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Raghida Dergham Headshot

Obama and Putin Fighting With Other People's Soldiers... and the Battle Will Be Long

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The U.S. President Barack Obama wants to show that he is patient and that his thinking is strategic, as he claims that that his policies have led to tangible results without having to carry out his threats and pledges. He is claiming that his firmness is what led Syria to surrender its chemical weapons arsenal to be dismantled, citing his threat of military action against Damascus, which he withdrew in the 11th hour. He is also saying that he hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin would recalculate and change course before he decides to impose further sanctions on Russia because of its actions over Ukraine. Barack Obama has delegated his policy of diligence and patience to Secretary of State John Kerry, who was embarrassed by his president's retreat in Syria, and who struggled to snatch some concessions from his Russian counterpart in Ukraine. Today, Kerry is in the eye of the storm in Palestine and Israel, where patience is wearing off and the negotiations are foundering and are on the verge of collapse. In effect, these three issues are testing Barack Obama, but they are not the only ones putting him under a microscope. True, Obama is reassured by the mostly isolationist American public, which does not want to play a role outside the United States and does not want the president to become involved in adventures without being forced to do so. However, one element that could change this is that the American over-complacence might suddenly wake up to the bitter situation, even though it may not involve Americans directly or otherwise. Another could be the backfiring of the over-manipulation of others, only to back down, dither, and retreat, and show a lack of determination and firmness -- i.e. the qualities usually associated with the U.S. president in the minds of other leaders, who have found in Barack Obama a chance to pounce and engage in excesses without being held to account.

The three issues deserve a closer evaluation, given their direct significance but also the significance of their implications. First, Ukraine has become a major test for the future of the relationship between Russia and NATO countries. If the proposed sanctions are implemented, the repercussions will extend all the way to China. Second, Syria has become a refugee-exporting country, a magnet for international terrorism, and a theater for compulsory wars at its own expense. This is in addition to the determination of the Syrian leadership to restore its previous role in shaping the future of neighboring countries through covert and political meddling -- as though it is still at the height of its power and has not turned into a party in a civil war. Lebanon in particular is an example of the long hand of the Syrian leadership, with its audacity in linking Lebanese presidential elections to the Syrian presidential elections, which the United Nations has said undermines the negotiations for a political solution in Syria. And third, the Palestinian-Israeli issue is in a critical stage, with the peace process now moribund on the Palestinian level, and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas adopting a new approach in dealing with the crippling preconditions, whose true aim is to circumvent the internationally endorsed two-state solution.

Mahmoud Abbas fulfilled all the requests of the U.S. administration, and showed serious appreciation for the good faith and efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has conducted more than 24 visits to the region to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Abbas has wagered on the sincerity and determination of the Obama administration to sponsor the peace process, and made ​​concessions and postponed the implementation of all procedures that the State of Palestine has the right to implement, most notably the right to join the Rome Statute, which would give Palestine the right to join the International Criminal Court. The ICC would then allow Palestine to demand the trial of those in charge of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mahmoud Abbas carried out his obligations agreed upon with Israel, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped implementing his commitments related to the release of the prisoners made ​​as part of the agreement reached with U.S. sponsorship. Abbas warned Netanyahu that his failure to honor his promises would force him to make a stand, especially as Israel added to the agreements dictates and additional conditions, most notably prior Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, or rather, as a state for Jews.

The Palestinian Authority's recognition of Israel as Jewish state is almost a non-issue. But asking it to recognize Israel as a state for Jews only means agreeing to making over one million Palestinians inside Israel into second-class citizens. This will not happen.

If Israel pledges -- with international guarantees in advance -- that Israel as a Jewish state is only a motto, while the state, in accordance with the laws and the constitution to be drafted, does not discriminate in favor of Jews and against Palestinian citizens, then those defending the Israeli demand may have the right to do so. But for this demand to remain an essential Israeli precondition, then this is bad faith on Israel's part in addressing what a majority of Israelis consider a demographic dilemma, as a result of the presence of one million Palestinians in Israel, which has a population of about 5 million. This insistence on a formal Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, in practice, is aimed at pushing the Palestinian Authority to withdraw from the negotiations and then hold it responsible for the failure of the peace process and the two-state solution -- when the reality is that Israel does not really want a two-state solution, save for Israel's numerically weak moderate factions such as the Peace Now movement.

This week, following a seven-year period of estrangement and division, the PLO and Hamas reached a national reconciliation agreement, which includes the formation of a consensus government within five weeks, followed by elections 6 months later. Israel responded with an airstrike in Gaza, and then cancelled a scheduled round of talks. The U.S. State Department issued a statement opposing the reconciliation agreement, calling Hamas a terrorist group bent on Israel's destruction, in Washington's eyes. Thus, the U.S. State Department entered the blame game against the Palestinians in solidarity with Israeli positions.

Americans for Peace Now (APN), a U.S.-based organization, issued a statement calling the reconciliation agreement "historic," for uniting the two leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza, which would allow the Palestinian leadership to hold negotiations for a more feasible peace treaty with Israel. The head of APN, Debraa DeLee, called on the Obama administration to welcome the good news, and urged Obama and Netanyahu to continue interacting with President Mahmoud Abbas instead of attacking him because of Palestinian reconciliation.

