A shift in the attitudes of the major powers and powerful regional actors is inevitable after the Islamic State group (ISIS) showed the whole world that the scope of its international activities has expanded well beyond Iraq, Syria, and the Arab countries. ISIS targeted Russian citizens and interests, downing a Russian passenger jet over Sinai. ISIS then terrorized Paris, with a crime that appeared to be jointly planned and executed between Belgium and Syria. ISIS threatened to stage attacks in New York and Washington next, and it is possibly in the process of staging attacks in other European, Asian, or Gulf capitals.
U.S. President Barack Obama has clung on to his strategy in Syria, stressing that there would be no U.S. troops deployed to fight ISIS. However, he provided intelligence to France to conduct intensive air raids on ISIS in Syria, in retaliation for the Paris attacks, which may have also targeted French President Francois Hollande present at the time in the stadium that was attacked.
The French president was determined to tell his U.S. and Russian counterparts that the attacks were a declaration of war on France, therefore requiring coordination with both NATO and Russia to stage an effective political and military response, also in cooperation with Middle Eastern nations.
There is an international shift precipitated by ISIS’s arrogance, as it boasts of its ability to infiltrate various countriesRaghida Dergham
ISIS and its affiliates have expanded the scope of their plans, in a way that suggests its ambitions and ideology do not stop at establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but has global plans as well. This destructive arrogance is likely to engender new counter-strategies and a serious global war on the terror industry. The proliferation of terrorism to the European heartland, with such intensity and infiltration, could also accelerate urgent military and political efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis, especially with regard to the regional powers.
Yet the new strategies will not be limited to Syria and its Turkish, Kurdish, Saudi, and Iranian dimensions. To be sure, Egypt too is at the forefront of these events, along with Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Last week, Turkey hosted the G20 summit. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed reassured by the clear enhancement of the crucial relationship between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar during the Vienna talks on Syria’s future, the latest round of which were held a few days before the G20 summit in Antalya.
Turkey may ultimately get an international green light to establish safe zones in northern Syria, as this could help stem the flow of refugees to Europe. But there is a big difference between safe zones and no-fly zones. The latter requires military deployment by the countries imposing it, while the former has fewer requirements.
Ankara could also gain the departure of Bashar al-Assad, as this issue has practically become a subject of consensus, Assad being both a catalyst and a magnet for terrorism. As the international community is resolved to defeat terrorism as a priority, the United States, France, and even Russia will not accept for Assad to be the stick in the wheel.
Turkey’s lost bet
However, Turkey seems to have lost its bet on its ability to turn the United States against the Kurds. Washington is determined to continue and step up its direct support of the Kurds, including in Syria, as they have fought fiercely against ISIS and are indispensable. In addition, there are some in U.S. circles who are encouraging the U.S. administration to foster financial ties with Kurds by purchasing Kurdish Iraqi oil directly not through the Iraqi central government.
What course of action will Ankara pursue vis-à-vis U.S.-Kurdish relations? Some in Washington believe the U.S. administration can give Turkey guarantees that its support of the Kurds will not reach the point of blessing the establishment of a Kurdish state between Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Some believe Turkey cannot continue to be both part of the problem and part of the solution in the context of the growth of terrorist groups in Syria, and hence will be forced to make concessions.
Turkey will continue to have influence over the Syrian opposition. However, this influence is weakening in tandem with the growing overt Saudi role in bringing together the Syrian opposition, in coordination with both Turkey and Russia. The Syrian opposition, which was absent from the Vienna meetings, won from the negotiations a timetable and a place in an international political process with a ceasefire as its starting point. The Syrian opposition won a direct Saudi engagement, along with a Saudi-Turkish-Qatari insistence on Assad’s departure and an implicit Russian agreement to eventually abandon Assad.
Russian-Saudi relations are developing steadily. Moscow hopes to launch a political process to resolve the Syrian crisis early next year. The 18-month time table proposed by Russia for change in Syria could be affected by the military timetable imposed by this week’s developments, but sources say it should not span more than 4 months because of intense international mobilization and because Russia wants a strategy to exit Syria within this period.
The Russian-Iranian relationship, according to other sources, is tense, because some in Moscow believe Iran has implicated Russia in Syria. Qassem Soleimani, the key figure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, is said to have persuaded the Russians during a visit to Moscow a few months ago that the regime in Syria was on the verge of collapse. Therefore, Russian intervention was needed to restore balance and secure interests, Soleimani is said to have argued, and told the Russian leadership that Iran-backed forces such as Hezbollah would be able to turn the tide on the ground with Russian air cover. However, the sources continued, Russia has found itself bombarding from the sky while the promises on the ground fizzled out because of Iran’s limited capability. Now, Russia is determined to extricate itself from the military quagmire in Syria, which would leave Iran alone implicated with its soldiers and proxies.
