"As Jeffrey Feltman, the top Middle East official at the State Department prepares to leave for a new job at the United Nations, his Bureau’s disarray [He will be succeeded on an acting basis by Elizabeth Jones, a retired Foreign Service Officer who once held a similar position for the Department’s European Bureau], mirrors the Administration’s lack of coherence on almost the entire range of Middle East crises. In Syria, the Adminstration has been reduced to near impotence, as the Assad regime continues, even intensifies its crackdown on the opposition, despite the presence of United Nations observers and the repeated calls by President Obama for Assad to step down. In Egypt, the US has watched, nearly as impotently, as the recent round of elections has produced a run off between two equally objectionable candidates; one from the Moslem Brotherhood and the other, former President Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. The most visible response the US has been able to muster is the withholding of $6 million in foreign aid assistance (voted by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week) in retaliation for the $6 million that needed to be posted as bail for the pro-Democracy Americans on trial (most of them in absentia) for “illegal” activities during the recent Parliamentary elections.
In the Gulf, the Administration has resumed arms sales to Bahrain despite an uptick in violence there. As one well-placed Administration official put it last week, “The opposition is using crude IED’s for the first time and attacking authorities with anything at hand including iron bars.” The official points out that Bahrain’s Crown Prince, a darling of liberal reform minded US officials, has been relegated to the side lines, while even his more hard line father, the King, has been overshadowed by those who are intent, in his words. “…to tell the shia (oppoisition) that they are separate and apart from all the other Sunni dominated populations on the Arabian peninsula.” Meanwhile, the two most active Sunni leaderships, those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have stepped up efforts to arm extremist Sunni elements fighting in Syria. As one well-placed Gulf diplomat put it recently, “What we once saw as a shia `arc’ is fast becoming a shia `moon’ as rebels take over all around us from Yemen on one end to Egypt on the other.(?)
Even in North Africa, US officials say all is far from well. There is confusion over the honesty surrounding recent balloting in Algeria where an expected strong showing by Islamists was overwhelmed by a large turn out for the regime backed secular candidates, causing some long time foreign observers to declare outright fraud on the part of the government [private US reaction was more bewilderment, than anger]. In Morocco, US officials wish to see rapproachment with Algeria. However, recent efforts by the UN representative, Christopher Ross, to mediate the long simmering dispute in the Southern Sahara have been rebuffed by Rabat. Even over the one “success story”, Libya, US officials are wary of elections slated for later this month. “[Mahmoud] Jabril [the transitional leader], who we once had high hopes for is more than a bit sleazy,” said one State Department official. “Reminds us a lot of Ahmed Chalabi” [The widely discredited Iraqi exile leader who many say was instrumental in leading key US officials into believing an invasion of Iraq would meet with quick success].
Perhaps the one area where Administration activism has shown results is in dealing with Iran’s nascent nuclear developments. According to well-informed sources, Teheran’s representatives at the recent Baghdad meeting went home extremely disappointed. Apparently, after the first, polite “get to know you” round in Istanbul, the Iranians thought that they would be greeted with increased substantive flexibility at the second session. But that was not to be the case. With Britain and France taking the lead and the US comfortably “leading from behind” the Iranians were met with continued strict demands regarding both intrusive inspections and the need to export all uranium enriched beyond a modest acceptable level [far below the 20% enrichment they have achieved in limited amounts]. “Once again they were there own worst enemies,” said one official last week, who had been briefed on the talks. “In theory they have the ability to make life difficult for us if only they would move a little ways toward the Russians. But, it seems that the Iranian system is unable to make a concession.”
The next meeting is scheduled to be held in Moscow later this month – on the eve of EU sanctions coming into effect. Although most European countries have already taken major steps away from doing business with Iran, the looming July 1 deadline for the official start of the new EU sanctions regime is expected to concentrate minds in other parts of the world and perhaps even some in Teheran. Moscow (the Russians being viewed as the potential weak link in the chain) is also seen as the ideal place for the Iranians to learn once and for all that sanctions, new and more devasting will be applied forthwith. [On the other hand, some officials fear that while it is likely Moscow will “own” this failure by Iran to make concessions, they worry that the Russians are not keen to be seen as the “bad guys” under this scenario and could therefore be more willing to compromise].
Russian behavior over Syria illustrates what many fear motivates Moscow these days, particularly with Vladimir Putin back in power. “They still aspire to be a great power,” says one key US official. “And half of what they do is an attempt to poke us in the eye,” But most officials recognize that there is little the outside world can do without Russian acquiescence. American military intervention, even absent “boots on the ground” does not seem to be an option, even after the massacre at Houla last week. With troops out of Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan, the Administration is in no mood to take on another problem in this volatile region. As one veteran observer put it this week, the Europeans want to do something but can’t. The Administration doesn’t want to do ‘anything. They hide behind excuses such as “`Who will succeed an Alawite regime?’ and What will happen to all of Syria’s CBW’?”[Chemical and Biological weapons]
Still, there is no escaping the fact that the Syrian situation is spinning out of control. Violence by both sides is escalating. There are the first reports of the use of helicopter gun ships by the regime against the rebels. Says one US analyst, “The regime controls only those areas where it stations tanks, men and security forces. Even more worrisome is the increased instability in neighboring states such as Lebanon and Jordan. In the former, battles this week in the northern city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, while not yet spreading to the rest of Lebanon, are a harbinger of the future, fear US experts. “Lebanon will be the first to go,” declares one well-placed US official."