During the course of the past two weeks, there have been a few key developments in the Middle East that have altered the landscape in several intriguing ways. Here are five of those developments.
1) Israel is losing the global popularity contest against its Palestinian counterparts. Despite Israel receiving lukewarm international support for its limited dust-up with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it was Palestinians who roundly rejoiced when they were granted “non-member state” status at the United Nations. Realists contend that none of this really matters, as Israel remains the strongest state on the block, but it is difficult to see that lasting forever in the face of increasing political (and potential economic) isolation.
2) Turkey is not fully on board with Western-sponsored Iranian sanctions, at least not yet. This became clear this week when it was discovered that Turkey has been purchasing natural gas from Iran in exchange for gold. Congress is now motioning towards strengthening the sanctions in a form of diplomatic arm-twisting, a move that would prevent such Turkish-Iranian transactions in the future. Turkey envisions a strong trade partnership with its neighbor, which is why it has worked around U.S. policy regarding Iran for several years now.
3) The world is not prepared to solve the violence in Syria. Turkey has made moves to protect itself against possible spillover from the civil war now raging in its neighbor to the south, by seeking Patriot surface-to-air missile launchers. But Turkey has done little to prevent further destruction in Syria. The UN, U.S., EU, Russia, Iran, and the Arab League seems powerless at this time to do anything other than hint at increasing arms shipments to the antagonists in the conflict. Meanwhile, hundreds more Syrian lives are being lost, and it is obvious the world’s leaders cannot do anything to end the bloodshed.
4) It is too early to tell if Egypt has strayed away from democracy. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi gave himself near-total control over the government by brushing aside the power of the courts to oversee the constitutional drafting process. This move all-but-ensures that Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, the political embodiment of the Muslim Brotherhood, receives unchecked power in outlining the country’s new constitution. Opponents have every right to interpret Morsi’s decision as taking a tremendous step towards tyranny, but they should temper their pessimism. Morsi was democratically elected to preside over Egypt during a period of incredible and unprecedented political metamorphosis. In order for the Egyptian government to shed its autocratic tendencies and successfully transition to a liberal democracy, it has to cleanse itself of former President Hosni Mubarak supporters and appointees. It must reduce the power the conservative military holds in the government thanks to decades of totalitarian rule. We can only hope that Morsi’s decision will continue to keep Egypt on the path towards freedom by empowering elected civilian leadership. This latest maneuver proves that Egypt’s road to democracy will indeed be long and bumpy, but it does not mean Egypt has lost its bearing.
5) The U.S. role in the Middle East has diminished significantly. Nothing highlights this more than when we saw Egypt take a central part in brokering a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. In essence, each point on this list showcases America’s waning influence in a turbulent region of the world. It was incapable of ending the dispute along the Israeli-Gaza border without the help of Egypt. It was powerless to prevent Palestine from acquiring semi-recognition in the United Nations. It is ill-suited to halt the bloody strife in Syria, and ineffective at enforcing full-cooperation of sanctions on Iran. Unlike in the past, the U.S. has demonstrated that it is unable to bend Egyptian leadership to its will and its influence among Palestinians and Turks may have abated as well. Even though it is not without its partners in the region, it looks doubtful the U.S. will regain the position of predominance it was thought to have held.