Middle East

Obama's five key Middle East battlegrounds in 2015

A member loyal to the IS waves an IS flag in Raqqa Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The US has warned the fight against Islamic State will take years

The events of 2014 have shown that whatever happens elsewhere in the world the US cannot escape the interlocking crises in the Middle East - and 2015 will be no different.

Declining oil revenues may mean less money for bale-outs to struggling economies.

For all its political problems, the economy may be one of Egypt's biggest difficulties in the coming year.

One thing is clear: post-Iraq and Afghanistan the US no longer has the appetite for large-scale military engagement.

Equally there is a growing sense that the people of the region itself must sort out their own problems.

US leadership though remains important in forming coalitions; adding specialised military muscle and so on.

I have picked out five key Middle Eastern problems that need to be high on President Barack Obama's agenda.

Indeed they could go a long way in determining the president's overall foreign policy legacy and none of them are easy.


The struggle against IS

Off to what was initially an uncertain start as Mr Obama's team struggled for a strategy, this is a campaign that is going to take time. It may well out-last this administration.

Nonetheless, Mr Obama has, from the outset, recognised the most important element: US military power is only a small part of the solution.

There may well be a need for more US air power and for advisers on the ground eventually to take on front-line advisory roles.

But just as regional actors must take on the brunt of the fighting so too it is regional players who must take on the battle against the IS message.

Here too the West can help but it means marshalling a "whole government approach" - co-ordinating defence, foreign and elements of domestic policy in a comprehensive way to tackle IS funding, ideology and recruitment.

Is the waning Obama team up to such a collective effort ?


The Syrian conundrum

President Obama's strategy against IS could be characterised as "Iraq first" not least because it is there that the US has organised allies and at least a semi-functioning government with which it can deal.

Syria is quite a different matter. There is no functioning non-regime government that controls significant territory other than IS and various other Islamist groups.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The US has carried out scores of air strikes against IS forces in Syria and Iraq

Despite high hopes at the outset the Assad regime seems firmly entrenched. US attacks against IS will probably serve to make it more so.

Efforts to train and arm Syrian fighters acceptable to the West are in their infancy with American experts suggesting that even the initial training programme could well extend into 2016. And then what?

The grim reality in Syria is that the Assad regime still controls about half the country; IS controls about another third; and other militias, many of them linked to al-Qaeda a little less than 20%.

The so-called pro-Western or "moderate" militias control some 5% - hardly a firm foundation on which to build.

Some American Syria watchers are uneasy about the drift of US policy but fear that significant steps to undermine the Assad regime might simply hand the country over to chaos and rule by a variety of equally unsavoury elements.

The Syria conundrum is how to link the strategy against IS in Syria and Iraq while keeping open the door to some kind of negotiated solution that might see the back of President Assad - if that can be achieved - and one that would avoid the chaotic dismemberment of the whole country.

The US - perhaps with Russia - can show leadership, (if any joint US-Russian diplomatic initiative is feasible right now) but it depends as much upon regional players like Turkey, the Saudis, and Iran if diplomacy is to have any chance of success.


The Iranian nuclear dossier

Reinventing the US relationship with Tehran is a huge diplomatic prize.

It could change a key dynamic in the region though nobody should run away with the idea that because of their shared antipathy towards IS, Washington and Tehran's views of the Middle East are in harmony.

Iran's main concerns right now are economic - especially so if oil prices continue to remain low.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is widely viewed as more moderate than his predecessors

There is an opportunity here though the Obama administration will have to see off critics in Israel, Saudi Arabia and at home on Capitol Hill.

So far a deal has proved elusive, faltering on the time-scale and conditions needed to insure against an Iranian rush for the bomb and the timing for the removal of all economic sanctions.

Even if a deal can be reached it might be difficult to get Senate approval.

Does Mr Obama think it is worth striving for?

Or might he believe that a repeated roll-over of the interim deal - keeping economic sanctions and restrictions on Iran's nuclear programme in place - is a better approach?

Is such an approach actually feasible or might the sanctions regime begin to crumble in the absence of a deal?

Nonetheless a new diplomatic opening to Iran is a worthy prize.

It should be remembered that it was the US, through its removal of Iraq as a significant military player, that has, in large part, made Iran into the force it is today.

You could persuasively argue that through its allies or proxies Iran has an important say in four Arab capitals: Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Saana.

