The remarks made by Iranian President Hassan Rowhani about the commander of the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, made it clear to those who had wagered on him where he really stands in the scale of internal Iranian differences and the prospects for him to rein in Iran’s regional ambitions. Rowhani praised the “heroism and courage” of Soleimani in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Palestine.
The president said the Revolutionary Guards were not only responsible for the country’s security alongside the police, army, and the Basij, but are also the defenders of “our holy sites in Iraq and Syria, and the oppressed in Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan and anywhere we are required to (defend them).”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov fully understand Rowhani’s statements, and are also convinced of the need for Soleimani’s role. On the other hand, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry still prefer to pretend they are not hearing and are not worried about the repercussions of Iranian military adventures outside its borders including overt military intervention in Arab countries.
They prefer to ignore the protests of Arab and Turkish leaders, fearing they would otherwise threaten US-Iranian relations, now the centrepiece of Obama’s historical legacy; and US-Russian relations, a priority for John Kerry as he dreams of winning the Nobel Peace Prize with his dear friend Lavrov. But this dream will not see the light of day as long as the Lavrov-Kerry duo continues to throw Syria towards more tragedy and bloodletting with their palliative accords and unserious threats.
The reputation of the duo today is not good. Their historical legacy will not record for them an achievement on par with the chemical weapons deal, which saw Obama back down from his famous redlines. Rather, history will record their failure and their collusion to move the bar in accordance with cynical interests rather than principles and morals, with regard to the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history.
In the absence of a clear and sustained military policy in support of the opposition, the strategy of draining the opposition and forcing it to surrender is succeedingRaghida Dergham
There will be no Nobel Prize for them nor for President Rowhani, who has read well the signs from his American and Russian counterparts, and decided he has room for political manoeuvres instead of working to prove his moderate credentials and take Iran towards a new pattern of regional relations, away from military interventionism and projects for regional dominance.
All these facts increase the doubts of the camp that has from the beginning decided that what was happening in Tehran is just a good cop, bad cop routine, with little difference between the moderate ayatollahs and the hard-line ayatollahs. Indeed, both wings consider the Revolutionary Guards to be the basis of the Iranian revolution and the guarantor of its continuation.
This is important because there was a faction that used to call for patience, arguing that moderation was bringing new policies to Tehran, including the reining in of projects of regional dominance and intervention in Arab countries.
Options for the Gulf
The Gulf countries are thinking seriously about their options. Some are implementing measures that take into account the clarity of Iranian positions, and frustration and annoyance with US and Russian ones. While this will not be translated into direct wars, it could be translated into the protraction of proxy wars involving the US, Russia, Iran, the Gulf powers, and Turkey, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Lebanon.
It was the military element in the calculations of some Gulf countries and Turkey that prompted in part the US-Russian statement issued last week, which had a flavour of bargaining rather than a flavour of determination to induce a qualitative shift toward a radical solution to the Syrian crisis.
Yet Moscow agreed to merely reduce the number of air raids in areas covered by the ceasefire. Washington agreed to increase support for its regional allies, led by Turkey, to help them stop the flow of fighters and weapons or financial support to terrorist groups through their territories.
This was followed by a Russian attempt at the UN Security Council to include Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam to the list of sanctioned terrorist groups that already includes ISIS and al-Qaeda. However, US, British, and French opposition stopped the motion, in order to protect the negotiations in Geneva and avoid obstruction of the efforts for a cessation of hostilities on the ground.
The course of political negotiations has long been intertwined with the course of military operations, following decisions to this effect made by the axis comprising Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian and pro-regime militias. The battle for Aleppo is fateful in the calculations of this axis, regardless of any statements made by the US and Russia, the Friends of Syria group in Paris, or by other meetings in Vienna or elsewhere.
The battlefield is racing with and even beating the negotiating table, with a view to impose one fait accompli after the other in order to tie the hands of the supporters of the Syrian opposition and lower the bar of international positions, especially US positions. What is being sought is to force the moderate rebels to surrender politically and militarily.
