Are Things Actually Looking Up in the Middle East?

Are Things Actually Looking Up in the Middle East?

It is only a faint outline—call it a pencil sketch—but the lines of a significantly remade Middle East are suddenly falling into place.

We have to wait for the region’s leaders and the diplomats asserting the influence of interested outsiders to give shape and substance to this new apparition. But the prospect of a lasting advance toward stability and peace is there.

Iran, Syria, Egypt, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict—everything is in motion as of this autumn, four balls in the air all at once. It is hard to credit the Obama administration for much of this: While Washington wields immense power in the Middle East, much of the tentatively good news arrives in spite of the noisome bumbling on the part of the president and his State Department.

Diplomacy is not this administration’s strong suit: Obama is a domestic man, like Johnson, and a touch over his head on the foreign side. But let us not be churlish. Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and their lieutenants are sure to serve themselves generous helpings of credit for whatever progress is about to emerge. Let them—so long as they pick up their pennies from heaven and spend them wisely.

Here is, fair to say, the new lay of the land:

Iran. The opening round of talks between the five Security Council members plus Germany, and on the other side the Iranians, went well. Iran arrived in Geneva last week with workable ideas, claiming its rights to a nuclear power program under international law but suggesting that it could do more than legally required on some issues to satisfy the Western powers. Another round is set for November.

I am not worried about Rouhani’s domestic equation: His people are in line for the time being. The crux now is whether Obama can manage two potentially rebellious constituencies—hidebound, Iran-wary members of Congress (and the lobby behind them) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

White House officials said l right before the weekend that the sanctions can stay in place, but Obama will consider unfreezing billions of dollars in Iranian assets in exchange for the right limits on Tehran’s nuclear plans. The latter move would not require the consent of Congress; lifting sanctions would.

Three things to note here. Obama is playing serious baseball now. He is working with Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s reformist leader, not against him. Second, he has proven astute enough to advance the Iran demarche while keeping domestic adversaries in check and not unraveling the complex sanctions regime. Separating the assets and sanctions questions is the work of a political Hawkeye.

Finally, we cannot make the mistake of assuming Netanyahu will go gently into any new Middle East equation. He will not. But he has gone quiet since Geneva. A step at a time, Obama is making it harder for Bibi to throw logs in the road without isolating himself further than he already has.

A flickering candle here that could survive prevailing winds.

Syria. The war without heroes has just taken several positive turns. A few days ago Syria’s deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that a long-elusive international conference—known in the trade as Geneva II—could begin as early as November 23. It is the first time anyone (to say nothing of a Syrian cabinet minister) has mentioned any date. On Sunday the Arab League confirmed the date, according to an Al Jazeera report from Cairo. Watch this space.

In the meantime, UN inspectors reported  they intend to meet their November 1 deadline to disable Bashar al–Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. This in spite of the combat plaguing the very zones they must work in.

More to come: Turkey appears to have shifted sides in the Syria conflict. While Ankara has long supported the insurgency fighting the Assad regime, last week it literally turned its guns around. After shelling Assad’s forces in support of the rebels, they startedshelling insurgency positions. Finally, all sides now recognize that the rebels the U.S. tried myopically to cast as a band of Mad Anthony Waynes must be pushed aside as the mob of opportunists and fundamentalists they are.

The take-home here: Forget the “freedom fighters” thesis. The Syria crisis had “political solution” scribbled all over it from the first, and we are at last mounting the path.

Egypt. Washington made an ungodly mess of the Egyptian political crisis last summer, covertly-overtly giving the army permission—exactly what happened—to depose President Mohammed Morsi and then to set upon opponents and attempt to obliterate the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi was the head. The kicker was Secretary Kerry’s praising remark that the army was “restoring democracy.”

Ten days ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon was suspending scheduled delivery of tanks, helicopters, missiles, and fighter jets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The administration will also hold back $260 million in cash assistance.

The new Egyptian strongman, Abdel Fattah el–Sisi, made the clownish assertion that Egypt could never abide the meddling of a foreign power—as if $5 billion in aid annually were anything other. The Associated Press termed Hagel’s decision “a symbolic slap.”

Well, O.K. But symbols have their place. At least the administration has put a toe back on the right path. The most sophisticated diplomatic strategy the U.S. has ever come up with is to deploy or withdraw its checkbook. Now Washington demands “credible progress” toward new elections and a return to the worthy ambitions of the Arab Spring before any more money flows. It may be a modest corrective in a circumstance that should never have required correcting, but it is a start.

The Mideast conflict. Netanyahu, just to get things off to a bright start, announced instantly after new talks were scheduled that Israel would commence numerous new settlement projects on the West Bank. The State Department had no comment.

The talks are now seven sessions along, and Kerry says he plans to take an increased role, “to facilitate, to help if there needs to be a bridging proposal to work on the way forward.” The Jerusalem Post suggests, “Kerry’s comments seem an indication that Washington has moved closer to the Palestinian position—that greater hands-on U.S. participation is needed in the talks.”

It takes a lot to harvest any optimism on the Mideast question, but if the Post is correct it would be an advance for everyone—and this includes Israel in the long run. The verb attaching to “peace” is “make.”

The things to look for in all this are those good old synergies. Better ties with Iran could make Israel a touch less jumpy and less given to military solutions. Netanyahu was famously nervous after Morsi’s election, preferring generals in politics, but the army does not represent an enduring solution, and if Obama’s people do better than they have to date, they could urge Egypt back—yes, back—toward elections and democratic aspirations.

A fix in Syria would, in turn, help improve things between Washington and Tehran—and again ease Netanyahu’s anxieties.