Mahmoud Abbas adopted a remarkable strategy in the past few weeks. He declared that Palestine would sign up to join international treaties, including the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians under occupation, but avoided joining the Rome Statute and the ICC at this juncture. He spoke about the possibility of dissolving the Palestinian Authority, a very serious prospect with repercussions of the utmost importance. If the decision were made to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, this would mean abolishing the Oslo Accords and the Palestinian Authority's security, judicial, and financial responsibility toward the Palestinians in the West Bank. This means that this responsibility would be completely transferred to Israel, as the occupation force in the West Bank. Therefore, the implications for the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority would mean forcing Israel to take security and financial responsibility for more than two and a half million Palestinians under occupation, something that is no doubt costly for Israel.

Such a course of action would invalidate the State of Palestine's ICC option, which would in turn be very costly for Israel, if not materially then morally, because the inclusion of Israeli officials on the lists of war crimes and crimes of humanity suspects is no simple matter.

Thus, Mahmoud Abbas has made it clear that he has effective and powerful tools at his disposal, and two options that can be harmful and costly for Israel. In the meantime, Abbas has opted to conclude a national reconciliation agreement with the Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, to bring Hamas into the decision making related to the Palestinian territories. For one thing, Israel does not consider Gaza to be occupied, after it withdrew from it unilaterally. Hence, the decision to dissolve the Palestinian Authority would first and foremost affect the West Bank, while the decision to prosecute the occupation would also be focused on the West Bank.

At the same time, through the reconciliation, a consensus government, and elections, Mahmoud Abbas has given Ismail Haniyeh the responsibility to prove himself in peace, and not just in war. If he was truly in favor of a peace treaty with Israel on the basis of the Arab initiative, then Haniyeh must be prepared to recognize Israel as a state neighboring Palestine. But if he decides to play games for dishonest goals and objectives, then Haniyeh would be showing his group's true colors to the Palestinians in general, and the Arab and Islamic nations committed to the Arab peace initiative.

In other words, Mahmoud Abbas has made all players, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Americans, the Arabs, and the Muslims face up to the responsibilities of this historic moment. His strategy is worthwhile as long as he does not bow to Israeli or U.S. pressure.

This brings us to the reputation of the U.S. president and his methods based on non-confrontation and avoiding responding to provocations. In the Palestinian-Israeli issue as in the Ukrainian issue, Barack Obama does not want to jump into a confrontation. He may criticize, and blame one side or another, but he will not intervene assertively to head off the Palestinian measures Mahmoud Abbas is vowing to implement or push back again Mahmoud Abbas himself.

President Barack Obama may feel frustrated by Israeli practices toward the Palestinians, and Russian practices toward Ukraine, but he will not be rushing to take action. His wager currently is on positions that could lead to changes in Mr. Putin's calculus, as he put it. President Obama is saying that a list of sanctions on Russia is ready if President Vladimir Putin continues to not implement what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had promised during a meeting last week with John Kerry on Ukraine. He has stated that a sanctions list is "teed up," its main objective to alter "Mr. Putin's calculus."

However, when asked whether he has indeed decided to impose sanctions on Russia, Barack Obama answers in his preferred manner, and says, "We have prepared for the possibility of applying additional sanctions. There's always the possibility that Russia, tomorrow, or the next day, reverses its course and takes a different approach." Obama also said that the United States has done its homework in terms of studying the sanctions, which would "hurt" Russia, but that "there are some things the United States can do alone [and] ultimately it's going to have to be a joint effort, a collective effort."

Some Americans accuse President Obama of dragging his feet again, leaving Putin in the driving seat as he ignores U.S. and European threats, because he is convinced that Barack Obama would back down. These Americans see Obama's attitudes as harmful to the United States and U.S. interests.

Others see Obama's approach as a way to lure Putin to implicate himself in more than one issue and spot, from Ukraine and Syria, to spearheading the war on Islamic extremism. For this reason, Obama is giving Putin a rope to hang himself with, without much U.S. involvement.

The common denominator between what Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are both doing is that they are fighting with the soldiers of others. No U.S. troops will be fighting in Syria or Ukraine. And no Russian soldiers have lost their lives as Russia restored its "greatness" globally through the gateway of Syria, where Syrian lives not Russian are being sacrificed in this epic battle. As Putin once told a visitor about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: How can you think or imagine that I would forsake him? This young man brought the whole world to me.

Putin will not abandon Assad, and he does not care if the peace process sponsored by the Americans and Russians in Geneva 1 and 2 collapses. In the end, this is a "process," but Assad's survival is a necessary "strategy" for Russia and its ally Iran, at least for the time being.

For this reason, Bashar al-Assad will get a new term through official elections in early June, and Russia, Iran, China, and the government in Damascus will not care much if Western powers judge that the election would delegitimize Assad's presidency. The axis understands that Western powers -- led by the United States -- would not resort to coercive measures, especially as they're walking a tightrope between Ukraine, the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the human tragedy in Syria, and with them, the signs of the political option in Syria collapsing in favor of the reemerging military option.

All this does not mean that a side will prevail in Syria, that Russia has triumphed in Ukraine, or that Iran will get the sanction relief it desires.

It is a lengthy and complicated process in which the major actors are playing with the lowest possible cost to them in terms of soldiers, but the hidden cost lying in the fine print may be prohibitive. It is premature to get carried away with triumphalist discourses.

Translated from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi

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