Early solutions in the Middle East are like mirages on the desert horizon

The Middle East’s depressing political landscape presents an opportunity for the EU to make a greater contribution

A man walks amid tear gas during clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi following a demonstration in Cairo last Friday. Photograph: Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images

A man walks amid tear gas during clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi following a demonstration in Cairo last Friday. Photograph: Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images


A hundred years ago, an Arab spring was something in the suspension of a bicycle saddle. In a few years’ time its current incarnation may be just as obsolete.

Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria all had their moments in the sun but the spring has largely turned to winter. Iraq too continues to illustrate on an almost daily basis the folly and horrors of the 2003 US-UK invasion as Sunni-Shia antagonisms have killed at least 8,000 people this year alone to add to the close to half a million war-related deaths in the previous nine years. So much for George W Bush’s “mission accomplished”.

Syria has largely degenerated into a slugging match between the Assad government forces and various pro-al-Qaeda myrmidons, each vying with the other to perform greater atrocities and demonstrate maximum ruthlessness. One al-Qaeda group recently accidentally beheaded one of the other allied militia leaders, as he failed to realise he was in friendly hands and begged to be executed. They obliged.

It’s good to know that the Middle Ages are still alive and well in the Middle East. The prospect of an early political solution there seems to be receding like a desert mirage.

Egypt is a classic example of western doublethink and intellectual incoherence. While western countries raced to outdo each other in denouncing their former best friend in the region, Hosni Mubarak, for running a dictatorship (what did they think he had been running for most of his 30 years in power?), they remained largely silent as the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup.

Only it can’t be called a coup in the US since that would mean the government would be obliged to cut off all aid. (An alternative reading which I favour is that Morsi came to power on a false prospectus, having been elected on a platform of ruling for all Egyptians but then laying the foundations of a theocratic state.

Cavalier attitude
His cavalier attitude to democracy was best illustrated by his rewriting of the constitution after provoking the resignation or dismissing more than half of those who were supposed to be involved in drafting it, specifically women and representatives of the minorities.)

What US military aid ($1.3 billion) has been suspended has been replaced tenfold by contributions from the gulf states, who have not of course failed to notice that the West specialises in abandoning its former firm allies as soon as it deems it politically expedient to do so.

Russia has also returned to the frame. Its lamentable domestic human rights policies orchestrated by President Vladimir Putin stand in sharp contrast to foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s deft footwork both in putting together a package on the destruction of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons endorsed by the UN Security Council after two years of deadlock (largely of Russia’s making) and in orchestrating a “historic” rapprochement with Egypt.

After decades of coolness going back to the 1970s, Russia, in the words of one of its senior defence advisers, is now seeking to fill a hole in the regional architecture, exploit current US weakness and broaden its influence in the Middle East as its traditional friends, Syria and Libya, are, to put it at its mildest, in a mess. There has been some discussion too of the signature of a major arms deal worth $1 billion though, given the Egyptian military’s reliance on US equipment, this isn’t going to be a quick win.

The “historic” (that word again) interim agreement with Iran, where she agrees to suspend enriching uranium beyond what is needed for civilian nuclear power in return for about $7 billion dollars of sanctions relief, may yet come unstuck as Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has succeeded in seriously spooking the US Congress by denouncing the proposed deal as “the deal of the century” for Iran. Secretary of state John Kerry was forced to describe what was on offer to Iran as minimalist in terms of sanctions relief (“Ninety-five per cent of sanctions would remain in place”) to head off action in Congress. President Hassan Rouhani has certainly bought himself some time, about six months, in which to secure a comprehensive deal, which would lead to all sanctions being lifted, before being faced with criticism from both influential members of the mullocracy and the Revolutionary Guards. All of which should temper optimism about so-called historic deals.

Depressing picture
The wider Middle East still presents a depressing, if not totally bleak, picture. Having played a largely wrecking role over Syria in recent times, Russia has now rekindled its traditional attachment to the area. At the time of the original (cyclist’s) Arab spring, Russia was obsessed with control of the Dardanelles.

She still wants to keep her Mediterranean access through a Syrian, or perhaps now an Egyptian, port. She already has substantial investment in coastal areas of tiny Montenegro in the Balkans. And she clearly sees herself playing a far more assertive role in talks between Israel and Palestinians. This can only be to the good.

For too long the US has favoured only its Israeli clients in the search for a peace agreement. The Palestinians too need a major strategic player to support their negotiating position and achieve some kind of equilibrium. European Union foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton played a useful intermediary role in the Iran negotiations in Geneva. It would be encouraging to think the EU might play a serious role on the Palestinian question as well and do some heavy lifting. I suspect, however, that such a prospect merely takes us back to mirages in the sand.

Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford, was British ambassador to Ireland from 1999 to 2003

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