The US and Peace in the Middle East

January 9, 2023

On January 3, 2023, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price, in response to a question regarding “the rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian regime” said:

“Well, as I understand it, this was a trilateral engagement involving Syria, Turkey, and the Russian Federation as well. Our policy, which is all I can speak to, has not changed. We do not support countries upgrading their relations or expressing support to rehabilitate the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad… We’ve made very clear to all of our allies and partners that now is not the time to normalize relations…”

A year ago, Mr. Price had said, “We are profoundly disappointed and troubled by this apparent attempt to legitimize Bashar al-Assad,” following the Syrian President’s visit to the United Arab Emirates. Regardless, last week in Damascus, President Assad and UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan discussed boosting economic ties between their nations.

Would it ever be the time for Washington to agree to the normalization of relations between Damascus and other regional countries? No, because the US and Israel prefer to see Syria as a weak, fragile, and fragmented country like Iraq. The next to follow suit could be Iran and the one after that is anybody’s guess.

Iraq was invaded by the US and the UK under false premises in 2003. Baghdad is still struggling to find direction.

On 17 March 2011, the UN Security Council energized by the Arab spring chaos adopted Resolution 1973 on Libya. China, Germany, and Russia abstained.

On 19 March 2011, a conference in Paris, held under French, British, and US leadership decided to start air operations against Qaddafi’s forces “to protect the civilians”. Within hours air strikes began. It soon became clear that the purpose was regime change in violation of Resolution 1973.

In an op-ed published in mid-April in the International Herald Tribune, Le Figaro, and the Times of London, President Obama, President Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Cameron confirmed this. Today, Libya is a mess.

Was the regime change project in Syria or the launching of the “Friends of Syria Group” designed to bring democracy and prosperity to Syria? Of course not.  Both were designed to knock Syria off the regional equilibrium. For Ankara, it was all about bringing the Moslem Brotherhood to power in Damascus.

After two decades of war, destruction, and thousands of civilian casualties, the US turned over Afghanistan to the Taliban, thus sending it back to the Middle Age. This was Washington’s unilateral decision.

In May 2021, the UN Security Council had an “Open Debate on Multilateralism”.

Secretary Blinken firstly underlined respect for international commitments, particularly the legally binding ones such as the UN Charter, treaties and conventions, UN Security Council resolutions, international humanitarian law, and the rules and standards agreed to under the auspices of the World Trade Organization and numerous international standard-setting organizations.

Secondly, he said that human rights and dignity must stay at the core of the international order.  He referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And thirdly, he emphasized that the UN is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of its member-states. Again, without making a specific reference either to Russia’s annexation of Crimea or Chinese policies in the South China Sea he said, “A state does not respect that principle when it purports to redraw the borders of another; or seeks to resolve territorial disputes by using or threatening force; or when a state claims it’s entitled to a sphere of influence to dictate or coerce the choices and decisions of another country.”

But the US policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria contradicts every word of Secretary Blinken’s public discourse on the so-called “rules-based international order” just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates the letter and spirit of the Beijing-Moscow advocated “law-based international order”. But Russia is in Syria, at least upon the invitation of the Assad government which still represents Syria at the UN.

Türkiye’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Syria policy, and the government’s assuming a leading role in the failed regime project have been the worst and the costliest foreign and security policy blunder in the century-long history of the Republic. Last year’s top slogan was “suddenly one night”, meaning an imminent cross-border operation into Syria. It never materialized. The second was the “normalization” of relations with Damascus which appears high on AKP’s election agenda. The first step in what is likely to be a long process would have to be referring to the Syrian leader properly as “President Assad” once again and remembering the proverb, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

According to the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, which quoted an anonymous source in Damascus, the tripartite talks between Turkish, Syrian, and Russian defense ministers have resulted in “Türkiye’s consent to completely withdraw its troops from the Syrian territories that it occupies in the north of the country.” [i] If that were the case, Ankara would now have to convince the Syrian opposition not to complicate the situation. And that too will come at a price.

US interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria are regarded as failures by Middle Eastern peoples and many others as well. But who knows, perhaps they are celebrated as great achievements in Washington’s corridors.

When President Biden addressed the global community for the first time at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference he said, “I know — I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined — determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”

How much that has been accomplished so far is for the European countries to judge. But if Mr. Biden has any intention whatsoever of earning Middle Eastern trust after decades and decades of Western divide-and-rule policies, unprovoked interventions, and proxy wars, that can only be achieved by contributing to peace in Syria through multilateralism. Neither Washington’s verbal support for the “two-states vision” and its “opposition” to actions that undercut the historic status quo in the holy sites in Jerusalem, nor its efforts to encourage other Arab nations to join the Abraham Accords can substitute for that.

The West so far remains “united in standing up to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine” as its diplomatic discourse goes. It is providing arms to Kyiv, imposing sanctions against Russia, doing its maximum to alleviate the suffering of the people of Ukraine, and generously receiving Ukrainian refugees. All of that is commendable.

During the past decade, the Syrian people have suffered more devastation and more casualties than the people of Ukraine suffered in a year. So, it is time at least to leave the Syrians to their own devices, to allow them to put their house in order without external meddling and preferably through negotiations and not continued fighting. Hopefully, the people of Syria have learned the lesson, after a decade of bloodshed, that civil wars in the Middle East only turn the parties into pawns with no future, on the chess boards of others.

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[i] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20230101-turkiye-agrees-to-withdraw-military-from-northern-syria-following-tripartite-reconciliation-talks/

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About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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