A common conversation often takes place in the Middle East when social movements or major disruptive political developments are discussed: a supporter of the status-quo complains that the country is doomed (khirbet el-balad), to which an opposition supporter responds that it was already damaged (ma heyye aslan kharbane).
Those looking to quell United States-Iran tensions could learn a lot from the familiar anecdote. Amid the clamor surrounding Iranian General Qassem Soleimani’s killing, the issues underpinning instability in the region, and ways to address them, have barely been mentioned.
With warnings that the region could be on the brink of war, footage emerged of Iraqis and Syrians celebrating the death of the man they saw as the driving figure behind Iran’s destructive role in their countries. In Iraq, protestors chanted slogans such as “we want a homeland” and “no U.S. and no Iran,” conveying their rejection of getting Iraq caught up in a U.S.-Iran confrontation. Many in the region see the struggle for influence among the U.S., Iran, and indeed, wider competing geopolitical interests as having robbed aspirations for change in their countries, and masking the political and economic issues affecting them.
When Syrians took to the streets in 2011 calling for freedom, dignity, and justice, Iran supported the brutal oppression of the uprising, driving it into armed conflict. The later interventions of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Israel, and Russia in trying to shape the outcome of the conflict ensured the Syrian people were left out of the equation, leaving the country shattered with deep societal ruptures.
More recently in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias cracked down on anti-establishment protestors, resulting in the deaths of over 500 people. At least 26 activists have been assassinated since October last year. In Lebanon, the sectarian ruling elite have been maneuvering around protestor demands to form a government to manage the economic crisis. Both Iran and the U.S., along with the political blocs associated with them, have been shifting the narrative in both countries to fighting a foreign conspiracy and pushing back Iranian influence respectively.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates’ devastating war against the Houthis’ 2014 coup, along with Iran’s believed enhancement of the Houthis’ military and security capabilities, has stripped the country of a political transition that had unprecedented opportunities for the participation of women and young people.
The U.S.’s recent Middle East peace plan is a huge injustice to Palestinian rights and gives further pretext for Iran’s regional mobilization under “anti-imperialist” and “resistance” discourses to facilitate its expansionist security policy. In the eyes of the region’s people, both U.S. and Iranian meddling has brought immense suffering and made progress impossible.
Advancing regional stability requires addressing public concerns
Despite the destabilizing environment, movements pushing for change persist and have been gathering momentum in the Middle East. Last October, uprisings erupted in Iraq and Lebanon against corruption and economic mismanagement by the ruling classes — and flawed systems of sectarian power-sharing. Attempts to normalize the post-war status quo in Syria have been challenged by recent demonstrations in the south of the country, bemoaning harsh living conditions and security measures.
Yet Iran and its political allies have used Soleimani’s assassination to invoke “anti-imperialism" and bolster their legitimacy — again using the narrative of geopolitical struggle as a pretext for squashing and co-opting movements for social and political change.
The U.S.-Iran standoff is deeply connected to the region’s wider conflicts, governance dysfunctionalities, and the social movements that are trying to push for solutions to them. This means that mediation initiatives to facilitate de-escalation between the U.S. and Iran, such as those taken up by the EU, Oman, Qatar, and Japan, need to take a multi-layered approach.
These initiatives will likely prioritize reviving a nuclear agreement among Iran, the U.S. and other international powers, and addressing regional tensions. But seeking stability must start with putting the security and needs of people across the region first. To sustain de-escalation, the initiatives need to be connected to progress in allowing people to pursue their aspirations for just, democratic governance and fairer economies.
Security in the Middle East will be fragile and unsustainable if the roots of instability — repressive political systems, corruption, inequalities, injustice and conflict profiteering — are not addressed. In Syria and Yemen, policymakers and mediators must make much greater effort to ensure that peace processes prioritize people’s grievances and offer them channels for shaping their countries’ futures. Viable political settlements cannot be shaped only in the interests of external powers.
In Iraq and Lebanon, the U.N., foreign countries, and international monetary institutions should pressure the ruling classes to respond more constructively to demands for fairer societies, accountability, and a departure from exclusively sectarian political systems, and avoid backing repression and sectarianism.
They must likewise protect and invest in peacebuilding efforts by making funding available to growing civil society movements. Refocusing on improving people’s lives will not only reduce U.S.-Iran tensions, but will lay the groundwork in the region for steps on the long road toward just and sustained peace.
Bilal Sukkar works for the Middle East and North Africa program at the U.K.-based conflict prevention and peacebuilding organization Saferworld. His work involves supporting civil society in conflict settings to strengthen community resilience and build inclusive and just peace. He has conducted and contributed to research on Syria, looking at the U.N.-mediated political process, the role of youth in the uprising, reconstruction, and aid localization. He works with a group of Syrian youth in the U.K. on creating spaces for dialogue to further diaspora relevance and contribution to the future of Syria. He has previous experience working with an international NGO on the humanitarian response in Syria. He also worked with Syrian campaign groups on formulating policy and advocacy on Syria in the UK. In 2016, Bilal was awarded a Chevening scholarship to complete his MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies from King’s College London. His dissertation assessed the viability of an ethno-sectarian power-sharing system in Syria and analyzed the role of regional and international powers in shaping the conflict towards such a possible outcome. He also has a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in finance, and a minor degree in philosophy, from the American University of Beirut.
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.