Obama’s nuclear deal invalidated UN resolutions that curb Iran
The Obama administration has quietly voiced warnings that its putative deal with the Russian government is at a breaking point
The Obama administration has quietly voiced warnings that its putative deal with the Russian government is at a breaking point and said it is running out of patience over Moscow’s prevarication and failed promises on Syria. However, there is a clear contradiction between the stance of the US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who is skeptic about Russian intentions and military cooperation with Moscow, and that of the Secretary of State John Kerry, who is always keen to shake the hand of and exchange smiles with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. This in part explains the Russian diplomacy’s confidence that Obama’s dithering and weakness will not give way, allowing Moscow to continue to act without worrying about the seriousness of US threats.
Also, Russia is confident Obama will not suddenly show courage in the last months of his term, especially with regard to military intervention in Syria, and will not break his promise about not sending US forces to fight in faraway lands and in others’ wars, not to mention the fact that he factors in the Iranian element and its implications for his legacy strongly in his calculations. Obama has tied his own hands through the nuclear deal with Iran and now fears anything that could undermine it, leading him to acquiesce to Iran’s regional meddling and alliance with the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Recall that he once called for Assad to step down, before backtracking from his red lines. The alliance that comprises Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias in Syria is fully confident that Obama will not challenge their actions in Syria and would instead continue to pretend to see or hear no evil and maintain the US-Russian “partnership” in Syria.
That overconfidence has embarrassed the administration of the isolationist US president, especially as the regime continues using barrel bombs and outlawed weapons under Russian aerial cover. The international evidence proving the Syrian regime had twice used chemical weapons after the US-Russian deal to dismantle the regime’s chemical arsenal angered the Obama administration. Adding insult to injury, Russia decided to go on the offensive at the Security Council to defend the regime, leaving Washington’s Western allies in disarray amid continued US reluctance to confront Russia on such a crucial issue.
The shivering bodies of Syria’s children, who are being burned by incendiary weapons, have shed light on the Syrian tragedy, fueled and enabled by Russian strikes and Iranian militias, yet without leading to an awakening of the global conscience. For now, the focus remains on fighting ISIS, which has used chemical weapons too, and similar groups. But Washington will not be able to continue to bury its head in the sand to appease Russia or protect the nuclear deal with Iran. If the deal with Russia collapses, the Turkish doors being opened by Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be used to tell Moscow enough is enough and to re-take the initiative.
US-Russian military cooperation is plausible because the status quo in Syria cannot last forever and Russia needs an exit strategy from the quagmire it is nearly inRaghida Dergham
The Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has accused Moscow of meddling in the US elections through cyber hacking targeting her party, describing the Russian interference in America’s electoral process as an unprecedented threat from an adversarial foreign power. Obama is taking the threat seriously as well, being a Democrat too, and he is indeed able to put an end to Russian violations in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere if he wishes.
Obama’s measures on Ukraine against Russia have infuriated Lavrov, who has sharply criticized US sanctions on Russia. But on Syria, Obama remains passive and conservative. But he must know that it will be his legacy in Syria that will shape his wider legacy, no matter what he achieves with Cuba and Iran. His policies in Syria have hurt America’s standing to the point that China dared insult him as he arrived for the G20 summit, breaking protocol and giving him an awkward reception.
The president of the Philippines has called him jaw-dropping obscenities. The commander of the Qods Force, Qassem Suleimani, even dared to run entire militias in Syria and Iraq and travel to Russia despite US sanctions. To be sure, Obama’s nuclear deal invalidated all international resolutions that had banned Tehran from exporting arms and militias, thus giving Iran full freedom to intervene militarily in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen with impunity.
The marginalization of the state and army, which have been replaced by militias, has become the norm in the Middle East and this is very sinister. These militias, as well as ISIS, are recruiting children and women, from Iraq to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. In the latter case, experts say this is evidence of the shortage of recruits in the ranks of the Houthi militias. The same applies to the Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, whose losses have been heavy in the war.
Women in the Arab region are not empowered by joining militias. They are needed elsewhere, for example in healing the children who have been paying the price of the men’s abuses and bloody lust for power. According to a UNICEF report, 28 million children have been displaced because of armed conflict around the world, much of it occurring in the Arab region.
The role of wise leaders is key to stopping the hijacking of children’s lives, whether in geopolitical wars, chemical deals, or nuclear deals of Obama with Iran and Syria in partnership with Russia. The plight of Syria’s children is a stain on the conscience of all those who have colluded in the Syrian tragedy, without exception.
Those men playing the game of international realignment through the Syrian arena are many - led by Russian President Putin, Turkish President Erdogan and the Iranian leadership, which has assigned Suleimani the military functions and the Foreign Minister Zarif the diplomatic function to both finish the job of misleading Washington and the UN.
Falling into a trap
The UN secretary general fell into the trap and legitimized Iran’s role in Syria through the diplomatic gateway. Practically speaking, Ban Ki-moon has legitimized Iran’s military role in Syria on the side of the regime, which the secretary general himself once said must be held accountable for its war crimes and added that it had lost all legitimacy. The UN has, for all intents and purposes, blessed Tehran’s expansionist ambitions in the Arab countries and allowed it to sit at the negotiating table to discuss the future of these countries, thereby rewarding its violations of binding international resolutions.
Ban Ki-moon is now leaving his post after two terms without building the legacy he wanted to leave behind: to end impunity. This failure will haunt him. Despite his supposed moral authority, he failed to tackle the grave violations in Syria, where more than half a million people have died, millions have been displaced and entire cities have been destroyed. Ban Ki-moon fell into the trap of turning the Syrian issue into one of the war on ISIS, instead of emphasizing the real narrative.
In turn, Vladimir Putin is not ignorant of what he is doing in Syria. He knows exactly what he is doing and who is paying the price. He knows what he wants, how to guarantee his strategic realignment and with whom he can forge temporary alliances and who is indispensable.
His frenemy Recep Tayyip Erdogan is playing his cards in a way that Putin does not like. Putin believes he is better able and more entitled to impose his will in Syria, as befits his authoritarian needs inside Russia as well as his ambitions in the Middle East and at the level of relations with Washington. Erdogan is demonstrating to all those concerned that he has cards no one else has. Meanwhile, the battle for Aleppo remains a fateful one for all stakeholders.
The key men in Syria are Putin, Erdogan, Suleimani and Assad, and this is something Barack Obama has started to take stock of. For this reason, the Obama administration is quietly warning Russia that it has other options, including Turkey, after the latter entered directly as a party to the Syrian war and revived moderate rebel groups led by the Free Syrian Army. This is the option favored by the Gulf countries, which still insist on their positions on Assad, and which have opened a new page of understandings with Turkey, expressing willingness to support the rebels while turning a blind eye to Turkey’s containment of the Kurds.
US-Russian military cooperation is plausible, because the status quo in Syria cannot last forever and Russia needs an exit strategy from the quagmire it is nearly in. The Kerry-Lavrov duo continues to work for a deal, but the details contained in the Russian demands may make it hard to clinch. Staffan de Mistura, the UN Syria envoy, is repeatedly positioning himself between the two men, sometimes trying to facilitate an understanding.
Kerry did not attend the meeting of the foreign ministers of the Friends of Syria group hosted by the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who wants to compensate for his role in the Brexit fiasco through the Syrian gateway. Kerry later joined and expressed reservation on the vision of the High Negotiations Commission for political transition in Syria, advising them to show more realism.
In the end, the realism of Barack Obama will determine the fate of the deal with Russia, while Erdogan and Putin will remain anxious to hear the echo of Obama’s pragmatism in Syria.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 9, 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