While Jews both in Israel and around the world celebrated the beginning of the Jewish New Year 5775, President Obama and other world leaders met at the United Nations General Assembly. They, too, were considering the current state of the world, especially the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.
In trying to review the events of the extraordinarily busy few days in New York there were a number of important takeaways, from the speeches as well as the sideline conversations. On two of the major areas — climate change and the Ebola virus breakout — there was general agreement that the world community needed to address these problems comprehensively and globally. To date, however, there is yet no agreement on precisely how to attack them.
On the matter of addressing the growing, dangerous threat posed by the Islamic State, Obama seemed clearly intent on leading this charge. He reiterated the intensifying U.S. position on how the coalition intends to address this threat. From a diplomatic perspective the most important manifestation of this heightened initiative was the efforts of the president and Secretary of State John Kerry to demand that Turkey seal its borders, restrict travel, and permit overflights and the active use of U.S./NATO facilities in Turkey. Bringing Turkey into the anti-ISIS coalition seemed paramount at the UN.
As for confronting the radical Islamic threat, Obama also appeared to be moving out front as well. America’ regional allies in the fight against the Islamic State continue to be clearly identified, although it is hardly clear what their commitment will be beyond financing, training, and some aerial support. There is no one sense yet how extensive and intense the actual military backing will be. Arabs fighting Arabs is always fraught. They are less likely to engage in combat so long as infidels (the West) are leading the force. (Shi’ites and Sunnis fought each other in the Iran-Iraq War for almost nine years without virtually any Western engagement.)
On Iran, radical Islam, and terrorism, there was some perceived progress but very little agreement. The P5+1 (Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and Germany) missed their first deadline on curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons capability this summer. They now have an agreed-upon date of Nov. 24, whereby progress has to be reached or full sanctions presumably will be reimposed on Iran. The newest wrinkle is whether Iran can buy time, especially if it agrees to join the United States coalition against Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. Most observers suspect that the Iranians (like the Russians) are not willing to undermine their support — political and military — for the Assad regime. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Iran has not exhibited much willingness to attack Shi’ite regimes or to relinquish significant bargaining leverage in their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Nothing significant is likely to happen until the 11th hour of these negotiations, at which point Iran’s participation in the anti-ISIS coalition should be clearly established. Only then will the West be tested as to whether they are willing to reimpose upgraded sanctions.
By the time Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke on Sept. 29, much of the wind had already been taken out of the sails of the larger regional issues. Consequently, he needed to stay focused on Israel’s particular concerns: Hamas, Abbas, the Gaza War, and radical Islam. His effort at linkage was predictable, although he made Israel’s case effectively to those interested in listening. For Netanyahu, the side meetings are and will be much more telling as Israel prepares for a potentially multi-directional diplomatic attack in the days and weeks ahead.
Regional turmoil is overwhelming the UN once again. While Ukraine, Pakistan, and Afghanistan continue to remain hot, it is the recent eruption in Iraq and Syria that will dominate the fall.