Divergent views on the Middle East at the U.N. General Assembly

Moscow has made it clear that it wants to rehabilitate Assad, but the answer from Washington been that it will not be involved in this plan

Raghida Dergham
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The 70th anniversary of the United Nations will not end with a serious resolution of the crises of the Middle East, which will dominate bilateral and multilateral talks between leaders, led by the crises of Syria and Yemen. Attitudes are diverging increasingly between local, regional, and international players, and hopes for breakthroughs in Gulf-Iranian or U.S.-Russian meetings – and European initiatives – are fading.

Understandings may be reached regarding the issues of terrorism and migration caused by the Syrian crisis, for example. However, the differences regarding the nature and conditions of a political solution will continue to hit the Assad Obstacle, in light of the Russian insistence on the Syrian president as a key component of the fight against ISIS and of any political solution in Syria. All this means that the next stage will be more complicated in the Arab region, not only in Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, but possibly elsewhere in their vicinity too.

Russia has made a strategic decision and has adopted a roadmap and mechanisms for implementing it. Some European powers, such as France and Britain, are starting to feel infuriated by the Russian military build-up in Syria, but they do not have plans or strategies except to continue to reject the rehabilitation of Assad on a full and permanent basis, while accepting his provisional rehabilitation without a specific timeframe for his departure for now.

Moscow has made it clear that it wants to rehabilitate Assad, but the answer from Washington been that it will not be involved in this plan

Raghida Dergham

The United States is taking half steps, and is deliberately circumventing anything that could negatively affect its priorities in engaging with Iran. This is tying its hands in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, where Iranian roles are increasingly rigid and where the Russian-Iranian alliance is leaving an adverse mark on all issues.

Western members of the Security Council – the United States, Britain, and France – are unhappy with Russia, which has embarrassed them by escalating its military role in Syria, both covertly and overly, while seeking to rehabilitate Bashar al-Assad through the Security Council.

In the beginning, the reactions were lukewarm. But Russia’s insistence on its military and political plans has forced the Western powers to step up the level of their objections and come up with counter proposals, especially that many of these countries are directly affected by the Syrian crisis and the migrant crisis it has engendered.

Currently, European diplomats at the Security Council are saying that Russia, through its military intervention in Syria, has closed down the door on diplomacy and political solutions in Syria.

A promising diplomatic window had been opened following the meetings between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Doha and ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), together with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir went to Moscow afterwards, followed by a high-level visit by senior Emirati and Saudi officials, in conjunction with a visit by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, to Moscow.

Those movements came in the wake of the nuclear deal between Iran and the five major powers plus Germany. Everyone was optimistic about a positive détente between the Gulf countries and Russia, in conjunction with the Gulf welcoming of the nuclear deal. There was also hope regarding a breakthrough in Gulf-Iranian and Saudi-Iranian relations. But all this optimism disappeared after the overt Russian military escalation and covert Iranian escalation in Syria. So what happened?

Some believe the imminent collapse of the regime in Syria forced Russia to intervene to avert total defeat. Others believe that Moscow has decided to strengthen Assad to become a strong card in its hands during negotiations.

Some also believe that Russia has escalated militarily to ensure the survival of the regime in Damascus, and politically by clinging to Assad, in preparation to drop him at the right time, when it would be ready to trade Assad’s departure for the survival of the regime.

Assad’s fate at the forefront

Regardless of what the Russian diplomacy has in mind, it is clear now that the issue of Assad’s fate has returned to the forefront. European diplomacy – especially French and British diplomacy – is focusing on the timing of “when” Assad will step down, as they see him as part of the problem, and reject the Russian logic that states he is part of the solution.

European and American diplomacies agree with the Russian view that Bashar al-Assad may be a temporary necessity to defeat ISIS and its ilk, but they insist on refusing to consider him a key part of the strategy to defeat ISIS because Assad, in their view, is one of the main causes of the existence of ISIS.
The European diplomacy is reiterating that Assad has lost legitimacy, that Russian support for Assad contradicts with the Geneva Communique, and that there is a need for a new “creative” approach that would include regional players – the Gulf and Iran.

The European diplomacy says that the Russians have obstructed diplomatic progress, and work is ongoing to restore the diplomatic track. There are debates taking place in major capitals, including Washington and London, regarding a new approach to the transitional process in Syria, which would begin with Assad and end without him.

This week, French President Francois Hollande called on all those who can contribute to a political solution in Syria to sit at a round table in a new conference to reactivate the peace process, which started in Geneva (1 and 2).

Iranian absence

Meanwhile, Turkey has decided to propose to the European Union summit a request for a “safe zone” in northern Syria to remedy the migrant crisis. Europe, already panicked by the major influx of refugees to its borders, is ready to look into this idea. The Bulgarian Foreign Minister said the idea is being studied with the Turkish president, to aid and allow people to remain close to their home country.

Politically, there are discussions in various capitals regarding transition in Syria that would preserve the structure of the regime but not Assad. There are proposals regarding the numbers and names of regime pillars who would be kept in place to guarantee the continuation of the regime.

The key actor absent from these discussions so far has been Iran. Tehran wants to be officially part of the talks over Syria’s future. Yet if it becomes involved in an official capacity, it will most likely cling on to the regime and its leader, because Tehran rejected from the outset the logic of the Geneva process, which called for establishing a transitional governing body with full executive powers, neutralizing Bashar al-Assad’s role.

For its part, Riyadh has made it clear to Moscow and other capitals that it objects to Assad remaining in power and to Iranian involvement in shaping the future of Syria, as long as Iran is involved in the civil war there.

With all these facts in mind, it is difficult to be optimistic regarding a shift in the Syrian issue, one that would take the country away from its current humanitarian disaster and status as an arena for a global war on terror – exactly as it was intended by the regime in Damascus and the powers that wanted to fight terror away from their cities in Russia, Europe, and the United States.

European proposals backed reluctantly by the United States do not amount to a comprehensive strategy that can counter the Russian proposals. Arab proposals are incoherent, and there are no signs of a breakthrough in the Saudi-Iranian relationship, bar a surprise.

So far, all reports about Saudi-Iranian meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly are in the realm of speculation. In truth, most sources say there is a lack of appetite for a Gulf-Iranian meeting, because there are no bases for an agreement at present, from Syria and Yemen, to Iraq and Lebanon.

This will not prevent casual-but-important meetings that usually take place at U.N. summits. Yet the long-awaited serious meeting seems improbable.

Terrorism and migration will dominate all discussions. President Obama will host a summit on terrorism. President Putin will emphasize fighting ISIS as his priority, but Russia could fail in its bid to get an official U.N. Security Council position backing its strategy, during the exceptional Security Council ministerial meeting it called for resolving the crises of the Middle East. Moscow has made it clear that it wants to rehabilitate Assad, but the answer from Washington been that it will not be involved in this plan.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 25, 2015 and 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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