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The strategic agenda

THE present flows from the past, and the future will emerge from the present.

Syria’s sectarian war: The headline issue today and in the near future is likely to be the escalating sectarian war in Syria. The Sunnis will win eventually. Ethnic cleansing will lead to the religious and geographical division of Syria. An Alawite satellite state in their majority areas may be the only viable solution.

The Syrian conflict has inflamed religious and ethnic tensions within and across Syria’s borders. In retaliation for Turkey’s support to the opposition, the Assad regime has stirred the Kurdish pot. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has been politically defensive but could become more assertive internally and externally. Lebanon’s sectarian divisions will become more pronounced. Israel may face a more active Hezbollah and victorious Sunni militants on the Golan.

Iran vs. the rest: The Iranian nuclear controversy is part of a larger campaign to contain and reverse the rise of Iranian power. Nuclear sanctions have weakened Iran’s economy and its support for Syria has damaged its standing in the Arab street.

Tehran will continue to negotiate smartly on the nuclear issue, seeking to ease the impact of sanctions while avoiding the threat of an Israeli military strike. To retain domestic support and to preserve its future strategic options, Iran will not be able to yield on its right to enrich uranium. If the US and its allies can live with limited Iranian enrichment under IAEA or even stronger safeguards, a deal may be possible, yielding Iranian cooperation on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other issues.

But even a re-elected US president may not be able to override objections from Israel and the US right wing to such a deal. Mounting economic and other pressures could lead Iran to escalate retaliatory actions on several fronts.

Afghanistan-Pakistan: The political goals of the US and Pakistan, at this juncture, are partially convergent and partly divergent. But the main feature of the US, Pakistan, and Afghan positions is confusion. Only the Afghan Taliban seem to have strategic clarity: an end to foreign military presence, no truck with a ‘puppet’ Karzai regime, talks on their terms to secure withdrawal of foreign forces and an expectation of resumed power in the areas they dominate.

An agreed process to negotiate peace appears highly unlikely at present. Thus, the prognosis is for continued violence and a disorderly withdrawal, perhaps even speeder than anticipated.

While Pakistan-US relations may improve further, given the convergence of their tactical objectives, relations between Islamabad and Kabul could deteriorate given the reciprocal perception that each side is supporting the other’s enemies. Thus, even as the withdrawal proceeds, the conflict could acquire a different dimension, reminiscent of past civil wars in Afghanistan, except now it may encompass Pakistan.

The Arab Winter: The Arab Spring was followed by a hot and violent summer, in Libya and then Syria. A common feature was the rise of Islamic parties. But as Tunisia’s new leaders and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are discovering, the political price of incumbency arrives early: blame for the failure to deliver jobs and improve governance.

Popular revolts are possible in Egypt and Tunisia, while Libya is in the grip of uncontrolled militias. Moreover, assertive Islamic militancy is spreading on the periphery of the Arab world — Yemen, Somalia and beyond to Mali and Nigeria. Unfortunately, there is no grand plan to address the issues which are at the root of this phenomenon.

Meanwhile, the central issue that unified the Arab and Muslim world in the past — Palestine — remains unresolved. It has become a symbol of Arab and Muslim political impotence. The prospects for a two-state solution are fast receding.

Continued expansion of Israeli settlements will make this impossible. Netanyahu is likely to be re-elected. On the Palestinian side too, Hamas has gained popular support while the pro-peace process Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah have lost ground.

A divided America: Obama may not be able to assert US influence due to the deep political and ideological division in America today. The split was evident in the presidential election campaign. The liberals’ loathing of the right-wing Republicans is matched only by the right wing’s visceral hatred of Obama and his social agenda.

Much of this mutual loathing is related to race and class divisions. The upshot is the inability in Washington to pursue a bipartisan, national position on almost any issue.
Thus it is proving difficult to deal with the fiscal cliff and the related social and economic issues. The same divisions will frequently prevent the implementation of reasonable policies on strategic issues — Iran, China and Russia being principal among them.

Russian reversion: The visible Western encouragement of President Putin’s opponents has triggered a fresh souring of Russia-US relations. The reset button is again on preset. Diplomatic escalation is already under way: the Magnitsky Bill in the US Congress and retaliatory ban on US adoption of Russian children.

Such posturing is accompanied by strategic differences on a host of issues including Syria and the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Europe. The latter may scuttle major arms control agreements between Russia and the US.

Rising China: Notwithstanding the deep interdependence between China and the US, processes have been initiated both in Washington and Beijing which, unless checked, can lead to an inevitable strategic contest.

China is deeply suspicious of the ring of alliances being built by the US around its periphery, the US desire to involve itself in China’s maritime border disputes and its declared ‘pivot’ to Asia.

The strong nationalist positions adopted by China, at the popular and official level, on the islands dispute with Japan is partly a response to the US moves. With new leaders in China, Japan, North and South Korea, and America’s interest in the region, northeast Asia may soon emerge at the top of the global strategic agenda.

The Europe crisis: The forced pace of European economic integration over the past two decades has led to an inevitable consequence: economic diversion between the efficient economies of the north and the Mediterranean laggards.

The choice before Europe now is a closer economic and political union under German leadership and financing or progressive escalation of domestic unrest and inter-European friction. In either case, Europe’s economies will shrink further. Some ‘regions’, like Catalonia and Scotland, may want to opt for statehood.

Europe’s global influence will continue to decline with its economic fortunes. Yet Europe has the best living conditions and, after its economic contraction, may become the best location for the construction of advanced modern economies.

The poverty trap: The poorest billion in the world — in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — suffer mostly out of sight. Their deprivations are creating myriad conflicts. The surprises for the global agenda will emanate from these silent crises.

Climate disasters: Increasingly frequent natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy in the US, and the more devastating hurricane which destroyed the southern Philippines, are visible warning signals. Melting glaciers, rising seas, repeated droughts and floods are further evidence of the progressive deterioration of the environment.

The assertion that this will sooner or later threaten the survival of humanity appears increasingly credible. This threat may not be at the top of the global strategic agenda. But it may force itself to the forefront with no further warning.

By Munir Akram; The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
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