Shifting the balance of power in Syria and Iraq

There is a need now for a national political process in Syria (like the one that will take place in Iraq soon)

Raghida Dergham
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and senior advisers are discussing strategies to address the conflicts and challenges of the Middle East so that the Secretariat does not appear unable to shoulder its responsibilities in light of the failure of the Security Council and its divisions -- both real and those that are convenient for both Russia and the United States. Today, while the Middle East region undergoes one of the most important stages of the difficult and complicated process of change, the U.N. seems to have no clear policy or a road map for a distinguished role by the U.N. at the regional and international levels.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany are negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program in Vienna, and are determined to make a breakthrough culminating with the gradual lifting of sanctions on Tehran. But these countries are deliberately turning a blind eye to Iranian violations of Resolution 1747, which, under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, imposes a comprehensive ban on the Iranian sale or transfer of weapons or military experts from its territory to any other nation. In other words, the United States, Britain, and France agree with Russia and China on exempting Iran from accountability for violations of a Security Council resolution adopted under Chapter VII, which compels all states to enforce it. This means that the five nations are violating a U.N. Security Council resolution and are deliberately ignoring Iranian violations to protect the nuclear talks. This is a dangerous precedent


This dangerous precedent has produced the worst performance for the five countries in the past few decades, if not in the entire history of the United Nations. This is happening while the five permanent countries are engaged in the farce of slow negotiations and absurd worthless statements, while the number of casualties in Syria has surpassed 150,000, and while the humanitarian catastrophe there is growing worse by the day.

What Ban Can Do

Ban Ki-moon is not in a position to intervene in the affairs of the Security Council and cannot dictate terms to it. But the Secretary-General of the United Nations is not the servant of the Security Council under the Charter of the United Nations. He is independent from the Security Council and has powers that are not prejudiced by the Security Council. He has the right to moral and political leadership by resorting to Article 99, which grants him the right to raise issues that the Security Council rejects to put forward. It is therefore worthwhile for the nations opposed to the major Security Council members kowtowing to Iranian violations in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, to be aware of the need for a new approach with the Secretariat of the United Nations.

Developments in Iraq have forced all actors to rethink their positions. They are opening a new window for a different kind of thinking regarding the Syrian issue and the Iranian role in both Syria and Iraq. This is an opportunity for the Secretariat of the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to listen to each other attentively, and repair their relationship that has strained over the recent period due to disagreement over Syria.

The main difference between Saudi Arabia and the Secretariat of the United Nations regards the legitimization of the Iranian role in Syria and Iraq. The United Nations believes that reaching a solution in Syria and Iraq requires, logically speaking, acknowledging the role of Iran and Iranian influence in these two countries. The United Nations believes that Iran must inevitably be engaged over the fate of Syria and Iraq.

The Saudi position is completely at odds with this argument, on the grounds that U.N. engagement of Iran in Syria or Iraq would legitimize Iran's regional ambitions that go beyond the borders of Iran and legitimizes the role and influence of Iran in these two Arab countries. Riyadh is opposed to the U.N. giving legitimacy to Iranian intervention in Iraq -- politically -- and in Syria militarily through Hezbollah, which has been fighting there overtly based on Iran's request, and through the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in Syria and Iraq, in clear violation of the binding U.N. Security Council resolution.

The duty of the United Nations

Riyadh's opinion is that it is the duty of the U.N. -- both at the level of the Secretariat and the Security Council -- to hold Iran accountable for its violations rather than treat it with impunity. Riyadh believes that asking it to legitimize the Iranian role in Syria and Iraq is a grave mistake committed by the Secretariat of the United Nations. Riyadh will never give in on this no matter what happens.

This is an opportunity for the Secretariat of the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council to listen to each other attentively

Raghida Dergham

What Riyadh is willing to offer is a necessary partnership with the Secretariat and the international community in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), similarly to what happened during the experience of Sahawat (Awakening) in Iraq, which fought and routed al-Qaeda there. Riyadh believes that its role and influence over Sunnis in Iraq and Syria is powerful ammunition in the hands of the Secretariat and the international community, if the United Nations truly wants a new approach in these two countries -- an approach that does not rely on Iran as the cornerstone of the two countries' fate as is the case now.

It has now become popular to talk about the "regional approach" to resolving the crisis in Syria and Iraq. Western think-tanks are talking about "Iran first" as part of that approach, and focusing on so-called track-two diplomacy, which in turn legitimizes the Iranian role in Syria and Iraq in the name of "pragmatism." These think tanks -- including some funded by Gulf nations enchanted with such Western institutions -- are going too far in ignoring Iranian violations of international resolutions, and the role Hezbollah and the IRGC led by Qassem Soleimani are playing in Syria and Iraq. And while they deliberately exonerate the Iranian side, these think tanks blame Saudi Arabia for fomenting Sunni extremism, and ignore the fact that Iran equally fostered Shiite extremism of all forms, and the fact that Iran and its allies have used if not created Sunni extremism in many instances.

The Saudi government has not done enough in the beginning to curb its citizens from contributing to the growth of Sunni extremism and terrorism. Recently, Riyadh realized the need to take measures against its citizens involved in terrorism, and is required to do more still. But for U.N. officials to speak about Saudi's responsibility for the events in Syria and Iraq while fully exonerating Iran there is either extremely stupid or plainly sinister.

