Lowy Institute

At the end of last week, Egyptian military chief Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that he would be resigning his military post to run for this year's presidential elections, expected to take place in May. It is a move that has been mooted for months now, and has at its origins the military's ouster of the Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, last June.

Everyone expects Sisi to win. He is genuinely popular among older Egyptians who want a strong hand to restore stability. The opposition, both Islamist and secular, has been corralled – in large part as a result of the extensive military crackdown that has seen large numbers arrested, especially from the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi will also have strong backing from outside the country. Israel is certainly happier that the military is back in charge after the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been pouring money into Egypt in support of the military since last year's coup.

I fear, however, that a Sisi presidency is not going to return stability to Egypt in the short-to-medium term. As I note in Next-Gen Jihad in the Middle East, published today, this has major implications for the region and even for Australia.

A return to authoritarianism may provide a short-term balm for those who feared the ascent of Islamists over the last three years. But as history has shown repeatedly, authoritarianism in the Middle East has also been a great incubator and amplifier for extremist ideas and activism.

As I explain in my paper, at the heart of the problem in Egypt is the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood.

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The military and the security services – or at least the most hard-line elements in each – seem to genuinely believe they can wipe the Brotherhood out. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, is more than happy to play the role of martyr to win back public support after its brief and incompetent rule.

But neither of these things is going to happen any time soon. And until Egypt's most important national institution reaches an accommodation with its largest opposition movement, there will violence, instability and radicalisation.

There are two main dangers. First, that the conflict will radicalise elements of the Brotherhood and other young Egyptians unhappy with the military crackdown. Some in the Brotherhood are already debating the wisdom of sticking to a non-violent approach to politics.

Second, that the turmoil will be exploited by more extreme jihadist groups which are already fighting a serious insurgency in the Sinai and since the coup have been mounting more attacks in the rest of Egypt.

It may well be that the military will prevail eventually. But it took the Mubarak regime almost a decade in the 1990s to tackle a major challenge from Islamist groups that saw, among other things, terrorist attacks against foreign tourists, the mainstay of the Egyptian economy. That regime was more coherent and stronger than the current one. But most importantly, that regime was not facing the economic situation Egypt faces today, with a collapse in tourism and foreign investment (real foreign investment, not just Gulf largesse).

All of this should concern countries outside the region. The regional tumult from Syria to Libya has already created fertile ground for jihadist groups. The immediate concern is obviously with those foreigners – including Australians – travelling to Syria, where they are gaining combat experience and military skills, and can form new connections with extremist groups from around the world.

An extended period of unrest in Egypt will add to the regional turmoil and swell extremist numbers in the region even further. Given Egypt's historic role as a centre of Islamist thinking, the conflict there will throw up new leaders as well. And while it is true that the current focus of jihadist groups is on the Middle East, recent history teaches us that this can shift quickly. Most of al Qaeda's leaders were veterans of domestic conflicts in the region in the 1980s and 90s.

Of course, there is nothing inevitable about the trajectory of events in Egypt. It may be that once Sisi wins the presidential elections and after any subsequent parliamentary elections, the military will feel confident enough to seek an accommodation with the Brotherhood and pull back from its crackdown on political dissent. But at this stage, the polarised and uncompromising atmosphere does not make this seem likely.

Photo by Flickr user Zoriah.

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Over the weekend Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) reached what has been labeled as a ‘first step’ agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Three initial observations:

1. Interim but significant

The agreement essentially freezes those aspects of Iran’s nuclear program that most worry the international community (such as enrichment activities and work on the heavy water reactor at Arak) in return for limited sanctions relief.  The agreement is meant to last for six months whilst a more comprehensive agreement is negotiated. It might well be replaced by another interim deal that includes a further series of steps if the two sides can’t agree on a comprehensive deal.

Despite the limited nature of this deal it is nevertheless significant. It is the first agreement between the international community and Iran over its nuclear program in a decade. In 2003 Iran and the EU-3 issued a joint statement in Tehran in which Iran promised to cooperate with the IAEA and suspend enrichment activities with a view to reaching a broader agreement on the nuclear program. That agreement was never reached and the last decade saw Iran’s nuclear program, and in particular its enrichment activities, accelerate.

In response, the US led an effort to impose a harsh sanctions regime, and there has been regular talk of military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. This agreement represents a significant walking back from these tensions.

2. Both sides want a deal

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One key thing that is different about this agreement when compared to the 2003 deal is the involvement of the US. While the EU3 was in close consultation with Washington in 2003, America's absence from the negotiating table meant a comprehensive agreement was never likely.

But it is not just the fact that the US is at the table that has made the difference. It is pretty clear that both Tehran and Washington want an agreement. As I noted in my piece in Haaretz last week, the Obama Administration wants the nuclear file closed as it tries to reduce its footprint in the Middle East, particularly after a decade of war in the region.

Iran’s motivations are less clear. Many have argued that Tehran is desperate to ease the harsh regime of sanctions imposed over the last two years that have, among other things, reduced Iran’s revenue from oil exports by more than 50%. But while this is probably true, I also think that the regime feels in a relatively strong position in the region at the moment and is therefore more confident in its ability to extract a good deal from Washington. Indeed, in this deal Washington has made a significant concession to Iran by agreeing to the continuation of enrichment activities, albeit at levels much lower than those necessary to build a nuclear weapon.

Nevertheless, if it is true that both sides want a deal, it is not yet clear what Tehran, particularly Supreme Leader Khamenei, wants it for. It is clear that the Leader has given President Rouhani significant leeway to negotiate an agreement. The question is, why? Is it because the Leader is interested in resolving the issue once and for all, gaining Iran sanctions relief and ending its international isolation? Or is he simply pursuing the well-worn tactic of buying time and seeking to weaken international adherence to a sanctions regime that has been so strong and effective? Recent history would suggest the latter, although it does not entirely rule out the former.

3. The deal might be harder to derail than people think

Not unexpectedly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the deal as a ‘historic mistake’. Other American allies like Saudi Arabia will be unhappy as well. At the heart of their disquiet is a fundamental difference with the US in how they see Iran’s nuclear program.

