What are Barack Obama’s top five challenges in the Middle East as he begins his second mandate? Without the pressure of electability, US presidents proverbially get more adventurous in the second term, but the list below is daunting:
1. Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process (or lack of it)
Will Obama enter the history books as the mediator who forced Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a two-state solution? Forget it. Palestinians are hopelessly divided between the Islamist Hamas & the secular Fatah groups, while Israelis, comfortable with their immense military superiority, show no interest in removing the illegal settlements on territories occupied in the 1967 war.
However, like his predecessors, Obama will have to continue keeping the peace process alive, simply because there’s no other diplomatic alternative on the table. He needs to keep the two sides engaging, or risk becoming the US president under whose watch all hope for a peaceful solution died - and terminally damage the credibility of US leadership in the region.
2. Iran’s Nuclear Program
Relations with Iran are as frosty as at the beginning of Obama’s first term, as the government in Tehran continues its nuclear enrichment program which it claims is used for peaceful purposes – and which Israel and the West strongly suspect is ultimately aimed at producing a nuclear weapon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – with whom Obama is on famously bad terms – has made it clear he would not wait forever for international sanctions to break Iran’s will. If Israel attacks Iran, Obama would be under immense pressure to offer military support to his No.1 regional ally, and risk being dragged into an extremely risky war he really, really doesn’t want.
3. Al Qaeda Threat
And then there’s the mother of all terror groups. The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 was Obama’s finest foreign policy moment in the first term – for the US public, at least. But on the ground it was far from a mortal blow for Al Qaeda, whose deadly affiliates continue to wreak havoc in parts of Iraq, Yemen and North Africa.
Al Qaeda cells are small, have little popular support, but they bring together a core of committed and well-funded militants willing to go after US targets. Containing the threat is perhaps the most that can be done.
4. Civil War in Syria
Ten years ago the US would have jumped on an opportunity to take out Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s chief Arab ally and an old adversary of US interests in the region. The bloody uprising against Assad that started in 2011 offers just this, but times have changed since Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos.
The US is tired from military adventures in the Middle East and weary of Islamist groups fighting Assad. Is Obama going to send weapons supplies to Syrian rebels, or let Turkey do the dirty work? Doing nothing risks seeing the violence spread to neighboring countries.
5. Egypt – the Heart of the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests that broke out in early 2011, may have started in Tunisia, but it’s the Arab world’s most populous country that matters most. The US has enjoyed close military and political links with Egyptian dictatorships for decades, but under the new popularly elected governments the US influence in the country will never be the same.
Obama faces a tough balancing act. How to save the relationship with the Egyptian army, the guarantor of Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel, without forever losing the Egyptian public?