The international anti-ISIS coalition came out with a deficient strategy after meeting in Paris this week to revise its already deficient strategy. The 24 foreign ministers did not have unified positions regarding Iraq or Syria, whether in terms of supplying weapons, in terms of military strategy, or in terms of political strategy. The U.S. administration is now saying the war on ISIS will be long, while the German defense minister is saying it is not possible to achieve rapid progress in the fight against the radical group, calling for “strategic patience.” The idea of “strategic patience” is primarily American, but what happened this week is that the three-year timeframe of the war that Washington spoke about a year ago was extended without defining a new timeframe. In other words, the West is telling us the Arab region, most of which is on the verge of collapse, must observe “strategic patience” in the name of repelling ISIS, which is seeking to destroy the Arab countries and their civilizations and to turn their peoples into slaves.
This group is a fundamental contributor to fragmenting the Arabs. The Arab countries are its springboard to the Islamic State it wants to replace the Arab countries with. Its war is not against Islamic countries, from Iran to Indonesia, but it is against Arabs and most of its members are Arabs. If the Islamic Republic of Iran sees ISIS an existential threat, it is right. But this group is the number one enemy of the Arabs not Iran.
The arena for ISIS extends from Iraq to Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, and its targets include Egypt, the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in particular. For this reason, anyone who sees ISIS as the natural reaction to Iran’s expansion in the Arab region, or who sees it as a way for the Sunnis to counter the Shiites, is complicit in ISIS’s methodical destruction of the Arab countries and the Arab peoples.
Arab need to crush ISIS
There is a strategic and existential Arab need to crush ISIS. If the international coalition fails to develop a comprehensive strategy, the Arab countries must go to the strategy drawing board for both the near and long terms, because strategic patience equates to their demise. That required strategy should not stop in Iraq and Syria, because Yemen too is part of the strategy to drain the Gulf nations. The Gulf nations must rectify their mistakes in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and take the initiative in Yemen.
Yemen today is the most important test for the U.S.-Gulf relationship. The Arab coalition in Yemen has yet to be met with a U.S. position that understands the logic behind the Arab intervention. The Obama administration does not see eye-to-eye with the Arab coalition regarding the Iranian role in Yemen, not least because the administration does not want anything to undermine the nuclear deal and putative alliance with Iran. What this translates into is that the United States is willing to forsake the security cooperation and alliance with the Gulf countries if it were made to choose between that and the relationship it is seeking to establish with Iran. Secondly, the Obama administration has decided that Tehran is not involved in the conflict in Yemen and that it is just a local conflict where Iran might have influence over the Houthis but is not party to the war.
In other words, Washington does not perceive Yemen from the Arab coalition viewpoint that sees it as a matter of Saudi national security, and mocks the Arab sentiment that supports the Arab intervention in Yemen in response to Iran’s encroachment in the Arab world, particularly as concerns Saudi Arabia – in Yemen after Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Arab perspective and the American perspective
There is a vast difference between the Arab perspective and the American perspective for the events in Yemen. Those who spoke to decision-makers in the U.S. administration in the wake of the Gulf-American summit in Camp David found that the Obama administration was stubbornly persistent about its perspective, believing the Saudi and Arab response in Yemen to be “excessive.”
On the other hand, the events in Yemen from the Gulf point of view have shown them who their real friends are, be they Arabs, Muslims, Westerners, or Americans. Some see the issue from the standpoint of Saudi national security firstly – and secondly from the standpoint of telling Iran: Enough is enough.
Today, it might be in the Saudi interest to be alert to the pitfalls and to insist on not slipping into a quagmire in Yemen. This requires either a bold new military strategy, or an exit strategy. Either the Arab coalition carries out a limited ground intervention to secure the major cities in Yemen, such as Aden, and produce a major military shift; or adopt an exit strategy coupled with a Marshall plan of sorts to rebuild Yemen with international partnership but essentially with Arab and Saudi funding. The most important thing to avoid is for Saudi to be drawn into a war of attrition, because this would drain its coffers and turn Yemen into its soft underbelly.
The United Nations has not won itself a good reputation for dispatching envoys who could succeed in their missions. Most likely, the new envoy to Yemen will not be an exception. However, Saudi Arabia can stand to benefit from the U.N. envoy, the dedication of the U.N. secretary general, and the divisions in the Security Council. If Saudi Arabia decides that it in its interest to adopt an exit strategy in Yemen, the U.N. could serve as an instrument in this strategy.