For President Obama, the nuclear program is the issue. He sees it as a regional and global proliferation issue which he thinks can be resolved by diplomacy. Israel and Saudi Arabia see the nuclear question as symptom of a bigger problem: Iran’s aspiration to dominate the region. They doubt, therefore, that Iran will ever willingly give up its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. In their view, even if Iran is willing to slow its nuclear program down, a narrow nuclear deal would not address the other aspects of Iran’s regional policy they worry about. Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t want a nuclear deal with Iran, they want the Islamic Republic cut down to size.

Israel and Saudi Arabia will be joined in their opposition to this deal by some in Congress. Hardliners in Iran will also be opposed. Indeed, the agreement is fragile and any number of things could see it fall apart. Yet despite the caution with which this deal should be viewed, it might be harder to derail than people think.

The agreement seems to reflect deeper and broader understandings between the two sides than are suggested by the text itself. It also suggests that the two sides know the general direction they are heading in with respect to a more comprehensive agreement. Moreover, having raised expectations of significant sanctions relief among Iranians, there will be some pressure on Tehran to deliver.

In the US, it is already clear that President Obama will invest a lot of effort to sell the deal to the American public over the heads of any Congressional opposition; he will probably find a receptive audience weary of America’s wars in the Middle East. This might mitigate to some degree efforts by Israel or Saudi Arabia to use friends in Congress to block the deal.

Of course, Israel could always decide to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But if that option was attractive or viable, Israel would have taken it already.

Photo by Flickr user US Mission Geneva.

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Today we said goodbye to one of the original Lowy Institute research staff members, the Director of our International Economy Program, Mark Thirlwell. There are several reasons why this is a sad day for me personally, and for the Institute. Here are a few.

First, Mark is the only economist I understand. It is not just that I am particularly immune to any ideas involving numbers, but Mark has that rare ability – among economists, but also among the commentariat more generally — to communicate complex ideas clearly and simply. It is something I know many readers of his fine and regular posts on The Interpreter came to appreciate.

Second, Mark is sensible and sceptical, in a way only Geordies can be. This has meant that, from the beginning, he was there to puncture large holes in some of the more half-arsed ideas we came up with, especially in the early years of the Institute, saving us considerable embarrassment.

Third, Mark is a football fan. Not some johnny-come-lately, bandwagon-jumping Manchester United fan, but a real fan of real football (that's soccer for the dummies). I know this because he is a die-hard supporter of Newcastle in the English Premier league and if you know anything about that club you know that you have to be a real football fan to support them. And if you think this is not relevant to the work of the Lowy Institute, I can tell you that the original idea for our work on football diplomacy originated from one of the many football discussions between Mark and I.

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Fourth, Mark likes pies. In the first year of the Institute, when we were located in our temporary headquarters in William St, he and I spent a lot of time at Harry's Café de Wheels. We came up with some of our best ideas there. Some of them even made it into research papers. (Unfortunately we also forgot many of them when we would move from Harry's to the Woolloomooloo Bay Hotel across the road).

Fifth, Mark is not a snappy dresser. This is not really relevant to the Institute, but it did mean that for a decade there were at least two of us here who were sartorially challenged.

You sometimes get the impression that when people look at the Institute today, from the grand building and the voluminous research output to the strong media presence and our regular engagement with government and business, they assume it was always thus. Those of us who were there at the beginning know this is not the case, and that our success was far from assured when we began. Today we bade farewell to one of the people who contributed disproportionately to building the Institute into what it is today.

Mark, I know it is not goodbye, but you will be missed.

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Watching the Syrian crisis in recent weeks has provided answers to two critical and interrelated questions that have hovered over the conflict since it began.

The first is: will the West ever mount a decisive military intervention into the conflict? The answer to that question now seems a pretty clear 'no'.

There may yet be a largely symbolic US strike on the Syrian regime, but the difficulty Washington (and London and Paris) has had mustering political support for even this limited operation underlines the fact that even something short of a Libya-style intervention is a remote prospect.

The one caveat I would put on this is the possibility that the Syrian regime does something so horrible that it jolts the Western moral conscience back into operation. But Damascus has already done very many horrible things and its seems it would take a lot to get a war-weary West out of neutral.

You would think therefore that this renders academic the second question hovering over the conflict since it began: would intervention or the threat of intervention work? There would seem to be no point debating the wisdom of doing something that is not going to happen.

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Yet the last few days have provided something of an answer to this question as well. The seeming willingness of the Syrian regime to play along with the Russian idea that it should give up its chemical arsenal in order to forestall military action suggests Damascus does fear such action.

Of course, the whole focus on chemical weapons is a distraction. The overwhelming majority of Syrians killed in the conflict have been killed by conventional weapons. Even if Syrian chemical weapons were now placed under international control it would not have the slightest impact on the blood letting. But even if the regime is not serious about the Russian proposal and is just playing for time, it still suggests that Assad is worried about where even a symbolic strike might ultimately lead.

Moscow seems to share this uncertainty. For the last two years it has both understood Washington's extreme reluctance to intervene and done everything to prevent even the remotest possibility of a change of heart. Hence Moscow's unwillingness to approve even a humanitarian resolution in the UN Security Council out of fear that it might become a back door to another Libya operation.

So there is the irony: Syria and Russia fear what the West plainly does not want to do.

This is not, however, an argument in favour of force. It is one thing to say that Syria and Russia fear the prospect of military action. It is another thing to say that they would capitulate in the face of it. Bashar al-Assad is unlikely throw his arms up in surrender as the first Tomahawk missile enters Syrian airspace. Like Saddam and Qadhafi before him, Assad will need to be literally dug out of the ground before he surrenders. Any serious military intervention in Syria would be as bloody and costly as the West fears.

Nevertheless, there is room for diplomacy between, on the one hand, the regime and its supporters' willingness to take some steps to avoid military action and, on the other hand, its unwillingness to totally capitulate, even in the face of that action.

