The Necessity for an Arab Strategy to Counter Obama’s Backtracking

The Necessity for an Arab Strategy to Counter Obama’s Backtracking

Raghida Dergham |

It is time for the Syrian opposition and the Gulf Arab states backing it, and which aim to change the regime in Damascus, to return to the strategy-drawing board, in light of recent radical developments.


Wagering on the failure to implement the American-Russian agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons is inadequate and does not represent a policy. Discussing the Geneva 2 international conference to launch the process of political transition, in the language of placing the condition that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down at the start of the process – rather than at its end – is only tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand, and does not represent a policy either. Refraining from participating in an international conference on Syria in which the Islamic Republic of Iran is taking part because it is directly party to supporting the regime in Damascus, meanwhile, is almost the equivalent of “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face,” particularly during times when bargains, great and small, are being struck under Russia’s sponsorship and in partnership with Iran.


As for the belief that the attempt to repair what the situation has come to is exactly what has ruined it, i.e. by convincing the United States to renounce its isolationism in the Middle East, it too represents a tactic devoid of strategy. It truly is time for a dose of that poison mentioned by the Iranian Revolution’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, when agreeing to implement the ceasefire with his enemy at the time, Iraq. Indeed, circumstances have changed, now that it has become perfectly clear that President Barack Obama does not mind placing Syria’s fate in the hands of the Axis of Defiance led by Russia, even if temporarily, or even if America’s leniency on this issue hides many a pitfall and obstacle for those party to this axis. There is a dire need for a comprehensive and coherent strategy that would map the way forward in case the necessity were to arise for military escalation, as well as the way forward in case the “Grand Bargain” truly begins to be struck on all different fronts.


To begin with, it must be made clear that all those who say that Bashar al-Assad has triumphed over Barack Obama are either unaware of or ignoring the significance of Assad submitting to placing his chemical arsenal under international control, so that it may later be destroyed. This is submission, not victory. It means admitting to having concealed a massive arsenal, which the regime in Damascus had claimed to be a main element of strategic balance with Israel and to be aimed at resistance. Now Assad has been forced to willingly get rid of his “weapons of resistance,” while receiving support from Iran and Hezbollah in the name of resistance.


Furthermore, for Russian President Vladimir Putin to force Bashar al-Assad to allow in UN inspectors will be binding for both leaders, because the Security Council resolution to adopt a procedure for securing the weapons and destroying them will be a binding one, and will pave the way for further inspection to reveal all the facts, including whether such weapons have been smuggled or hidden.


Tomorrow, Saturday, is the date that has been set for the Syrian government to submit its disclosure on the size of its chemical arsenal. The burden of proof will fall on Assad’s government, as it did in the past on Saddam Hussein’s government to prove what had happened to the biological and chemical weapons Baghdad had insisted that it had destroyed. By mid-November, according to the framework of the American-Russian agreement, UN inspectors should have completed their investigation to confirm the truth of Syria’s official disclosure about its chemical arsenal. This will pave the way for a back-and-forth process if reports of chemical weapons having been smuggled to Iraq or to Hezbollah in Lebanon prove to be true.


Indeed, the Syrian opposition has asked for a broader investigation to confirm what Damascus will be disclosing about the chemical weapons it possesses, one that would include locations held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, claiming to have information that indicates that chemical weapons had indeed been smuggled to Hezbollah. Although the response to this request is not yet clear, and although destroying the weapons will be easier than ascertaining whether they have been smuggled or hidden, the fact is that Syria finds itself today under the international microscope, with inspectors from different parts of the world entering it to verify the truth of what its government is saying and ask for more.


It is thus a temporary quasi victory for the Syrian President, interwoven with submission and subjection to Security Council resolutions and international monitoring. Such a “victory” has for its basis the fact that the Assad regime is today a partner in implementing the Russian-American agreement to destroy its own chemical weapons, within the framework of a timetable that purposely coincides with the scheduled Syrian presidential elections. Assad will therefore remain in power – exactly as Russia and Iran had been insisting since the beginning – until the next elections. Yet he will remain shackled with the burden of monitoring, proof, and submission.


The “Small Bargain” over his chemical arsenal makes of Assad a partner, as a government, while he had until recently only represented a regime that must be removed, according to the American stances on the issue. But the “Grand Bargain” will exclude Assad at the right time, and most likely the maturation of such a bargain will coincide with the Syrian elections. That is, if it matures at all.


And just as the “Grand Bargain” would not be possible without the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a direct regional player in Syria as well as through its ally Hezbollah, which is openly fighting alongside the Assad regime, such a bargain would not be possible without the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and in particular Saudi Arabia.


