Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A sombre ending

In his last UN General Assembly, Barack Obama is faced with a Middle East reality that is very far from what he once promised, Dina Ezzat reports

A sombre ending
A sombre ending
Al-Ahram Weekly

The United States, Russia and other key players in the Syria peace process were scheduled to meet Tuesday in New York after Syria’s army announced the end of a week-long truce, a US spokesman said.

Foreign ministers from the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) comprised of some 20 countries, including Saudi Arabia (that called for the meeting) and Turkey, will assess the situation, said US State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner.

The meeting takes place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that will be attended by both US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had just finalised the beginning of a truce for Syria earlier in the month, in China, on the sidelines of the G20 meetings.

The truce that went into effect last weekend was already falling apart Monday, practically on the eve of the Syria meeting, with alleged violations mounting by the Syrian government and rebel forces.

Both sides openly announced the failure of the truce and offered no promises on its possible resumption. However, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the truce is still there, “But it is very fragile.”

It is unlikely, according to Arab diplomats taking part in the New York consultations on Syria, that the international meeting on Syria would help provide a major breakthrough that could lead to any serious progress in containing hostilities in Syria.

“I guess that this is what the Saudis will be saying in the meeting, and it was Riyadh that called for this meeting. They would say that without a solid political base it is unrealistic to expect a sustainable cessation of hostilities and if the world is tired of the scenes of refugees dying in the sea while trying to flee the horrifying conflict in Syria, it better put pressure on the Syrian president to come to terms with a political deal,” said one Arab diplomat who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly by phone from New York on Monday.

According to Western diplomats, however, it is highly unlikely that the international community will move forward to put pressure on Bashar Al-Assad. In the words of one, “There is actually no international consensus on what to do with Syria”. This, the diplomat said, is not just a Moscow-Washington disagreement. “It is also the disagreement of the closest Middle East allies, with Riyadh, for example, supporting the rebels and Cairo supporting the Al-Assad regime.”

 “The simple fact is that Bashar Al-Assad is not losing and is not winning, and the Russians are not giving up on one of their few footholds left in the troubled Middle East and the Americans are not pushing enough, with an outgoing administration, for conclusive diplomacy there,” commented the same Arab diplomat speaking from New York.

He argued that what the international meeting is designed to do, “from what I can see, at least from the Saudi perspective,” is “to garner an anti-Bashar momentum and to remind the world that it would be much easier to settle many conflicts in the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli [struggle], with Bashar out of the picture.”

Two senior European diplomats in the region and in leading European capitals told the Weekly that Saudi diplomacy has been actively engaging the Israelis on this point of view, with one suggesting that there is “no indication” that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is willing to accept change in Syria.

Instead, what the international diplomatic community is realistically expecting is for world leaders to attend a meeting that was also scheduled to convene Tuesday, upon the initiative of the US president, to make serious pledges to direct attention to what the West qualifies as alarming and unending refugee flows coming from Syria, as well as from other parts of the conflict-shaken Middle East.

The “Leaders Summit on Refugees” will come only one day after the “Summit for Refugees and Migrants” that convened in New York Monday — the first such high level summit on refugees and migrants.

There is no direct link between the two meetings. However, Obama’s “Leaders Summit on Refugees” was expected to move one step beyond the “Summit on Refugees and Migrants” that adopted a relatively promising declaration, with UN member states and international and regional organisations promising to do more to help reduce the volume of suffering that refugees and forced migrants have to endure, not just by providing them with real possibilities towards new beginnings but also ending the growing xenophobia that is dominating in the West.

In his statements during the meeting, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said: “Today’s summit represents a breakthrough in our collective efforts to address the challenges of human mobility.” He added that the adoption of the New York Declaration will mean that “more children can attend school; more workers can securely seek jobs abroad, instead of being at the mercy of criminal smugglers, and more people will have real choices about whether to move once we end conflict, sustain peace and increase opportunities at home.”

“I suppose the principles that were adopted in today’s summit should be transformed tomorrow in the Obama initiative meeting,” said a humanitarian advocate who also spoke to the Weekly from New York.

“Yes, you could say it is about making a serious commitment to receive more refugees and to provide more money to help refugees and displaced individuals — not just in the West, but also in the countries of the region, where the biggest conflicts break out,” he added.

Humanitarian organisations who took part in the Monday meeting said that rich countries have a bigger role to play than just calling for meetings, making “inadequate” financial pledges, or taking in a few more hundreds from the flow of millions of refugees.

The international humanitarian community in New York this week underlined that only a few Western countries have taken up a serious role in accommodating refugee flows that have mainly been coming from Syria, while the vast majority of the refugees are “ill-hosted” in Middle Eastern countries with considerable financial challenges, with some fearing that xenophobia and Islamophobia in the West make matters more complicated.

In the words of a member of one of the world’s most prominent humanitarian organisations, “Let us face it, they may not say it openly, but some countries privately say that they would rather get non-Muslim refugees. This is a big problem because, for example, in the case of Syria most of the refugees are Muslims. This is not just about the parts of Syria that have been hit most by the conflict, but about some basic demographic facts.”

Humanitarian workers and diplomats agree that world leaders might end their meeting Tuesday with decent pledges but that there is no firm resolve yet to make sure that the world will not witness more shocking images like those of Aylan Kurdi or Omar Dakneesh, the Syrian boy whose body was found dead on the shores of Turkey, and the other Syrian boy who was saved in total shock from the rubble of his family home in Syria.

European diplomats based in the Middle East say they fear “there are worse” scenarios to come of more flows of refugees arriving to the shores of southern Europe from the Middle East.

“It is very hard to speculate on Libya, for example, with so many conflicting wills that might take this country towards a very long term conflict. And of course it is hard to predict what will happen with Syria,” said one.

The Middle East that Obama is leaving on exit from the White House is far from the one the world anticipated when his term in office started in 2009.

In his first speech before the UNGA on 23 September 2009, Obama promised to work hard on the evasive Palestinian/Arab-Israeli peace, the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and human rights and development.

Today, apart from the ground-breaking deal with Iran that ended close to a four-decade stand-off between the West and Tehran, there is very little the Obama administration has to show for its efforts in this part of the world.

“The Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that he promised to resume are dead, and the Arab Spring that he hesitated upon at first and then supported is all but fully defeated,” commented a Washington-based Arab diplomat.

When Obama makes his last speech before the UNGA Tuesday, the same diplomat added, he will have to acknowledge dismay when it comes to his handling of the Middle East, “even with regards to Iraq that he successfully pulled US troops from”.

Political science professor at the American University in Cairo, Rabab Al-Mahdi, argued that the failure to secure any serious progress in settling the Arab-Israeli struggle, or pursuing the path of democracy that was offered by the onset of the Arab revolutions, is more a function of Middle East factors than outside influence.

“This is not to say that there is no criticism to be made of Obama’s policies in this region. But the point here is whether or not the Middle East was still a priority to the Obama administration, as it was to previous US administrations,” Al-Mahdi said.

She added: “It was very clear by the end of Obama’s first term, and certainly by the beginning of his second (which would typically have been the time for him to take bold decisions on difficult issues like the Middle East negotiations), that for Obama the priorities were about China, Asia Pacific and Brazil, not the Middle East.”

In the “Obama Doctrine” interview that The Atlantic magazine printed in spring, Obama added yet another reason to explain the Middle East of 2016: the reluctance of influential Arab regimes to take bold decisions, with the conflict in Syria being the most obvious example, exacerbated by mounting Sunni-Shia tension stemming from grave regional miscalculations.

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