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Conflicting priorities for anti-ISIS coalition members

The priorities and agendas of the countries participating in the coalition – whether strongly, loosely, or with preconditions – are different

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will not compromise on the conditions he set out to President Barack Obama for entering as a direct party in the war on ISIS.

He is not convinced about the U.S. mercurial policy behind this war, especially after the Obama administration dodged the request to establish a no-fly zone in Syria.

Erdogan wants to get Obama to show where he really stands on Assad. He is convinced that enlisting in an open-ended war for years under the banner of the fight against ISIS’s blitzing terrorism would place Turkey in the vanguard, for which it would pay the highest price among the coalition members.

Erdogan wants a clear blueprint for the goals of this war and an execution strategy. He knows his country is the main gateway for NATO into Syria, and understands full well the meaning and value of this. He recalls how President Obama dithered and backtracked on his pledge that Assad’s days were numbered, and will no longer accept mere promises but wants concrete guarantees, including removing the regime in Damascus.

He wants other guarantees as well, such as preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state stretching from Iraq and Syria, to Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish minorities in all these countries have suffered for too long, and the events in Iraq and Syria have revived among their leaders the idea of realizing the dream of an independent state.

Special relationship with Qatar

Erdogan also wants, perhaps more than anything else, a regional role beyond the Turkish border in the east, a role that would turn Turkey into a major regional power with blessings from the United States and Europe. He has great ambitions. His bargaining chips are valuable. His tactics are controversial. His strategy is complex, and part of it is based on sponsoring the Muslim Brotherhood, the cornerstone of his regional comeback, and another part is based on appeasing Iran, despite the disagreement with it over Syria, all while Erdogan has his mind on Egypt and the Gulf countries.

The priorities and agendas of the countries participating in the coalition – whether strongly, loosely, or with preconditions – are different and some are conflicting

Raghida Dergham

I reckon the Turkish president believes that as long as he maintains a special relationship with Qatar, which he believes shares his support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Gulf countries would remain permanently split. This relieves Erdogan, because Saudi Arabia and the UAE are determined to head off the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the Arab region.

This week, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud met with the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to discuss developments in the region and their alliance against ISIS, their agreement on the need to remove the regime in Syria, their concern over Iran’s role in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and their differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, not to mention the convergence between Turkish and Qatar over the policy on Egypt.

At a session organized by a think-tank in New York earlier this month, Emir Tamim bin Hamad tackled several accusations that have been made against Qatar. The session was closed and off the record, but Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah later gave his permission to publish everything the emir had said at his request.

Emir Tamim said that the policy of providing shelter for the Muslim Brotherhood, adopted by Qatar in the past, was now “over.” However, the emir said that Qatar’s policy based on “open doors” and “mediating” between players in the region, regardless of who they are, had no bounds, because Qatar wants mediation to be the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

He said relations between Qatar and Iran had good ties but that there were matters Qatar objects to in Iranian policy, including “interfering in Arab countries,” “occupying Arab territories,” and “the negative role it [Iran] plays in Syria.” Commenting on Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, who is said to be a moderate that champions a new policy in Iran, Emir Tamim said, “Truthfully, we see no change. But we know that he desires change.”

Concerning Qatar’s role in the coalition, Emir Tamim said, “Let’s say there is a role, but it is not a large one.” He added that the coalition was possible without Qatar, and said, “Our participation in it was definitely a difficult choice,” because there was no answer to the “fundamental question of: what next?”

What is common to Qatari, Turkish, Saudi, and Emirati attitudes is that they all consider removing Bashar al-Assad, and possibly also his regime, a cornerstone of their policies on Syria. Where they diverge is the “day after.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not want the Muslim Brotherhood and their offshoots to return to power in an Arab country, whether through the Turkish gateway or through Qatari mediation. Their differences with Turkey and Qatar on Egypt are not transient, and are not over yet, as long as there has been no radical change in Turkish and Qatari policies vis-à-vis Egypt. This is a strategic issue for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

For his part, the Turkish president seems determined to seek the assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood to implement his strategy, fulfill his ambitions, and enhance his regional influence, from the Syrian, Iraq, Lebanese, and Jordanian gateways. This would allow him to become a regional force that can fill the vacuum and replace Egypt and Iran, making Recep Tayyip Erdogan the master of the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf countries are thus apprehensive about the next steps of the Turkish president, as he bargains over his role and place in the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. The Gulf countries are not comfortable.

These countries are staunchly opposed to an equation where Assad and his regime would be removed in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. They would instead prefer deposing Assad but maintaining a part of his regime in a new political process that would involve the moderate – rather than the Islamist – opposition.

What the Gulf countries participating in the coalition have to contend with is the weak commitment made by Obama to overthrow Assad, on the one hand, and Erdogan’s strong commitment to pushing the Muslim Brotherhood forward to seize power in Syria and replace the Assad regime.

The priorities and agendas of the countries participating in the coalition – whether strongly, loosely, or with preconditions – are different and some are conflicting. Even militarily, the coalition is in disarray. The meeting, which brought together the senior military leaders of the countries participating in the coalition (Turkey was represented at a level lower below the rank of Chief of Staff), and which was held this week in Washington, seemed more unfocused than cohesive.

‘What do we get in return?’

Neither the goals are agreed upon, nor are military plans ready for preemptive strikes, especially with Turkey’s insistence on clear goals and prior military and political commitments, with guarantees. There is no preparedness on the part of the United States to impose a no-fly zone in Syria along the Turkish border, and no Turkish willingness to help militarily in Obama’s war on ISIS without this. There is no ground forces trained to do what is necessary to offset the practical limitations of air strikes on their own. Neither the Americans nor the Europeans, nor the Arabs in the coalition are willing to send troops on their own, and require a regional and international alliance before doing so. Even in air strikes, there are differences over roles.

Regarding the return, the reward, or the bargain, this is the language spoken by the Turkish president alone, and publicly, with the U.S. president, telling him what effectively boils down to that his participation in the war would not be for free.

The Arab parties in the coalition are not asking for something in return publicly, but they are telling the U.S. leadership gently and behind the scenes that the public opinion in their countries, as well as in Syria and Iraq, is very restless over their participation as partners in Obama’s war, which has no political horizon or roadmap, whether in Syria or Iraq. They are also telling the U.S. leadership that there is rising discontent over the U.S. insistence on avoiding tackling the subversive Iranian role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and on covering up the Iranian gains from the war on ISIS, while Iran’s allies Ansar Allah (the Houthis) in Yemen seize province after province after they took the capital.

Most probably, the U.S. President Obama will not listen well to what is being said because he doesn’t have to. He is drowning in his priorities, from how to destroy a terrorist group that is metastasizing across the borders like ISIS with scattered air strikes, to how to deal with a necessary partner in this war that is demanding him publicly for something in return.

Erdogan is not backing down or apologizing for his obstinacy and for sticking staunchly to his guns. His price is high, but the cards in his hands are precious and not available to others. His worst enemy is his arrogance that is pushing him to overplay his hands. He does not care for appearing entirely devoid of human emotion, as he struck the Kurds and refused to rescue them from ISIS in Kobane. In his opinion, Syrian Kurds had made a grave mistake by associating themselves to the regime that has bombed its people with barrel bombs. Erdogan sees himself from the perspective of a strategic man who stands on the shore of a sea where the waves are drowning others, while he is afloat, and triumphant.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on October 17, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

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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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