The Concept of Helsinki Accords and the Search for a Strategy in Syria and Iraq
The Concept of Helsinki Accords and the Search for a Strategy in Syria and Iraq
The Middle East now is in many aspects reminiscent of the pre First World War Europe. The atmosphere is charged and waiting for just an Archduke to be assassinated. History usually volunteers the spark. Willingly thereafter, it appropriates the actions of those who did not care to read its previous chapters and learn to avoid the pain they may inflect on self and others.
What could the world community do? A lot. Yet, the main burden lies squarely on the regional leaders’ shoulders before anybody else. Instead of waiting for Franz Ferdinand, the region needs a vision that deeply believes there is no winners in any expected military confrontation.
It is inconceivable that the current “local” war spots like Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya can go on forever. For if they do not burn their own wood, which is mostly regional, hence abundant, they will end up bringing the forces behind the scene to step, unmasked, into the stage.
US air raids, nicknamed “international Coalition”, are but a “technical” action in a crisis that is political and strategic in essence. Neither the raids-or any appendixes like sending more troops-nor dreaming of a quick change in the structural nature of the Middle Eastern societies will end this long wait for the Austrio-Hungarian Archduke. Any military effort is understood, but the flower is not exactly there.
Pentagon leaders feel obliged to address the issue of US strategy in the Middle East as they seem to be doing in the media. They recently explained that there is a strategy and that it is what could be practically done under the circumstances. Yet, one does not fully understand why it should be the Pentagon’s job to define America’s strategy. Any strategy is by definition more comprehensive than its military aspect, if there should be such an aspect at all. Washington’s culture seems to have gotten itself accustomed to militarized foreign policy to the extent that whenever the word strategy is uttered, everybody turns their heads to the Pentagon.
And in the case of the Middle East, the military aspect should only play a support role, not the leading one.
Let us dare to explore potential “strategies” in both Syria and Iraq, as the two wars there have strong interconnections.
The overall objective of the Arab countries was to prevent Iran from establishing a secure and expandable bridge, through both Iraq and Syria, to the Mediterranean. Iran, which represents an alien “type” of country, politically, culturally and to a certain extent religiously, is seen as a stranger in the Arab world. Furthermore, it is perceived as political threat to some Arab political systems.
Iran perused the objective of going west anyway under a combination of historical coincidences, opportunities and deliberate actions. First, there was the Iraq-Iran war which was a message that threats can be as close as crossing the borders. Second, there was the US invasion of Iraq which empowered some pro-Iran forces to rule Baghdad. Third, there was the Arab Spring that shook the pillars of Bashar Al Assad rule, among others, to turn later into an armed struggle, then to a sectarian fundamentalist war.
The internal logic generated by this rolling snow ball was to invite all possible historical and religious images and rhetoric to sharpen the wills, legitimatize the cause and win the confrontation. History is familiar with these stories from its medieval chapters in Europe. But these images transcends, by their symbolism, the borders of the war fields. Soon, we found sectarianism spread everywhere in the region. This trend was almost inevitably destined to slide to terrorist totalitarian views appealing to youth from all over the place. Sectarian identity is the negation of national identity. If a citizen in any Arab country gives precedence to his sectarian affiliation, and if this country sees itself in a war with another, and even explains this war in religious terms, the slide to a more radical version of religiosity emerges. And gradually, all tools, including intervention in internal affairs, become legitimate. War usually follows.
Now, what could a strategy to deal with that look like? Which ring of this chain could such a strategy address? What are we asking the military to do? Bomb sectarianism? Bomb the Arabs, the Iranians and the bridge to the Mediterranean or target the planners of all this mess?
If the role of the military is just one component of a strategy, and not by any means a necessary one, then this strategy should start with a comprehensive concept to address the real issues that posed all this in the first place. Henry Kissinger drew his East Asia strategy without necessarily looking at the Pentagon. The word strategy boils down to two word: a workable concept. Those who are tasked to study facts, predict trends and come forward with a workable concept that may or may not include a military aspect, obviously did not do their job, or did it in an incompetent way.
Hindsight is always 20-20. But what could be done now?
The main character of the crisis in the Middle East, at least in its present manifestation, is political-strategic. ISIL is but a byproduct of the current competition. As such, it is not mainly a military issue despite the unquestionable need to contain and destroy it. Yet, Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated militarily in 2005-8 to reemerge in a worst version. By consequence, it is not rocket science to say that if ISIL is defeated now the same way Al Qaeda was defeated before, something similar will emerge so long as the context that brings such groups is sustained.
And it is sustained alright. The Iranians want to control central Iraq by force to build their bridge, secure their western borders and expand their influence in the region. The Arabs would not let that happen. Even the prospects of a partitioned Iraq will not bring peace. The Sunnis will control the Center and the Iranians will feel threatened. Therefore, prospects of war will remain unchanged.
Yet, in this complicated rivalry, two elements emerge. The first is the indigenous population of Central Iraq. The second is of course the regional dimension of the conflict. Indigenous population implies the question of governance. Regional intervention stems from the Arab-Iranian conflicting agendas. A replay of the Kurdish region’s experience applied in Sunni land in Iraq is only possible if the two elements are addressed simultaneously. Addressing only one of them would not work. You can convince the Shia to be tolerant until the first bomb explodes in one of their Mosques or convince the Sunnis to accommodate their compatriots until a Sunni Sheikh is assassinated. Ways to manipulate the populations are countless as Zarqawi showed us. While partition can solve the problem of governance, it is not the only problem, though it is, admittedly, extremely important. War may continue but with different flags and different images and symbols. Attacks of any new “region” on the other may occur.
