Have you ever struggled to create a guest list for a party because the people you want to invite hate each other? If you have, you might understand Middle Eastern policy more than you think. A recent letter to the editor of the Financial Times and this flow chart have captured the quagmire of relations within the region. This should be a wake-up call for anyone who wonders why the U.S. hasn't done action X in country Y. Before taking action in any Middle Eastern nation, one must acknowledge the implications it would have other countries.
It isn't a matter of simple geography. Anybody can look at a country on a map and hypothesize how its neighbors might react to a given action. Think of the Middle East as an interconnected network of diplomacy. It is layered with relationships that complicate any attempt to isolate the conditions of one country.
This chart effectively shows relationships in the status quo. If the muck of crossing lines and alliances hasn't convinced you that things aren't so black and white, consider what the chart doesn't show you, such as religious relationships, regime changes, financial aid, stable governments, political networks, terrorism, and splintered factions. It could get very overwhelming very quickly.
Let's look at this strictly the perspective of your hypothetical party. The interconnectedness is certainly taking its toll. You want your friend Jane to break up with Frank before the party, because Frank is a dick and nobody likes him. However Mike, who you don't like but shows up anyways, also wants Jane to dump Frank because Mike wants Jane for himself. Now, in foreign policy terms: the Obama administration wants the Syrian rebels to overthrow Assad, as does Al-Qaeda, but Al-Qaeda wants to influence the Syrian rebels. Tricky, right?
Too bad the peace process is a lot more difficult than party planning. The comparison is far from exact, but it emphasizes the strenuous process of facilitating anything in the region.
There are arguments on every side for action and restraint. The allegations of Assad using chemical warfare on the Syrian rebels are a pressing issue for the Obama administration. However, Obama's team isn't going to take an action without looking at the broader network of the Middle East. Especially with a spillover conflict like Syria, we shouldn't expect it to anyways.
If you run into anyone who calls for country Y to do action X, ask him what he thinks of country Z. If he can't attempt to answer, or worse, doesn't know why that matters, then he clearly doesn't get the nature of the Middle East. You don't have to understand the chart completely. Nobody does. Instead, you must recognize the chart's importance. But if you do attempt to understand it, you're not alone. There are many senior White House officials doing the same thing in the situation room.