It means the West needs a real diplomatic strategy that is calibrated to what is possible. The West continues to have a weak hand on Syria, but it could undoubtedly play it better. So while half-hearted threats of force will not make Assad step down, they could be used to grind out concessions he might be more willing (or be pushed by his international allies) to make.

The West should start with chemical weapons. Scepticism about the regime's intentions is justified, but it is an opening that needs to be thoroughly explored. More important would be to work for a ceasefire, as well as any other measures that would help deal with the humanitarian situation. In other words, focus now on dealing with the worst consequences of the conflict.

None of this will be as a satisfying as demanding Assad step down immediately. But for now, having ruled out the intervention that it rightly fears, the West needs to focus on what is possible, rather than what is preferable.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin.

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A US State Department seal hangs in front of the dessert table at the dining facility inside the compound of the US embassy in Baghdad December 14, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

Over the weekend the US closed many of its embassies in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of what was described as a serious al Qaeda threat.

Given the number of times US embassies have come under attack in the last decade or so, and certainly in the post-Benghazi era, it would seem hard to argue against such a dramatic move. Indeed, it says something that these days such precautions don't really seem that dramatic any more.

The problem is, they should. Closing all of your embassies in the Middle East raises the question of whether it is even worthwhile having embassies anymore.

It is not just the act of closing an embassy for security reasons that is an issue. Anyone who has had a meeting at an American embassy in the Middle East or South Asia knows the experience of going through multiple layers of security. The embassies have come to resemble fortresses and bunkers.

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This is both a symbolic and a practical matter. While I would not want to make too much of this, the size and disposition of an Embassy – whether it is open and accessible or hunkered down – does say something to the locals about the country the embassy represents. But far more serious is the practical problem caused by the pre-occupation with security, in particular the fact that diplomats leave their embassies a lot less than they used to.

You might argue that this only really happens in countries like Pakistan or Egypt where the security situation warrants it. In Australia, for example, American diplomats move around freely. But it is precisely in countries like Pakistan and Egypt, where there are problems in the bilateral relationship or where the political situation is in flux and it is difficult to understand what's going on, that you need embassies and where diplomats need to be out and about.

This is not just a recent development. I remember when I served with the Australian mission in Tel Aviv in 2000 after the outbreak of the second Intifada, my American colleagues would constantly lament how onerous and time consuming it became to organise travel to the West Bank and that when they eventually did go they were accompanied by so much security that it was intimidating for the locals.

Nor is it just an American story. Some of my former DFAT colleagues have complained of how security restrictions limited their ability to do their job in the post-9/11 era.

If, as a diplomat, you cannot actually spend time travelling in your host country and if you can't develop strong relationships with the locals, you might as well pack up and go home. You cannot effectively represent the country from which you have come, nor can you really develop an understanding of the country to which you are posted.

You could argue that maintaining such levels of contact are not worth a diplomat's life. Indeed, by closing embassies, even temporarily, and by bunkering them deep in multiple security perimeters this is effectively the judgement you are making. But if that is the case, then we need to ask what purpose embassies really serve anymore. Why have anyone in the country at all?

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Overnight in Egypt the military suspended the country's constitution and removed President Mohammed Morsi from power, following massive popular protests.

It is clearly a coup, even if the military has, I suspect, mounted it reluctantly: on the one hand not wanting to run the country again, on the other hand concerned by the instability and probably egged on by the old political and economic establishment.

The ironies and incongruities are obvious and multiple: Egypt's first democratically-elected president overthrown by protests that were probably bigger than those that overthrew the country's long time dictator, Hosni Mubarak; protesters celebrating a coup mounted by the very people whom many of the same protesters were decrying as thugs and dictators more than a year ago; and Egypt's democratic transition back in the hands of the same people whose original sins of commission and omission after Mubarak's overthrow bear a significant part of the blame for the current political deadlock.

As I noted in an earlier post, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's predicament was largely of their own making. While it is true that some parts of the political and bureacratic elite were never going to accept the Muslim Brotherhood in power, there is no question that Morsi and the Brotherhood undermined their legitimacy by failing to build a broad consensus across the political and social spectrum.

The fact that the Brotherhood either turfed out or lost some of its more moderate leaders who understood the importance of building political bridges, such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Futtouh (who went on to run for president), hampered it in this regard. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to count the movement out now. If it has demonstrated anything in the 80-odd years of its existence, it is the capacity for survival.

There is a broader issue here, however. The Brotherhood put its own political interests ahead of the nation's, but so far, so has pretty much everyone else, including the military. The failure to build a political consensus to consolidate the democratic transition is not just the Brotherhood's fault — every political actor bears responsibility for it.

Indeed, the challenge now will be for opposition forces to show magnanimity towards a politically-wounded Brotherhood and not force it out of politics altogether. But I would not be betting on it, so the political situation will probably become even more polarised.

Moreover, forcing Morsi from power, particularly in this way, is hardly going to solve the other problems that undermined the President. It is not clear, for example, that the military will be any better at re-booting the democratic transition than it was at managing it the first time. Nor is it clear that anyone will do any better at reviving Egypt's deteriorating economic fortunes. Sustaining popular support and legitimacy will be an enormous challenge for any successor to Morsi.

This is not merely a question of how you solve specific political or economic problems, but how you manage the politics and popular expectations of economic and political reform. The Brotherhood showed that it was bad at this, but I am not sure there is anyone on the political scene who would do a better job. How do you manage a political environment where everyone can agree on what they are against (at the moment it is the Brotherhood; who knows who or what it will be tomorrow) but where few can agree on who or what they are for?

While many are rightly lauding the current protests as a great example of people power, the cold hard reality is that you cannot run the country from Tahrir Square.

Photo by Flickr user TripleMs.

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On Sunday Egyptians marked President Mohammed Morsi's first anniversary in office by protesting — mostly against him. By many accounts the protests were larger than those that led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime; in the millions according to some reports.

There were multiple demonstrations in Cairo, including some for the President, as well as demonstrations (and in several cases violent clashes) in Alexandria, Assiut and Ismalia. It is also clear that it is not just Morsi but the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole that has been targeted, with the movement's national headquarters in Cairo attacked.

