On many occasions, the annual General Assembly of the United Nations is a tedious affair, dedicated to a long series of speeches by heads of state. This year, the meetings in New York were a beehive of political and diplomatic activity, generating seeming breakthroughs on two contentious geopolitical fronts: Syria and Iran.
Russian and U.S. officials have naturally taken center stage in the negotiations, with important parts played at times by other permanent Security Council members.
The agreements that have been arrived still require fleshing out, and follow-up. There is the matter of Syria’s chemical weapons and their future, as well as the future of President Bashar Assad if a durable political transition is going to unfold in that war-torn country. There is the matter of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the thornier issue of Iran’s role in the Middle East.
But as the signals continue to emerge that the U.S. and Russia have made considerable progress in arriving at agreements to manage these two issues, one wonders about the missing players in the drama: Arab states.
The big power agreements will certainly be forged to protect the interests of those countries, and the indications are this will come at the expense of Arabs. Whenever superpowers or near-superpowers manage to agree on how to deal with pressing geopolitical issues, it’s certainly hard for smaller countries to block their path. This doesn’t mean non-superpowers lack a role; it’s more about degrees of maneuver, and degrees of importance.
Officials in Arab countries often say many things are significant for their national interests, but have they truly defined their top priorities? Have they decided which issues can’t tolerate compromise, and have they decided what to do if their backs are against the wall?
Officials in Arab countries often say they support one of the sides in the geopolitical struggle – but what will they do when both sides come together, and agree at their expense? Do they have a margin of maneuver that is relatively large, or relatively small?
Officials in Arab countries spend considerable amounts of time pontificating and issuing dire predictions and ultimatums, while the world’s leading countries tackle issues of considerable importance: chemical weapons in Syria, and nuclear weapons in Iran. Are officials in Arab countries spending any time contemplating what these two moves will mean for them? Do they have a fall-back plan, or a detailed, concerted response to these developments in terms of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East? Are they ready for the possible consequences in terms of their politics, economies and societies if the tension over Syria, and over Iran, suddenly disappears? Are they preparing themselves for these two fronts to see significant progress, or sudden, alarming setbacks?
Several days of headline-grabbing developments in New York merely reinforce the idea that Arab states are all about reacting, instead of acting.