Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Syria and the new international order

This year’s UN General Assembly is marked by sweeping changes in power balances, many of which devolve down to Bashar Al-Assad’s wily construction of alliances, writes Gamil Matar

Al-Ahram Weekly

Over or nearly over are the most important days in the opening of the UN General Assembly’s new session, which will go down on record as one of the most important in the history of the international organisation. The importance derives not so much from the resolutions it adopts, as valuable and as important as they may be to causes of international peace and prosperity, as from the new position and perhaps role it assigns to the US. The world may see, during this session, the beginnings of the creation of a different way of categorising the forces of the international order. Simultaneously, this session may also bring forth a new strategic and cultural meaning for the Middle East region. I observed something remarkable among the diplomats and journalists who watched the customary inaugural ceremonies that take place at this time every year. They were unanimous in their opinion that the climate that prevailed this year was unusual, especially to those of them who annually keep track of the speeches delivered by heads of national delegations and listen to their conversations in halls and in other meetings.

But while all agreed on the extraordinary nature of the climate, they differed as to what sparked the change in the features of this session and the behaviour of some of the delegation heads. They also had varying opinions on how quickly the effects of the sudden changes will become apparent in the behaviour of certain nations and the impact of these effects on a new balance of powers that is just in the process of formation in East Asia and on another balance of powers that is verging on an end in the trans-Atlantic region. The observers strongly disagreed on the impact of these effects on the raging chaos in patterns of interaction in the Middle East. In other words, there was a wide discrepancy of views on the future and the surprises it holds with respect to world peace and peace in the Middle East in particular. Opinion converged once more on the fact that this year will be one filled with major shifts in a number of issues, especially those related to international peace and security, and with intense conflicts of opinion on the future of the Middle East.

Specialists on international diplomacy and the global media in think tanks in China, Russia and Western nations struggled to put together a list of the developments during the past few weeks that were the most instrumental, separately or collectively, in generating a picture of the international situation that contrasted considerably to the one that had prevailed a few weeks ago. While opinions vary greatly, most analysts agree that the Russian-US rapprochement over the Syrian crisis was the first catalyst of the change in the shape of international diplomacy. From my position in this extremely turbulent region, I can understand why they were so impressed by the rapprochement, whether they approved of it or not. After all, for several years the two sides had been locked in a battle of obstinacy at the level of policy and at the level of the characters of their political leaderships. There was a time when European commentators attributed that mutual bullheadedness between Washington and Moscow to mounting crises, such as the contest over the identity of Ukraine and its European orientation, the dispute over Georgia and disputed territories there, and the problems of reordering the situations in Northern and Central Asia preparatory to the largest troop withdrawal operation in the history of the US military.

Here in the Middle East, our governments and media lay the blame for the aggravation in the Syria crisis on the strains in US-Russian relations since Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin in power. A handful of our analysts, who included advocates of the idea of the US’s declining international status, hold that the US’s escalation in its posture and strategy towards Syria was calculated precisely to win Russia over to ending that phase of stubbornness and ushering a new phase of cooperation on some issues in the Middle East.

Those who subscribe to the theory that the US is in decline and that this is evidenced in major shifts in US diplomacy and global strategy see the sudden rapprochement between the US and Iran as further confirmation of their views. Some of these will point to the state of the US economy, which is virtually in chronic crisis, and to the battle of wills between the Obama administration and the Republican-dominated Congress over healthcare reform in particular, as it has been clear for months that the stand off over this issue in congressional budget hearings would lead the government to a shutdown. Under such circumstances, they argue, Washington cannot continue to impose an economic boycott on a country of the size and position of Iran.

Iran, for its part, was keen not to forfeit the opportunity presented to it by the “psychological” circumstances in the US generated by economic crisis, mounting social polarity and declining morale. I, for one, was certain that the Iranian leadership was getting closer and closer to making overtures to the US. Among the conflicting outlooks in Iran was that which held that Tehran should not escalate the confrontation with Washington at such a crisis-plagued time. Therefore, I was not surprised by Hassan Rouhani’s rapid and confident rise to power on waves of political moderation, most of which have been astutely and subtly reinforced by popular and media “sympathy” campaigns in response to the regime’s messages of rapprochement with the US.

