By Georgia Marks
Written after Georgia attended the WCIA event ‘ISIL, Syria and the Middle East, The US Perspective’ with a talk from Thomas Williams from the US Embassy in London.
The Middle East is one of the most controversial topics talked about today. December 2010 saw peaceful Arab Spring protests about socio-economic issues and against Arab dictatorships. In March 2011, the Syrian government used violence in retaliation against the demonstrators. Once a minority of these protesters fought back, along with some of Syria’s troops, a civil war began in Syria, which rippled across the Middle East. It led to international intervention, including by the USA.
On 28 April 2016, Tom Williams from the US Embassy in London spoke in Cardiff at the WCIA about the US perspective on issues in the Middle East. He stated that the US strategy in regards to the Middle East is straightforward: the achievement of real stability links to a “consistent international rule of law.” There is a right to act unilaterally, but the US do not perceive this as a sufficient method of intervention compared to diplomacy. Williams stressed the importance of historical relationships, e.g. with the UK, but also with new allies.
In my opinion, this is a sound plan, but also an inconsistent one, as Obama originally wanted to take military action and then changed his mind. This may give people in the Middle East a false hope that at some point the US may intervene militarily, which I think will only drag out the war in Syria.
Williams described the Middle East as a “region of regimes” which were disrupted by the Arab springs; they are still dealing with the consequences of political transition as a result of the protests. There are many issues facing this part of the world. Demographically there is a youth bulge and a surge of underemployment in some areas. The antiquated schooling systems result in high levels of illiteracy which increases the unemployment rates. The rule of law is particularly sketchy, with the demonstrations in 2010 and 2011 fuelled by the resentment of corruption. Additionally, political instability is one of the main issues of the Middle East, with the crisis from the civil war in Syria flowing to the surrounding countries, leading to a surge of refugees which has broad international impacts.
Williams said the top priority of the US foreign is Syria, with the crisis continuing into its 6th year, 5 million refugees are currently registered. Some are staying in camps but a large number are currently in host communities which is demanding not only on the governments of these countries, but also on the general population due to competition for housing and labour. The biggest strain is on Jordan, Turkey and the Lebanon. But all of this was inevitable- with any major political transition comes upheaval of society. So in my view the US should have anticipated and planned for before they intervened. Williams said that the strategy undertaken by the US is threefold.
- To mobilise the partners for the campaign to fight ISIL.
- Diplomacy to end the civil war in Syria. Talks are vital, with Williams describing current talks as the most promising initiative in years. There are sharp divisions, but there is unity to have political transition.
- A humanitarian approach which aims to ensure that the instability does not spread beyond the borders of Syria. In particular this looks at hosting refugees.
In my opinion the first strategy creates more work for the third strategy. Fighting against ISIL will increase the need for humanitarian aid. The safety of the people in Syria is more likely to be jeopardised if there is more conflict. Therefore putting more US effort into diplomacy will be more effective; if the country is more stable because of peace negotiations then the need for humanitarian aid will decrease.
A member of the audience questioned the changing stance of the USA. At the beginning of the civil war the US, UK and others made it clear that Assad must go. However, after the emergence of large terrorist organisations such as ISIL, the attitude towards Assad became much more positive. Is it not defeating the point of original intervention if the Assad regime stays? The evolution of views, Williams said, reflects the change in circumstances. He explained that after the protests in Syria, Assad lost legitimacy; ultimately the situation with Assad will have to be negotiated with the Syrian government because America’s underpinning policy is unchanged.
The US have also been focusing on political and economic issues, with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank working together to build the economy. A member of the audience questioned how helpful economic institutions like the IMF really are in this region.
The speaker answered arguing that humanitarian efforts are not always effective in particularly violent areas. Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the difficulties in humanitarian progress as it is hard to give evidence that the US has actually helped. So a potentially more effective alternative is stabilisation of the economy. I think this point is well thought out as the stabilisation of the economy will in turn aid society if there is something to support the people. But a reliance on westernised systems may cause the Middle East to become too dependent on the west. The US should help to stabilise the economy, but without constant economic support so that these countries can survive by themselves economically.
Williams expressed that the main goal within the surrounding countries of the region is to secure political stability. The USA are supporting a Tunisian democratic transition through a mutually agreed agenda, working with Tunisia to fight corruption. He argues that US intervention has helped a stronger, improved government through decentralisation, with Obama describing the country as a potential counter terrorism partner.
The USA have also been working in Libya to assist public institutions to become political institutions; the government of national court has made progress, but has yet to establish legitimacy. There has also been growing terrorist presence in Libya, which could threaten these improvements.
Additionally, the USA have looked at negotiating with Israel and Palestine where there is currently little political motivation. Williams stressed that they must stay committed to these countries. He emphasised diplomacy, using the example of its success in Iran. He suggests Iran could have chosen to create nuclear weapons but made the choice to refrain from gaining such resources because of negotiations with the US. Although the speaker still described Iran as a concern, it does go to show that patient collaboration works.
A member of the audience asked if ISIS was dealt with tomorrow, did Williams not think that the US had established alliances for the sake of it. However, the speaker highlighted that some of their allies, such as the Kurdish forces, are highly problematic in the region, but they focus on working with effective forces to fight terrorism; the regions themselves are to deal with the aftermath. They fight the shortest term challenge and then deal with other issues as they emerge.
A survey by ORB international found that 22 per cent of Syrians believe that ISIS has had a positive influence on their country. In my opinion, this weakens US intervention, and suggests that there is a decreased confidence in America’s aid. All this lengthens the time it will take to progress towards political stability.
Williams concluded that military intervention is not always the best option. Real diplomacy, although hard and sometimes unsatisfactory, is fundamental. The USA needs the world in order to succeed in international intervention, but the USA is also central to the world for diplomatic intervention. International community is important.
A diplomatic approach to the Middle East, rather than military intervention is a long process, but I think the most successful option likely to achieve political stability and peace over military intervention. Due to the threat that ISIL pose on the world, military action can make the situation worse. To establish peace negotiations by Middle Eastern countries would lead to future conflicts being resolved within these regions without the need for external intervention.
The USA could have handled the beginning of their intervention more successfully, with a consistent idea of how they would intervene in the Middle East. There is a history of military intervention in this region, for example in Afghanistan. So when the USA originally decided to intervene militarily but then changed their position to an emphasis on diplomacy, it gives the people false hope that eventually the USA will use military action to fight terrorist groups. Additionally, negotiations with Assad reinforces the idea of inconsistent policies of the US. This makes it hard for the Middle East to treat US intervention as legitimate if there is never a clear stance. So if the idea of diplomacy and humanitarianism is showcased consistently, it has the potential to prevent the elongation of the civil war in Syria.
 ORB International. ‘ORB/IIACSS poll in Iraq and Syria gives rare insight into public opinion.’ http://www.opinion.co.uk/article.php?s=orbiiacss-poll-in-iraq-and-syria-gives-rare-insight-into-public-opinion