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Fighting terrorism with Arab forces

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

If intentions are honest and inaction gives way to action, this year could conclude with local, regional, and international agreements to stop the bloodletting in Yemen, Libya and Syria, through solutions sponsored by U.N. envoys, now a key component of conflict-ending strategies.

Successful diplomacy is about the art of the possible, but failure is always a risk if radical differences are kicked down the road, as part of a permanent strategy in the pursuit of solutions rather than a tactic. Indeed, what this would do is perpetuate one de facto reality after another, at the expense of principles and serious solutions, thereby turning any peace process into something that slowly numbs the momentum that once existed behind it.

This is exactly what happened to the so-called Middle East peace process, which did not end the occupation, which almost precluded the internationally backed two-state solution, and removes all serious objections to illegal Israeli settlement-building.

What is happening in the Syrian Vienna process is reminiscent of the enthusiasm that accompanied the Palestinian-Israeli peace process upon its birth in Madrid, but the rest is history.

The Vienna process, which resumes in New York on Friday in a meeting bringing together foreign ministers of 19 nations, is a necessary investment in the political settlement.

It is crucial for Saudi Arabia and Iran to sit around the same table. The same goes for Turkey and Russia, despite their complex differences and recent escalations.

Meanwhile, postponing discussions about the fate of Bashar al-Assad to the end of the transitional political process could be necessary. However, Syria cannot afford the prolongation of its five-year humanitarian crisis, as the major powers vie to conduct strikes against ISIS without a plan to protect civilians under the group’s control, who are now treated as collateral damage in a strategy that avoids deploying ground troops against the terror organization.

Killing and displacing thousands to eliminate ISIS seems to be collateral damage with international consent, but this is a big mistake. To be sure, the ceasefires being prepared by the U.N. in Syria excludes areas controlled by ISIS, Nusra Front and their allies, who will be bombed by an international coalition from the air without a matching strategy to secure the areas in question on the ground.

Humanitarian safe zones

The Saudi-proposed Islamic anti-terror alliance could be very important if it ends up establishing a joint ground force, which would then operate on the ground in tandem with international airstrikes. Since the refugee crisis is bound to worsen as a result of the intensifying war on ISIS, it is time for serious efforts to establish humanitarian safe zones, instead of also kicking this issue down the road.

What matters is that Arab and Islamic countries should be serious and should have a clear strategy, which is yet to appear.

Raghida Dergham

Yet both of these tacks require, in turn, the tackling of the problem of Iran-backed militias in Syria. The U.S., Britain, France, and Germany must engage in serious dialogue with Iran on the Syrian issue, instead of postponing this while legitimizing Iranian violations to preserve the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Earlier this week, the U.N. Security Council held discussions regarding resolution 1737, which prohibits Iran from deploying military forces, advisers, armaments, or militias outside its borders. Both the U.S. and Britain confirmed the resolution, which was adopted under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, had been violated. However, they were content with verbal criticisms and pretexted Russian and Chinese protection for Iran from accountability.

Even when Iran conducted a missile test violating a ban on its ballistic missile program, Washington was keen to contain the issue to prevent the Republicans from raising it in Congress. The test, despite even violating the nuclear deal itself, was thus ignored.

The same happened when it was proven that Iran had engaged in efforts to build nuclear weapons, in contradiction of its own claims, Washington ignored the otherwise major issue.

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani was right on the mark when he said the closure of the Iranian nuclear history was a huge “political victory” for Iran.

By contrast, Iraq had paid a high price because what the U.S. and the international community demanded of it was the opposite of what it demanded – or gave on a platter of gold – to Iran. Indeed, Iraq was asked to prove it had destroyed its biological weapons. Iraq’s WMD stockpiles were then removed by U.N. teams and later in U.S. military operations. This is not to mention falsely claiming Iraq still had WMDs as a pretext for the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Star of the debate

In the latest debate between Republican presidential candidates, they all insisted on blaming U.S. President Barack Obama for exempting Iran from accountability, and rushing to conclude a nuclear deal with Tehran. However, they all collectively ignored the role of former President Bush in attracting terrorism to Iraq and disbanding the Iraqi army, which radically contributed to the emergence of ISIS.

