“The Middle East is both the most polarised region in the world – meaning you have all these divisions, all these axes – but also the most integrated, which means that what happens in Syria matters to Saudi Arabia, matters to Iran, matters to Israel,” says Middle East analyst and former Obama-administration adviser, Robert Malley. “And so you cannot have an uprising that simply lives on, on its own.”
Formerly a White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf Region, Malley now heads leading think-tank, the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Under Barack Obama, Malley was part of the team that crafted the Iran nuclear deal – the one Donald Trump’s White House then withdrew from in 2018, calling it “defective”.
“His [Trump’s] criticisms are either deliberately dishonest, or he hasn’t read the deal or he doesn’t know what’s in it,” Malley tells Al Jazeera.
He says Trump decided to withdraw from the deal to get a better deal and to curb Iran’s behaviour in the region. But “what have we seen a year later? Iran is now itself moving away from the deal, so its nuclear activities are worse than they were under the deal.”
“It could well lead to a war that I am profoundly convinced the president doesn’t want,” he says. “But I think he [Trump] is on a collision course with himself because his policies – whether he is aware of it or not – are leading towards the possibility of military confrontation that his instincts oppose.”
Under the Obama administration, the US also got involved in Saudi’s war in Yemen. In April, Malley wrote in the Atlantic: “For an American who had a hand in shaping US Mideast policy during the Barack Obama years, coming to Yemen has the unpleasant feel of visiting the scene of a tragedy one helped co-write.”
He tells Al Jazeera that despite the US having “huge reservations”, they agreed to get involved in the Yemen conflict in 2015 to support an ally, Saudi Arabia. “The feeling was we can’t afford another rupture with Saudi Arabia – which could be a major one – after coming in the wake of the Iran negotiations. So the president [Obama] had this view of, we can help Saudi Arabia defend its security, defend its borders, defend its territorial integrity while trying not to get too involved in the war with the Houthis,” he says.
“But in a way that was getting half pregnant. Because once you support Saudi Arabia – once you support the Saudi-led coalition – support is fungible. And the US became complicit in what today the United Nations says is the worst humanitarian crisis we face. So this is a case of tragedy in which US fingerprints are very present.”
On US interests elsewhere in the region, Malley feels “the world is spending too much time talking about this ‘deal of the century'” that Trump has proposed to solve the Israel-Palestinian crisis.
“We know that if and when this is put on the table, the Palestinians will say no,” he says.”Because even if it’s slightly better than people expect, it’s going to be far less than what President Clinton proposed to the Palestinians in 2000, less than what was on offer during the George W Bush presidency, less than what was on offer for the Palestinians during the Barack Obama presidency, so there is no way they are going to say yes.
“The gaps between the parties on the central issues of identity, of territory, of refugees, of security, of settlements, all those gaps are very wide. And it will take … a very strong third party to try to get the parties where they need to go,” Malley says.
Although he believes the two-state solution is “still the best possible outcome” for the region, he concedes that it’s becoming harder to see it as the most realistic option.
“It’s pretty easy today to say that the two-state solution is more and more a thing of the past,” he says. “It’s not very easy to say what’s a thing of the present or the future.”
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