Since the Paris Group held its ministerial meeting on May 9 and until the Vienna Process meeting will convene on May 17, John Kerry issued and will issue further statements expressing frustration with Russian and Iranian positions, in order to rein them in somewhat, and to warn of a Plan B or a quagmire for the Russians in Syria.
But once again, we will hear from Kerry sweet talk as he engages in the diplomacy of smiles and handshakes in front of TV cameras, reassuring his colleague Lavrov that yet another chapter has been added to the annals of US-Russian accords concluded at the expense of Syria.
The UN will also express concern and reaffirm the need for a political solution and for negotiations to be rescued, while entirely shirking its responsibility to ensure accountability, and overlooking violations against its own resolutions – all in the name of preserving the political process and bowing down to the fait accompli imposed by the developments on the ground.
The General Secretariat speaks of war crimes in Syria while deliberately not holding the government and its allies responsible, and not explaining that the groups that are committing war crimes are already outlaw terrorist groups and not states. As for the governments involved in war crimes in Syria, they are under international law responsible for their war crimes and must be exposed and held accountable, rather than be covered for. The UN thus contents itself with watching while avoiding the issue of accountability.
The UN Secretariat and Security Council member states also buried their heads in the sand when Iran challenged the sanctions regime and violated binding UN Security Council resolutions passed under Chapter VII of the Charter, sending military advisors and mercenaries into Syria.
The international silence that blessed all these violations is the same thing that contributed into turning Syria into magnet for foreign volunteers fighting alongside the regime in Damascus, just like international silence at the start of the war had led to the growth of terrorism in Syria.
Today, the major powers along with Germany and the EU are effectively rewarding Iran for the nuclear deal by repealing resolutions banning Tehran from supplying weapons, fighters, and advisors anywhere it pleases outside its borders. Today, Tehran is stating publicly that it has a military arm in Syria supporting Bashar al-Assad, entering as a direct party to the civil war along with its militias.
Today, the figurehead of Iranian moderation, President Hassan Rowhani, in a speech he delivered in Kerman in south-eastern Iran, has declared that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are defending the security of countries that requested Tehran’s help, mentioning by name Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.
He said: “We see now the effects of the heroic deeds of Soleimani in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon,” before praising him for his “courage”, as other Iranian officials vowed a “great revenge” for the death of 13 Iranian military advisors from the Revolutionary Guards in Syria.
Iran’s brigades are openly and publicly being deployed to Syria, to encircle Aleppo in coordination with Russian and Syrian air raids, not against ISIS but against moderate Syrian rebels. The goal is to improve the regime’s military position on the ground, especially since the countries that back the Syrian opposition are undermining the Syrian rebels by withholding weapons and by forcing through regional and international accords that tie their hands.
Simply put, in the absence of a clear and sustained military policy in support of the opposition, the strategy of draining the opposition and forcing it to surrender is succeeding. The Russian-Iranian axis in Syria is coherent and clear in its military and diplomatic strategy. It is betting on the incoherence, hesitation, and weakness of the backers of the opposition.
Agreeing a ceasefire is better than continued bloodletting. The Russian and American expression of keenness for a political solution soon should be welcomed and encouraged. However, the fact of the matter is that Russia is pursuing a strategy on the ground whose goal is to decimate the Syrian opposition and/or categorize its groupings as terrorists, like it has done with the Nusra Front even before it resorted to terrorism.
The fact is that the US Secretary of State’s concerns for Russia to be drawn into a quagmire in Syria is only empty rhetoric. As long as Washington does not uphold accountability and monitoring mechanisms, its rhetoric will turn into poison for innocent civilians in Syria that is no less harmful than Russian raids, Iranian militias, and the crimes of terror groups and their supporters as well as the atrocities of the Syrian regime against its own people.
This article was first published in Al-Hayat on May. 13, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham