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Middle East Update: Three Stories Joshua Landis Is Watching This Week

May 15, 2015

This week, Suzette Grillot and Joshua Landis discuss news from the Middle East and what it means for U.S. interests in the region. Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia Pressure U.S. After Discovery Of Deadly Chemicals In Syria

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are increasing pressure on the United States to take action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after inspectors found traces of deadly chemicals – including sarin, one of the chemicals used to target civilians in 2013 – on Syrian military locations. The findings come nearly two years after Syria agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons.

“Everybody is using this chemical weapons situation to try to sway America to destroy Assad and side with the Saudis and the rebels and the Turks,” Landis said.  “Syria is at a turning point today … and there’s a big push by the rebel community to try to get America to step in."

But Landis says the U.S. is unlikely to help dispatch Assad because it may empower rebel groups in Syria, many of which are Al-Qaeda affiliates.

“This put’s America in a very difficult position. You want [Assad] out, but you don’t want him out because you’re worried that the other guys are going to be even worse,” Landis said.

Changing U.S. Relations In Middle East Benefit France

Last week, France and Qatar finalized a $7.02 billion military contract, which included the sale of 24 Rafale fighter jets, MBDA missiles, and French military and technical training.

“France won’t be the major power [in the region] … [but] this is an important arms deal,” Landis said.

Traditionally, the U.S. has supported Sunni-majority countries such as Qatar, and U.S.-based military manufactures have “dominated” the region’s market. “Today, that situation is changing,” Landis said.

Landis says the growth of Sunni groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda has shifted the U.S. towards a more Shi’a-friendly Middle East policy. Landis believes the deal between France and Qatar may in part be a response to this changing U.S. policy.

“It is a shot across our bow saying, ‘if you don’t do what we want, we’re not going to spend all our money in the United States’  … Maybe we don’t want that money all that much anymore,” Landis said.

Three Religions, One Conflict: The Holy See Officially Recognizes The State Of Palestine

Last week, the Vatican announced plans for a treaty to officially recognize the state of Palestine, joining the long list of states that recognize Palestine.

“That the Vatican recognizes [Palestine] is not unusual,” Landis said.

The main holdouts to not recognize Palestine are mostly within North America and Euope, but that may be changing as well.

“Europe could be shifting. And that’s of great concern to Israel. But it’s also partly the price the Netanyahu is going to pay if he doesn’t want to have peace talks,” Landis said.

Landis said Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hardline one-state policy has left the United States in a difficult position and contributed to increased global recognition of Palestine.

“America doesn’t know how to stand towards this because our policy is there should be two states … America’s relations with Israel are in flux, as are the world’s,” Landis said.

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