Raghida Dergham Headshot

The War on Terror: A Key Part of Syrian Regime's Survival Strategy

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In the coming days, all eyes will be on Montreux, Davos, and The Hague, where historical events will unfold, intimately involving Iran, Syria, and their allies - especially Russia and Hezbollah, even if for different reasons. The battles for marketing each camp's positions in their public relations campaigns are intriguing if sometimes ludicrous, especially when the Russian-Syrian-Iranian axis with Hezbollah and China portray its campaign as part of the war on terror, to impose this as the foremost priority for the Geneva 2 conference meant to discuss the future of Syria, and scheduled to begin on January 22 in Montreux. In The Hague, the capital of international justice, Hezbollah and its allies Syria and Iran are in the dock, following the Special Tribunal for Lebanon's (STL) indictment of four individuals with close links to Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran, on charges of involvement in the terrorist attack that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 22 others. Moscow has decided that the terrorism that concerns it is exclusively Sunni terrorism, represented by al-Qaeda and its affiliates, being its direct enemy in Chechnya but now also in the heart of the Russian homeland. Tehran has decided to play a duplicitous game by pursuing a diplomacy of apparent engagement with Saudi Arabia, while tasking its allies Damascus and Hezbollah with railing charges against Saudi Arabia of backing terrorist groups, yet without making any distinction between the government's position in Riyadh and what Saudi families and individuals may be undertaking in this regard.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani will take his "broad-smile" diplomacy to Davos in the Alps, regardless of whether or not his Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will attend the international forum on the banks of Lake Montreux to discuss the future of Syria - an issue that may be of as much interest to Tehran as nuclear negotiations. Indeed, in Davos, where the 44th World Economic Forum will be held, lie many important keys towards easing the sanctions on Iran. But perhaps the most important weapon there will be the charm of the "broad smile" in the new diplomacy of Iran.

In Montreux and then in Geneva - where negotiations are set to be launched over implementation of the Geneva 1 communiqué to establish a transitional authority with full executive powers - the biggest challenge will be how to prevent Damascus and its allies from tearing apart the Geneva 1 communiqué and burning it in the folds of the presumed war on terror.

Terrorism is certainly present in Syria, at the decision of many actors, financiers, and volunteers. This terrorism grew at the hands of more than one local, regional, or international party. Combatting this terrorism has become the pillar of an American-Russian-European-Chinese partnership. However, the Syrian government sees terrorism on its soil as a ticket to join that partnership, if not become an icon thereof, bringing the regime salvation from accountability.

The Neo-Terrorists coming to Syria from Europe, Russia, the United States, Asia, Africa, as well as the Arab countries, are the enemies of the Syrian people and the future of Syria, no matter how much some may believe that those terrorists have the means to counter some of the brutality of the Syrian government. Their battle is not for the sake of Syria; it is an ideological war at the expense of Syria's children and future generations. So certainly, countries must come together to fight them.

Nevertheless, what is happening in Syria today, under the banner of the war on terror, is a U.S.-European failure, as Washington, London, and other European capitals tread the the path that Damascus and its allies have drafted for them.

The scramble by U.S. and European intelligence services to Damascus - as revealed in this column two weeks ago - is starting to come out into the open at the decision of the regime in Damascus, which intends to take advantage of this to forge a serious partnership that would render it indispensable in the war on terrorism. The regime is the self-styled façade and instrument of this war. It is ready to use the Neo-Terrorists to intimidate all those who are reluctant to join the partnership. To be sure, the war on terror has become a key part of the regime's strategy to survive in power. The first step towards the partnership in question was agreeing to dismantle the chemical weapons arsenal. The second step is the war on terror, according to the Russian- and Iranian-backed strategy.

There is no counter-strategy by those who oppose President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power - be they local or regional parties. International partiers, such as the U.S. and other Western powers, pretend to have a strategy based on waiting for mutual exhaustion in the war of attrition raging between the regime forces and the forces that back them, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) or Hezbollah, and the Neo-Jihadist forces or Takfiris as they are currently being termed. For its part, Russia has wagered on defeating Islamic extremism in Syria to keep it away from its cities, only to find it chasing it now to the motherland, vowing revenge against Russia for its exploits in Syria. Russia might not be alone in facing such a predicament in the future.

The Neo-Jihadists vow revenge against to all those who do not endorse their destructive ideology - including those who are supporting them today. For this reason, they can never be the answer, no matter how deep frustration in Syria becomes. They are ultimately a tool against the Syrian people, one that has succeeded in undermining the Syrian revolution and the opposition.

If the Syrian regime's strategy is to use Neo-Jihadists to help it remain in power, then there is an urgent need for a counter-strategy - one that would not be arbitrary - for those who do not want Bashar al-Assad to remain in his post.

The Montreux and then Geneva milestones are a good occasion to do more than thinking along the lines of anger, blame, and complaints against this or that party. It is an opportunity to reassess and determine what has led to failure or defeat, and to launch alternative strategies.

