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The Billion Dollar Photo Op: US Involvement in the Middle East

After returning from abroad last week, John Kerry announced that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would immediately begin in Washington.  The announcement came on the heels of his latest visit to the Middle East, one of six since Kerry began his term as Secretary of State in January.  He seems to have made the Israeli-Palestinian relationship his personal mission, and from an outside perspective, it is impressive that he has orchestrated this feat of diplomacy after only a few months at his post; he has been able to create a legacy for his term in office and might even be able to get a picture of Netanyahu and Abbas shaking hands on the White House lawn. However, considering all the other conflicts disrupting stability in the Middle East, Kerry’s choice to focus on Israel and Palestine is a serious misjudgment of political priorities.

Kerry’s actions illustrate the paradox of American involvement in the Middle East.  The Obama administration, with its widely-touted “pivot” to Asia, wants to play less of a visible role in the region.  At face value, this is understandable; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the economic recession, have fostered a desire amongst the American people to see their government take a backseat in international affairs.  However, the realities of the Middle East demand a more nuanced approach than the one the Obama administration has undertaken.  Compared to the nuclear threats coming from Iran, the volatility of the new Egyptian government, and the hornet’s nest that is the Syrian civil war, the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is a relatively easy way for the American government to give the impression that they still have a positive and relevant presence in the Middle East.  In making the Israel-Palestine relationship a priority, Kerry has achieved the ultimate sleight of hand, since the peace talks will give voters the impression that America’s foreign policy is still credible and relevant.  Meanwhile, the more pressing matters in the region, such as the Syrian conflict, will continue to escalate.

On his most recent visit to the Middle East, Kerry also visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.  The camp, which hosts over 100,000 displaced Syrians, was established last year and has rapidly grown to become the fourth-largest settlement in Jordan.  Kerry toured the camp’s administrative offices but decided not to cross the fence into the actual camp, citing security risks.  Instead, he spent 40 minutes answering questions and speaking to refugees, spouting reassurances such as “I wish it was very simple” and “we are doing new things [to help Syria].”  The refugees were understandably insulted, and one woman threw Kerry an ultimatum, saying “if the situation remains unchanged until the end of Ramadan this camp will become empty…[we] will return to Syria and we will fight with knives.”  Kerry left the Zaatari shortly thereafter, presumably after some more comforting platitudes.

The problem with Obama’s position on Syria is not his desire to stay out of the conflict, but that his administration continues to sidestep the issue in favour of Israel-Palestine.  Syria is a conflict that has rapidly grown more complicated over the course of the past 2 years.  The confirmed use of chemical weapons by Asad and the growing involvement of Iran indicates that Syria should be more of a priority for Obama and Kerry if they want to maintain any kind of influence in the Levant.  Of course, he American government is not ignoring the situation by any means; the estimated 1 billion dollars in humanitarian aid, as well as the recent decision to arm some rebel groups both indicate that Syria is on the American agenda.  However, the Americans must take their policy a few steps further, since they are doing very little in comparison with other nations who also have a vested interest in the outcome of the war.  Qatar, for instance, has not only contributed 3 billion dollars in aid, but has also provided rebels with advanced weapons technologies, such as heat seeking shoulder-fired missiles.  These have gone indiscriminately to all the rebels, including the militant jihadist factions.

The lack of unity amongst the opposition to Asad’s regime, coupled with the influx of funding from regional powers, leaves Syria extremely vulnerable to anti-Western influence.  If not dealt with correctly, the US might soon be embroiled in another Middle Eastern conflict, popular or not.  Considered in this light, Kerry’s decision to prioritize Israel and Palestine seems not only foolhardy, but a waste of resources and energy.  The peace talks, if they happen at all, will constitute a serious misstep on the part of the Obama administration, and will only take attention away from the more pressing matters in the Middle East.

– Katherine McNamara


Featured photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works  U.S Embassy Kabul Afghanistan, Creative Commons, Flickr

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