The regional decision between Washington, Riyadh, and moderate Tehran

The axis that joins Russia, Iran, China, and Hezbollah has started considering the possibility of defeat

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) radical group will get some of what it wants when the leaders of major powers focus their efforts on forging partnerships and alliances to confront it.

The move against the group puts it on the global map, doubles its international exposure, and helps it recruit further people from among those who have gone astray from humanity. But what it won’t get is longevity, because it is a blitz organization, whose only worth is making people vigilant to the need to tackle it thanks to its bloodiness.

For example, the ISIS group is pushing its enemies to rethink their enmities and strategies. It is today the main driving force behind new policies being drafted for the Middle East. ISIS has caught the world by storm with its appalling violence, media skills, and its self-promotion methods by means of knives, swords, and the black and orange images of slaughter and severed heads.

However, ISIS is nothing mythical, supernatural, or even an inspiring entity, but is the opposite of all that. The only thing that ISIS inspires is the urgent need for Sunni and Shiite moderation, as this is the most important tool to destroy it.

We are not talking here just about the direct environment where ISIS is erasing borders and establishing its fleeting emirate. Moderate decision-making centers too, and perhaps primarily so, are involved, meaning the decision-making Muslim capitals led by Tehran and Riyadh, and also the capitals of major powers led by Washington. Efforts to secure their cooperation are already underway, but they are not yet fully mature.

The positive development in the past few weeks is that a new discourse of another kind has emerged with the change in Iraq. The faction that traditionally supports Tehran as the leader of Shiite decision-making has started distancing itself from the language of triumphalism, power, and threats, moving towards the language of recognition that there is no room for victory and no benefit from an open-ended war between Sunnis and Shiites.

The axis that joins Russia, Iran, China, and Hezbollah has started considering the possibility of defeat. Yet until recently, this axis was confident of its victory

Raghida Dergham

Meanwhile, the faction that supports Riyadh as the capital of Sunni decision is now speaking with the language of accord with moderate Iran - if moderation there represented by President Hassan Rowhani prevails - when until recently, this faction rejected anything that could lead to legitimizing the Iranian role in any Arab country.

Today, we hear calls from some Shiites from Lebanon, for example, for the need to reformulate the general strategy on the basis that there is no room for victory in this battle, and that the time has come for a new policy away from the one adopted by Hezbollah - internally and regionally. This is new and remarkable because those who speak in this language are not Shiites who were opposed to Hezbollah’s course of action from the beginning, but are supporters of Hezbollah essentially.

To be sure, those are not talking with the language of loss and defeat. Nor are there ready to pretend that harmony has suddenly descended on the Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon. Deep inside, they think that inside most Sunnis in Lebanon there is a dormant ISIS, and that deep inside most Shiites in Lebanon are Iranian-style “Revolutionary Guards” in one way or the other. But what they are saying today is that the time has come to eliminate the illusion of victory in a war where there can be no winners, and that this requires new convictions and policies.

Regardless of whether ISIS is the main driver behind this change, or whether it is the rise of the moderate camp in Iran, what matters is that there is a new awakening in the Middle East and the Islamic arena. What is new is the realization that there is a need to cleanse Islam from the brands of ISIS, al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, and their ilk.

Everybody’s problem

It might be said that these organizations are a Sunni problem. But the fact is that it is everybody’s problem, including the Shiites, because the impression is that Tehran was the one that started endorsing religious fundamentalism and imposed religion on the state through the mullah rule, and that the Iranian policy of extremism contributed fundamentally to provoking Sunni extremism, although it was not Tehran that manufactured it to begin with. Sunni extremism was manufactured by the American-Saudi-Pakistani partnership in Afghanistan aimed at bringing down the Soviet Union.

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is clear in adopting Sunni moderation and supporting the cleansing of Islam from terrorists. Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, who represents moderation in Tehran, won an important battle in Iraq and defeated the Revolutionary Guards and its leader Qassem Suleimani by removing former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from power.

Both are good portents for the Middle East. Each of the two has many pitched battles to fight. If they succeed in repelling extremism, individually, bilaterally, and collectively with the leaderships of international actors, then there would be reasons to hope for positive radical transformations in the region.

The first challenge is in Iraq, where there is no choice other than political and military measures together. But it will not be possible to defeat ISIS unless Tehran makes additional decisions that reverse the policy of excluding Sunnis from power, unless Riyadh takes measures to influence Sunnis in Iraq toward moderation and coexistence, and unless Washington carries out more strikes against ISIS positions.

