More powers enter Mideast fray. But still no real strategy

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham


By : Raghida Dergham


The scattered approaches of the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Britain, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Qatar and others – those involved in military operations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya – are, despite all pretenses, tactics rather than real strategies.

Perhaps Iran alone has a strategic vision, as it fights proxy wars far away from its cities and villages, just like Russia, the U.S., and Europe are doing. The losses of Arabs in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are paid as ransoms to the Iranian victors. However, in the folds of this apparent cohesion, there is a hidden battle raging ahead of the Iranian elections, in which tactical cards are being played to crystallize a strategic vision distinct from those championed currently by the ruling echelons in Tehran, represented by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei stands halfway between the moderate camp of President Rouhani and the hardliner camp led by the Revolutionary Guards and its de facto commander Qassem Soleimani, who is overseeing Iran’s wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

There is no way to win this war unless Arab Sunnis become a direct party in the war, both on the popular and governmental levels.

Raghida Dergham

While these political battles are taking place in Iran, the military battles are taking place in the Arab countries. These play an important role in the political alignment of the key Iranian players, who are masters in the arts of tradeoff and maneuvering in war and negotiation.

In truth, this is exactly what the other countries sitting opposite Iran, both on the table and in the battlefield, lack: shrewdness and stratagem.

Defining the mission

For instance, Saudi Arabia is in a dire need to clearly define the mission of the Arab coalition’s war in Yemen. It must determine the practical means to make the mission a success, and commit to a specific timetable as part of an exit strategy. But Saudi Arabia must also leave behind a Yemen that can recover, and not a dismembered Yemen.

Russia, another example, considers itself the dominant decision maker in Syria. But at the same time, it is slipping into a quagmire and is also in need of a strategy. France has a package of tactics without any strategy. Britain has admitted to its lack of strategic vision, as it watches Russia bomb the very Syrian rebels that Britain wanted to be the boots on the ground working in tandem with its air strikes.

For its part, the U.S. is either good at covering a hidden strategy behind a series of failed tactics, or is really looking for a strategy amid a pile of conflicting tactics.

A futile fight

So where do we stand and what needs to be done?

This war on ISIS, al-Qaeda and their affiliates does not appear to be serious. It will also be futile if international policies continue as they are.

A U.N. report issued this month said that between 2000 and 3000 ISIS fighters, mostly Libyans who had fought in Iraq and Syria, returned to Libya in late 2013. The report noted that “while the group is benefiting from the appeal and notoriety of [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria, it is only one player among multiple warring factions in Libya and faces strong resistance from the population, as well as difficulties in building and maintaining local alliances.”

The report notes that ISIS currently lacks the capacity to secure, hold and manage oil fields and related oil infrastructure in Libya. However, at the same time, ISIS continues to expand its control in the country, the report adds.

The good news is that Libya’s population does not accept Libyan ISIS fighters returning to the country, and that they have no access to oil revenues. The bad news is that despite this, ISIS is expanding in Libya.

NATO, which abandoned Libya after tearing it apart, has no concrete strategy there. It was fully aware that getting rid of the tyrant Muammar Qaddafi without coupling it with aiding Libya to build institutions brick by brick, would lead to rampant chaos and to the country falling into the hands of extremism and terrorism.

The UAE and Qatar differed radically over the Libyan identity that was to take over. Each nation chose the side it believed in, offering it its full support.

The U.N. Security Council refused requests from Egypt and Libya to lift the arms embargo on the legitimate government, to help it fight ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other groups. It therefore prevented nations from helping the government fight back against ISIS and al-Qaeda, and did not lift a finger to stop the spread of terrorism in Libya.

The U.N. Secretary General appointed an envoy to Libya, but the negotiations have failed because of the depth of inter-Libyan rivalries. And as the Security Council turned a blind eye to Libya, the major powers buried their heads in the sand as ISIS and al-Qaeda grew stronger there.

U.S.-led coalition

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq includes a large number of Arab and Western nations. Washington also chose Iran as a silent ally in the war on ISIS in Iraq, and turned a blind eye to violations by the Popular Mobilization Forces and Shia militias backed by Iran fighting alongside the U.S. in the war.

Washington was aware that this would inflame sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunnis in Iraq, and would weaken the enthusiasm of the Arab countries that are part of the coalition. Particularly so as no political momentum was coupled with the military momentum, to push for reforms and encourage Sunnis to join the anti-ISIS coalition.

True, the Kurds are a crucial ally in the war on ISIS, and Iran has the right to enter the war against the group. However, it is also true that there is no way to win this war unless Arab Sunnis become a direct party in the war, both on the popular and governmental levels. As long as the Sunni Arab tribes are suspicious about U.S.-Iranian goals, and are not encouraged through political reforms, they will not be enthusiastic and the war will continue to be lame and ineffective in both Iraq and Syria.

So why has Washington failed to heed the repercussions of ignoring this crucial issue in the war on ISIS, now the global public enemy number one?

