The next US presidential debate and ‘Plan B’ in Syria

Iraq, Syria and JASTA are likely to make their way in the next face-off between Clinton and Trump

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The upcoming second debate between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump could tackle more substantial issues compared to the first one – which served more to get familiar with Trump’s personality and was a test for Clinton’s. The battle of Mosul may impose itself on the debate too since Barack Obama has decided to increase the number of US troops in Iraq in preparation for the offensive.

This is a matter of consequence for most Americans, regardless of whether or not they understand its implications. Syria will impose itself no matter how much the candidates try to keep the issue away, especially if the Obama administration follows through with its threat to end cooperation with Russia in Syria.

The terror attacks of 9/11 will jump to the forefront, casting their shadow on US-Saudi relations as Congress has now overridden Obama’s veto of a bill allowing Americans to sue foreign nations including Saudi Arabia in US courts.

In Mosul, Obama has approved an increase in the number of US troops deployed at the request of Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi and in coordination with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Liberating Mosul from ISIS will not be impossible, but is not going to be easy, given divisions and mistrust in Iraq regarding the post-ISIS order.

The return of displaced residents is another contentious issue. Past experiences have been bitter, especially the liberation of Fallujah, because of the atrocities that took place. Some Sunnis even believe the threat from Shiite militias is equivalent to the threat from ISIS. If the Obama administration does not wake up to this aspect, it would be pouring oil over the sectarian fire in Iraq. It might be even accused of doing so deliberately.

The terror attacks of 9/11 will jump to the forefront, casting their shadow on US-Saudi relations as Congress has overridden Obama’s veto of a bill allowing Americans to sue foreign nations including Saudi Arabia in US courts

Raghida Dergham

Abadi will involve militias in the battle believing he has no other choice and also in compliance with Iran’s wishes. Most likely, he will consent to a leading role for the commander of the Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani, who has conducted himself as though Iraq battles are Iran’s own. Tehran has invested a lot in the battle of Mosul, given the city’s proximity to Syria and Kurdish territories.

Turkey will not figure in the presidential debates because American voters are not well aware of the complicated geopolitical intricacies. They may have forgotten about what happened in Turkey during the failed coup attempt.

However, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has not forgotten the episode and continues to use all the means at his disposal to extract concessions from the US and Russia. He insists on his nation’s priorities, such as combatting Kurdish groups.

Vladimir Putin understands the centrality of Turkey in the war in Syria. Despite his concerns and suspicions vis-à-vis Erdogan he is gearing up to visit Turkey, perhaps to preempt any attempts by Erdogan to forge military partnerships with the Gulf countries especially with regard to arming the Syrian rebels.

‘Plan B’ in Syria

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef discussed various bilateral and regional issues in Turkey this week including Syria in light of the US-Russia spat. Gulf ministerial sources – who attended the stormy meetings in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly – say that efforts for a “Plan B” have begun. Such a plan would have three legs: Gulf, Turkish, and European, all stakeholders left out in the US-Russian arrangements.

A Gulf minister, who asked not to be named, said: “We are in contact with France and Britain and are mobilizing support for Plan B in case the ceasefire collapses.” Yet the question on the mind of Gulf leaders is: has the time come to implement Plan B or not yet?

The minister rejects the claim that the Gulf, Turkey, and Europe have no cards. “The United States and Russia are parties, not mediators,” he adds, insisting that the Syrian issue should not be a way for the two powers to manage their relations as has been happening. The minister also said any solution without Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar will not succeed, stressing that there are real options under Plan B, including no-fly zones, safe zones, and arms for the Syrian rebels.

There is a military part and a diplomatic part in Plan B. Internationally, “the priority is for a no-fly zone and a safe zone.” Regionally, the opposition must be supported because as things stand Russia, Iran, and the regime are only offering for the opposition to surrender, the minister says.

Defining terminology

The minister believes that there can be no US-Russia or regional-international accord, unless its terminology is defined. For instance, Russia insists on excluding ISIS and the ex-Nusra Front from ceasefires using a generalist designation that includes many rebel factions. The minister said the US is also addressing the issue of separating terrorists from rebels very vaguely. As for the Russians, “they want Aleppo to surrender with the rebels disarming and leaving.”

“There is no common ground or shared language between the Americans and the Russians.” The minister also said that when the US proposed mechanisms to reduce violence, there were still differences over how to draft them. Hence, he continued, there was no force backing the implementation of the agreement, and no mechanism for monitoring, “which means the agreement is worthless”.

The minister said the Gulf countries would continue to push for a ceasefire but also for a monitoring and accountability mechanism to rein in violators. If the efforts fail, he said, then the work will shift toward a Plan B. In the end he expressed hope the US would follow suit, but said US reluctance to do so is also being factored in.

The US is preoccupied and is unlikely to join any such plan. The Obama administration may choose to disengage from Russia, but it will not be implicated on the battlefield in any scenario. Its main concern is that the presidential, and the Democratic administration in the White House, will not give the Republican candidate any leverage against Hillary.

As far as the next debate is concerned, perhaps Trump will learn his lesson. And perhaps by then the US voters will have decided which candidate is the lesser evil.

This is an extract from an article first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 30, 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

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