The Middle East was so simple and forthright until recently. It was easy to analyze changes and understand its basic elements. Enmities were explicit and alliances unquestionable. Even compliments between different parties were clear, as everyone knew they were just a matter of courtesy. Back then it was black and white, but now it is a grey area where people, led by US President Barack Obama, talk the talk but do not walk the walk.
On Tuesday, he stood on the UN rostrum counseling attendees. He delivered an eloquent speech about democracy and pluralism, criticizing the transformation of ethnic and religious identities into reasons to reject the other. He was mainly speaking about the Middle East.
The case of Syria
However, on the same day the Washington Post published details of his administration’s involvement in the withdrawal of a law imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime and its allies, the same regime that has sown sectarian strife to kill the Syrian people.
Obama’s administration claimed that it interfered to stop it because it did not want the law to affect the US-Russian truce in Syria, a truce that was never taken into consideration anyway as it was breached by the regime and Moscow. The regime said the truce had failed, but US Secretary of State John Kerry replied that it was still operative.
These contradictory statements have kept analysts busy, leading some to think that Moscow is in control, others to believe that Washington has woken up and wants to support the Syrian people, and others to explain how the Syrian regime has lost its sovereignty because two main powers are standing behind it.
However, analysts forget that the truce is meaningless because the killing continues and barrel bombs are still falling on civilians and even aid convoys. So what truce is Kerry talking about? Which agreement is Washington defending when pressuring Democrats in Congress to withdraw the law against the Syrian regime and its allies?
It did not do so for the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which was unanimously passed even though it threatened the US relationship with its main ally Saudi Arabia, which is presumably more important than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies. This what I mean by grey politics prevailing nowadays in the region, extending from Syria to Yemen and Libya.
What are agreements for if relevant parties do not abide by them?Jamal Khashoggi
It is not about Obama alone; all powerful forces in the Middle East are involved. Maybe the Russians and Iranians are the most straightforward, but their straightforwardness is not helping anyone; they stand by the evil side in the conflict.
In the past, targeting an aid convoy with an airstrike, and killing dozens of volunteers and workers from international organizations, would be enough for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to take a firm stand and strict punitive measures. On Sunday, the UN and Red Cross said such an incident took place, without naming the aggressor.
The following day, the regime and Russia shamelessly accused the Syrian opposition of being behind the incident, which prompted comical comments about “Ahrar al-Sham aircraft.” The lies and disregard continued, although everyone knows that the Syrian fly zone is controlled by a semi-joint operations chamber that shares all information. It was founded by the US and Russia to ensure they do not collide by accident when undertaking operations over Syria.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon revealed the type and number of warplanes that undertook the operation: two Sukhois, which are mainly from Russia’s air force but can also be Syrian. As a punitive measure, the coalition should target the airport from where the warplanes took off. It would also be implementing the truce article that bans the regime’s air force.
What are agreements for if relevant parties do not abide by them? Are these grey policies real, or just a cover for a US withdrawal, leaving behind it many agreements, declarations, meetings, anger and warnings in order to mislead regional powers?
Is the strong Russian presence in Syria preventing the US from intervening? The US bombed the regime headquarters in Deir al-Zour last week, and Russia did not strike back on American soil. Rather, it carried on their communications, agreements and disputes. Washington said it was a mistake, but it can bomb again ‘by mistake’ the runways and helicopters carrying barrel bombs. Maybe it needs reminding that it is a superpower.
We can also find this greyness in Libya. The world worked so hard to gather Libyans from various political parties in Morocco, and arduous negotiations resulted in a national-accord government supported by the UNSC and the international community. Like any agreement, it has to have antagonists. Back in the black-and-white era, sanctions would be imposed on nonconformists, and procedures would be taken to get them out of the political game.
However, since we are in a grey era, a general claiming to be the Libyan army commander occupied Libyan oilfields, in a blatant violation against the national government. The greyness is increasing as information reveals the participation of France, which is supposed to be a member of the EU that supported the national-accord government. Paris provided General Khalifa Haftar with warplanes. Egypt does not hide its support for him, violating international legitimacy.
The most the world can do is issue a decision preventing the purchase of Libyan oil exported from ports controlled by the illegitimate general. Regarding Syria and Libya, greyness complicates things, prolongs conflicts, increases people’s misery, and most of all, generates new crises and other regional conflicts.
This greyness makes us yearn for the black and white, like in Aug. 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and late Saudi King Fahd said: “Either we live together or we die together.” Half a million American soldiers arrived, and the largest army since World War II was rallied in Saudi Arabia. Everybody was awaiting the start of the war to liberate Kuwait.
When Saddam tried to drag the world to his grey battlefield, then-US President George Bush said clearly: “Saddam must leave Kuwait.” Bush did not back down. The policy then was black and white.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 24, 2016.
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. Twitter: @JKhashoggi