Mutual forgiveness

The U.S. has been accused of fueling the Sunni-Shia conflict for 35 years now, beginning with the Iran-Iraq war in which the U.S. sided with Saddam Hussein. Tehran has forgiven Washington, after George W. Bush got rid of Saddam by invading Iraq, and its enemy the Taliban by invading Afghanistan.

Furthermore, President Barack Obama’s insistence on concluding a nuclear deal with Iran without holding it accountable for its roles in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon has become the mortar of mutual forgiveness. Yet Tehran will never forgive the Gulf countries that allied with the U.S. in support of Saddam during the war with Iran. This is one of the key reasons for Iranian hostility towards the Gulf nations, which will not go away easily and for which Syria, Iraq, and Yemen will pay dearly for.

The Obama administration stands also accused of believing the only way to fight Sunni terrorism is encouraging Shia terrorism, either in partnership with it, as in Iraq, or by turning a blind eye to it, as in Syria, or by letting it grow, as in Yemen.

In Yemen, al-Qaeda is growing strong and is regaining territories Houthis evacuate. This is not a deliberate intention by the Yemeni government or the Arab coalition, but is caused by the fact that the U.S., which was previously actively fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen through drones, is no longer interested in continuing this.

Now is the time, however, to empower the legitimate government and help it spread its control over the territories it recovers, to prevent al-Qaeda from filling the vacuum. This will not happen, though, because the international community, especially the U.S., is not willing to help in this regard.

One reason is that the international community seems to want Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies to become further implicated in the Yemeni quagmire, which would impoverish and weaken these nations. If al-Qaeda fills the vacuum, the Arab Gulf nations will be readily blamed for entering the Yemeni war against the Houthi rebels and their allies’ deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Irrespective of whether or not the international community understands that Saudi Arabia had no choice but to act in defense of its national security from the Iranian-backed Houthi threat across the border with Yemen, there is a crucial need for Saudi Arabia to revisit its options in Yemen now.

Saudi national security

In Saudi Arabia, some voices are calling on the government to give priority to Yemen instead of scattering its efforts in Syria or in the war against ISIS. They argue that Yemen is a matter of Saudi national security, and that failure to regain control would lead to wasting dozens of lives and billions of dollars. What these voices want is a clear strategy, with a clear beginning and end, to avoid costly setbacks that undermine gains on the ground.

Resuming negotiations sponsored by U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed and concluding an agreement as soon as possible would the cornerstone of any exit strategy. It is in the interests of Riyadh, as leader of the Arab coalition, to give maximum support for the U.N. envoy’s efforts and push for a political solution. It is in the interest of all Arab coalition countries to stop the attrition that some regional and international powers would like to see continue.

Perhaps the comparison between Arab coalition strikes in Yemen and Russian strikes in Syria is useful, in terms of their failure to complete the mission alone, and in terms of the need for an international political process as the primary instrument of an exit strategy.

Moscow is most in need of the Vienna process on Syria, which it launched in partnership with other international powers, entrusting it to U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura. Russia wants to see an end to its military operations, before becoming further implicated and drained.

Air strikes in Syria, Yemen, or Iraq have a huge human cost. Even if Moscow and Washington say they are targeting the scourge of terrorism, there are innocents in the areas they hit and they cannot be considered mere “collateral damage”. The same applies to Arab coalition strikes in Yemen. Therefore, it is necessary to set a timetable to end the strikes, so that these do not end up being destruction for destruction’s sake in violation of international humanitarian laws.

The Russian-Saudi relationship currently involves both Yemen and Syria. Riyadh needs Moscow in Yemen, or at least, needs Russia not to intervene or back Iran’s efforts there. Moscow needs Riyadh, which will soon host a conference of the Syrian political and military opposition factions, in a bid to give a boost to the Vienna process.

Assad knot

The main contentious issue between the two countries remains the “Assad knot”, the fate of Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s future, as well as the sale of advanced Russian weapons systems to Iran. These are not minor issues, and they must be addressed urgently if political agreements are to produce an alternative to the quagmires and conflicts.

Moscow and Riyadh understand this well. Riyadh is aware that it will not be able to unravel the Russian-Iranian alliance, and the most it aspires to achieve now is to improve relations with Russia in general, and keep Moscow neutral in Yemen. For its part, Moscow does not want its alliance with Iran in Syria alongside Assad there to cause it to be caught in quicksand, and is therefore relenting.

Iran, in turn, has read the transformations and developments, and has its own tactical and strategic calculations, but Iran is not infallible. It is playing many cards with overconfidence. The militias Tehran has created and exported to Syria, for example, are fighting alongside the regime in Damascus, deliberately targeting moderate opposition elements that Britain has said they are indispensable in the war, claiming they number 70,000.

If Russia and Iran are confident Washington, London, Riyadh, Ankara, and Paris will bless their campaign to crush the Syrian opposition, which will be the boots on the ground for their air strikes, then there could be a deeper agreement that we don’t know about. And if these capitals believe Moscow and Tehran’s attacks on the Syrian opposition will harm their interests, then they must communicate this seriously to Russia and Iran. Otherwise, the impression that ISIS is a bogyman for much sinister goals will only be reinforced.


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


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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