Four men have left their mark this week on history and on their own legacies, which history will remember: US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Obama has reinforced his characteristics of isolationism, seclusion, retreat, and adherence to hesitancy and fear. Putin has persevered in his initiative, defiance, insistence, obstinacy, and freedom from fear. Rohani has ascended to the presidency wearing the mantle of moderation and reform, and they are both being tested, not just with regard to the nuclear issue, but also in terms of Iran's regional ambitions, particularly through the gateway of Syria. Erdoğan has reduced himself from a head of state leading the country to one leading only that part of the country that agrees with his obtaining 50.4 percent of votes in the elections. Those three men, who have been tested by their time in power, have matured on a background of arrogance and have been stricken with the ills of conceit and condescension. As for the fourth, he has come with the keys of breaking the isolation and lifting the sanctions imposed on Iran. But he is shackled, not just by the extremists and radicals who control the centers of power and the regime in Tehran, but also by his record, his promises and his country's involvement beyond its borders. These four men have left appalling and surprising marks on a world that wavers on the brink of being torn apart, amid contradictory and polarizing visions.
President Barack Obama has bared his chest and "spilled the beans" before heading to the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) in Northern Ireland this week. He spoke to journalist Charlie Rose at the PBS network, stubbornly clinging to his refusal to get implicated in the war in Syria. He made clear what his "no's" were, expressing his irritation at those who would call on him to reconsider them. He described what they suggest as being "simplistic" and reiterated that there was no easy solution, defending himself before his critics - which include members of the House of Representatives who supported the step of arming the Syrian opposition after the Obama administration reached the conclusion that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad used chemical weapons.
Obama's "no's", as seemed clear in his television interview, include the "no" to a no-fly zone in Syria, which would necessitate the participation of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO). The US President not only said that establishing a no-fly zone would not lead to saving lives or altering the course of the conflict. He literally said "the fact of the matter is for example 90 percent of the deaths that have taken place haven't been because of air strikes by the Syrian Air Force - the Syrian Air Force isn't particularly good: they can't aim very well", indicating that most of the activity was taking place "on the ground". The US President has thus done the regime in Damascus a favor without anything in return, reassuring it that there would neither be a no-fly zone nor any condemnation of it for using the air force to murder children in Syria. Obama's other "no", which the US President made quite clear, is a "no" to setting up "humanitarian corridors" to save civilians in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition. Barack Obama seemed incoherent in his answer, wondering "are you, in fact, committed not only to stopping aircraft from going over that corridor but also missiles?" He said that setting up "humanitarian corridors" to save civilians would require airstrikes that would cause additional civilian casualties.
The US President thus concludes that it would be preferable to leave those civilians hostage to airstrikes, out in the open and without any help, so as for NATO not to be forced to protect them and get implicated. He said: if a humanitarian corridor were to be exposed to airstrikes, "are you prepared then to bomb Damascus? And what happens if there are civilian casualties?" He then added, wondering and deriding, so as to sow terror and take the blame off of himself: "and have we mapped all of the chemical weapons facilities inside of Syria to make sure that we don't drop a bomb on a chemical weapons facility that ends up then dispersing chemical weapons and killing civilians?" Even supplying the Syrian opposition with advanced weapons was subject to Obama's "no", as he rejected in the interview the claims of those opposing him in Congress and elsewhere that arming the moderate opposition would alter the course of the conflict and thwart the plans of the extremist opposition. He said that providing anti-helicopter or anti-tank weapons would not alter the course of the conflict and that those who so claim are "not being realistic analyzing the situation on the ground". In his view, those who speak the language of no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors are merely offering a "simplistic solution".
Perhaps most striking in the interview of Obama's "no's" is what he said about Sunnis and Shiites in the war in Syria, which Hezbollah has entered as a direct party to on behalf of, and in coordination with, Iran. The US President said that he was opposed to taking sides with the Sunnis in the Syrian conflict as certain parties in the Middle East were demanding, pointing to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others. He considered that this would not serve American interests. The US President has thereby determined the position of the United States in the war in Syria as being closer to the Islamic Republic of Iran than to its traditional allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
At the G8 conference, the US President seemed dejected and displeased next to the Russian President. The reason is certainly not connected to Obama's "no's", as he had before arriving to Northern Ireland met the demands made by Putin, who had resolutely declared his complete opposition to setting up a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors, as well as to providing the Syrian opposition with advanced weapons. Indeed, Obama generously offered him his own stamp of approval on such opposition, without anything in return. All Obama wanted from Putin were a few concessions on the issue of Bashar Al-Assad's position in the process of political transition in Syria. Putin has been increasingly inflexible on this issue and has clung to refusing to mention Assad's fate in the G8 summit declaration or in the Geneva 2 conference, which he claims holds the key for a political solution in Syria.