It is therefore fair to say that the two elements, any particular region’s indigenous population and the overall regional factors, should be addressed simultaneously as two faces of the very same problem.
In Syria, it is more or less the same dynamics but further complicated by the terrible loss of weight suffered by moderate opposition due to precisely the lack of an earlier comprehensive strategy. Yet, we can see in the intense fog of war that qualitative changes are indeed occurring on the ground.
It is almost impossible for a minority to win a prolonged identity war so far as it is defined as a minority in any sub identity conscious society. The backers of each of the warring sides expressed explicitly the sectarian spirit of a conflict that started as merely a political confrontation.
The quick slide to the swamps of sectarianism in Syria led to the spread of Al Qaeda and ISIL due to the dynamics mentioned above. We will be following hundreds of small and big battles here and there, Assad barrel bombs, massacres of civilians, systematic killings of minorities, capture of big towns and loss of others, and the rest of the daily painful menu provided by Syria to the world. But at the end of the day, Assad will lose.
It is “organizing the loss” that counts now. One potential scenario is for Assad to retreat to the Western Alawi enclave. This de-facto partitioning of Syria will bring no peace, just as in the case of Iraq. It will be a replay of what happened last year for example but along different “borders” and in a “simpler” and straight forward configuration.
If indeed the Army of Conquest (AC) and Jabhat Al Nusra (JAN) will be sandwiched between Assad forces in the coastal strip and ISIL in the eastern desert, who thinks that such a distribution of forces will bring stability even in the short term?
In fact, the continuation of the regional conflict may very well lead the elder “wise” Sheikhs of both ISIL and Al Qaeda to announce that they overcame their differences. This could happen if the Iranians preserved their presence in the West of Syria and the Arabs thought that the major half of the battle for Syria is won and the rest is easier. Can anyone convince a winner to stop winning?
The other scenario is that ISIL could achieve a breakthrough in AC land to the west and continue until the Mediterranean through a path of blood and fire. The western strip would then be divided between the AC and ISIL. Either way, the lines will never be static, hence the war will continue.
Now, we all see how complex it is. But left on its own it will get more complex and dangerous. Very few, the author included, have the patience at this moment to argue with the statement that it is not the world’s problem. We discussed it in previous issues multiple times.
The central issue therefore is the regional conflict, followed by the problem of governance in a sectarian conscious region. And that is where this whole dilemma has to be addressed.
It is too late to de-sectarianize the Middle East now. It has become a fact of life in a far from ideal world. And it is regional powers that have to do the heavy lifting in this regard. But it is necessary first to create the context where they see that to their own benefit.
Admittedly, the US, and the international community for that matter, do not possess a magic button which make things go this or that way by a simple push. Reality is much richer and players are so many. Yet, a flag should be raised in the middle of sand to get all the tribes to know where to go.
In other words, an organizing “frame-work” should be delicately drawn to address the most relevant issues. The model in mind is the Helsinki talks and accords.
Iran has interests in preserving a pathway to Hezbollah in South Lebanon. Iran has an interest in not being threatened from its western borders. The Arabs have interests in their own region without Iranian meddling in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Working out the issues of conflict is possible. The examinations of a formula of that kind should turn into the search for “the” strategy in the Middle East, instead of turning our heads to the Pentagon or sending 450 more troops to Iraq. This is not to say that sending the 450 more troops was wrong, or that the air raids are not needed. In fact, these are the main factors that slows ISIL a little until now. But the objective is to express bafflement by the reversal of the pyramid. The military is a tool of a strategy, and preferably the very last one. It should not be hold accountable for the whole body of any given strategy. While it can back diplomacy as the role of both should be integrated in one concept in any given strategy, using the military is only the tip of the pyramid. But we really have not seen neither a strategy nor a concept. There were no options debated in any depth. And when they were, they were rejected by non-talented and incompetent political appointees.
A new Helsinki-like talks should have started some time ago. The US took the lead in the Helsinki talks in the 70’s. It sends 450 more troops to Iraq now. It is mainly a question of leadership.
The alternative is the false prudence of “let them fight it out”, “We have nothing to do with that and we can do nothing anyway” or “they will stop when they are exhausted”. This idiocy tends to see things in empirical way as a matter of methodology. For what happens in similar cases is that there are potential phenomena that slowly emerge from being implicit to become explicit. ISIL is one clear example. The logic of two warring parties destroying each other for us to see nothing at the end but ashes or nothing is, to be polite, terribly wrong. The link between the creation of the USSR and the rise of Nazism on one hand and the First World War is known as much as it is known that East Europe and the majority votes to Communist Parties in West Europe followed the Second World War.
The international community pressed Iran to negotiate its nuclear program as the common claim goes. Why then it is difficult to press the region to reach a bargain based on a reasonable exchange instead of perpetual war? Practical moves towards implementing that concept, a Helsinki Conference on the Middle East, could start directly after signing the Iran nuclear deal. Without substantial, and collective, international pressure, this concept will not materialize.
Air raids, train and equip programs and all other forms of assistance better continue of course and even increased so long as they are not looked at as an alternative to a real strategy. But a regional deal will make uprooting ISIL possible. All sides will fight ISIL and its “raison d’etre” would have been dismantled.
Time frame of the proposed regional-international talks, expected to last for months, tracks and sub-tracks, forms and preparations and all the rest of the details could be designed promptly without delay. Diplomacy will move once the leadership decides to really lead, that is once there is a concept for a real strategy. If this is not done now, there will be heavy bills to pay later.