Brotherhood are still trying to deny legitimacy to the current regime, others both in the Brotherhood and among other Islamist groups want to accept the new reality and work within it. It was a mistake for the government that took over in July to make enemies of dissenters, to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, and to fail to deal effectively with the economic crisis. National reconciliation, in particular between the Egyptian state and the Muslim Brotherhood, is no longer feasible in the short term. What is more realistic is to re-assimilate those members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are willing.

The upcoming elections will be a one-on-one contest between Field Marshall Sisi, who is the heavy favorite, and businessman Hamdeen Sabbahi, who has little hope of winning but seeks to emerge from the contest a credible leader of the secular opposition. Sisi’s supporters view him as a savior, even though his economic platform and political alliances are unknown. Expectations are too high. Sisi has not yet presented a political platform. He is rumored to be an Arab nationalist with geopolitical ambitions who favors a capitalist economy.  

Political instability is likely to continue. From the Islamist perspective, Sisi is a divisive figure.  As soon as he took off his uniform, critics across the political spectrum felt free to attack him. He would do well to rely on General Anan, who played a key role in the January 25 revolution but withdrew his candidacy for the presidency at last minute, to try to reconcile with the Islamist opposition, which views the General as a trustworthy interlocutor. This is vital for stability. On the economy and energy, Sisi realizes that bold structural reforms are needed, but Egyptians will not welcome them. Sisi would be wise to rely on the government, which he can change, rather than the presidency, to institute them.  The president will likely need to focus on internal security and rebuilding Cairo’s relations with Washington and Turkey. Even with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Sisi will face frictions over Syria, where he supports regime continuity, and over relations with Russia, which Sisi is trying to improve. One of the expected outcomes of the Egyptian-Russian rapprochement is Russian assistance in the energy sector, especially in civilian nuclear energy.

Closer to home, Cairo now has tense relations with Hamas in Gaza, where the Egyptian military has been destroying tunnels, but it is still unclear what his policy towards Israel will be. Egypt is facing problems with Syria because of weapons smuggling and with Libya because of mistreatment of Egyptian workers and the growing turmoil, which Cairo fears might overflow into Egypt.  

A Chinese participant underlined Beijing’s interest in improving relations with the Middle East in general and Egypt in particular. This is not a response to the US pivot but rather a necessity because of rapid Chinese growth and Chinese interest in infrastructure investments abroad, including in Israel, Iran and Kuwait. China is happy to cooperate with others outside the Asia Pacific, including in Egypt, on infrastructure (especially transportation), nuclear and solar energy, petrochemicals, hospitals, professional training, urban development and environmental technology. But there is competition for Chinese investment. Egypt has to make itself attractive as a gateway to Africa for Chinese companies, as it has done in the Suez industrial zone. 

A European participant took a much more downbeat tack on Egypt. What we are seeing is a counterrevolutionary coup to reverse the tide of history. It won’t work. Aspiring dictators like Maliki and Sisi are farcical. Egypt is already destabilized. Mistreatment of Bedouins in northern Sinai will backfire.  This is only the beginning. Dictatorship will create chaos and incentivize Islamic extremism. Egypt is headed for a scenario like Algeria in the 1990s. There will be no reconciliation. A coup is a coup.

An American participant noted that Washington has managed to perplex everyone in Egypt and the Middle East in general. It has vacillated between pursuing strategic American interests and promoting American values. In Syria President Obama has tried to avoid US involvement because he regards it as a strategic trap, but in Egypt his policy has been more value focused. Sisi wants to see the US more strategic. Young Egyptians want him ethical. Straddling the two causes failure in both.  

A Russian participant emphasized that Egypt is the biggest Arab country and will exert influence throughout the Arab world. Sisi’s election will strengthen secularist forces and enable rapprochement between Moscow and Cairo. But he is the last chance for Egyptian economic reform.    

The GCC, with the exception of Qatar, is supportive of the latest developments in Egypt. Arabs understand that Egyptians do not like change. They are not adventurous. The Muslim Brotherhood had hijacked the revolution and was not prepared to share power with others. Because the secularists failed to unite, Egyptians had two bad options in their first post-Mubarak presidential election (Morsi and Shafiq), so chose the less bad. Morsi underperformed. He had no vision of the state and no economic, political or administrative program.  The country was in upheaval. The Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational organization, showed little interest in the nation state. Egyptians, who lack democratic culture, want a pharaoh state based on rule of the individual. There is a real need to crack down on violence.  

The Iranian view is strikingly different. The July events were seen in Tehran as a new regional phenomenon: an intervention by Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The objective was to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is unclear whether the effort can be sustained. Even GCC money is not unlimited.  Iran, which had a strained relationship with Morsi when he was in power, nevertheless has good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in most of the region.

GCC participants rejected the notion that they had “intervened” in Egypt. They are supporting Egypt with investment, helping to ease its housing shortage and trying to ensure that Egypt does not slide into chaos. Egypt should not evolve in the direction of Syria or Libya. The GCC wants a stable Egypt back in the epicenter of the Arab regional system.  

One Iranian participant said Iran is a rising regional power—the only one not dependent for its security on others. It can reinvent itself at an election. The US is retreating from the Middle East. It won’t depart entirely, but its interests are mainly defensive. Its priorities now are the Iranian nuclear talks and the Israel/Palestine negotiations, leaving room for other players.  With the disappearance of Egypt from the regional stage for the next decade, Iran gains in at least four ways:

  • Egypt was its main competitor in the Arab world
  • Israel/Egypt relations will worsen
  • Iran/Muslim Brotherhood relations will improve
  • Hamas will be more dependent on Iran

An Egyptian participant replied to a number of inquiries. The mass death sentence handed down by a court in Minya will not be carried out. It will be rejected on appeal. The Egyptian military, operating outside its main area of competence, will find it difficult to deliver results and deplete its own resources during a Sisi presidency. It will aim for limited success. But there is unlikely to be a new rebellion, as the media is backing Sisi, who will promote labor-intensive projects. Much of the Muslim Brotherhood will be reintegrated in due course. Islamism will continue to be a factor in Egypt, but it will not win the numbers of seats it did in the first post-revolution election. Cairo’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue. They need each other. Tensions with Qatar will deepen and increase. Sisi is unlikely to improve relations with Iran.  
 

Photo caption (from left to right): MEI Vice President Paul Salem, MEI President Wendy Chamberlin, KRG President Massoud Barzani, Director of MEI's Track II Dialogues initiative Randa Slim, and MEI Adjunct Scholar Daniel Serwer.

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