Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan. He is the author of The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation (Yale University Press, 2008) and The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism (Yale University Press, 2014). Given Muasher’s experience in Middle Eastern affairs, in June Diwan spoke to him to get a general overview of the regional situation at a time of major upheavals, particularly after the visit to the region of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Michael Young: In May, Donald Trump embarked on his first international trip, coming to the Middle East, where he visited Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. How would you assess the visit generally? In the weeks since then what have been the general consequences of the trip?
Marwan Muasher: President Trump was received as a hero in Saudi Arabia, because of his stand against Iran and the so-called Islamic State and his lack of emphasis on issues such as democracy and human rights. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan see the new administration’s emphasis on security alone as a welcome departure from former president Barack Obama’s perceived stand as an appeaser of Iran. They also did not relish the possibility that Hillary Clinton, had she won, would have emphasized political reform issues. However, by viewing the challenges of the region mainly through a security mindset, Trump may have given the leaders of the region a false sense of confidence by allowing them to ignore the socio-economic challenges that led to the Arab uprisings in the first place.
With regard to the consequences of the trip, the current political rift with Qatar is seen in the region as a direct result of the U.S. president’s trip. Trump’s initial remarks against Qatar did not help, but the renewed emphasis on security might mean that the Saudis and their allies feel empowered to take bolder measures against countries seen as aiding radical groups, among them Iran and Qatar.
MY: Some observers argue that Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was characterized by a full-scale embrace of the Saudi vision for the region, particularly with regard to Iran. Yet at the same time the U.S. president has not gone back on the nuclear treaty with Tehran. What does this suggest about Trump’s actions in the future?
MM: Trump is still seen as the anti-Obama in the eyes of the Saudis. That means they are so far willing to ignore his stand against Muslims and his support for Israel. While Trump has not gone back on the nuclear treaty, and is indeed not expected to do so now, the Saudis hope he will maintain his tough stand against Iran, not only when it comes to the nuclear file, but also as it pertains to Iran’s interference in regional affairs. Trump is still enjoying a prolonged honeymoon among many Arab states, so long as other issues over which there is clear disagreement do not occupy center stage.
MY: Iran’s regional ambitions are shaping a number of Middle Eastern conflicts, as well as developments in several countries here. To your mind, can Iran succeed in its efforts to become a regional superpower, or are the country’s capacities overestimated?
MM: Iran’s role in the region has been the result both of its regional ambitions and the vacuum created by the weakness of the Arab regional political system. It is not a coincidence that the three major regional powers today are non-Arab: Iran, Turkey, and Israel. While Iran’s ambitions in the region cannot be denied, its role in such countries as Bahrain and Yemen is sometimes overstated. There is much to be done internally by the countries of the Gulf to treat their Shi‘a population on an equal footing rather than to exclusively place the blame for their internal challenges on Iranian interference.
MY: One of the major tension points today is southeastern Syria, with an implicit race taking place between the United States on the one hand and Iran and Russia on the other to control the border with Iraq. How serious is this, and from a Jordanian perspective what is at play in determining who ultimately controls the Syrian-Iraqi border?
MM: Control of the Syrian-Iraqi border is extremely important to prevent the free flow of people and arms between the two countries by the Islamic State. That border is also very close to Jordan. Amman has done its utmost since the start of the Syrian uprising to make sure that no radical forces, including the Islamic State as of 2014, are close to its frontier. At the same time it has also made it clear that it will not deploy any Jordanian ground troops inside Syria, but will defend its borders in such a way as to ensure that no hostile forces are present on the other side.
MY: One of Donald Trump’s stated priorities is to broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Is this hype, or is there a possible path toward such a solution?
MM: This is an area where rhetoric is far easier than action. Brokering an acceptable agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis will necessarily mean putting serious pressure on the Israeli government, which President Trump is simply not prepared to do. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that he is not interested in a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians, one that would be agreed on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative, with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, and with an agreed solution to the refugee problem. Absent such pressure, bringing back a negotiating process will be mostly about form, but without much substance. I do not believe there is currently a path toward such a solution, and if one is to consider the political and demographic realities, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the two-state solution is probably dead.
MY: On the Palestinian question, Carnegie is currently preparing a paper on the Palestinians, to correspond with the 50th anniversary of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Can you tell us something about it, and how does this fit into the present context of diplomacy in the Middle East, in light of the U.S. willingness to reengage in the region?
MM: Until now, the Oslo paradigm, which has governed Arab-Israeli negotiations since 1993, has not been seriously challenged by the international community. But realities on the ground suggest that it is time to revisit that framework to see if it is indeed still relevant and to determine to what extend developments on the ground have altered the thinking. The report that Carnegie is preparing is based on the views of Palestinians themselves—from the West Bank and Gaza, the diaspora, and Israel—spanning the political and generational spectrums.
The results are very illuminating. The new Palestinian generation seems to have largely lost hope that a two-state solution is possible. One can detect a meaningful shift from an emphasis on the shape of the solution (a Palestinian state) to an emphasis on rights, whether civil or political, regardless of the political outcome. This explains the current moves to support the boycott campaign against Israeli products, through the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, the recent hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, the idea of taking Israel before the International Criminal Court, and other such measures. Palestinian society today seems intent on raising the cost of the occupation.
While there is considerable variance over the preferred outcome for the Palestinian struggle, many other alternatives are being proposed by Palestinians, such as a binational state, a state with shared sovereignty, and so on. These shifts are all being ignored by the international community, which so far has been extremely resistant to any new ideas, despite the realities on the ground. The Carnegie report will attempt to update our thinking on the issue based on the developments that have taken place since Oslo.
MY: A renewed dialogue over Syria seems to be taking place between Washington and Moscow, in the aftermath of the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April. Will Russia get a new mandate from the Americans to carry through a political process in Syria, in much the same way that it did from the Obama administration after the chemical attack in the East Ghouta in 2013?
MM: Despite the rhetoric, the U.S. position on Syria has not really changed. Syria remains of little strategic interest to the United States and Trump, like Obama before him, seems content to allow Russia to take the lead. Having said that, the United States, Russia, and other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan, are all interested in a political process that starts with the Assad regime remaining in a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition, but ends up with Bashar al-Assad himself leaving. The Russians are very keen now to define an exit strategy that would not leave them in Syria indefinitely, and would not repeat the disaster of Afghanistan.
That objective is easier said than done. The elements to start such a process are not yet in place. Iran has a different calculus, and seems wedded to the person of Assad. There are no clear opposition figures to replace Assad, and the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan are all afraid of creating a vacuum that might be exploited by radical organizations. All that means that the Syrian crisis is far from over and will stay with us for at least the next few years.
MY: Last year Carnegie published a major report titled Arab Fractures: Citizens, States, and Social Contracts, examining the state of the Arab world. The report was pretty bleak about the Arab condition. With a new administration in Washington, would you rewrite any part of that report?
MM: The report is not really dependent on any new U.S. administration. It simply states the obvious, although conveniently ignored, fact: The challenges facing the region all stem from a crisis of governance on all fronts—political, economic, and social. Any attempt to resolve the difficulties of the region thus require adopting a holistic approach and presenting new political, economic, and social policies that are more inclusive and pluralistic. If the new U.S. administration, or countries of the region, are to successfully fight the Islamic State, they need to understand that the fight has to include all the above elements and not be limited to security. That is the principal message of the report, a message that has come from thought leaders across the Arab world. So far that message has been unheeded.