Remarkably, ISIS was the star of the debate, which portrayed the group as a terrible enemy posing a huge threat to U.S. national security. The candidates spoke about changing regimes in the Arab region beginning with the Arab Spring, rather than Bush’s war to overthrow Saddam Hussein as they should have.

They differed over whether the train of regime change – after passing through Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen – should stop with Bashar al-Assad in Syria. As some argued, Assad is needed to defeat ISIS, while others argued that it was his departure that is crucial for defeating the ultra-radical group.

Some candidates tackled the U.S. role in fomenting Sunni-Shiite strife. Some urged a partnership with Tehran, Assad, and Moscow, as others objected, saying this would undermine the more crucial partnership with Sunnis against Islamic extremism and radicalism, Sunni and Shiite.

In truth, this discussion is unusual, because the American people in general do not want to listen to it and do not want to learn about U.S. involvement in creating radicalism. In this regard, the debate was useful because it raised issues like Shiite radicalism, sponsored by Iran, and Sunni radicalism, which the Arab countries and Turkey are required to fight in earnest through both measures in their countries and military forces.

The Saudi initiative for a 35-nation Arab-Islamic coalition could be taken to the Vienna process meeting in New York. The focus there will be on the details of forming a ground force that would practically be the boots on the ground for international airstrikes. However, there are very significant complications, and it is not clear how Russia will deal with this development, especially if Turkey is not part of it.

The Saudi initiative is valuable because it proposed Arab intervention in Syria instead of leaving the arena open to Turkey and Iran. It is useful because it comes at a time when there are many criticisms being voiced against Arab and Sunni absence from the fight against Sunni extremism.

What matters is that Arab and Islamic countries should be serious and should have a clear strategy, which is yet to appear.

The Saudi efforts to determine which Syrian opposition factions will be present at the Vienna table in New York. So will be Jordan’s efforts to define which factions are terrorist groups in Syria. These two elements were agreed during the second round of the Vienna process, and are subject to further deliberation in New York, especially that Russia has reservations on the meeting in Riyadh regarding the definition of Syrian opposition.

However, Russia needs to compromise because it is desperate for an exit strategy from its costly military adventure in Syria. Yet President Vladimir Putin will not concede easily, because he is adamant about achieving a victory. For one thing, Putin had found U.S. complacency regarding his airstrikes against the Syrian opposition rather than ISIS, meant to bolster the Assad regime.

Putin is also determined to prevent Turkey from scoring points at his expense. However, at the same time, he needs an exit strategy from the Syrian quagmire. Thus, Putin may find the Saudi and Jordanian efforts to be his ticket out, albeit with some provisos.

The Obama administration in turn stands to gain from Russian intervention, which spares it the need to be implicated in Syria. For this reason, the U.S. does not mind showing complacency regarding the fate of Assad in the transition in Syria and regarding Iranian involvement in Syria. The Obama administration essentially wants two things: Not to become entangled in Syria and preserving the nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, believes Russia’s role is conducive to this, which is why it turns a blind eye to violations.

However, the presidential elections could force the Obama administration to show some adaptability and flexibility. If so, this would be an opportunity for the Arab countries to develop a clear strategy for what they want in Syria and for what they are willing to offer to end the Syrian tragedy.

Meanwhile, the U.N. process led by envoy Staffan de Mistura must be wary of the postponement of key principles that it must otherwise safeguard, such as the protection of civilians, and not be drawn into ostensibly higher priorities such as the war on ISIS.

The U.N. must not turn its back on principles like accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, regardless of whether they are perpetrated by governments or terrorist groups. It must object to the legitimization of violations against international resolutions, including those issued under Chapter VII of the Charter, under the pretext of the priority of crushing ISIS. The U.N. must become involved in the deferral of major issues, and claim this is the art of diplomacy.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 18, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.

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Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

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