It is a perverse sort of achievement for Morsi. Not only has he inspired Egyptians to return to the streets, but if it is true that these protests were bigger than those that overthrew Mubarak, he has also provoked many into turning out for the first time.

Some are demonstrating because they have never come to terms with the Brotherhood being in power, and never will. But the sheer size of the protests also exposes the hollowness of the President's claim that the demonstrators are simply remnants of the old regime. The protesters include those who were prepared to give Morsi the benefit of the doubt, but who lost faith in him as it became clear that the he was privileging his and the Muslim Brotherhood's narrow political interests over the consolidation of Egypt's transition to democracy. Indeed, it seems even some Egyptians who did vote for Morsi a year ago have taken to the streets.

So what does it all mean?

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First, it is clear from the scale of the protests that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot simply ignore them. But it is not clear what they can do to restore their lost legitimacy. It is probably past the point where they can adopt a more consensual and inclusive approach to the political transition. Few trust them anymore.

So does this mean that Morsi will be forced to resign, as some are predicting, or even that this is the end of the Brotherhood, at least politically? Maybe the former, but probably not the latter. The Brotherhood have walked a long and torturous road, literally for decades, to get to their current position of power. They will not give it up easily and they are capable of reassessment and reinvention.

Morsi and the Brotherhood may also be helped by the fact that it won't be easy for the opposition to turn these protests into a coherent set of political demands or even a viable political alternative. This is what helped the Brotherhood win the elections after Mubarak's ouster and it may yet help them again.

Second, the military obviously remains the critical determinant of the outcome. Crudely, they have two options: stay out, which would help Morsi to ride out the current crisis, with some adjustment and concessions, or intervene to force Morsi to resign, replacing him with something else, effectively re-booting the political transition. The military will not be keen to do the latter, however. They want to retain popular support, but they also don't want to manage the day-to-day running of the country again, even for a short period, as they did after Mubarak's ousting. The first instinct therefore will probably be to tell Morsi to 'fix this' even if they have no idea how. They will probably only take the second option if things become — or if the military feel they are about to become — so violent or disorderly that they have no choice but to act.

Third, while I don't believe predictions that this may result in a civil war, parts of Egypt will witness sectarian conflict and political violence that will be difficult to control (as in fact we are already seeing in places like Assiut). Egypt is not Syria, but it is clearly a deeply polarised society right now with no sign of any new political actor emerging that might reconcile these tensions.

Finally, there is a bigger question here about what conclusion Islamists will draw if the Brotherhood are forced from power, despite winning Egypt's presidential and parliamentary elections, more or less fairly. The more sober-minded will realise that the movement made many political errors and largely has itself to blame for its current predicament. The risk is, however, that others will draw less thoughtful conclusions, with violent consequences not only for Egypt but also elsewhere in an Arab world struggling to cope with new political realities.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS.

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A few days ago the New York Times ran a rather breathless story about how China has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of Iraq's post-Saddam oil boom. The story prompted a bit of commentary on Twitter and a few follow-up pieces, including this one in the Washington Post which argued that China was indeed beating the US in an Iraq oil competition, but that this was not a bad thing.

The flavour of much of the commentary was summed up in a tweet by the usually sensible James Fallows: 'Would be crude & reductionist to say U.S. fought Iraq, and China won. But wouldn't be wrong.'

Fallows' comment fits within a view that US influence and power in the Middle East declining, while China's is rising. The problem is that while the former is undoubtedly true, the latter doesn't necessarily follow. There are at least three reasons why the NY Times' old-world strategic logic does not stack up.

First, the supposed competition for Iraq's oil is not much of a competition at all: put simply, China needs more of Iraq's oil than the US does. American oil imports from the Gulf have fallen from almost 900 million barrels in 2000 to just under 800 million barrels in 2012 – and not because the US cannot get the oil, but because it does not want it. In coming years, America's domestic shale oil production will reduce these imports further.

So there is a very good reason why, as the NY Times article concedes, American oil companies are not prepared to invest in Iraqi oil fields for minimal profits. These companies are not losing to China, they are simply making decision based on different economics.

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Second, there is not much competition for oil anywhere else in the Middle East either: by focusing narrowly on the gains Chinese national oil companies have undoubtedly made in Iraq's oilfields, the article gives the impression that this kind of competition is happening elsewhere in the region. But Iraq is one of the few Middle East oil producers that allow foreigners to have a stake in its fields. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, prevents any upstream investment, by China or anyone else.

This has not stopped Saudi Arabia from becoming China's single most important source of oil in the last decade. But it has been less a function, as some have argued, of a post-9/11 strategic turn by Saudi Arabia towards China and away from America than simple supply and demand. As this analysis noted a few years ago, in the 2000s there was a rapid and unexpected increase in Chinese oil demand. And as a Saudi oil ministry official told me, this forced China to turn increasingly to the one country that had the volumes to quickly meet that demand.

Third, Chinese foreign policy and energy policy remain disconnected in one important way. The NY Times article refers to Chinese oil companies as 'tools of Beijing's foreign policy' for securing energy supply in a new 'great game' sense. In fact, it is often the other way around. In Sudan, for example, CNPC invested heavily because of a lack of competition from Western oil companies, forcing Chinese diplomats into the uncomfortable position of defending Sudanese atrocities in Darfur.

China's position on the conflict in Syria is an even better example of the way China's foreign policy and its energy policy are not always in lock step. China has taken a position on Syria that is fundamentally at odds with its key Gulf suppliers. In fact, as Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, Assistant Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, noted in his recent Australia-Gulf lecture here at the Lowy Institute, tension over this issue has caused the suspension of a number of political consultations between the GCC and China.

I am not suggesting that there are no strategic consequences of China's growing reliance on Middle Eastern oil. But it is a far more complex story, and frankly a more interesting one, than the increasingly dated, zero-sum, oil-and-realpolitik paradigm suggested by the NY Times.

Photo by Flickr user iAMiAN.

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One of the paradoxes of the Syrian crisis has been the way Russia and China have worked determinedly to prevent America from doing something that it clearly does not want to do.

