The preoccupation to the point of obsession with ISIS is terrifying. It is as though the world is standing still in a panic over an organization, the terror of which is rivaled only by the terror of the Ebola epidemic. The direct reason behind ISIS’s rise to the top slot in international priorities is that President Barack Obama went to war against ISIS. This war became Obama’s war, into which he was summoned by barbaric beheadings and the systematic crimes that have characterized ISIS’s terrorism. The United States is sucked in into one obsession after another traditionally, perhaps on account of the U.S. media’s fixation on one issue after the other, as though the world should always stop at the U.S. priority as its “dish of the day,” so to speak.
The dangerous thing about this pattern is that events of the utmost importance are sometimes absent entirely from its attention, even as they brew to become, in the near future, an imminent danger that “surprises” America. What is even more dangerous is that the allies and friends of the United States are rushing to meet its urgent priority without insisting on a clear strategy, and are completely distracted from what they should otherwise be aware of at their own doorsteps or in their own backyards. This is exactly what happened in Yemen recently, when the capital Sanaa fell to the pro-Iranian Houthis – Ansar Allah – making Yemen a possible candidate for becoming the tip of Iranian domination overt the Strait of Hormuz and international navigation. This is in addition to turning into the largest and most dangerous direct border challenge to Saudi Arabia. How and why did this happen? There are many answers, some vague and others flabbergasting; yet the more important question is, what next? Yemen has become to Iran what Lebanon was and continues to be. Both countries are on the brink of explosion, while the world rushes to meet the U.S. summons to the “ISIS priority” in Syria and Iraq. Lebanon is caught in the square represented by its two neighbors – Israel and Syria – and Hezbollah and ISIS. And Yemen is likely to witness exhausting wars where al-Qaeda, the Houthis, the armed clans, and the army clash with one another, with the latter being seemingly loyal to an agenda of revenge represented by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who left only to now make a comeback.
The Obama administration waged war on al-Qaeda in Yemen using drones for many years. This suited the administration greatly because drone wars cost no U.S. soldiers, and produced no U.S. victims, bodies, or blood. This was the favored type of warfare for the U.S. president, who fulfilled the demands of the American public, namely, not to see blood or receive the bodies of U.S. soldiers returning from the wars of others, as they were seen. The Americans prefer war to be far from their sights, and the U.S. public prefers not to know about the “collateral damage” caused by the drones.
Quandary on Iran
The Americans are in a quandary when it comes to Iran. They want to appease Tehran but not to the extent of explicitly blessing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons. They are drawn to the narratives trying to convince them that the Muslims terrorist enemy are the Sunni Muslims, of whom 19 carried out the attacks of 9/11, but they also remember that the mullahs and revolutionaries of Iran were the ones who detained 444 Americans, and that Iran has been accused of masterminding several terrorist attacks, from Khobar to Lebanon. What the Americans do not understand are the details of the Iranian role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Yemen. These are complex details for ordinary Americans, details in which they have no interest. As for decision-makers, this is another matter. Still, it would be naïve to assume that U.S. policy is based on ignorance, naivety, or foolishness.
Lebanon remains relatively absent from the U.S., European, and even Arab list of prioritiesRaghida Dergham
This begs the most important question: Why has all the attention and all the priorities been focused on fighting ISIS, mobilizing a regional and international alliance for the purpose, with the disclaimer that this war is going to last for years?
To clarify, raising this question is not with the aim of downplaying the importance and necessity of fighting ISIS everywhere through a serious and firm international alliance. The goal is to shed light on the dangers of obsession and exclusive fixation on fighting ISIS for years without a strategy or a political horizon for the war itself, in parallel with terrible neglect of what is happening in a small fragile country like Lebanon or a large country on the verge of being exhausted dreadfully like Yemen.
What could help save Lebanon from falling between the jaws of Hezbollah on the one hand, and ISIS and al-Nusra Front on the other, are geography and the presence of international troops in south Lebanon. This is while Israel could find the wars between Hezbollah and ISIS and its ilk advantageous as it would mean its enemies are preoccupied away from it.
Wars of attrition
But for Lebanon to turn into an arena of wars of attrition sets off alarm bells in Israel, because of the lack of institutions that could act as a safety valve and prevent battles from spreading to its border, or ensure that Lebanon would not become a staging ground for all these groups against Israel. This troubles Israel and its U.S. and European allies equally.
The other issue is the presence of U.N.IFIL international forces, which could become a hostage for ISIS or al-Nusra Front, if Lebanon descends into total chaos. This is a source of great concern particularly for the Europeans.
Nevertheless, Lebanon remains relatively absent from the U.S., European, and even Arab list of priorities. It is the explosives box that no one wants to touch, as though merely pretending it would not explode is in itself a safety valve. This is a dangerous and terrifying policy, and it is time for Washington and the European capitals to be afraid, very afraid, if they continue to hide behind their finger, claiming that this offers enough protection.