First of all, there is a need to prevent Geneva 2 from being pigeonholed as an anti-terrorism conference, in order to evade implementing the Geneva 1 communiqué agreed back in June 2012, and UN Security Council resolution 2118, which requires supporting the mission of Joint International-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Brahimi insists on the implementation of Geneva 1 as the reference frame for Geneva 2.

Whatever reservations Gulf parties may have on Brahimi, the veteran diplomat is no ally of Damascus, and he is not willing to give the regime a chance to hijack Geneva 2 for goals other than the ones he set forth, namely, agreeing on a transitional body in Syria with full powers.

Brahimi certainly believes in the need to stop the Neo-Jihadists from seizing Syria and turning into a battlefield for their own sick purposes. But Brahimi is sensible enough not to reduce the issue to being one of a war on terror. Furthermore, he is fully aware of who the other players in the Syrian arena are, including Hezbollah and the IRGC - which is an essential part of why he overtly wants to see Iran present at the negotiating table.

Second, there are Gulf and Saudi voices in particular demanding a seat for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the nuclear negotiations table between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany. Others are talking again about secret negotiations between some of these countries and Iran over Iran's regional role. Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are an open arena for Iranian regional ambitions. Therefore, any chance for Iran to be present at the table together with the relevant Gulf countries should be an immediate Gulf demand, not only to influence Iranian attitudes with the help of international momentum and pressure, but also because the Syrian tragedy requires an end to the bloodletting, while Iraq and Lebanon, too, are in danger of collapsing.

Third, it is worthwhile for the Gulf countries to enter as a direct party in the war on terror, to thwart the Syrian strategy that is deliberately portraying these countries as supporters of terror. It is time to turn the tables on that equation and on the goals behind it.

Fourth, instead of continuously questioning the sincerity of the diplomacy of moderation coming from Tehran and led by President Rohani, investing in that moderation would be an important cornerstone of a new strategy for the Gulf countries. If this moderation proves to be sincere, then the Gulf countries would be its partners. If moderation defeats extremists and hardliners in Tehran, then the Gulf countries would be in accord with the new leadership. If moderation is defeated, then the Gulf countries would have had proven their good intentions and determination to open a new chapter with a moderate Iran, and would also be on the side of the Western powers supporting moderation.

Fifth, an in-depth reading of U.S. attitudes leads to the conclusion that President Barack Obama will not back down on his engagement with Iran, no matter what. This is now a fixed U.S policy, requiring a serious and practical strategy that does not make threats without being willing to deploy the instruments of confrontation in earnest - should the Gulf countries choose confrontation with the United States. As the saying goes: If you can't beat them, join them.

Sixth, nothing justifies the stunning Gulf absence from the public relations battle where Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow are making huge gains. It is time for a public relations strategy to accompany the new necessary strategy for the Gulf countries. It is not enough to complain about Damascus's achievements or the West's passionate reception of the charm of Tehran's broad-smile diplomacy, no matter how long Tehran continues to pursue a policy of deliberate ambiguity and prevarication.

When President Hassan Rohani arrives in Davos, he will steal the limelight. He will have a precious opportunity and an open forum to charm those he had not won over when he visited the United Nations in New York. There is no similar Gulf strategy.

The World Economic Forum would not close its doors to Gulf leaders if they wish to participate in the event at the level of kings and emirs. It is a gathering of more than 40 heads of government and state. There are regular relations between the World Economic Forum and GCC countries and periodical joint conferences held in the latter. However, Gulf leaders are habitually absent from this important forum in Davos. It is time to reconsider this as well.

In Davos, the Tunisian experience will be present as a model of what can be achieved when there is a determination to ensure the success of the process of change in the Arab region. There will be focus on the international responsibility towards the tragedy of the Syrian refugees, and on the outcome of the Geneva 2 conference in Montreux to be held on the same day Davos - which will convene for the next four days - will begin. This requires Arab and Gulf presence in particular, with a different level of representation than usual, especially since Iran appears set to take advantage of the event exclusively to its advantage.

The Gulf countries must realize that their absence will be noted, and that the world will see their role in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon as others portray it. Kuwait, to which credit should be given, hosted a donor conference, which pledged $2.4 billion for Syrians affected by the crisis. But this is not enough for the Gulf countries to say that they have done their duty.

Geneva 2 may turn into a protracted process just like the Middle East peace process. This would be a painful result, as it would mean the continuation of the fighting and negotiations simultaneously. The international community may spare themselves from blame through humanitarian positions, but this may not attain the level of opening humanitarian corridors to deliver aid.

The first stop of the new required strategy would be to participate meaningfully to make Geneva 2 a success, so that it may achieve its stated goals, rather than circumventing them under the guise of the war on terror or through fig-leaf humanitarian measures.

It is an opportunity that the Gulf countries must not miss. It is an occasion for a comprehensive, practical, and groundbreaking surprise.

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