'Of all the Middle East issues with which the Administration is struggling, none is more important than Egypt. By far, the most populous Arab country and the lynchpin of US policy in the region, it is now, according to a number of current and past US officials, slipping back into the control of the military. As one Middle East diplomat put it this week, “Only the army can keep Egypt together.” The Administration seems to realize this as it has shied away from cutting off military assistance despite calls for it to do so from a number of quarters, including, reportedly, the new National Security Advisor, Susan Rice.Rice’s personal view, if accurately reported by those close to her, tends to reinforce President Obama and his top level advisors’ view of US foreign policy in general. One veteran State Department describes it this way: “They view policy as tactical backed by a set of values. They have no strategic view.” What this amounts to, says this official is “…a tendency towards egalitarianism; a reluctance to embrace special relationships with other countries and above all avoidance of new entanglements.” In the Middle East, this comes down to avoiding more involvement with the possible exception of Jordan, should that strategically important country come under unsustainable pressure resulting from the civil war in Syria.The best case in point, is, of course, Syria. Administration officials say there is no better formula for a peaceful resolution than modest political and military engagement by the US. The splintered opposition, with Islamic extremists proving to be the best fighters makes for low expectations in Washington [Although officials admit that had they acted even six months ago, it would have been much easier to forge a coherent opposition]. Even the Intelligence Community has backed off from its initial enthusiasm for arming the opposition [Although some sources say that only when David Petraeus headed the CIA was the Agency supportive of greater US involvement]. In briefings before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, the scenarios laid out for ultimate success were so expansive as to cause a number of Members of Congress to voice opposition to providing any kind of weapons. State Department officials, who have been among the first and most vocal advocates of a more robust US role in helping the Syrian opposition, say their “marching orders” from the White House make it clear that there is little appetite for US involvement. “The White House wants options,” says one well-placed State Department official. “But they make it clear they want no `dangerous ideas’.”On the ground, while Government forces aided by Hezbollah have seized the initiative [Leading to the decision to move next year’s Presidential elections up from June to March], most analysts see no clear victor in the foreseeable future. “Syria as a united country is a thing of the past,” says one US official. Although the opposition, including the Islamists are now often fighting one another, and a rebels rout in Aleppo could possibly be a “game changer” [one Middle East diplomat’s view), the consensus is that neither side can win. “Ultimately Syria will be controlled in part by the government, in part by the rebels and in part by the Kurds,” says one veteran US official.
Few doubt that in Egypt a central government controlled by the military will emerge triumphant. Greatly enhancing the military’s position is the economic and political disaster the Moslem Brotherhood [“MB”] and President Morsi proved to be in just 12 months in power. “We thought only the MB could bring millions into the streets, said one analyst. But they managed to create genuine popular anger. At the same time, say US officials [In retrospect], Morsi misjudged the value of the “deal” he made with the military. “If you don’t have the police, army or money on your side, you have nothing,” is the way one State Department analyst put it last week.And once again the US was caught flatfooted. “We were outbid by the Gulfis,” notes one US analyst. Our $1.5 billion in military assistance couldn’t compete with the $12 billion in grants and loans they were willing to put up. “We were outbid,” says one US official [Saudi Arabia promised nearly half that amount. One veteran observer noted that their hostility to the MB was matched only by their fondness for the new Egyptian strongman, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who once served as Egypt’s Defense attaché in Riyadh]. Although the Administration has decided not to label the military’s move a “coup” (which would have necessitated a cut off in aid), few dispute the fact that the military was ever comfortable with democracy and if elections occur next year, as promised, it will be a “tame” civilian government that emerges.A tame government is what could be described as emerging in Iran, as well, say State Department officials. The new President Hassan Rowhani, despite his Ph.D. from Glasgow University is a charter member of the ruling class of the Islamic Republic. It is pointed out that he was among the first to call Ayotollah Khomeini “Imam” and has served loyally in a number of posts, most notably, as far as the US is concerned, as chief negotiator on the nuclear issue. And it is on this issue that US officials, not to mention their Israeli counterparts, see him as being the most effective. “He is their `Get out of jail free card’.” quipped one State Department official. Another, eschewing light hearted language said, “The worst case scenario is that Rowhani says the right things and our sanctions policy begins to fray.” US officials now expect P-5+1 talks with Iran to take place in late August or early September, followed by Rowhani’s likely appearance at the autumn convening of the UN General Assembly. “If he handles it right, next steps could be confidence building measures,” that for the Iranians could mean a modest easing of economic sanctions.”This would be a “nightmare” scenario for Israel, which, no doubt prompted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to once again call for more strident threats from other countries. Within Israel, some now believe that Netanyahu, provided he gains the support of his Defense Minister and Army Chief of Staff, is prepared to undertake unilateral military action, perhaps by the end of the year. The likely target: Natanz, where the most advanced centrifuges are located. Some observers believe the Israelis are also prepared to send special teams into Fordo, the underground nuclear site, which is impervious to ordinance possessed by the Israeli military...'