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Reasons for hope in the Middle East?

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Are there any reasons for hope in the Middle East? Maybe.

By Henri J. Barkey and David F. Gordon (August 27, 2015)

The winds of change are unexpectedly blowing through the Levant.

In the aftermath of the Iran nuclear agreement, there was a broad expectation, both in the region and beyond, that sectarian tensions and conflict would intensify and deepen the proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the United States, even some strong supporters of the nuclear deal emphasized that Washington needed to respond aggressively to the inevitable push by Tehran to expand its regional influence at the expense of traditional U.S. allies.

What we are seeing on the ground, however, looks quite different. There is an increasing possibility for new geopolitical alignments throughout the region. The confluence of the growing fear in both Saudi Arabia and Iran of the threat posed by Islamic State; the weakening of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policy shift to cooperate with the United States in Syria, and Moscow’s and Washington’s growing shared interests in steering the Saudi-Iran rivalry onto a less escalatory path, while also creating a broad coalition against Islamic State, is creating real political fluidity.

As diplomatic moves accelerate, the United States and its allies look to be preparing a serious onslaught on Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. The opening of Turkish air bases to coalition aircraft, manned and unmanned, will enable the allies to prepare for a major ground offensive by local allies to recapture Mosul. Iraq’s third-largest city has been under Islamic State control for more than a year. More inchoate is the parallel jockeying around Syria’s political future, and whether a compromise framework can be found to end that country’s civil war.


Henri J. Barkey is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. David F. Gordon is a former policy planning director for Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence council. He is now Senior Advisor to the Eurasia Group.

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