Iran appears reassured. It is touting an alliance with Russia and Western powers to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It sits at the table of drafting Syria’s future in Syria. And it gears up for having the sanctions on it lifted pursuant to the nuclear deal. However, Tehran is implicitly upset because it has no seat the G20 table, while its rival Saudi Arabia has a key place in the summit, which undermines Iran’s position. Iran is isolated in its insistence on Bashar al-Assad in Vienna, against consensus over isolating Assad. And even if Iran is playing the Assad card for its domestic audience, it must realize that it will remain excluded from making decisions on Syria’s future as long as it clings to Assad.
Tehran must also be aware that the Vienna process places it under the microscope on at least two levels: First, by defining who are the terrorists, foreign fighters, and oppositionists in Syria. Indeed, demanding non-Syrian forces to withdraw will affect Iran and its proxies, and Tehran will not be able to demand that its militias or advisers remain in Syria. Second, Tehran is aware that it is violating Security Council resolutions 1737 and 1747 that prohibit Iran from deploying forces and arms directly or indirectly outside its borders. Iran must know that if the United States or Britain choose to expose these violations, this could delay the lifting of the sanctions. Washington and London are currently turning a blind eye along with Russia, China, France, and Germany, to preserve the nuclear agreement.
However, any state in or outside the U.N. Security Council can raise Iran’s violation of the resolution adopted by the council under Chapter Vii with the Sanctions Panel. If the countries opposed to Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in power develop a cohesive strategy, they can seriously challenge Iran’s violations at the U.N. At least, Washington has the ability to threaten Tehran with obstructing the lifting of the sanctions if it wishes, and this is the course of action it should pursue to influence Iran’s obstructionist attitudes.
The Security Council will handle important tasks to accompany the Vienna process. It will be responsible for issuing a resolution on a ceasefire and establishing international monitoring thereof. It will also be in charge of authorizing military action in Syria, possibly under Article 51 of the Charter which gives states the right to act unilaterally in self-defense. The council is also supporting the mission of U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is tasked by the Vienna process to prepare political committees and oversee the drafting of the constitution and the elections.
The United Nations has a candidate for the post of prime minister, who will have expanded executive powers during the transitional period, while the presidency is set to become a ceremonial post. Its candidate will be someone well suited to undertake the crucial burdens of that phase, and one who is acceptable to the major powers and regional states as well as senior figures in the Syrian regime. There are two other candidates being discussed, one who is based outside of Syria, but it is not clear how acceptable they will be. There is also a list of names of who is acceptable and who is vetoed by the senior figures in the regime. But overall, the political process seems to be in an advanced stage.
An absent party
The party that remains absent from the process is Egypt. According to sources, Cairo has attempted to exploit contradictions at a time when no one can afford this, which is why relations with Saudi are currently tense. Cairo’s discomfort stems from Turkish-Saudi-Qatari solidarity, which Egypt believes runs contrary to its interests in fighting the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Riyadh is upset by Cairo’s attitudes on Syria.
Nevertheless, all sides including Washington realize that it is crucial to restore Egypt’s role as a strategic ally, whether in the war on ISIS inside Egypt or on ISIS in neighboring Libya. However, to achieve this, President Sisi must rectify his regional policy mistakes and scale back some of his domestic measures.
Libya, meanwhile, is an international mistake that must be repaired as part of the strategy on fighting terror, before it fall completely hostage to growing terrorist groups there.
In turn, Yemen is an ideal candidate for attracting al-Qaeda and similar groups. It is therefore extremely important to create a favorable climate for the Saudi-led Arab coalition to end its military operations there. This is both an international and a Saudi responsibility.
The time now is right to think of Yemen from the angle of crushing terrorism before it becomes a fertile ground for its resurgence. This requires helping the Arab alliance exit Yemen, to refocus resources on fighting ISIS instead of being caught in a spiral of attrition.
There is an international shift precipitated by ISIS’s arrogance, as it boasts of its ability to infiltrate various countries. ISIS was never a local terrorist group, and was always a global organization that has cost Syria dearly. Perhaps ISIS now has overplayed its hand and has invited is own doom, even if after a while.
However, the concern here is that the international players would commit additional mistakes aside from the costly one they made, namely: That they decided to fight terror “there” so that they do not have to fight it in U.S., Russia, and European cities.
This was an unforgivable sin that destroyed Iraq and Syria, and is now backfiring against innocents.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Nov. 20, 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.
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