The Minority Strategy: A New Path for American Interests in the Middle East

By Gabriel Scheinmann, TOWER

If Washington stopped trying to win over the Sunni Arab world, it could create a strong web of alliances with groups that are about to rise in prominence and strength.

In the Middle East, the Arabs are king, sometimes quite literally. The term “Middle East” is a geographic label, broadly describing an area from the Moroccan shores to the Hindu Kush, but it is often referred to—erroneously—as the “Arab World” because of its politically dominant inhabitants. The advent of Islam was an Arab phenomenon and its holiest sites lie in the doyen of Arab puritanism—Saudi Arabia. Arabic is the region’s lingua franca. All but five modern Middle Eastern states have Sunni Arab majorities, Sunni Islam being the dominant religious sect among the Arabs. A Middle Eastern minority is thus, by definition, one that is neither Sunni, nor Arab.

Consequently, ever since it bought out Great Britain as the region’s dominant external power after World War II, America’s principal diplomatic crusade has been to forge a lasting peace between Israel—the most powerful non-Sunni, non-Arab player in the region—and the Sunni Arabs. Much like the American way of war, the American way of peace is to go for the jugular: By solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, Americans believe, the region’s other ills will evaporate. From the 1946 Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry to Secretary Kerry’s recent peace-processing foray, Washington has made the Arab-Israeli peace process the only game in town, embracing the 1993 Oslo Process and subsequent 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as the shortest routes to true coexistence.

Seven decades after its diplomatic entrance, however, American peacemaking has reached a crossroads. Although Arab states no longer wage war against Israel, and many even quietly cooperate with it, the expected outbreak of peace remains just that—expected. Only Egypt and Jordan have concluded peace treaties with Israel and, while American presidents are signatories to both, the agreements were reached mostly in spite of, not because of American mediation. Nevertheless, even after repeated failures, the American approach remains unchanged.

But what if this approach to peace is based on a false impression? A closer look at the region’s demographics reveals that, while Sunni Arabs may indeed be a plurality in the Middle East, they are not a majority.

From Turkish Alevis to Egyptian Copts to Iraqi Kurds, Middle Eastern minorities are, in fact, the Middle East’s majority. Were the United States to see the region through the eyes of its minorities, provide them with greater support, and seek to forge stronger relations between them, it might outflank continued Sunni Arab rejectionism. Desperately seeking to survive in a literally cutthroat region, non-Sunni-Arabs, with some superpower cover, might break the Arab isolation of Israel and forge a more durable pro-American alliance. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, what if there were an indirect approach to peace?


July 16, 2014 | Comments »

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