The US’s situation offered both Moscow and Iran an opportunity that neither could afford to pass up. It was sufficient that the British House of Commons refused to allow London to enter into another military coalition with the US, against Syria this time. It was even better that US lawmakers were reluctant to let the White House embroil the US in another military confrontation in the Middle East.

In addition to these two fundamental developments, there were other developments that I do not hesitate to rank as independent factors that played an important part in shaping the political decisions taken by Tehran, Moscow and Washington. 

We cannot overlook the collapse of the “Gulf solution” to the Syrian crisis, by which I refer to the alternative spearheaded by two Gulf States to support the Syrian opposition and keep the revolution against Al-Assad’s regime burning. At the same time, I doubt that a capital such as Washington, and to a lesser extent Tehran, and to an even lesser extent Moscow, underestimates the significance of the potential disappearance from the picture of the Saudi monarch, due to advancing age, and the repercussions this will have on the entire region and on the global economy, and the US economy in particular.

There is also the factor, to which Turkey attaches great importance, which is the rise of the Syrian Kurds as a separatist force that is an influential player in the Syrian crisis and that, together, with counterparts in Iraq, raise a number of questions over the future of the Middle East. Turkey’s own concerns were not the only factor that drew attention to the Kurdish factor. It has become clear to all, Arabs and non-Arabs, that the Syrian Kurds are vital in the fight to repel Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations that have altered the shape, nature and fate of the Syrian revolution.

There remain on the list of changes that have directly or indirectly affected the international backdrop of the UN General Assembly opening session two of vital significance: one Egyptian and the other Syrian. The former change involves two developments that may not have received the attention they merit. A meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo that was held just before the UN General Assembly reconvened had, as its unpublicised aim, the adoption of an Arab resolution or statement in support of the US threat to strike targets in Syria. The Egyptian delegation adopted a position that had been expected by everyone aware of the constancy of certain “foundations and principles of Egyptian diplomacy” and that had not been expected by those prey to the conviction that Egypt is in such economic and fiscal straits that it would do anything to obtain foreign aid. That position was to vote against a resolution supporting US military intervention in Syria. I believe that the Egyptian position, in itself, was sufficient to signal to the US that the majority of Arab states would not support such an intervention.

The second development on the Egyptian front is that the terrorism situation in Egypt has exceeded the US’s worst expectations and comes to threaten the stability of an area much greater than that limited scope in Sinai which, apparently, had been a tolerated level or at least one about which many parties chose to remain silent. There are now indications of a terrorist network in Egypt with threads connecting it to the Sahel network in West Africa and to the Shabab network in Somalia and East Africa. The peril is growing and countering it requires earnest cooperation between the US and both Russia and Iran, which have proven their value in handling the Syrian crisis and merit, in Washington’s opinion, the term “regional party”.

How does Syria fit with respect to all these changes? It would be mistaken to assume that Syria, throughout its crisis, has not been more than a crisis arena. That this crisis stimulated momentous breakthroughs in international relations, between the US and Russia and the US and Iran, confirms that Syria has been and remains the main player. Without Syria, it would have been impossible for Iran to achieve an effective presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and to demand a privileged position in the regional community of Gulf nations. Without Syria, Iran and Russia, together, could not have persuaded quite a few countries that they were ready to contribute to the war against terrorism, that they strove to live in peace and understanding with their neighbours and that they were keen to prevent sectarian fragmentation in the Arab region. This, at least, is how they appeared in New York. It is also hard to deny that Syria and the Syrian crisis contributed to the success of Putin’s drive to revive some of Russia’s roles in the Middle East, or to wrest such roles from US clutches without having to risk military confrontation with the US or NATO.

Once again, Syria has displayed rare political brilliance in rallying others to its side to protect it in times of crisis. Who, a year or so ago, would have expected to see and hear Bashar Al-Assad restate his conditions for a solution to the Syrian crisis? This is the same solution with the same conditions that he proposed at the outset. He then spent the recent months weaving foreign alliances to ensure that he got what he wanted.


The writer is a political analyst and director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

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