Those in charge of the electoral campaign to reelect President Barack Obama for a second term will seek to keep away matters of foreign policy, especially those that could implicate the United States in conflicts and wars. They will work to emphasize the killing of the leader of al-Qaeda Osama Bin Laden, as President Obama’s greatest achievement, at least in terms of American national security, and as an operation which in itself bears testimony to his personality and leadership.
All matters aside from this will fall under crisis management, if the Obama campaign has the ability to keep conflicts in check, contain them and keep them away until after November, when the presidential elections are to be held. Such a strategy has its justifications, considering the seclusion of American voters in quasi-isolationism, and the fact that they give absolute priority to matters that affects their livelihood and social situation, in addition to the public debt, unemployment rates and the future of the economy. Yet such a strategy bears serious dangers, just as it is not secure due to the nature of events, especially in the Middle East with the possibility of it slipping away to such an extent that it will not be possible to ignore it.
This week, the U.S. President declared from Afghanistan that the role played by the United States in the Afghan war is nearing its end, but that the United States would not abandon this country and would carry on with the war against al-Qaeda. He said that defeating al-Qaeda was now within reach. He addressed the American people from Kabul after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, a country that he visited for six hours, secretly and surprisingly, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the killing of Bin Laden. But the war against Al-Qaeda is no longer being waged exclusively in Afghanistan, as Al-Qaeda now holds bases in Pakistan and Yemen – while both countries are in highly flammable situations. The Obama Administration is not absent from the pursuit of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan or inside Yemen, but Yemen requires a more in-depth approach, as it is coming close to turning into a rogue state that would export a new kind of extremism and terrorism, which could make it another Somalia or another Afghanistan. Sudan too is like a time-bomb, which, in order to be defused, will require holding in-depth and serious talks between China and the United States, as they both play roles there that stretch from oil interests to Washington sponsoring the partition of Sudan. Iraq is not an event that has passed, but rather remains threatened with division and sectarian war.
Egypt is entering a dangerous and historical phase, in which salvation through pumping in money, after it is too late, will prove to be of no use. Iran represents a thorn in the side of the United States, one which the Obama Administration is afraid to pull out and is exerting the utmost effort to keep from sinking deeper. Indeed, on the issue of Iran, the Obama Administration is lost between enticement and threats, and in addressing the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Obama Administration strips itself bare. It does not want to take military action against Iran, and does not want to shackle the Islamic Republic through the main axis of its wheel – its Syrian ally. Concerning Syria, what is taking place there may backfire against both the strategy of those in charge of Obama’s reelection campaign, and the strategy of those in charge of keeping Bashar Al-Assad and the Baath regime in power. It is perhaps there that developments may force Barack Obama to stop being evasive. As for prolonging the current situation, with everything it involves in terms of the Syrian regime going too far in its policy of exhausting the opposition and exhausting the international community, it will at the end of the day lead to the increase and the growth of extremism, giving rise to a dangerous monster in this region of strategic importance- and then there will be no use for the policy of burying one’s head in the sand.
Syria is a crucial issue for Barack Obama’s electoral campaign, regardless of how much those in charge of the campaign wish to neutralize or avoid it. Indeed, the relationship between the US and Iran and the relationship between the US and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) all meet in Syria, most prominently that involving the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The fundamental policy adopted by these countries is characterized by their determination not to coexist with the Syrian regime under any circumstances, on the one hand, while on the other, some of these countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, interpret the policy based on coexisting with the regime in Damascus as one that preserves the regime in Tehran and supports the Mullahs even in the ambitions of regional hegemony they have always harbored.
It is true that the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia will not hit rock bottom, due to the numerous strategic and historical reasons inherent to this relationship. Yet the depth of the rift concerning Syria will have a tremendous impact if the Obama Administration’s policy were to lead to support for maintaining the regime in Damascus and encouragement for the regime in Tehran to carry on with its methods – and that is no passing disagreement. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not be able to back down on what its policies have come to, especially after it – for the first time – has made its stances public, clear and showed its determination. The matter is an existential one for Riyadh, when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran. It would therefore be useful for the Obama Administration not to take matters as being “business as usual”, as a change has occurred in Saudi policy over the past two years which must be taken seriously, a change whose reasons and implications must be examined in depth. This is an important Arab country that carries influence and weight, and this should be taken very seriously when drafting U.S. policy towards the Middle East.
Secondly, regardless of the regional balance of power and the struggle for influence in the Middle East, the Syrian issue is first and foremost a domestic one. The popular uprising in Syria started out as a peaceful movement at first, until it was confronted with the murderous military machine of the regime in Damascus. Today, after the number of lives that have been lost in Syria reached 11 thousand, it is not possible to think that the regime has the ability to simply return – as usual – to its “business”. Indeed, the traditional relationship with the regime, the latter’s key elements, its halo and the fear of it, have all been shattered. It will not be possible to return things to the way they were before.
Hiding behind the former Secretary-General of the United Nations and Joint Envoy of the U.N. and the League of Arab States, Kofi Annan, has become flagrant. Indeed, his plan is based on keeping the regime in place, not on handing over the keys of the regime to coalitions in order to shape a transitional political process. The League of Arab States is well aware of this, just as it is aware of the fact that it has backtracked on the decisions taken on January 22, which had been based on a transitional political process. It has placed itself in the hands of Kofi Annan, who in turn has placed himself outside of its framework, behaving essentially as an envoy of the U.N. first, and as an envoy of the Arab League only marginally. Even with the United Nations, Kofi Annan has placed himself above his mandate and above accountability. He refuses to head to New York to address the Security Council, and behaves as if he were above the Council’s mandate, because it was not the Security Council that issued the decision to establish his mandate. He is behaving as if he were a Secretary-General parallel to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – although he is in reality his envoy through a mandate issued by a decision from the General Assembly – and this is why Annan has established a miniature United Nations in Geneva, where he holds conferences with the flag of the U.N. flapping behind him.