If the Secretariat wants to engage Saudi Arabia as an influential country in the Arab region, it must first stop making a distinction between the Saudi and Iranian roles in the Arab nations of Iraq and Syria. It must listen carefully to the Saudi arguments and help its efforts for a comprehensive national dialogue in the two countries. It must not continue to be drawn into legitimizing Iran's role as the key to the solution in the two countries. Finally, the Secretariat must quit its naïve assumption that temporary victories are permanent ones. This means that senior U.N. officials must stop thinking of Syria's future from the standpoint of Bashar al-Assad's victory and survival in power.

For its part, Saudi diplomacy has to free itself from its tendency for boycotting and disengagement, because this is neither in Saudi's interests nor in those of Iraq and Syria. Riyadh refused to receive special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to protest his proposals, and also rejected a seat at the Security Council to protest the latter's failures. Some see these measures as an important message and an unprecedented position that alerted the United Nations to the huge gaps in its attitudes. Others think they are precarious tactical steps and not strategic ones.

Time for a new chapter

What matters is that it is now time for a new chapter with the United Nations, because refraining from engagement is the wrong policy, especially since Iran is eager to engage and promote the Iranian narrative. It is necessary for Riyadh to open permanent channels with the Secretariat at the highest levels. It is important for Riyadh to receive Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the earliest opportunity to talk openly about what is happening in the region. Saudi did well to channel its $500 million aid package to Iraq though the United Nations. This is a constructive step, which must now be supplemented with further steps that should be up to the level of the challenges brought by developments in the region.

There is a need now for a national political process in Syria (like the one that will take place in Iraq soon)

Raghida Dergham

This week, Ban Ki-moon may declare the name and mission of the new envoy to Syria replacing Lakhdar Brahimi. Damascus and Moscow are working to remove the Arab part of the mission of the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin says that this was the advice of Lakhdar Brahimi. Some senior aides to the Secretary-General believe that removing the Arab part from the representative's assignment would create a opportunity for a new approach requiring cooperation from Damascus and Moscow.

If Ban Ki-moon agrees to this advice and removes the Arab part of the assignment, he would be making a grave mistake, not just against Syria, but also against the relationship between the United Nations and the Arab countries. Most likely, he will not pursue this course of action, because he is fully aware that this would serve the regime in Damascus and its allies in Moscow.

Washington, for its part, does not want a strong representative with the will and resolve to expose its reluctant approach. In this sense, Washington agrees with Moscow in preferring an appeasing representative rather than a confrontational figure. For this reason perhaps, both sides vetoed former socialist Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, fearing his determination to push the Security Council to assume its responsibilities.

The names that have made their way to the list are numerous. Some are favored by Damascus such as Brazilian Minister Celsio Amorim, and influential former ministers Miguel Ángel Moratinos and Javier Solana. Some names include former prime ministers such as Italy's Mario Monti, and Norway's Gro Harlem Brundtland. Other former senior U.N. officials were also proposed, including Italian Staffan de Mistura, who served in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan; Dutchwoman Sigrid Kaag, who now heads the mission to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons; and Briton Michael Williams, who served in Lebanon and at the Secretariat. There are other names, but they are best not mentioned now because the Secretariat is keen to protect them from the media.

Geneva process is over

More importantly is the mandate of the new envoy. Clearly, the Geneva process is over, especially since Lakhdar Brahimi himself had described it as "superficial." Geneva was based on the assumption that Russia consented to a transitional authority to replace Bashar al-Assad's regime -- and this was indeed what Russia falsely suggested. But it turned out later that Moscow was being deceptive, while Tehran was honest from the outset when it rejected the Geneva process, as its policy was based on holding on to Assad under any circumstance and not compromise on this position by accepting a transitional authority with full powers.

The new approach should not be based on "superficial" or naïve understandings that assume Assad would agree to relinquish power or share it with the opposition. The new approach must not assume that Assad is now a "fait accompli" and must be acknowledged permanently as such either. To be sure, Assad will not be able to unify the Syrian people. Assad will never again be able to guarantee stability in Syria. The United Nations must think about this carefully, before setting out the mandate of the new envoy.

The new approach must take into account the fact that the military balance of power is in the process of being altered, and that there is a need now for a national political process in Syria (like the one that will take place in Iraq soon). The Geneva process was a "Syrian dialogue" between the regime and the opposition. It failed because the regime was not willing to give up its privileges and power and share them with the opposition. The new approach must adopt the principle of national dialogue among various poles and segments in Syria -- both political and military -- to reach a qualitatively new political process.

Such an approach, if it is launched with international resolve, can begin a new regional dialogue that can force major actors to engage in the process. Iran will most definitely resist such an approach, and so will Russia. The axis that brings them together is the axis of Vladimir Putin and Qassem Soleimani, and both now see this axis as extending to Iraq to include Nouri al-Maliki, just as it had extended to Syria and Bashar al-Assad. This axis will resist any new approach. It will pay lip service to it, but its policies are clear in not compromising on Assad no matter what.

Therefore, practically and logically, the new political approach requires necessarily a change in the military balance of power on the field. This is what is happening now. The temporary victories are illusory. This is what the United Nations should realize as it formulates its strategic choices toward sponsoring a serious national dialogue that would include tribes, business leaders, and minorities, and a regional dialogue that would require Iran to place its current course of action in Syria and Iran on the table and not hide it under the table.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on July 4, 2014 and was 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 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 U.N.CTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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