These countries know exactly where the keys to fortifying Lebanon against explosion lie. These keys are not entirely in the hands of ISIS, al-Nusra Front, or similar organizations. Some of the important keys are in the hands of Tehran, which Hezbollah listens to completely, whether in terms of its involvement in the war in Syria alongside the regime, or in terms of allowing the election of a president in Lebanon and end the policy of vacuum. Other keys are in the hands of Western and Arab capitals, in relation to the nature of the dialogue with Tehran at a time when these capitals have banded together in the war on ISIS and its ilk.
The Western powers do not want to start a dialogue about the Iranian roles in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq with Tehran because if they did, as they claim, this would affect nuclear talks with the Iranian government. This is nonsense.
All they have to put on the table are two main issues: Iranian nuclear ambitions, and regional Iranian ambitions. If the two issues are raised together, they could tip the balance in Iranian decision-making in favor of the moderates, which want to focus on the Iranian interior and do not want regional dominance that characterizes the strategy of the forces in favor of exporting the Iranian revolution. This way, if Iran wants to have the sanctions lifted, it would have to cease its overt intervention in Syria in favor of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, in Lebanon in favor of Hezbollah’s dominance of the country, in Iraq in favor of the continuation of the exclusion policies imposed by Tehran’s ally former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and in Yemen in favor of the Houthi occupation of the capital Sanaa. It is following this approach that Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin must deal with negotiations with Iran, if they were really sincere in supporting the stability of the region rather than undercutting it.
The problem is that the countries allied with the United States do not address it with the seriousness and frankness required by this stage. These countries believe that complying with the U.S. priorities is a testament to their loyalty, reliability, and trustworthiness. In reality, however, this approach undermines partnership and confidence. Therefore, it is time to reconsider it.
The Gulf states say that they do not agree to legitimize the Iranian role in the Arab countries. Very well, they are right. In reality, these countries face a fait accompli that must be addressed either politically or militarily. The Iranian tentacles now extend to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The international coalition is fighting one of the most prominent enemies of Iranian expansion in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon represented by ISIS, and consequently, it is relieving Iran and its ally in Damascus, and its partners in Iraq and Lebanon. No matter how much the goal to fight ISIS serves the interests of humanity and the Arab governments, the war on ISIS strongly benefits Iran, and this must be raised explicitly on the table of Arab-American partnership in the coming protracted war. If not, Iran will continue to implement its own priorities, without any cost that it would pay equally with others. Iran would win Iraq again, as well as Syria and Lebanon as a natural consequence of the war on ISIS. Iran will also consolidate in Yemen, as a result of the Arab and international absence and neglect of this issue.
Yemen as proof
What happened in Yemen is proof of how absence can turn into a stunning surprise. Saudi Arabia was probably shocked by the speed and momentum of the Yemeni event, and how the Houthis dominated the arena and seized the capital. Why did this happen when Yemen is at its doorstep? This is what is stunning. It has been said that the kingdom is preoccupied with the Hajj season, and that it would be difficult for it to open a front in Yemen when it is bogged down in the war on ISIS. It has been said that Saudi Arabia wagered on its tribal allies, whose performance caught the kingdom off guard. And it has been said that Saudi Arabia was shocked by the sharp revenge staged by Ali Abdullah Saleh against it, but also by the weakness of the current President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who found that his army is actually the army of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Whatever the rationale might be, the kingdom, in my view, has committed a mistake that is not going to be easy to correct. Throwing money at the pro-Saudi clans is not the way forward, while Saudi Arabia is not in the process of establishing a radical understanding with Iran over sharing influence in Yemen.
Most likely, the next step would be to lift immunity from Ali Abdullah Saleh, through a resolution issued by the Gulf Cooperation Council or the U.N. Security Council, on the basis of the Gulf initiative that gave Saleh immunity as part of a package that could not be partitioned. This means effectively terminating the initiative. It is also likely that the U.N. Security Council would impose sanctions on Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi leaders, including asset freezes, travel bans, and perhaps trials for war crimes.
What would be new is cancelling the old, i.e. the Gulf initiative, and ending dialogue with the Houthi sword hanging over Yemen. However, this is not a strategy as much as it would be punishment for revenge. It is important for what was agreed upon before through dialogue, that is the political mechanism to transition Yemen to federalism and democracy, not to be squandered. Similarly, wagering on the inevitability of the decline of Houthi power and control because it would be stretched too thin throughout Yemen is not a strategy. It is a recipe for a civil war and for exhausting yet another Arab country, in the wake of another failed strategy in Syria that ended up draining the country, and destroying its people, culture, and state.
It is time to end the strategy based on “may happen,” here and there, and replace it with a comprehensive strategy for both engagement and withdrawal. Being absent then being drawn in is a devastating tactic for the region.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on October 10, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham