A few months back, the Arab World was shaken by a New York Times article claiming to detail the Obama administration's efforts to disengage from the Middle East in order to facilitate its "pivot toward the East". It didn't matter that the President had just delivered his annual address the United Nations General Assembly in which he spelled out his priorities for the year - largely focused on his commitment to address: the Israel-Palestinian conflict; the war in Syria; the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program; and the effort to build more democratic societies. Despite his words and the actions that followed, the perception that the US was abandoning the region persisted.
As we begin 2014, it is clear that concerns over US abandonment are unfounded. The US isn't going anywhere, and the Middle East promises to be every bit as complicated and challenging to US policy-makers as it has been in the year just ending. There is a dizzying array of conflicts and crises unfolding across the region - all of which will involve the US in the year to come.
The clock is running out on the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The US Secretary of State had given the negotiators a nine month period in which to conclude a Framework Agreement. With the deadline nearing, there is the expectation that early in the New Year the US may offer its own proposal. With the Netanyahu government showing little interest in loosening its hold on the occupied territories and the Palestinian leadership still weak and deeply divided - prospects for success may appear slim, but with the US so heavily invested in this process, the risks of failure are great.
The Syrian peace talks - dubbed "Geneva II" - are supposed to be convened in late January. But there are growing doubts that this will occur. The opposition is in disarray with the political coalition and the military forces recognized by the US and the international community losing ground to a coalition of Islamist groups who have shown little desire to reach negotiated solution. Meanwhile the regime has stepped up its attacks using indiscriminate violence against rebel strongholds. With neither side showing any real interest in ending the conflict, it appears likely that Geneva II will be cancelled or once again postponed. Here again, despite the risks, the urgency to resolve the conflict will trump any push to disengage.
As the Syrian conflict continues, the refugee crisis it has spawned has resulted in additional challenges that must be addressed. First and foremost, is the humanitarian disaster as over two and one-half million Syrians have been forced to flee their homeland. They are living in deplorable conditions in neighboring countries. Their needs cannot be ignored. Of primary concern are the almost one million Syrians who have overwhelmed Lebanon. Their presence, the involvement of Lebanese groups in the Syrian conflict, and the involvement of foreign proxies in Lebanon are now placing that country at risk of becoming a new front in the Syrian war. This, too, will require attention.
Also scheduled in January is the next round of the P5+1 talks with Iran. In engaging Iran, the Obama administration has taken a calculated risk that a negotiated solution can be found to resolving the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. In doing so, however, the US caused a rupture both with Israel and some of its Arab Gulf allies. These talks, therefore, will not occur in a vacuum. While the administration was able to temporarily hold off Israel's supporters in Congress who were threatening to impose new "game ending" sanctions against Iran in advance of the talks, the threat of Congressional action remains.
An additional complication of this US overture to Iran has been the strains it has caused with some Arab allies. Since the creation of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the Arab Gulf states have felt threatened by Iran's efforts to export its revolution. In the past decade, Iran's fingers have been seen playing in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, and, most notably, Syria. That, in the face of this meddlesome and destabilizing behavior, the US opened discussions with Iran without even a discussion with its regional allies, has caused a breakdown in trust that will require attention in the New Year.
If this picture weren't complicated enough, the US will before long have to address the situation that is developing in Egypt. Since the January, 2011 downfall of the Mubarak government, US policy has meandered between promoting democracy and protecting its relationship with Egypt's military and the government in power.
Confronted with a Muslim Brotherhood victory in parliamentary and presidential elections, the US sought to work with the democratically elected government. Following the massive Tamarrud protests and the July 3rd deposing of the Morsi government by Egypt's military, the US again tried to work with the new reality, urging the military and the interim government to live up to their promised "road map" that would restore elected civilian rule. The concern now is that just as the Brotherhood over-reached, the military, in response to increasing terror attacks, is operating from a familiar playbook that is putting at risk not just the "road map", but the very stability of the country.
Since all of these crises and conflicts will require attention, the administration doesn't have the luxury of picking and choosing or even prioritizing which issues to tackle first. Adding to the complexity of these challenges are two realities: the US has limited options and the US has a region-wide trust deficit.
US foreign policy hawks may call for a more robust response - involving new sanctions, military force, or threats to withdraw aid or support. But the reality is that after two costly disastrous wars, the US public is wary of military engagement. And after decades of unbalanced and failed Middle East policy, the US is skating on thin ice with much of Arab public opinion.
The place to begin is to rebuild trust not with public pronouncements, but with actions. The first opportunity to change Arab perceptions will present itself when the administration puts forward its bridging proposal for a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. To the extent that it is seen as balancing the requirements of security and justice, it can be a transformative proposal that can resonate region-wide. Next a concerted effort should be made to engage Arab allies in regional security discussions. To the extent that Arab allies continue to feel like an afterthought, they will remain wary of US intentions. If they are expected to be partners, they expect to be treated as such.
Rebuilding trust will be the key challenge of the New Year.