How is the Arab region realigning itself in light of the new regional-international alliances and what is its place in the international landscape, beyond the traditional classification of the region in terms of its economic role and the huge security challenges it faces led by ISIS and its ilk?
When raising this question, and because of the overt Russian military intervention in Syria now, the Syrian issue becomes one of major importance in the future of the region and global relations, led by U.S.-Russian relations. However, Syria in reality is not the only benchmark by which we should gauge the realignment of the Arab region in the international arena, while the intent is not to bypass at all raging crises and conflicts, such as those in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, nor latent ones such as those in Lebanon, Egypt, or Tunisia.
The intent is that the re-alignment requires long-term strategies that accompany the necessary immediate-term ones to end the conflicts, because they pose serious obstacles to the growth and development of Arab societies, which would help take young people towards fulfilling normal aspirations, instead of falling victim to polarization, extremism, and terrorism.
A summit of the Beirut Institute in Abu Dhabi held this week brought together several prominent intellectuals and strategists from around the world to discuss what the new realignment requires and what mechanisms should be established to build a positive framework in the Arab region, covering regional and international relations as well. The summit saw many boldly admit American, Russian, and Arab mistakes, but went beyond diagnosing and confessing to failed policies and their repercussions, to discussing ideas regarding what should be done in earnest.
The conversations tackled Arab-Iranian, especially Saudi-Iranian, relations; Gulf-Russian relations, which continue to develop despite differences and drawbacks; and the future of Arab-American relations after the current administration and in light of President Obama’s policies.
Full disclosure: I am the founder and executive chairperson of the Beirut Institute, an Arab think-tank. The summit, which was held last weekend in the UAE capital, had support from the host country and brought together senior officials, ministers, former heads of state, and leaders of intellect, politics, and arts from around the world. Several prominent figures from the Arab world sit on the board of the independent think tank, information about which can be found on www.beirutinstitute.org and via Facebook and Twitter.
Naturally, the Syrian tragedy currently overshadows all other crises, despite the importance of what is taking place in Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. The main question here is this: Is Russia in the process of successfully altering internal Syrian equations, and what does Russia really want? Does the United States or the Gulf bless what Russia is doing? Or is Russia being lured into a quagmire in Syria?
It is indisputable that the absence and reluctance of the Obama administration to engage in Syria has encouraged Moscow to fill the vacuum, with Russia now repositioning itself in the Middle East. Washington may not mind for Moscow to occupy an exceptional strategic position through Syria, because the Obama administration has decided that the U.S. interest lies in pivoting east, away from the Middle East.
The official Russian pretext for the intervention in Syria is an official request for help from the “legitimate” government in Damascus. Moscow rightly argues that the United States did not question the legitimacy of the Syrian government when it signed agreements over the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal in the wake of a U.S.-Russian agreement, when Obama famously backed down from his “red lines”. Moscow is right because that agreement, which Washington signed through the Security Council, meant that Obama and Washington had backtracked from considering that Assad has lost his legitimacy as Obama had previously said.
At the Beirut Institute, the discussions during the public and closed sessions argued that the Russian intervention in Syria could have been a positive development, if military activities were coordinated on the basis of political understandings. According to one figure closely familiar with Obama’s policies, these understandings would not mind if Russia gained a leading, permanent position in Syria as a foothold in the region. However, President Putin would be mistaken if he believes that Washington would consent to maintaining Bashar al-Assad a permanent president atop the ruins of Syria. For one thing, this would implicate the United States in a confrontation that it does not need with an important segment of the Arab peoples and important nations that the United States still maintains strategic relations with, such as Saudi Arabia.
Syria in reality is not the only benchmark by which we should gauge the realignment of the Arab region in the international arena, while the intent is not to bypass at all raging crises and conflicts, such as those in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, nor latent ones such as those in Lebanon, Egypt, or Tunisia.Raghida Dergham
Meanwhile, talk about “Afghanization” emerged on many occasions during discussions at the summit. It is clear that the U.S. administration would not be able to disengage militarily from Syria, while Russia’s forces strike the Syrian opposition to rescue the Assad regime, under the pretext of crushing ISIS or al-Nusra Front. One of the participants, a senior military man, said something to the effect of: if you attack our men, we will attack yours. In other words, Washington, should it decide to, could reach Moscow’s men in Syria, and the men of Iran and allied Hezbollah.
