This week I set off for Turkey, the Turkish border with Syria, and — depending on circumstances — to rebel-controlled areas in Syria. I will continue on to Egypt, where a Muslim Brotherhood president is in charge.
I want to write about some of the toughest foreign policy challenges facing the next U.S. president. No question, many will originate in Middle Eastern countries. That fact was self-evident at the final presidential debate, where the sparring largely focused on how to handle the negative fallout from the Arab Spring.
Two years on, the demise of Mideast dictators and rise of “democracy” have produced a handful of elected Islamic governments with harder line militants pressing from the right. Meantime, the Syrian uprising has deteriorated into an ugly sectarian war that is spreading across the region, drawing in Sunni jihadis along with Iranian weapons and fighters.
Casting a shadow over it all, the nuclear program of Iran’s ayatollahs could suck us into another Mideast war. On the other hand, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, it could undermine his closest ally — Tehran.
So the next president will have to manage a bad Mideast situation and try to prevent it from deteriorating further (in hopes that the region will settle down over the next decade). On both counts, U.S. policy toward Syria and Egypt will be key.
Egypt is the test case on whether Washington can work with newly elected Islamic governments, whose outlook and values differ from ours, but with whom we do share some key interests. It will also test whether we can help disorganized Arab democrats without nurturing illusions about our capacity for social engineering? These are questions I’ll be asking members of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, as well as unhappy opposition activists, who fear the Islamists will produce a new variant of authoritarian regime.
In Turkey and along the Syrian border, I’ll be looking at what can (or can’t) be done to bring the Syrian civil war to a quicker and less disastrous conclusion. Can we help the more pragmatic Syrian factions shape the transition that will follow Assad’s fall?
I’ll be attending an opposition conference in Istanbul run by the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, headed by intellectual and activist Radwan Ziadeh. Its goal: to encourage a wide spectrum of civilian and military activists from inside and outside Syria to hammer out a plan for how to lead Syria through a transition to a new era.
The failure of the fractious and divided opposition to unify around one set of political leaders has complicated the task of aiding them. Despite continuous U.S. pressure, exiled leaders were slow to reach out to rebels on the ground, despite continuous U.S. pressure, which prevented the establishment of a government-in-exile.
The Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on nonviolent protesters spawned a military rebellion that has produced hundreds of Sunni village militias that are now pitted against thuggish militias from Assad’s Alawite (Shiite) sect. Into this maelstrom have rushed Sunni jihadis from other countries, including elements of al-Qaeda.
The war will only end, the Obama administration believes, when a credible opposition leadership reaches out to key Syrian communities that still support Assad — such as Alawites, Christians, and wealthy Sunni merchants. U.S. officials believe those communities might withdraw their support, precipitating Assad’s fall, if they were assured they’d have a future in a post-Assad Syria. Right now they fear they’d be driven out (or worse) by leaders of a new Islamic state.