This is not retreat, and it could be the only way to head off those planning to draw Saudi Arabia into a war of attrition. Furthermore, it should be coupled with a new project combining national reconciliation based on federalism with a comprehensive project to repair the damage in the Gulf-Yemeni relationship, a project that would take into account the development needs of Yemen. Moreover, conditions may be imposed on others as part of this exit strategy, because an exit strategy does not mean at all loss or defeat, but is a kind of no-loss and no-victory.
Oman is presenting itself as a place of dialogue and accord between the United States and regional countries. Recently, it hosted a meeting between Houthi representatives and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson. As is known, Oman had hosted secret talks between the United States and Iran. Instead of grumbling about Oman’s divergence from the rest of the Gulf countries in foreign policy, it might be worthwhile to benefit instead from this Omani hospitality in the context of an exit strategy from Yemen.
Logic of an exit strategy
The logic of an exit strategy goes beyond Yemen, and involves the American-Saudi relationship in its various aspects: from the U.S. reservations on the Arab understanding of Saudi national security to the American shift away from the traditional Arab Gulf nations in the direction if Iran, and oil-related policies caught between Saudi influence on OPEC and the U.S. insistence on taking a leading position in the oil market via fracking. These are all fundamental issues in the Saudi and Arab-American relationship.
The major strategy that Gulf leaders must seriously consider is to profoundly study the strategic mistakes that led the Arab region to its current situation. Half-baked measures will not be of any use. A strategic revision is very important to protect the Arab region against collapse and fragmentation.
In Iraq, many mistakes were made. Gulf countries refrained from engaging in this country, leaving a vacuum for Iran to fill. Today, Iraq is falling into partition and bloody sectarian war. Many schemes are being plotted for Iraq, all destructive or divisive. No one is innocent when it comes to Iraq, just like no one is innocent when it comes to Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said from Paris in the coalition meeting that ISIS was the result of the failure of the entire world, and said it was an international problem. He presented a plan that was met with “strong support” by those at the meeting, who expressed unanimous strong for the Iraqi government efforts to prepare tribal fighters in Anbar. Earlier, French FM Laurent Fabius said Abadi pledged to launch reconciliation among all components of the Iraqi people, in reference to greater representation for the Sunnis in the current government. The Paris meeting asked Abadi to rein in the so-called Popular Mobilization, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia fighting ISIS. The final communique of the meeting stressed the need to establish a national guard to impose the state’s authority over all armed groups, in reference to this militia.
Iran was the “absent but present” participant at the meeting. Iran is presenting itself as a reliable partner for the United States that can fight ISIS in Iraq through the Popular Mobilization militia and Syria by all means, including by supporting the regime in Damascus.
Iraq needs serious Arab and international support to defeat ISIS, without becoming an Iranian satellite or being partitioned into three countries. This week, Saudi Arabia appointed an ambassador in Iraq after 25 years of political estrangement between the two nations following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The estrangement was in neither the Saudi interest, nor the Iraqi interest, nor the Arab interest. It had many implications, including the fact that Iran took advantage of Saudi’s absence in Iraq. Now, the Gulf role must be productive in Iraq to serve the Arab and Iraq interest together with those of all components of the Iraqi people – Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.
The war on ISIS in Syria has different dynamics compared to Iraq. Laurent Fabius told the participants in the Paris meeting that military operations alone will not repel ISIS, and that a political process is necessary in Syria under the supervision of the U.N. to bring about change in Syria.
But Russia’s FM Sergey Lavrov called on the countries meeting in Paris to coordinate air strikes with the Syrian government, warning that the terrorists could go far if not stopped. For his part, the Iranian president reiterated Tehran’s absolute support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In Syria then, Russia and Iran will not approve a political transitional process that would lead to Assad stepping down. All the talk about Russian distance with Assad or Iranian willingness to reach an understanding with the United States is meant for media consumption, while Syria moves towards perdition. No one seems to be in a hurry to push Syria away from the precipice. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura is taking his time and engaging in “strategic patience” as well, in the footsteps of the U.S. administration, Germany, Italy, and perhaps even the entire European Union.
The Obama administration entered a battle with the New York Times over an article questioning Iran’s commitment in the nuclear talks. The White House and the State Department acted as Iran’s advocate, reflecting the administration’s obsession with leaving behind a legacy of forging a partnership with Iran, as America pivots to the east leaving behind its traditional Gulf partners.
The nuclear talks are the top priority. The United States, Europe, Russia, China, India, and Brazil do not care about Iranian actions in Yemen, Syria, or Iraq. Thus, pending the historical event – between Kerry’s broken leg and Zarif’s stiff back – the Arab region is moving towards further collapse and yet is being asked to show strategic patience by all those concerned. Therefore, there is no option but to seriously consider other strategic options for the Arab regions, to stop the slide into fragmentation and quagmires.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 6, 2015.
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.SHOW MORE