This is the week of speeches, at a time when words can be fatal.
World leaders are heading to New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly as angry protests aimed at the West have spread across the Muslim world. On the agenda: Syria’s strife and bloodshed and potential strikes on Iran.
Rarely have so many crucial issues in the Middle East – including the region’s relationship with the United States and other Western Liberal democracies – been so dangerously balanced just as leaders make their annual New York trek.
Syria is in a civil war and President Bashar al-Assad’s air force is bombing Aleppo. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making the case for military strikes – soon – to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
Also troubling is the ignitable tension between the West and much of the Muslim world, sparked by a few provocateurs, but killing at least 51. The protests over a low-budget anti-Islam video showed how easily the words of a few individuals in the West can stoke violent anger in the streets of the Middle East – and a new set of provocative caricatures published by a French magazine made Western nations fear they might be only a few words away from becoming targets. It’s a clash between freedom of expression and outrage at insults to religious convictions.
The new Middle East, the one that rose from the hopes of the Arab Spring, has struggled with the conundrum of how to respond. Egypt’s leaders, for example, have promised to protect foreigners, but prosecutors there have also issued arrest warrants for people allegedly involved in the video. Now Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, will make his global-stage debut at the UN.
All this comes during a U.S. election campaign in which Republican Mitt Romney has stumbled with foreign-policy gaffes but has accused Democrat Barack Obama of being an appeaser to extremists, soft on Iran, and a weak ally to Israel.
And then there’s Stephen Harper, who will send his own Mideast message in New York, but not at the UN. The Prime Minister is there Thursday to accept a world statesman award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which cites his unwavering stands, notably in support of Israel. On Friday, he’ll meet with Mr. Netanyahu, leaving little doubt where his loyalties lie.
SYRIA: IMPASSE OVER SANCTIONS
The civil war between Bashar al-Assad and a host of rebel factions is taking uglier twists.
The Assad regime is mounting deadly air strikes on Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Foreign fighters, from jihadis to democrats, have entered in large numbers. The fighting is estimated to have killed more than 27,000. The United Nations has registered more than 220,000 refugees from the fighting.
But at the UN Security Council, Russia and China have opposed sanctions. That impasse will not be broken in New York this week.
“There is no disagreement anywhere that the situation in Syria is extremely bad and getting worse, that it is a threat to the region and a threat to peace and security in the world,” UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters after he briefed the Security Council. Inside the room, according to Bloomberg News, he called on the council to unite to back his work.
Western nations, led by the U.S. and including Canada, have shown no appetite for military action. They have been cool to arming the opposition – wary of the web of factions in Syria, and fearing that arming them could only help spark more violence in neighbouring countries. The Obama administration has shown little interest in heating up a conflict in an election year.
But Barack Obama and other leaders will certainly lend a sizable portion of their UN speeches to Syria, not only because nations expect a focus on the conflict, but because the civil war is changing the dynamics of the region – by making the Assad regime a pariah and tainting ally Iran.
THE NEW MIDEAST: CLASH OF CULTURES
When Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi speaks Wednesday, he will be watched as a symbol of the new Middle East. In New York, Washington and around the world, governments are waiting to gauge his direction – and that of the region.
In an interview with The New York Times published Sunday, Mr. Morsi warned that the U.S. must repair relations with the Arab world. He also promised to adopt an independent foreign policy.
It’s the direction that he takes that will matter. The hopeful days of the Arab Spring have led to elections in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, but also murky and chaotic transitions. The recent protests that swept several Muslim countries over a low-budget, low-quality, anti-Islam film, and the killing of a U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, have led to a sense of disillusionment in the West, notably in the U.S.