When American jets shell the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Raqqah and when ISIS defenses collapse and chaos spreads among its fighters and when the Syrian regime, moderate rebels and the al-Nusra Front - who all have a different vision of Syria’s future - receive the news, which one will step forward and declare the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS and raise its own banner there?
This dilemma is one example of several other dilemmas which the alliance currently being formed under the slogan of “eliminating ISIS” must confront. This explains the reason behind the Arab-Turkish-American meeting held last Thursday to discuss establishing an anti-ISIS alliance. U.S. President Barack Obama has admitted that eliminating ISIS will not be easy and will require years. How is this possible when ISIS is just an organization? I will use the former example of Raqqah to signify how difficult the mission of eliminating ISIS is. First of all, there are no American troops on ground to complement the work of American bombers as Obama promised his people he would not send any troops into the war. In addition, regional countries are not enthusiastic about this, therefore, there’s no other way besides counting on one of the three aforementioned parties - the Syrian regime, moderate rebels or the al-Nusra Front. However, the question is: how will we prevent the two unfavorable parties from benefitting from the collapse of ISIS?
ISIS is one of the reasons behind the deterioration of the situation in the regionJamal Kashoggi
This is what requires regional and international cooperation, which supposedly began to set its rules during the meeting in Jeddah. Obama’s statements are plenty but mysterious, as are the statements of regional powers. Therefore, analysts must connect the dots to draw the entire picture. Let’s begin with the important point. After the phone call between Saudi King Abdullah and President Obama, the Americans leaked the news of Saudi Arabia’s approval to open training camps for the moderate Syrian opposition. So, can one say the issue has been finalized and Bashar al-Assad’s term is finally over? The Syrian people have been disappointed plenty of times, either due to American hesitation or due to its backing down from taking action at last minute. This also extended the reign of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Syrians are thus hesitant to accept that the situation has been finalized, even though ISIS has united the world against it and made Obama’s hesitant administration take satisfactory action.
Deterioration of the region
ISIS is one of the reasons behind the deterioration of the situation in the region. It has united regional parties who were once rivals and these parties are currently seeking cooperation with one another. We can thus say that eliminating ISIS also calls for the elimination of Assad. This explains Russia’s statements that the fight against ISIS should be orchestrated within the boundaries of international law.
Russia said this despite the U.N. Security Council decision calling for confronting ISIS and although it has actually voted in favor of it. However, Russia is clearly worried that the U.S. will expand the operations and target its ally in Damascus who, soon after Russia’s statement, warned that it will consider any uncoordinated military action on its land as an attack.
Russian fear is in its place even though it’s immoral. The operation must target Moscow’s ally in Damascus and topple him or pave the way to toppling him. Perhaps this is the logical explanation as to why Saudi Arabia approved training camps for the moderate Syrian opposition. It’s tantamount to declaring an indirect war on the Syrian regime. It also brings an end to all speculations that Saudi Arabia’s stance towards the Syrian regime may change due to fear of the ISIS threat. This theory of a Saudi policy change was marketed by the Syrian regime’s allies in Tehran and Moscow as well as by other regional powers who participated in the Jeddah meeting. However, the latter regional parties must harmonize their stance with that of the majority of the alliance’s countries, and particularly with that of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi approval to establish training camps can also be interpreted a symptom of the Saudi-American partnership against the Syrian regime. This comes after protests by the kingdom against U.S. reluctance and exaggerated conditions to arm the Syrian opposition. This reluctance has delayed victory and allowed the regime to expand its aggression and led to this stagnant situation in Syria, which eventually produced ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. Saudi Arabia is now telling the Americans that it’s ready to take on a bigger responsibility to end this destructive situation and to progress to the next phase of the war against extremism in the region, building a new Syria and a new Iraq devoid of sectarianism and tyranny in the meantime.
A far reaching project
If this is the case, this partnership will require security and military responsibilities which go beyond just a few thousand Syrian fighters who train then head to the front. It’s a project that must be assisted without wasting any time as this would have negative repercussions. There must be a clear plan that specifies the framework on which this partnership is based, especially as Saudi Arabia is in the thick of it and cannot bear the cost of failure like Obama and his administration who will leave in less than two years. The U.S. can once again retreat and leave us alone amidst the Middle East’s political and sectarian struggles.
The Jeddah alliance is everyone’s opportunity for a new beginning. It is not limited to its immediate task of eliminating ISIS but also includes the possibility of expanding towards reforming the situation in Iraq and Syria. The alliance can reform Iraq by helping it become a real federal democracy, like the 2003 constitution stipulates. Meanwhile, Syria needs a new beginning without a suppressive sectarian regime. After that, everyone must look at a long list of must-do’s to establish a new Arab world. Those who said the campaign against ISIS needs three or four years are being optimistic as I think it needs more time. ISIS is a movement that mixed angry politics with religious extremism and which was produced by the corruption, tyranny, fanaticism and intolerance we all live through.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on September 13, 2014.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.