I asked a diplomat from a P5 country about this in New York a few weeks ago. He said that while it was clear Obama did not want to intervene in Syria, Russia and China feared America would be forced into an intervention. This explains, he added, the lack of even a humanitarian resolution on Syria from the Security Council. 'We don't want to see an intervention via the back door', he argued.

Later, speaking to a range of Syria-watchers in Washington, I was told by most that eventually Obama would be forced by the spiraling consequences of the conflict to do what he fears most. 

Yet no-one I spoke to could easily point to a key moment or factor that would move the President's hand: not humanitarian reasons (80,000 already dead); nor geo-political ones (how much more ground can Iran, Hizbullah or the Jihadis gain?); not the spillover (which could get worse, but that is already obvious now, so why wait?); nor even, as we have already seen, the use of chemical weapons. 

A number of observers noted that Obama was rejecting almost every course of action recommended to him with an almost bloodless calculation of the statistical likelihood of success. Or, as one said, Obama is acting more like America's 'analyst in chief' than its 'commander in chief'. 

That quip wasn't intended as a compliment, but given the last decade of American policy in the Middle East, many would applaud Obama's more pointy-eared approach as a welcome change from the clench-fisted policies of his predecessor, George W Bush.

But here's the thing. Obama's coldly analytical approach may play out in a way so brutally pragmatic that it will make even his warmest applauders shuffle uncomfortably in their café chairs. In fact, if you understand that Obama's overwhelming imperative is to keep America out of the conflict, as it clearly is, then logically he would even be willing to settle for an Assad victory.

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The president understands that the longer the conflict goes on, the more likely that there will eventually be some unexpected calamity that will force a change of policy; or perhaps the weight of negative consequences from the conflict will grow so heavy that he can no longer ignore them.  Therefore, he needs the conflict to end, and to end by the most expeditious route. 

In the early days of the uprising, Obama undoubtedly pinned his hopes on Assad's rapid departure. With the regime showing great resilience and perhaps even some recovery of late, he may now secretly and reluctantly calculate that the best hope of avoiding an intervention is if Assad stays.

It is a harsh judgment to make of Obama and an even harder claim to substantiate. And I am not saying Obama would actively work toward that outcome — just that he might not work to avoid it either.

A key test of this hypothesis will come with the mooted Geneva II conference. Even as it was announced there were fears it was just a means for Obama to deflect growing calls for a more direct role in the conflict, in particular by arming the opposition.

In fact, the EU's mostly empty decision to lift the arms embargo on Syria is being portrayed, conveniently, as a first step in an effort to convince Assad that he needs to negotiate at a Geneva II. I am not sure Assad will be rushing to capitulate, not least given that so far he seems to have been the only beneficiary of the EU's decision (with the Russians using it as a pretext to announce they will go ahead with the long-mooted delivery of S300 missiles).

But it is also being argued that, if Geneva II fails, then the West will have no choice but to throw its military weight behind the opposition. Indeed, as this Ha'aretz piece argues, even the Israelis may now be less ambivalent about pushing Assad out, given that Israel's arch enemy Hizbullah has so unequivocally tied its fortunes to Assad's survival.

It is at this point where Obama's narrowly-focused determination to keep America out of Syria will be tested. He will either decide to keep to his current course or he will succumb to the interventionist chorus, placing America on an escalatory track towards even greater military involvement — precisely what it seems he is most seeking to avoid.

This does not mean I believe Obama's options are either military intervention or doing next to nothing. There is, I believe, a diplomatic, de-escalatory option, as this piece from the European Council of Foreign relations outlines. It would require, however, a deep and sustained investment of diplomatic effort, even while the fighting continues in Syria. This is an investment Obama has so far been reluctant to make. Allowing Secretary of State Kerry to scurry around the region on diplomatic mission to inter alia revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict is not evidence to the contrary.

But by choosing to avoid either a decisive military intervention in Syria or to make a decisive diplomatic intervention (however faint its prospects), Obama has largely settled for being led by events and actors in the region. And given the trajectory of those event, this may mean, in effect, settling for Assad.

Photo by Flickr user Bombardier

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A lot has been written about President Obama's equivocal response to the almost equally equivocal evidence (so far) that Syria has used chemical weapons against its own people. Having earlier drawn a 'red line' on this issue it seems that Obama is now hurriedly rubbing it out.

You cannot blame him. America cannot afford military intervention in Syria (even if, eventually, it might have to do it anyway). What's more, America and its allies aren't any good at intervention, as Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya, if anyone cared enough to be still watching) underline.

And yet Obama's seemingly prudent avoidance of another military entanglement in the Middle East would be more compelling if there was a sense that he was investing in other less destructive means to bring the Syrian conflict to an end. But sanctions, some non-lethal military assistance, a little shepherding of the Syrian opposition and prodding of the P5 in the Security Council seem to be the limit of America's foreign policy imagination on Syria these days.

I am not suggesting America should start lining up the troops for intervention. But I would have thought that a little more diplomatic attention and political muscle now might help forestall military intervention later once the Syrian regime eventually does something outrageous enough – as it probably will — to compel Obama to act.

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It is, I know, easy to criticise America's handling of what is a diabolical problem. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that what is taking place here is not some cautious husbanding of American power for the right moment, but an almost reckless willingness to allow American policy to be dictated by events on the ground.

And it is being dictated: by the Iranians, by the Turks, by the Saudis and even by the little Qataris, all of whom are directing forceful energy and considerable treasure to feed their proxies and fuel the conflict's escalation.

Not only is such an abdication of responsibility ultimately damaging to America's interest in the region, it will accelerate the downward spiral of American influence. If Obama's current approach makes it seem to regional allies and enemies alike that Syria does not matter to America anymore, then why listen to, or fear, America anymore?

In that regard, perhaps the most disturbing thing about the last week was not Obama's shuffle back from his own red line on intervention, but the language he used to justify it. In particular, this response to a reporter's question during a press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan caught my eye (my emphasis):

And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime. But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists -- all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region.