Not long ago, U.S. Stinger missiles were being used by mujahidin in Afghanistan to shoot down Soviet planes. Today, U.S. TOW anti-Tank missiles are being used against Syrian regime armor. The difference is important today, because Washington is not targeting Moscow in the Syrian airspace, yet the TOW missiles are a turning point that goes beyond the program of training the armed Syrian opposition.
Not hiding concerns
Some Russians are not hiding their concerns regarding what they see as Vladimir Putin’s adventurism, declaring war on Sunni extremism when there is a large Sunni Muslim minority in his country, which is also surrounded by five Muslim-majority republics. He is also partnering up with Iran and Hezbollah on the ground, which also plays into the hands of those Sunni extremists bent on revenge. Even if the speculation that Russia intends to curb Iranian incursions in Syria are true, this remains a huge gamble.
Some say that Putin is falling into a U.S. trap, blinded by his arrogance. These voices say that Putin would be making a grave mistake if he did not accept Saudi and Gulf overtures calling him to be vigilant, and offering him to regain influence in the Arab region provided that he stops reducing Syria to the person of Bashar al-Assad. These nations are extending an olive branch to Russia, at a time when Putin is resorting to the gun. These countries want to save Syria – and Russia – without demanding Putin disengages with Iran, proceeding from their pragmatic thinking and their quest for good strategic, economic, and political ties.
This pragmatism and the quest for new, creative ideas were clear at the sessions of the Beirut Institute. Some spoke of practical steps to establish new structures for inter-Arab work, Arab-regional work, and Arab-international work. Specific recommendations will be issued based on the results of the brainstorming that took place at the summit.
The Beirut Institute Abu Dhabi Summit Declaration dealt with issues that similar conferences did not tackle. For example, the declaration urged Arab nations to join the ICC, to strengthen accountability and end impunity. Indeed, prosecuting the Israeli occupation and its violations is possible after the State of Palestine joined the Rome Statute, becoming a party to the ICC.
The declaration stressed the need for multilateral efforts to end the conflict in Syria, including developing a clear vision for the post-conflict phase and establishing a Gulf fund to help rebuild infrastructure destroyed in the years of the war in Syria and other countries, such as Yemen, Libya, and Iraq.
The declaration also stressed the need to achieve regional economic development through a comprehensive plan, including establishing a regional proactive fund headquartered in the GCC for future development. This is in addition to expediting the promotion of Arab mutual relations and moving forward with efforts meant to establish a new regional order that can deal with various challenges, such as state and non-state terrorism, the refugee crisis, and economic disintegration. The declaration stressed the need for diversifying sources of income, and promoting economic, political, and security institutions in the region, adopting successful models such as ASEAN.
The declaration also called for intensifying efforts to seriously address the Palestinian question on the basis of the two-state solution, in order to reach a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon.
With regard to youth, a call was made to launch an intensive campaign to integrate Arab youths economically, through a new approach based on technology to create job opportunities and spur entrepreneurship, in tandem with education and apprenticeship to employ graduates as part of developing a new digital economy and infrastructure.
The conferees, through the declaration, also called for strengthening regional administration and the rule of law, and for efforts to be stepped up to empower women as natural antidotes to extremism, in addition to including the private sector in political discussions. They also stressed the need to strengthen accountability and achieve real progress against corruption.
Because of the tragedies, instability, anxiety, frustration, and fear afflicting the region, the summit called for establishing a new institute to train Arabic-speaking psychologists to address the repercussions of trauma in the Arab region.
The talk about the realignment of the Arab region in the international arena is not purely political. It requires non-traditional thinking to develop creative solutions for the future, in partnership with new generations, away from isolationism. The Beirut Institute Abu Dhabi Summit launched this debate, and the debate will surely be continued.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 16, 2015 and 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