Annan’s plan is not a bad one, despite the fact that it has been based on keeping the regime in Damascus in place, and not on the basis of it handing over the keys of power to a pluralistic government. What is bad is Annan’s “forbearance” in the face of Damascus’s excesses in terms of committing violations, failing to fulfill promises and changing the rules of the game to such a degree as to allow the leaders of the Syrian regime to set the roadmap and to dictate conditions over who would follow it and to what extent.
When will such patience run out, as the U.S. Administration threatens on a daily basis? Some say that the timeframe Kofi Annan has in mind is 90 days, which is the deadline that was given by the Security Council in its decision to establish a delegation of observers, who have begun to arrive to Syria.
In fact, Annan has asked for a budget of a whole year, amounting to 8 million dollars, to carry out his political task. Running out of patience does not at all seem to be in sight for Annan, as he does not want his mission to fail, and is willing to adapt to changing factors so as to ensure not failing. In other words, Annan is not willing to confront the regime in Damascus, and is in fact more liable to meet Damascus and Moscow’s demand of holding the opposition responsible.
Yet there is a big difference between laying equal blame for the violence on the opposition and on the regime, and providing assistance to the leaders of the opposition to form a credible political front for negotiations. Annan’s team is doing both, and that is dangerous, because it enables the regime in Damascus to elude the fact that it is primarily responsible for the violence, and also gives it the space to breathe and to reorganize its “coalition” cards, while efforts and pressures focus on the opposition.
Certainly, sponsoring dialogue between opposition leaders and international players is a very positive matter, because it is necessary to curb the appetite of the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood for control over the present and the future in Syria, on the basis of the sudden wave of Islamists rising to power in the Arab region. Here, the concern shown and the role played by Russia are appropriate, in view of the fact that Russia finds itself surrounded by five Muslim republics in which it does not want Islamists to rise to power.
Such Russian apprehensions can be positively put to use in influencing the stances and the ambitions of the various strands of the Syrian opposition. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood, for the first time, issued a few weeks ago a statement which was considered to be revolutionary, as it included pledges the Muslim Brotherhood had never made it the past, from pluralism to respecting the rights of other religions in power and in society. Stances such as these need to be channeled into some sort of guarantees, so as to be able to reassure the other parties of the opposition, and not just those who fear that the Muslim Brotherhood could attain power and monopolize it.
The Deputy to the Joint U.N.-AL Envoy, Nasser Al-Qudwa, plays a role with the opposition and among those who are party to it. Other countries have appointed high-ranking experts to help prepare the opposition politically. Yet the fact of the matter remains that Syrian authorities have refused to even receive or recognize Nasser Al-Qudwa as Kofi Annan’s Deputy. The fact of the matter is that the measures they are taking on the ground are exhausting the opposition and destroying its infrastructure, while the world waits for another report from Kofi Annan.
The major powers, meanwhile, are divided. France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppé speaks of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which includes imposing sanctions or safe humanitarian corrido.r.s on Syria. The British Foreign Office has called for contributions to the formation of a dossier on the violations and infringements committed by the Syrian regime, in preparation for referring it to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of committing crimes against humanity. As for the U.S. Administration, it sometimes speaks in the tone of “our patience is running out”, repeatedly and without this being translated in reality, and at other times works seriously behind the scenes to restrain the Arab countries that want to arm the opposition or establish safe corridors - in the name of the political process and of fear from a civil war and from …Al-Qaeda. And let us not even mention the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO), which pledges to the regime in Damascus that it will not direct a military strike against it no matter what happens.
All of this does not negate what is taking place behind the scenes, in terms of preparation for what comes after the third, fourth or fifth Russian veto at the Security Council, after all patience and diplomacy has been exhausted. Indeed, there is increasing talk of forming a coalition of countries that would not need a Security Council resolution to intervene militarily, and would not submit to a Russian or Chinese veto, as took was the case in the former Yugoslavia.
Some say that it would have been more useful for Kofi Annan to initiate a policy of enticement with Bashar Al-Assad, after having moved obscurely and seriously at NATO headquarters, as well as in Turkey, so as to have made the message clear and strong. Others say that Annan’s insistence on sending a delegation of 300 observers, even after the Syrian government backed down on its pledge to withdraw its army to its barracks and out of urban centers, only threatens the lives of the observers and turns the issue into a time-bomb.
Regardless of the soundness of the latter or the former, U.N. observers entering Syria’s home soil may lead to exhausting the regime, as it is now effectively under observation.
Yet confronting Damascus’s policy of exhausting the opposition and exhausting international politics, certainly requires for the Obama Administration to stop confusing others – at times with unenforced pledges, of the kind of the time has come for Assad to leave, or patience is running out; while at other times appearing to be in dire need to convince both sides – the government and the opposition – to keep the issue of Syria away from the U.S. elections. Indeed, Washington wants to postpone the Revolution and postpone the process of change in the Arab region until after the elections. But the world will not necessarily stop, as postponement and delay could cause a backlash against the Arab region and the United States in the form of a major concern and a monster that can only be restrained at a very high cost.
(Raghida Dergham is a prominent writer for Dar al-Hayat, where this article was first published May 4, 2012)