Obama thinks that 'in many ways' a line has been crossed when 'tens of thousands of innocent people' have been killed. Really? 'In many ways?' I would have thought a line had been crossed, full stop. Likewise, he says the use of chemical weapons would add 'increased urgency' to a 'significant...humanitarian problem'. This is bureaucratic-speak from the great American orator. Is 'significant' really the limit of his descriptive eloquence to describe a conflict that by UN account has already killed over 70,000 people and has become one of the world's worst refugee crises?

One might find excuse for Obama in the fact that it was an unprepared remark; perhaps it was a little underdone, rhetorically. In other circumstances (say the Boston bombing) it would even be an appropriate withdrawal from the hyperbole that has come to characterise public pronouncements on national security matters.

Instead, what it seems to reveal is a new habit of mind and expression that will not be reassuring to those who still see an important role for America in the world – even a more prudent America.

As Owen Harries and Tom Switzer argue in the latest edition of The American Interest, Obama 'rightly' wants to focus on nation-building at home. 'But only when he articulates an approach that emphasizes prudence and modesty in the most forceful and eloquent manner will such a doctrine win public acceptance.' To which I would add – public acceptance, both in America, but also abroad.

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By killing Hamas' senior military commander in Gaza, Ahmad al-Jabaari, Israel is taking a calculated risk. Mostly, Israel and Hamas have an uneasy understanding. Hamas doesn't shoot at Israel and it tries to prevent other militant groups in Gaza from shooting at Israel; Israel, in turn, refrains from any big military moves in Gaza.

Occasionally that understanding breaks down, and at the end of last week there were a couple of attacks on Israeli patrols around Gaza. Israel responded, which precipitated waves of rocket attacks from Gaza at southern Israeli towns.

What made these attacks different is that Hamas claimed responsibility for some of them. Israel has a pretty good understanding of who is launching what from Gaza. Occasionally it will avoid retaliation against Hamas if it feels that attacks were launched by one of the other militant groups in the territory, some of whom are more militant and more radical than Hamas. (Hamas also sometimes plays a double game here, using these small groups to launch attacks while maintaining plausible deniability.)

Israel absorbed these attacks for a few days, but the targeting of al-Jabaari, and the clear warning that it will launch a ground invasion of Gaza, signals to Hamas that Israel's patience has come to an end.

Israel is calculating that, notwithstanding Hamas' rhetorical allusions to Israeli actions having opened the 'gates of hell', Hamas does not want to risk a major military operation by Israel in Gaza. Whatever military victory it claimed the last time Israel sent troops into Gaza in 2008, the enormous damage done to Gaza's infrastructure and economy undermined Hamas' ability to govern Gaza and cost it political support (Gazans obviously blame Israel for this, but they also blame Hamas for its inability to improve their daily situation).

But Israel has made a risky calculation, for two reasons.

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First, it is now at the mercy of events and mistakes. If a stray Israeli shell falls on a hospital or a kindergarten, Hamas may not be able to hold back even if it wants to. Hamas may also have trouble reining in other militant groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is closely aligned with Iran (which has its own agenda here).

Second, the neighbourhood has changed and Israel can no longer be entirely sure of how the new neighbours will react. One obvious change is that Egypt now has a Muslim Brotherhood president, though it is actually more complicated than that. The Muslim Brotherhood is not interested in picking a fight with Israel at the moment. In fact, for reasons of self interest, they have done quite a bit behind the scenes to reassure Israel and the US about it commitment to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

The problem is that the new Egyptian regime's ability to resist being dragged into events in Gaza is weaker than that of its predecessor, not just because it is Islamist, but also because it is more populist. What is interesting about the recent escalation is that the attacks out of Gaza came at roughly the same time as the Egyptian military announced it was launching a new campaign to destroy the tunnels under the Gaza-Egyptian border in Sinai that are an economic but also military lifeline for the Palestinian territory.

Indeed, Hamas has become increasingly disappointed with the new Egyptian Government. Hamas had hoped that an Egypt led by a movement of which it is a branch would adopt a new approach, including by opening the border and by being less attuned to the security needs of Israel than was the Mubarak regime.

But the new Egyptian president has shown that he is no more willing to take greater responsibility for Gaza than was his predecessor. Unsurprisingly, the priority has been placed on the Muslim Brotherhood's interests: not just reassuring Israel and the US but also dealing with a serious security problem it has in North Sinai, which is in part fed by criminal and jihadist activity around the tunnels and the Gaza-Israel-Sinai border region.

The current escalation may well have been calculated (or is being exploited) by Hamas to force the new Egyptian Government into a more sympathetic position on Gaza. In this regard the missiles fired at Israel in recent days might really have been aimed at Egypt.

Photo, showing smoke rising after an Israel air strike in Gaza in December 2008, by Flickr user Amir Farshad Ebrahimi.

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We are told that the murder of American diplomats in Libya, attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Yemen and protests outside other American missions in the region, including in Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan, was sparked by a cheap film made in America attacking Islam.

No film, however idiotic in conception and offensive in execution, justifies murder and violence. But the current violence and protest in the Arab world is not just about a film and reflects a number of factors, some that have much to do with America and some that don't.

The first of these is Arab anger toward the US. This well of ill-feeling is not new, although it has been filling more rapidly in the past 15 years. This is not necessarily a criticism of US policy in the Middle East. In the last decade and a half America has done things in the region that have been variously dumb, morally suspect, poorly communicated, understandable, positive and entirely necessary. Whether Arab anger at America is justified, wrongheaded or manipulated, this is the reality America faces, but it is a complex reality because the Arab world still needs, and often likes, the A to Z of America, from aircraft carriers to zombie movies.

Second, the Arab uprisings have made some Arabs angrier at America, but the real change is that they have brought to power governments whose ability and/or willingness to control violent manifestations of popular anger is weaker than that of the regimes they replaced. 

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In Egypt, for example, former President Hosni Mubarak was not above stoking a bit of anti-Americanism when it served his political interests. His regime also allowed protests against the US on occasion, for example over the invasion of Iraq, but set clear red lines with protesters that were often brutally enforced by the Interior Ministry.