And through its backing for key Shia militias in Iraq who are fighting against IS it risks accentuating the sectarian tensions with Sunnis whose support is equally needed if IS is to be contained.


The Israel-Palestinian peace process

The hardy perennial diplomatic problem of the Middle East only seems to get more intractable as time goes on.

Up to now US diplomacy on the peace process has been in the hands of the assiduous Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has banged his head against a proverbial wall to little outcome.

So does 2015 hold out any opportunities or just more risks?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains elusive despite years of US mediation

There is plenty of the latter for sure but perhaps just a glimmer of opportunity.

Might Israel's dynamic though fractured political system throw up an alternative to Prime Minister Netanyahu who the Americans clearly believe is unable to deliver any flexibility?

You would be wise to hedge your bets but the recent deal between Israel's Labour Party with the small centre-right formation of Tzipi Livni has possibilities.

It may not be quite the breaking of the political mould, but a realistic, more centrist alternative could gain support; one of the benefits being a less difficult relationship with the US for a start.

But the election campaign has pitfalls for Mr Obama. Mr Netanyahu has never hidden his preference for the president's Republican opponents.

Mr Obama might be tempted to intervene behind the scenes in the election campaign to make it clear to Israeli voters the stakes involved.

But he would risk solidifying support for the right-wing bloc and undermining he very people he probably prefers.

Peace though seems as distant as ever.

An early test of Mr Obama's thinking may be how he responds to the Palestinians' determination to pursue their quest for statehood by seeking membership of a variety of international organisations.

This runs against the basic Israeli and US position that the only way to peace is through direct talks between the parties themselves.

But with little likelihood of substantive talks resuming Mr Obama must decide if he really wants to invest scarce political capital in the quest for a deal. Much may depend upon the outcome of Israel's general election.

But is Mr Obama willing to seize this opportunity to invest more heavily in the peace process ? Much may depend upon the outcome of Israel's 17 March general election.


The redefinition of core interests

Relations with all of America's long-standing friends in the region have become more difficult as the tsunami of change and chaos has swept the Middle East.

You can barely mention a capital that does not have its serious differences with Washington, even as many continue to see the US as a vital ingredient for their security

The rise of IS has underscored that the Sunni Arab allies of Washington (and Turkey too for that matter) have their own irons in the fire in Syria and Iraq with interests that are only broadly congruous with those of Washington.

The funding of Islamist and Jihadist groups has provoked tensions which have sometimes bubbled to the surface.

Israel too pursues its own interests. Is its approach to Iran's nuclear programme for example identical to Washington's?

Well of course not, but at what point does a deal that might satisfy the Obama administration fall foul of Israel's government and its powerful supporters on Capitol Hill?

The message here is that the US must seek to re-define its core interests in the region more clearly.

Well-meaning statements about the spread of democracy or women's rights are fine as aspirations, but the West as a whole needs to be more realistic about the time it takes to encourage social change - which in any case must come from within.

A measure of the Obama Administration's failure to address the complexities of the region is shown by the irrelevance now of Mr Obama's 2009 Cairo Address which, though hailed at the time as marking a new departure in relations between the US, the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, largely proved to be a false-start.

But some fundamentals in the region are indeed changing.

The new energy environment provides an important backdrop here which could have a transformational impact on diplomacy in the region.

In a nutshell the shale oil revolution means that the US provides more of its own oil - indeed it increasingly will have energy to export - thus its traditional linkage to the region is in one sense diminished.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Oil will continue to play a key role in power politics in the region

This in part could explain the Saudi willingness to allow oil prices to drop, perhaps hoping to push US producers out of the market as their costs rise in relation to their return.

This is only the initial manifestation of a changing relationship between the US and one of its most important Middle Eastern allies.

Oil and gas have kept the region in the strategic spotlight since the Second World War.

That is why today the US fleet is in Bahrain and US air power has an important foot-hold in the Gulf.

The region's importance to Washington will not disappear overnight.

America's allies will continue to be dependent upon Gulf energy for the foreseeable future.

But Washington's own interest may wane as it re-balances elsewhere.

Maybe that is why both France and recently Britain too have opened up naval facilities in the Gulf.

So for 2015 two things are clear.

That US pivot towards the Asia-Pacific is still coming even if it has been a bit delayed.

But the Middle East as ever has many challenges for US diplomacy and many pitfalls if the president's strategic grasp is found wanting.

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