On March 29, Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes briefed a group of MEF supporters in Beverly Hills on current trends in the Middle East. He found few positive developments.
Pipes first examined the “Arab upheavals.” (He rather dislikes the increasingly, depressingly inapt term “Arab Spring.”) We are mid-journey, but there is little cause for optimism. He focused on the two most consequential countries affected, Egypt and Syria.
Egypt has been under military rule since 1952, as Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all arose from the armed forces. The military retains power today and intends to keep it, despite the downfall of Mubarak. This will lead to intensifying conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is intent on seizing control of Egypt. The outcome of this struggle is uncertain, with the implication that the “Tahrir Square types” have been sidelined.
In Syria, Pipes predicted that the Assad family regime will inevitably fall. (He noted wryly that he’s been predicting this since 1987.) Since the 1960s the Alawis, a minority within the Shia minority, have been in power. This has been as difficult for the Sunni majority to swallow as a Jew becoming the Tsar would have been for 19th century Russians. As a result, the current political revolt could become a religious civil war.
In addition, international opposition to the Assad regime is hardening, while its friends are sidling toward the door: Iran’s support is softening, while Russia and China are offering diplomatic support, but not shipping arms to Damascus. Bashar Assad is not the skillful political tactician has father was; revelations about the frivolous internet shopping of Bashar and his wife are not helping their reputation. Pipes believes that the next Syrian regime is likely to be Islamist, but will break Syria’s alliance with Iran. Syrians can look forward to years of turmoil.
The United States doesn’t have very good policy options in Egypt or Syria, because we don’t really have any friends there. The Tahrir Square types still like us, but they lack political power. Pipes suggested these principles should guide American policy:
- Always support the Tahrir Square folks, who are relatively modern and moderate. We should do what we can to strengthen their position.
- Always oppose Islamists—they’re like fascists who always oppose our interests.
- Work with tyrants when they are aligned with our interests, and press them to liberalize. Such liberalization is a long-term project, something President George Bush didn’t sufficiently appreciate.
Turning to the question of Iran, Pipes stated that much of what we’re hearing may be disinformation aimed at Iran, and thus difficult to assess. For example, regarding the recent report that Azerbaijan agreed to provide bases for Israel from which to attack Iran, Pipes merely allowed that it would be “interesting, if true.”
It’s clear that the Iranian mullocracy wants the power and prestige of having nuclear weapons, and is willing to pay the political and economic price to acquire them. Economic sanctions could prevent this, if they led to a popular uprising. They’re worth trying, but it would be a mistake to assume that sanctions alone would be enough to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, America and Israel face a decision: whether to use force to stop the program, or let Iran get nuclear weapons. Pipes concluded that the consequences of military action, while serious, would be less severe than the consequences of a nuclear Iran.
Despite the world’s focus on Iran and its nukes, the most dramatic developments in the Middle East have been in Turkey. The laicist, Western-oriented politics created by Atatürk and guaranteed by the military are no more. Due to the peculiarities of Turkish electoral law, in 2002 Turkey’s Islamist party got over 60% of the seats in Parliament, although it received only about a third of the votes. Since then, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has supervised the Islamist transformation of Turkey. The military has signaled that it will not intervene, as it has in the past. Pipes reckons it likely that Turkey has had its last democratic election.
Turkey is thus no longer content to implement U.S. policy—it has its own foreign policy, which Pipes described as “neo-Ottoman,” an aggrandizing, sophisticated form of Islamism.
On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Pipes observed that not much is happening diplomatically. Since violence hasn’t worked for the Arabs, delegitimization is in vogue. It will be “interesting” to see what happens with tomorrow’s “March on Jerusalem.”
Regarding American policy, Barack Obama comes from a very left-wing, anti-Israel environment. He was a student of Edward Said at Columbia, and had radical friends in Chicago. But he sloughed off his radical associates on his way to the White House; as a matter of facts, his policies are not really that different from Bush’s. But if re-elected, the real Obama will emerge, his centrism discarded, the former radicalism revived.