Today, however, both the red-lines for protest and the mechanisms to enforce them are weaker. The Interior Ministry and the police are in disarray, while politically the government walks a finer line. Even though President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been building bridges with the US Government, they are mindful of the anger of their own constituents toward America and were thus slow to condemn the violence.

Third, this violence does not just reflect anger towards America. Whatever the Arab uprisings will eventually make of Libyan, Egyptian and Yemeni societies, they have for the moment made them more lawless and have accentuated social and economic problems. The involvement of football 'ultras' in the protests in Egypt, for example, suggests that the violence reflects some degree of mob activism. And you cannot rule out the possibility of political opponents using protests to undermine or embarrass new governments.

Fourth, extremism is making a comeback, although for how long and in what form is not yet clear. The fact that the Arab uprisings has weakened interior ministries in the region may be a good thing in the long run, given the role that their prisons and torture chambers served as incubators for extremist ideas and activists. But in the short run it has opened new opportunities for extremist movements to re-group and in some cases, such as in Libya, to re-arm with sophisticated weapons from looted military armouries. All of this coincides, unhelpfully, with the looming and mostly ignominious American and NATO drawdown in Afghanistan and the mess in Pakistan. 

So what can America do? A lot of advice will fill the pages of blogs and foreign policy journals in coming weeks. Some suggestions will be better than others: change US policies, renew the Middle East Peace Process, support democratisation, stop supporting democratisation, improve public diplomacy, use more social media, more drone strikes, fewer drone strikes, abandon the Middle East, re-engage with it, pivot to Asia, re-balance, re-set, abort. 

My advice, from the lyrics of a favourite Radiohead song: 'breathe, keep breathing'. There are no silver bullets for managing America's relationships in the Middle East and things will probably only get harder in coming years. But there is no escaping, much less pivoting from, those interests either. 

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Before the events of the last weekend, the main issue facing Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi (pictured) was his lack of real power. Now he may have too much. The key question is how he and the Muslim Brotherhood will use this power. Will it be to cement Egypt's transition to democracy or to serve their own narrow political agenda and interests? We will know the answer in coming months.

By amending Egypt's transitional constitution, Morsi has overturned the Supreme Council of Armed Forces' (SCAF) own earlier amendment which had stripped his position of real power. He now has full executive and legislative power and control over the writing of Egypt's new constitution.

By retiring the top brass he has removed those individuals in the military with the strongest connections to the old regime and those most likely to plot against him. He has promoted in their place a younger guard who appear to have been increasingly unhappy with the old guard's handling of the political transition and the way this had been sullying the military's reputation. This may now mean a military more focused on its professional responsibilities rather than on political interference.

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By appointing a prominent and respected judge as his vice-president, Morsi has also signaled to the judiciary, parts of which are also strongly linked to the old regime, that it too needs to curb its political meddling. Key judicial bodies like the Supreme Constitutional Court had intervened repeatedly in Egypt's transition, and often in a way that seemed designed to obstruct the Brotherhood's political ascendancy.

Morsi's moves are positive insofar as they shift power from the unelected SCAF to the elected president and get Egypt's stumbling transition moving and government functioning again. But the concentration of power in his hands is extremely dangerous in a country only recently released from decades of autocratic rule. Three key tests will tell us what Morsi's new power means for Egypt's transition to democracy:

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  1. How Morsi and the Brotherhood treat non-violent opposition and public criticism: Morsi can justifiably argue that some of the criticism directed at him by opponents in the media has verged on incitement. But with power now so preponderantly in his and the Muslim Brotherhood's hands, his willingness to allow even his most irreconcilable critics to have their say will be a key sign of his commitment to building a more open and democratic Egypt. Recent moves against two journalists deemed to have 'insulted the President' are a bad start.
  2. How Morsi manages constitutional process: the constituent assembly is drafting a new constitution which should be complete before the end of the year and will then be put to a popular vote. Because Morsi now has the power to appoint a new constituent assembly if the current one is incapable of completing its work, there is now a disincentive for opponents to mount legal challenges or obstruct the assembly. The question is whether Morsi will use his power to build a consensus around a new constitution or abuse it to pursue the Brotherhood's constitutional aims.
  3. How Morsi manages new parliamentary elections: one of the more disturbing aspects of Morsi's moves is the fact that he now holds executive and legislative power. The Brotherhood held a majority in the most recent parliament until the Supreme Constitutional Court prompted its dissolution. Morsi has promised to hold new parliamentary elections a few months after the constitutional process is complete. Whether Morsi keeps that promise and the manner in which the elections are conducted will be the final test of Morsi's commitment to Egypt's democratic transition.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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As I write, both the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Muhammed Morsi (pictured) and old regime candidate Ahmed Shafiq are claiming victory in Egypt's presidential election. While it seems more likely that Morsi has won, expect recounts, challenges and other shenanigans before we get a final result.

Regardless of who wins, the presidential election has been overshadowed by what many observers have described as a coup by the country's real centre of power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

In the last week, Egypt's Constitutional Court has dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament, military police and intelligence officials have been given wider powers of civilian arrest and the SCAF has issued new amendments to last year's constitutional declaration, giving them much strong executive, legislative, coercive and even constitution writing powers.

One could argue that this is not really a coup because no-one other than the SCAF had any real power since Mubarak was overthrown. It certainly means, however, that if Morsi really has won the election, his presidency is likely to be short of power, short-tempered and possibly even short-lived.

Some (both inside and outside Egypt) who are fearful of the Brotherhood will be relieved that the SCAF and its old regime allies have taken these steps. As I have argued before, the Brotherhood's decision to run for the presidency after their parliamentary victory was bad for Egypt's democratic transition. After decades of authoritarian rule, it was always going to be dangerous for any player to have such a strong hold over key elected institutions, especially a movement like the Brotherhood that raises people's fears and suspicions, some exaggerated but some quite justified.