Vladimir Putin triumphed in Northern Ireland, in the heartland of the seven Western industrial nations, who had welcomed their eighth partner a few years ago so that it may join their consensus, not break and undermine it. Putin has triumphed and offered his victory to Bashar Al-Assad, as well as to Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. Vladimir Putin and his allies have triumphed as a result of the valuable ammunition provided by Barack Obama, willingly, by choice and without anything in return. Indeed, the US President does not want to get implicated in Syria, and that is why he is hesitating, backing down and combining discontent with seclusion and isolationism. Putin's obstinacy, his inflexibility, and his victory against Obama will increasingly mislead Assad and drive him to commit colossal mistakes against his country. The Syrian President may believe that what happened at the G8 summit and the conclusions reached by the summit, in a vapid declaration that neither warns him nor holds him to account, represent "carte blanche" for him to continue on his path and extend the victory he achieved with Hezbollah in Qusayr to the battle of Aleppo. But he may well be surprised.
To be sure, despite public indications at the G8 summit, covert decisions have been made not to allow Assad and Hezbollah's victories to become a fait accompli. Furthermore, what British Prime Minister David Cameron, who chaired the summit, said about not being able to "imagine a Syria where this man continues to rule having done such awful things to his people" is indicative not just of the radical disagreement between Western countries and Russia in this respect, but also of the future of the Geneva 2 conference in its entirety. This is in addition to what British newspaper The Times mentioned about the fact that "President Assad's henchmen would be allowed a role in a rebuilt Syria, [as] world leaders said yesterday [at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland] in an attempt to encourage a coup against the dictator". This might explain the oft-repeated assertion by Russian leaders that they were not "in love" with Assad, and that they did not cling to him personally remaining in power but rather to the regime.
Meanwhile, Iran's President-elect will not behave with arrogance and conceit, like Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or even like his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his ally Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. He is the new face which Ayatollah Khamenei has wished to reach power, because it is the face that is necessary for the regime of the mullahs in Tehran during this important phase of transition. He is said to be the man who would break international isolation and would contain the impact of sanctions on Iran. The main feature of his relationship of truce with the West is the nuclear issue, in which Hassan Rohani will display quintessentially Iranian skill and expertise, making use of the momentum of his coming to power. On this issue, Rohani will cling to the "right' to enrich uranium to the point of obtaining all capabilities, but without activating nuclear military capabilities. Thus, and if he places the course of the nuclear issue on a new track, Rohani is resolved to begin breaking the siege of the sanctions imposed on Iran.
Iran's involvement in Syria will prevent all of this, if Iran continues to violate Security Council Resolution 1773, which bans it from arming any party beyond its borders. This resolution represents an important asset which Western countries have decided not to waste in the flames of the Russian-Chinese veto prematurely. Yet such an asset hangs like a sword over the heads of those who would break Iran's isolation and lift the sanctions imposed on it. This is why one of the main challenges facing the President-elect lies in Syria. Indeed, it is there that reside both the international aspect and the regional aspect equally. There, Iran's relationship with its neighbors in the Gulf, and most prominently the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, can be repaired. And it is perhaps specifically there that a Saudi-Iranian conversation of a different kind can begin, after Hassan Rohani has come to power with a face of moderation and reform, and after Barack Obama has clarified what he did in his television interview about Sunnis and Shiites in the ongoing confessional war. Indeed, the Americans hold exactly the same position as the Russians in terms of their relationship of truce with the Shiites as led by Iran and of their reluctance to engage in a relationship of alliance with the Sunnis - each for their own reasons, which are not devoid of the flavor of terrorism for both the Americans and the Russians equally.
Iran's President-elect may well realize that it is imperative for the drift towards a Shiite religious regime as represented by Iranian radicals to recede, before it contributes to diminishing, besieging and thwarting itself by itself. This may well be what his Turkish counterpart in sponsoring a Sunni religious regime, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has failed to realize. Both represent models that have not matured, and in fact have failed to grow and are preparing to recede and collapse. And when this happens, it may be time to awaken Egypt from its deep slumber, so that it may assume the necessary leadership of the Arabs. Yet that is a distant prospect, as it seems today.
Today, and specifically in Istanbul, Erdogan has fallen to the tune of his own arrogance and of presumption that allows him to impose on and dictate to a people half of whom have found favor in geography (Europe) and in history (Atatürk). It is a people who did not accept for their secularism to be drained away for the sake of religious fundamentalism and of achieving glory in the name of the caliphate of the Muslim Brotherhood - a people who rose and held Erdogan to account when he ate away at their freedom and tried to eradicate their liberty in the name of a prosperous economy or of religion. Thus Erdogan has brought down his own biography in Taksim Square at the hands of the youth.
Four men thus leave three legacies, over which history will testify that they have, for the most part, miscalculated. And hope in the fourth mark is quite faint.