The fragility of breakthroughs in the many crises afflicting the Arab region does not necessarily mean the breakthroughs are transient. Rather, this fragility must invite more local, regional, and international resolve so that the available opportunities become plausible and serious policies and solutions.
Some of what is happening in the Libyan, Yemeni, and Syrian issues, especially in terms of internationally brokered diplomatic efforts, is hopeful, promising and deserves serious investments rather than disregard. In truth, the main responsibility now rests with the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
For one thing, the two men have portrayed themselves as a “rescue team” who are trying to secure deals and perhaps even the so-called Grand Bargain. However, this does not absolve others of responsibility and accountability, especially given the dismal conditions in the three Arab countries in question in addition to Lebanon and Iraq.
Specifically, this means Arab, Iranian, Turkish, and European leaders, bearing in mind the varying degrees of their culpabilities in the region’s disasters. True, both US President Obama and Russian President Putin are behind the decisions being implemented by the Kerry-Lavrov duo, but history will remember them equally as witnesses to the destruction of Syria, and the displacement and dispossession of its people – and children.
The four men will equally be remembered as enablers of an Iranian policy that has helped disrupt an Arab country’s march toward a normal, healthy life. But these men can still reshape their historic legacy if they show seriousness and honesty in pushing for breakthroughs, rather than be remembered for mere ploys. While Libya is not the product of American or Russian policies as much as of European policies, the US-Russian support for accords on Libya remains crucial.
Likewise in Yemen; while not the making of US-Russian policies, their role in transforming the country from the site of a devastating war to a site for regional accord is imperative for both Yemen and regional relations. Naturally, Syria remains at the top of the issues where Kerry and Lavrov’s legacies could be cemented if they don’t want their names to be linked to bloodbaths.
Thus, the two men have an exceptional opportunity that will not last long, to bring about a radical change in their diplomatic record in the Middle East. Perhaps history could then efface their hallmarks in the region’s tragedies, and remember instead how they adjusted course and worked hard to carve out solutions, away from considerations of ego and narcissism.
Certainly, these two veterans are acting in accordance with the national interests of their two countries, and this is their job as foreign ministers. However, their diplomatic roles and their implications for the Middle East in particular have been marked by their characters and personal relations. For this reason, the focus on this important duo in the history of the Middle East is not arbitrary or random.
Their loyalty to their respective presidents is clear. John Kerry appeared shocked when he led the choir promising severe consequences against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for crossing that infamous “red line” of President Obama. But Kerry then rushed to back off, while many expected him to resign having gone too far in voicing warnings only to backtrack so quickly.
John Kerry was sincere in his pursuit of a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, making visits after visits in the hope of securing some achievement. However, political reality forced him to admit to the failure of his efforts, and to set aside that issue, focusing instead on the Iranian and Syrian issues with his friend Lavrov. They set off together away from the red line and towards the golden formula that satisfied them and Israel: dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, in return for the US not conducting strikes that would topple the Assad regime.
Sergei Lavrov faithfully carried out the Kremlin’s policy, which set its sights on Syria as the stepping stone toward restoring Russia’s regional and global influence, and at the same time, towards reviving Russian nationalism to mobilize popular support for Russia’s revanchism. Lavrov replaced his signature smile he had as ambassador to UN with a frown and a loud voice, delivering the firmness and inflexible policy of Russia in the new era.
His mind, memory, and heart were preoccupied by Ukraine and the anger over NATO-led sanctions against Russia; Libya and NATO’s “trickery” against Russia in the UN Security Council; and concerns over the Western support for the Islamists’ rise to power, especially in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring that was a source of a lot of consternation for Moscow. This to the Kremlin was a toxic combination, but Lavrov found an antidote through his close relationship with his American counterpart as he sought to build mutual trust.
The experience and acumen of the two men have allowed them to try to make history, by turning the page on US animus with Iran and concluding a deal on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. Russia was the main gateway for the American passage to Iran, and on this issue in particular, Lavrov secured for Kerry what Obama had set out to achieve, namely, the normalization of American-Iranian relations.