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Nevertheless, these SCAF/old regime moves to curtail Egypt's democratic transition should not be celebrated. Egypt has lost the chance of a relatively short, orderly and reasonably (although clearly not entirely) non-violent transition towards a more democratic system. (Incidentally, Tunisia seems to be managing its transition a lot better).  

After Mubarak was overthrown, it should have been possible to construct a transition process that sought consensus across the political spectrum and reassured various political players that their core interests would not be immediately threatened by a new political system while consolidating and broadening the political space opened by the fall of Mubarak. Instead, almost all the political players over-reached and under-performed. 

Young revolutionaries, poorly organised and suspicious of everyone, wanted to put a civilian leash on the military right away, as if there weren't at least a dozen other things they could have focused on to consolidate the democratic opportunity they had created through their own blood and toil. 

The Brotherhood saw its political chance and decided to go for the maximum, rather than showing some restraint out of consideration for the genuine fears their political ascent had created. Meanwhile, some liberals and parts of the Coptic Christian minority once again sought refuge in the belief that a secular dictatorship is at least better than a religious one, underlining yet again that Islamists are not the only potential threats to democracy in the Middle East. 

None of this absolves the SCAF of the growing list of anti-democratic moves it has made, especially in the last week. There is now a real danger that things will take a more violent turn if various pro-revolutionary forces decide to take on the military in the streets.  

In this regard, while the SCAF seems confident that it has the measure of the revolutionary youth, should it come to more sticks and stones, the key will be what the Brotherhood does. For the most part it has avoided confrontation with the military; in one case last November, it abandoned protests it had launched after only 24 hours, leaving the young revolutionaries that had followed it onto the streets to the not-so-tender mercies of the security forces. 

Even though the Brotherhood is making some threatening noises about what it will do if Morsi is not allowed to assume the presidency, its first instinct will be to strike some kind of deal with the SCAF. The Brotherhood still fears it would lose any violent confrontation. The only thing that might change this calculation would be the Brotherhood's belief that the SCAF really is lining the movement up for a major crackdown. Nevertheless, even if a Brotherhood and SCAF deal avoids greater violence, it will also continue the process of squeezing the younger and more independent revolutionary forces out of the political equation. How they will react remains an interesting question.

The more hopeful analysis is that, notwithstanding these setback, Egypt will now be in for a long period of political turmoil and tug of war between pro- and anti-democratic forces, where violence is sporadic but contained, similar to what happened in Turkey over decades before that country finally emerged a much stronger democracy. Ezzedine Choukri Fishere's sombre but ultimately hopeful piece in the FT is a great articulation of this view. 

There certainly seems something to the view that the release of new political energy and the raising of expectations over the last 17 months means there is simply no going back to the Mubarak days, no matter how much the old regime might want it.

Still, at this stage, it is hard not to be pessimistic. In recent years, the media has made a cliché of Arabs holding up purple ink-stained fingers as a sign of them just having voted in a free election. After the last week, the purple on the fingers of Egyptian voters seems to more aptly signify the door being slammed on their democratic aspirations.

Photo by Flickr user AsianMedia

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I have just come back from two weeks in Saudi Arabia, continuing my research on Saudi-China relations as a part of the West Asia program's project on 'Western Approaches: responses to China in the Middle East and Central Asia'.

While it is not central to my research, I was curious to ask my Saudi interlocutors (businesspeople, journalists, officials and academics) what they thought of America's so-called 'pivot' from the Middle East and Southwest Asia ('West Asia' as we like to call it) to East Asia. 

The response was sceptical. This is hardly surprising given the long history of America's engagement with the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular. Is it possible, nevertheless, that the Saudis might be in for a geo-strategic surprise in coming years? There is no doubt that America's military presence in West Asia will decline in the next few years after over a decade fighting two wars in the region. There is certainly some 're-balancing' going on (I gather this is the preferred term of art for America's desire to shift focus to East Asia).

But the question is whether West Asia will let America escape, even a little bit. Current and future events would suggest not.

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In the Gulf, America is trying to reach a nuclear deal with Iran. Even if this effort is successful, it would still require deep American diplomatic and military engagement to make sure any deal sticks and to reassure America's allies in the region.

In Syria, America is gradually exhausting its non-military options for pressuring Bashar al-Assad from power. So desperate is it to avoid another military entanglement in the region that it would probably even accept Bashar alone departing, leaving the rest of the regime intact. Nevertheless, while Assad remains, every atrocity his regime commits or permits drags America closer towards some form of military intervention. And even if Bashar departs, Syria will still probably end up in civil war which will require copious amounts of American attention, if not intervention.

Meanwhile in Egypt, there is cause to worry about the future of what was one of the crowning achievements of American diplomacy in the Middle East: the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. 

This is not because I believe any new Egyptian government will abandon the treaty, but because Egypt's loss of security control in the Sinai could draw Egypt and Israel into confrontations neither want. Today one finds in the Sinai everything from Bedouin gangs masquerading as jihadists to sophisticated weapons looted from Libyan armories. There have already been cross-border attacks into Israel from the Sinai, and Israeli reprisals have inflamed popular passions in Egypt.

And while Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda central is probably dying, the terrorist threat is unlikely to disappear. Before 2001 there were only two real ungoverned spaces in the broader region that were serving as incubators and training grounds for extremist groups, namely Afghanistan and Somalia.

Today, in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, you could list at least six such ungoverned spaces that are, or might soon, be hosting some form of extremist presence: Somalia, parts of Yemen, the Sinai, parts of Syria and Iraq, and parts of Libya, with the possibility of parts of Afghanistan returning to the list not long after NATO withdraws in 2014.

You can add to these and other issues demanding American attention in the Middle East the fact that the American national security budget is shrinking. At the very least this means there probably won't be a whole lot of balance in any re-balancing.

But it also raises an interesting issue for Australian strategic thinkers who seem to remain, as ever, pre-occupied with planning for the wars Australia never actually seems to fight. That is, if America is going to re-balance into East Asia it is probably going to need even more help from friends and allies in West Asia. Australia recent decade of heightened military and diplomatic engagement in the region is, therefore, unlikely to be its last.

Photo by Flickr user United States Forces - Iraq.

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