The Russian player is taking on the mantle of leadership and is fully coordinating with its Iranian ally in Syria. And Russia is taking the utmost care to prove the firmness and cohesiveness of its partnerships and alliances, so as to represent a model and an example opposite to the partnerships and alliances of the United States with Arab countries, characterized by its abandoning allies without warning and evading its pledges. This is why Russian President Vladimir Putin is guarding a place for Iran in any grand bargain that might be forthcoming (he has even discussed the Small Bargain with Iran, so as not to seem to be neglecting it).


President Barack Obama does not do the same with his allies in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. He surprises and does not discuss. He backs down without warning. This is why he will take no care to guard a place for the GCC in the Grand Bargain, because this will simply not occur to him at the strategic level. Indeed, he has in the past displayed striking behavior regarding his Arab Gulf allies when he completely ignored the pivotal role played by Saudi Arabia in the map of the region. Barack Obama does not think in terms of axes, especially as he has resolved to turn eastwards, far from the Middle East. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is building a strategy to restore his country’s international influence by adopting a policy of axes, from the BRICS axis, which includes Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, to the Axis of Defiance, which includes Russia, China, and Iran, alongside the regime in Damascus and Hezbollah.


Such a reality requires the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to carve out a place for itself in the “Grand Bargain” through an essentially Arab axis, not through the gateway of the United States. The situation today does not allow for continuing to abstain from attending conferences if Iran is present, and for refraining to engage in forging the Grand Bargain as long as the regime in Damascus still stands. Indeed, neither will it find in Russia an ally in such efforts, nor can it depend on the support of the United States. It is time to carve out a position independent from the United States, and this will require reconsidering the relationship between the Arab Gulf states and Iran.


The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, did well to make sure to warmly greet the new Iranian President, Dr. Hassan Rohani, who is in turn waging a campaign to attract sympathy and admiration worldwide, notably during his visit to New York next week to attend the United Nations General Assembly. The difference between the methods of Saudi Arabia and Iran is that Tehran is openly waging a “charm offensive,” building on the revitalizing effect the American-Russian agreement has had on it, while Saudi Arabia’s methods remain traditional, secretive, and far from openness.


Bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or between the Arab Gulf states and Iran, are not so terrible, and could in fact be described as far from tension and direct confrontation. Alright, this is a good thing, and yet it is not acceptable for relations with Iran to be normal at the bilateral level and at the level of the Arab Gulf states, while the two sides continue to wage proxy wars against one another in Syria today, in Iraq previously, and perhaps later in Lebanon. Those are Arab countries being destroyed, and the time has come for a new strategy that would prevent destruction instead of persisting in proxy wars. Indeed, these wars are not being waged in Persia or in Israel. They are being waged at the expense of Arab lives.


It is thus no wonder for Western public opinion to be opposed to intervening in Syria, because it views the matter from the perspective of “Arabs killing Arabs,” without a care for whether Iran or Russia are responsible for supporting one Arab side against the other. Israel of course does not mind. And Israel has of course returned to its policy-drawing board, following President Obama’s series of backtrackings. There are also reports that indicate that it too does not trust the new American policy, and that it now views the Syrian President not as a guarantee of its stability through the Golan, but rather as having become an element of instability because he has lost control and has become a driving force for the rise of extremism, whether such extremism sides with him or against him.


President Obama’s compliance with the de facto dictates of the strategy of the Axis of Defiance has made him seem like a wall that is easy to climb, as in the Lebanese expression about someone having a “low wall.” The President of Brazil cancelled her visit to the White House under the pretext of protesting against inappropriate intelligence wiretapping and surveillance among friends. Yet this would not have happened had not Obama been, in the eyes of Brazil, of the BRICS countries and of other countries around the world, the American President whose “low wall” can easily be leapt over.


President Obama may well be convinced that his methods are the wisest, as he will now be rid of Syria’s chemical weapons – weapons that will not used, from now and until they are destroyed. Yet this is not sufficient, because he will have thereby truly reduced the tragedy of the war in Syria to merely an issue of chemical weapons. Indeed, the Syrian people did not come out in peaceful demonstrations two years and a half ago demanding that Damascus join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Rather, they came out demanding reform and freedom – principles which Obama said deserve support because they are universal. And when they were met with repression and bombings, they found only American and British isolationism, steering clear of confronting violations of the values and principles of human rights and crimes against humanity.


Surprise at so much ambivalence does not represent a policy. Relying on the American President changing his mind or his methods does not represent a policy either. Neither does insisting on the fact that Iran’s new approach is only new in terms of its promotional campaign. Rather, it requires building a strategy that would truly test it and would reside at the core of decision-making. This will require engagement of a different kind, one that would not suffice itself with bilateral understandings in the Gulf, but would rather initiate a qualitatively new conversation, based not on proxy wars but rather on core understandings. Indeed, refraining from engagement does not represent a policy, and proxy wars may well turn against their own patrons.