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Camp David Summit: An opportunity to build consensus

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  • May 14, 2015

    President Obama’s upcoming meeting with the leaders of Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain at Camp David is being viewed by many as a landmark opportunity to pave the way forward in the region. According to the White House statement, Obama will host this summit to discuss ways to enhance partnership and deepen security cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders. Moreover, Obama will try to assuage the Gulf states’ anxieties over the nuclear agreement with Iran. While the Iran nuclear agreement will be the primary agenda of this summit, there are expectations that other regional issues will also be raised: the campaign against the Islamic State (IS), removal of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the ongoing war in Yemen and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that this summit will create “a series of new commitments, understanding and a new set of security initiatives” between the United States and the GCC.

    To begin with the Iranian nuclear issue: Arab leaders are sceptical about the Iran-P5+1 nuclear agreement. After the joint agreement in Lausanne in early April, Arab officials were polite enough not to criticise the deal in public. But Arab political commentators and columnists made up for that by describing the deal as a sign of “US weakness and green light for Iran to expand its hegemonic agenda” in the region. These opinions do reflect the mood of governments in the region. Therefore, Obama wants to convince his Arab Gulf allies during the summit that the United States will continue its commitment of ensuring security in the region and will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and expand its revolutionary agenda.

    Meanwhile, the outcome of the Gulf summit, concluded on May 5, 2015 at Riyadh – a week before the US-GCC summit at Camp David - reflects some changes in the policy of Arab leaders towards Iran. Al-Watan, an Arabic daily, wrote in its editorial of May 6, 2015 that Gulf leaders showed their “keenness to develop a balance relation with Iran” at this summit. They pushed for enhancing political and security coordination with Tehran to enhance stability in the region. Arab Gulf leaders also emphasised that such coordination should be based on the principle of good neighbourliness and respect for state sovereignty under the UN and international law that is binding on all states and prohibits the use of force and threat or interference in the internal affairs of another country. They hope that such an approach would restore confidence in the region.
    This reflects the wish of the Gulf States to normalise relations with Iran. However, the board members of the GCC also pointed out that normalisation is contingent upon Iran following the principles of transparency and non-interference in the internal affairs of GCC countries, not providing financial support to non-state actors, and stopping the promotion of sectarian and ideological agendas.

    Experts hope that these developments in the policy of Gulf states towards Iran and the forthcoming US-GCC summit can not only be a milestone for US-GCC ties, but also define a new chapter in the GCC-Tehran relationship.

    Second, the issue of the Islamic State is a matter of serious concern not only for regional but also extra-regional security. Despite a grand coalition of 62 countries formed in August 2014 and led by the United States, there has been no major breakthrough on the ground. The latest assessment by the US Department of Defense released on May 8, 2015 states that the “IS is no longer moving freely in nearly 25-30 percent of land that it had captured in the Northern Iraq.” But this is a meagre achievement by the US-led coalition and poses questions about the strategy being employed against the IS.

    The coalition needs good coordination among all stakeholders to evolve a meaningful strategy against the IS. For example, there were reports that during “Operation Liberate Tikrit” the US-led coalition was not coordinating with the Iraqi forces, and the use of Iranian-backed Shia militia by the Iraqi government to liberate Tikrit drew criticism from Arab leaders. These are some issues that need to be rethought so as to develop consensus among regional leaders.

    Third, the ongoing civil war in Syria since 2011 and the atrocities of the Assad regime against civilians needs a response. According to data released by the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (UNHCR) on April 26, 2015, 3.9 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – due to the turmoil in their country. If regional powers do not find a solution to the Syrian crisis then there are chances of further escalation of violence in Syria.

    Fourth, Saudi Arabia’s policy in the Yemeni war indicates a “poor strategy against the Houthis.” Saudi Arabia claims that “Operation Decisive Storm” was successful in achieving the goal of halting the Houthis, but the reality on the ground is that the Houthis still hold strategic positions in the country. Moreover, heavy clashes between the Houthis and pro-government forces are complicating the lives of civilians, and there is always the fear of spillover beyond Yemeni border into Saudi Arabia itself. The Yemeni crisis also needs special attention at the US-GCC summit.

    Last, but not the least, the Israel-Palestine conflict has been a major regional bone of contention for decades, also because the Unites States’ Middle East policy has failed to find a solution. Even though the most recent Gaza war ended with a truce between Hamas and Israel, questions remain about the future of Palestine and Israel. The Palestinian leadership feels that neither Arab nor American policy is enough to solve the Israel-Palestine question.

    These are major issues that need serious political and diplomatic conversations for there to be some peace in the region. The US-GCC summit is an opportune moment to discuss a comprehensive regional Middle East policy.

    (Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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