The two men realized from the beginning that absolute focus on the nuclear issue and refusing to discuss Iran’s regional ambitions meant giving consent to Iran to continue meddling in the Arab countries. The difference is that Lavrov consented to this wilfully seeing as that was the Kremlin’s policy and given Russia’s alliance with Iran in Syria, while Kerry was implementing the White House’s policy of deliberate denial and appeasement.
Russia was the main gateway for the American passage to Iran, and on this issue in particular, Lavrov secured for Kerry what Obama had set out to achieve, namely, the normalization of American-Iranian relationsRaghida Dergham
The result was the same: the US-Russian blessing of Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon through Hezbollah, Yemen through the Houthis, and Syria through Iran’s intervention in the war. A few weeks and months ago, signs emerged of preparations in Yemen and Syria, that could be the result of Russian decisions quintessentially and policies that the Russian and American top diplomats may have helped forge.
In Yemen, where Russian-Saudi and American-Saudi relations have dimensions that go beyond the bilateral, it seems that Moscow and Washington are seriously pushing for radical solutions. The UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed is preparing for a key round of negotiations between the Yemeni parties in Kuwait on April 18.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis is taking a promising path, if pledges made are implemented. If progress is made on the five key axes of the talks in Kuwait, Yemen could soon be on its way to peace.
This requires naturally not only a US-Russian decision, but also for Saudi Arabia, which leads the Arab coalition, to implement concrete measures that would show to the Yemenis a serious desire to aid and rebuild their country, now and not later. Confidence measures should start immediately and Yemen is also a key stop for confidence building measures in the region.
The hope for a breakthrough in Syria could be expanded, if Russian diplomacy proves that it is not manoeuvring but is intent to broker a serious political solution that goes beyond stopping the bleeding. The political solution is being led by Russia at the decision of the United States. Yet this does not mean full American surrender to Moscow’s designs in Syria, if the future of Bashar al-Assad is what will decide the future of Syria.
Syria and Libya
Breakthroughs have occurred on many fronts, and military operations have decreased. Some besieged areas received relief and aid, and the future of Assad is being discussed in isolation from the consensus regarding the continuation of the regime. UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura, with US-Russian help, has been able to rescue the political process from collapse. He is determined to continue his mission beyond ceasefires, in order to reach political solutions and settlements. His determination, however, remains contingent upon Russian and American decisions and serious help from Kerry and Lavrov.
Libya is a candidate for a breakthrough too, despite its fragility. The European Union welcomed what it said was the only opportunity for unification and reconciliation, after head of the UN-backed reconciliation government Fayez Sarraj arrived in Tripoli. Sarraj arrived with a number of Libyan presidential council members through the main naval base in the capital. This is an important development that could prove crucial to Libya’s democratic transition and march toward peace, security, and stability, according to UN envoy Martin Kobler.
European foreign ministers welcomed the development and praised the courage of Sarraj and his companions. However, this is not enough. The European responsibility for what happened in Libya compels European leaders to be more serious and coherent in their approach to Libya. The Russian consent to NATO measures in Libya is a very important development, bearing in mind that Libya was the epitome of Western “treachery” in Moscow’s thinking.
Therefore, and given that the US does not hold the same level of responsibility for the Libyan tragedy as European powers, any investment by Kerry and Lavrov in pushing Libya towards recovery would be crucial to rallying Europeans behind a prudent salvation policy in Libya.
There is no reason to trust that the fragile breakthroughs will lead to a quantum leap and a grand bargain that would take the Middle East out of its crucible. However, it is not wise to pour cold water on these breakthroughs because of the lack of confidence in American designs and Russian plans for the region.
Perhaps it is naïve to build expectations on two men who have become partners in shaping the fate of the Middle East. But perhaps it is politically realistic for these two men to think about how history will remember them, and be therefore motivated to adjust course and forge a different legacy, away from enabling bloodletting.
This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Apr. 01, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
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.