March 25, 2016
In early February scientists announced that they had finally detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space and time that Einstein predicted a century ago. They are only to be congratulated. Their achievement must have caused consternation among those who failed to foresee the ripple effect of the Syrian conflict now in its sixth year.
Middle East’s widened sectarian war, the chaos it has created, ISIL’s growing outreach, the recent string of terrorist attacks which have shaken Turkey and Europe and the refugee issue can all be traced to the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Regardless of his many shortcomings and failures one must credit President Assad for his self-fulfilling prophecy. In October 2012 he said that Syria’s downfall would put the entire Middle East on fire. Now it is not just the region that is on fire. The flames have reached Africa and Europe.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that degrading and defeating terrorist organizations and bringing peace and stability to the Middle East will take decades. The question now is whether the “international community” and regional actors will demonstrate the ability to rise up to the challenge or continue to focus on narrow interests and engage in blame games. We know that the fight against ISIL will not be confined to military operations in Iraq, Syria, the broad Middle East and Africa. It will also cover parts of some European cities. Such security measures would have to be accompanied by a genuine effort to address the deep social problems of unemployment, income disparity, education, racism and radicalism.
Steven Erlanger wrote in New York Times of March 23, that according to François Heisbourg, President of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, describing Europe’s fight against the Islamic State as “war” is an extremely dangerous use of the word. “It starts with Raqqa and can end up with the Algerian civil war, and that would be the ultimate victory of Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State. “They want to divide our societies against ourselves.” Even more, Mr. Heisbourg argued, “talking of war dignifies Daesh, which wants to be seen as having a state and an army of warriors and martyrs.” For angry, poor and isolated young Muslims in Europe, “to be seen as the downtrodden victims of Western colonialism and iniquity, fighting the holy war against the arrayed legions of the crusaders,” is precisely what the Islamic State advertises (1).
The following is an excerpt from the article entitled “The Obama Doctrine” by Jeffrey Golberg of the Atlantic (2):
“Obama’s critics argue that he is ineffective in cordoning off the violent nihilists of radical Islam because he doesn’t understand the threat. He does resist refracting radical Islam through the “clash of civilizations” prism popularized by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington. But this is because, he and his advisers argue, he does not want to enlarge the ranks of the enemy. “The goal is not to force a Huntington template onto this conflict,” said John Brennan, the CIA director…
“… Obama says he has demanded that Muslim leaders do more to eliminate the threat of violent fundamentalism. “It is very clear what I mean,” he told me, “which is that there is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction—a tiny faction—within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.”
On March 21, Reuters reported that U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura described Syria’s political transition as “the mother of all issues” in response to regime’s representative Bashar Ja’afari who said Assad’s future had “nothing to do” with the negotiations, which entered their second week on Monday.
In reality, the “mother of all problems” is the failure of the Middle East to overcome its inertia and stagnation. The problem of the future of President Assad is only one of the many children. Peoples of the region were never offered democracy, enlightened education, fair and equal opportunity, economic and social progress. All they saw was a vicious circle where internal and external problems fed on one another impeding political maturity. Turkey’s secularism which could be the antidote to region’s sectarian strife had it been embraced by others was under constant attack by a grand coalition of conservatives, reactionaries and those who somehow claimed to speak in the name of Islam. The West was only after its own interests and failed to meet the expectations of the peoples of the region so much so that Western public discourse on democracy eventually became suspect.
During the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, President Obama made the following general observation on the Middle East:
“Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East,” he said. “You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You’ve got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”
“He went on, “Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems—enormous poverty, corruption—but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark.”
Whether leading powers and Middle East countries can forge a joint strategy to address these broad issues remains to be seen. This is easier said than done. The first step, however, has to be ending the Syrian conflict. President Putin’s surprise decision to withdraw the “main part” of Russian forces from Syria has led to almost as much negative speculation as the intervention itself. Yet, it is crystal clear that the key to ending the conflict is US-Russian cooperation (3). Russia has played an essential role in negotiating the “cessation of hostilities” that is working better than expected. When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met President Putin at the Kremlin on March 23, 2016 he said “… As for Syria, we have definitely made some progress over these last two to three months.”
And yesterday, Secretary Kerry had talks with Minister Lavrov in Moscow. Mr. Lavrov underlined that this was their eighteenth meeting in the past year and had a broad agenda. Mr. Kerry also met President Putin.
During their press conference following the talks, Minister Lavrov stated the following: “Speaking about the bilateral affairs, I believe we have seen the growing understanding of the counterproductiveness of the cause towards – swaying of the structure of Russian-American relations, and the rhetoric about the isolation of Russia, as we have seen today, has nothing to do with reality. We highly valuate the position of President Obama, who has highlighted for many times the importance of the respectful and pragmatic dialogue with the Russian Federation, and we highly valuate the role of the Secretary of State, Mr. Kerry, who practically promotes this dialogue, including during his regular visits to Moscow.
Secretary Kerry underlined the achievements of US-Russia cooperation in the following words:
“We worked together to be able to remove chemical weapons from Syria. And God knows what would have happened had that not taken place and Daesh had access to those weapons today. And we worked very closely together in order to try to push forward with the International Syria Support Group, as Sergey mentioned, in order to bring about a cessation of hostilities, which, as of this Sunday, will have held for one month. Now, one month is not enough for any of us. We want this to become permanent. We want this to be the state of life in Syria. And that is why we work today in order to try to explore the road ahead.”
It was clear that differences over President Assad’s future and the implementation of the Minsk agreements remain. Mr. Kerry mentioned Russian efforts to help President Assad and Mr. Lavrov criticized Western military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The latter, without calling names, also referred to Turkey’s objections to the participation of PYD/YPG in the Geneva talks. However, both tried to strike a positive note regarding their efforts to end the Syrian conflict. In an indirect reference to President Putin’s decision to withdraw the “main part” of Russian forces from Syria Mr. Kerry said:
“… So today I think it is fair to say that we reached a better understanding of the decisions that President Putin has made of late and also of the path forward in Syria. We have a long way to go, but I am leaving here with a better sense of what it is we need to accomplish with our partners, and we remain – Russia and the United States – committed to achieving a political solution that the Syrian people deserve.”
It appears that on the whole that Secretary Kerry’s visit to Moscow was a productive one, contributing to a better understanding between Moscow and Washington. This is encouraging. All that remains to be seen now is the impact of this on the Geneva talks between the Assad regime and the opposition. And, anyone who knows something about Syrian negotiation methods/tactics would say that there is a rough road ahead.
(3) My earlier posts: “US and Russia Need to Cooperate”, 31 May 2015;” US and Russia Need to Cooperate (2)”, 11 June 2015, “US-Russia Relations: Compartmentalization of Issues”, 23 July 2015.