In other words, and frankly speaking, what the Sunni uprising in Iraq and ISIS primarily achieved in Iraq was to abort the Shiite crescent project, which some forces in Tehran wanted and the pro-Israeli neocons in the United States supported in order to reinforce the historical appeasement between Persians and Jews, and teach the Sunnis a lesson in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on U.S. soil. The erasure of the border between Iraq and Syria practically foiled the Shiite crescent project, which was also called “Petrolstan.”

There is now a new reality that requires leaders in Tehran to return to the strategy-drawing table. In this there is more than one battle being fought by the Iranian president, stretching from Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon and Yemen.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is at the heart of this battle too. In Iraq, he made a decision that is in favor of Rohani’s faction. In Iraq, the camp led by Suleimani was defeated with radical contribution from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the main Shiite authority in Iraq. What’s the next step in Iraq?

The coming weeks will settle the question of whether what happened was a ploy or whether there is a real shift in Iranian policy with the battle within Iran going in favor of the moderates and at the expense of the hardliners.

Still in favor

In Yemen, the Iranian decision is still in favor of Suleimani. The arrival of the Houthis in Sana’a with support from Iran is proof that Tehran is still far from agreeing not to interfere in Arab countries and appease Riyadh. Yemen is thus a direct challenge for Saudi Arabia. In Yemen as well, the war on al-Qaeda and its offshoots continues with American participation via drones and covert operations.

If Washington decides to be firm with Tehran in the issue of international and regional partnership to fight ISIS- and al-Qaeda-like groups, Yemen will be key to test Tehran’s honesty and the truthfulness of the shifts within it toward moderation.

The other key arena is Syria. There, it is clear that President Rowhani has no bearing on the Syrian issue, which is within the jurisdictions of Suleimani following the decision of Ayatollah Khamenei.

Accordingly, and since the Obama administration is heading toward making new effective partnerships to tackle ISIS, there is no alternative to a candid dialogue with Tehran to let it know that the time had come to draft a different policy toward Syria and also Lebanon, bearing in mind that Hezbollah is fighting alongside the forces of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and that ISIS has now reached Lebanon.

ISIS arrived in Lebanon either in retaliation against Hezbollah, or was lured deliberately to Lebanon to expand the Syrian war and lift some of the burdens on Damascus. Whatever the case, if the Obama administration is serious in drafting a strategy to confront ISIS, it must factor in both possibilities together. The intersection of the two possibilities is Tehran, as Damascus’s ally and Hezbollah’s patron.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will travel to the region soon, for talks towards the development of a U.S. strategy based on partnership or alliance in the face of ISIS. One of the challenges Kerry and Hagel will face involves the relationship with Bashar al-Assad in the fight against ISIS. Damascus wants most of all to be part of the partnership, if not Washington’s top ally, but this will not happen.

It will not happen because Washington is convinced that Riyadh is fundamental in the desired partnership, and Riyadh would never accept a partnership with Damascus.

Forced to expand

Washington will be forced to expand its air strikes against ISIS to Syria ultimately, but it will not do so in a way that would help or strengthen the regime there. It will arm and assist the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and similar groups, but it will also need political accords with Tehran and Moscow - the main sponsors behind Assad’s survival in power.

Both Moscow and Tehran refused in absolute terms in the past to abandon Assad under any circumstances, but then they had not thought of something like ISIS. Now, the situation is different. They both need to join the international partnership against ISIS, and they both have to think in a different way than before.

The time has not come yet to talk about Geneva 3, or any transitional political process in Syria that would practically lead to removing the Assad obstacle. Such a decision is in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Khamenei. If the two men realize that they have no choice but to overcome the Assad obstacles just like the Nouri al-Maliki obstacle was resolved, then developments on the Syrian arena could take a new turn. And the two men might well do this.

Indeed, the axis that joins Russia, Iran, China, and Hezbollah has started considering the possibility of defeat. Yet until recently, this axis was confident of its victory. Today, this axis cannot clam victory since it is “in the eye” of defeat. For one thing, the strategy linked to the United States based on the concept of mutual exhaustion and turning Syria into a graveyard for the militants and a “Vietnam” for Iran and Russia seems real and effective. With ISIS and others, Syria has become both this graveyard and a Vietnam.

Until recently, U.S.-Saudi relations were at their worst. Today, things differ radically, as Washington returned to regional decision-making on the basis of the bilateral relationship with Riyadh and the moderates in Tehran.

Something new is coming to the Middle East that might not be a bad thing, if the leaders concerned make good decisions.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 5, 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 UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham

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