Given that he was a mythical character, it is probably not true that Sisyphus was the Middle East's first negotiator. But certainly the poor old king who had to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it tumble back to the bottom each time he neared the peak would find ready commiseration from the diplomats who have over the years engaged in the exercises in futility that are so common in Middle Eastern diplomacy.
"We were so close," they would say. "So was I," he would retort. And it is with this in mind that we view the positive stories currently trickling out of the Middle East with a bit of trepidation to go along with our requisite portions of hope.
For example, the rumblings out of Geneva are encouraging. The talks with the Iranians over their nuclear program are producing good buzz among the corridor stalkers reading the body language (and the leaks) of participants.
The progress on removing chemical weapons from Syria has been excellent, surprising to old hands in its speed and tangible gains.
The peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry were recently called by one senior regional leader "the most promising I have seen in my professional lifetime."
Say what you will about the setbacks and confusion that have been the hallmarks of recent U.S. Mideast policy, but there are some potential successes on the horizon that would upend conventional wisdom and astonish the cynical. That said, the Obama team's political victory in the recent U.S. budget showdown here in D.C. drives home an important message with international implications: Be careful what you wish for.
As with the U.S. budget battles, what is defined as success in each case -- and even substantial progress -- is likely to result in subsequent challenges that may well be harder to manage than the problem initially being tackled. In fact, in the case of Syria, Iran, and even the Israel-Palestine talks, the president and his secretary of state may end up feeling like more like Sisyphus than any other of history's great peacemakers before their term in office is over. Because as Sisyphus knew, it is just when you near your goal that you often have to be most careful, just when you are on a roll that you may have to get ready to start all over again.
In the case of Syria, getting rid of the government's chemical weapons is a great stride forward. Indeed, getting rid of any government's chemical weapons is progress toward their ultimate, welcomed elimination. But by requiring the government's cooperation to do this, it ensures the position of Bashar al-Assad's regime for some time to come. Paradoxically, even though this initiative has also helped the Damascus government look somewhat more reasonable (despite having started this whole process by using weapons of mass destructions against its own citizens), every day that passes is a day the Islamist opposition grows stronger.
The strengthening of the opposition will become a bigger problem when the negotiations for a political solution pick up steam. There is probably a deal to be done that creates a power-sharing arrangement of some sort between the representatives of the Free Syrian Army and the Alawites and other current allies of Assad who are closest to the Russians and Iranians and form a buffer to the north and west impeding the flow of Sunni insurgents. The Russians, it needs to be remembered, view this as a local problem and worry about the ambitions of Islamists with a caliphate on their mind that might extend to Chechnya or Dagestan. They, like the Iranians, have signaled they might be willing to throw Assad under the bus provided the successor regime protects their equities. But it is hard to see where either of these groups can come to terms with the extremists, and conversely, it is hard to see why the extremists who benefit from disorder in the country have any great incentive to cut a deal -- especially if they are growing stronger with every passing day.
Furthermore, the appetite of the United States and the West to throw their weight around anywhere other than the negotiating table has been proved to be zero. This creates a particularly acute problem because a peace deal, were it to be reached, will require years and years of funding for rebuilding, resettlement of refugees, and, very likely, armed peacekeeping.