Rarely in modern and contemporary Arab history has the Arab world been so weak, so disunited and so helpless before strategic challenges to its own security and stability.
Last Thursday, 17 October, US Vice President Mike Pence announced what he termed a ceasefire agreement between Syria’s Kurds and Turkey in northern Syria for a period of 120 hours, a span of time that would allow the Kurds (the Democratic Syrian Forces, composed mainly of Kurds and some Syrian Arabs) to withdraw from this part of Syrian territory. The announcement was made on the premises of the US Embassy in Ankara after a four-hour interview in the Turkish capital with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr Pence was accompanied by a high-level American delegation that included US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US State Department envoy to Syria, among other officials. Many American politicians on both sides of the aisle within Congress and in the executive branch have considered the agreement as a “near total victory” for the Turkish president who has gained an official American acknowledgement of his seizure of Syrian territories.
The agreement has promised Turkey that Kurdish forces would pull out of the “safe zone”, accepting the concept of a safe zone to ensure the security needs of Turkey and the lifting of American sanctions that were hastily imposed after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria on 9 October. In addition, the United States committed to no further sanctions.
Was the agreement a ceasefire agreement or something else? As the saying goes, the devil is in the detail, as well as in the interpretation. Unsurprisingly, the US administration did its best to shine a light on it. However, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, affirmed that it was not a ceasefire at all, but merely a “pause for our operation”. He added that “as a result of our president’s skilful leadership, we got what we wanted.” To drive the point home, Erdogan said on Saturday, 19 October, “we know very well what we want. If it happens, it happens; if not, the minute that 120 hours ends, we will continue from where we left it and keep on crushing the heads of terrorists.” As a matter of fact, and despite the official American take on what was agreed upon between the president of Turkey and US vice president, the agreement was nothing but an official American surrender to a Turkish diktat in northern Syria.
In the context of American domestic politics, the American-Turkish agreement was but a futile exercise in damage control by the administration of US President Donald Trump who shoulders, both historically and strategically, responsibility for the further destabilisation of Syria and the Middle East. Not only this, but also responsibility for the possible resurgence of the “Islamic State” group in the medium term.
Ambassador Jeffrey commented after the announcement of the “ceasefire agreement” that the loss of Kurdish (Syrian, by the way) territory was better than continued violence and bloodshed as Turkish troops advanced. There is no doubt, he said, that the People’s Protection Units (YPC) wishes that they could stay in these areas. “It is our assessment that they have no military ability to hold onto these areas,” he added.
Strangely enough, no Arab governments commented officially on the American-Turkish agreement that has publicly and officially accepted the Turkish military occupation in northern Syria. This silence has given Ankara carte blanche to remain in Syrian territories till such time that so-called “Turkish security interests” are met.
Regrettably, the only Arab reaction on the official level was the statement released in the wake of the emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers on Saturday, 12 October — a meeting that was called for by Egypt. No follow-through has been apparent, unfortunately. Not even after the Arab Syrian Army redeployed in Syrian-Turkish areas in the north for the first time in eight years. We would have expected a statement — even on background — from Arab capitals to support this move. Seemingly, Arab governments have decided to keep hush-hush till great and regional powers decide on the best possible political solution to the Syrian question.
Last Thursday, 17 October, the day Pence was announcing the agreement with Turkey, two high-level Russian envoys were in Damascus after a visit to Turkey. According to a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Moscow and Ankara believe that the political stability of Syria would be ensured through the restoration of Syria’s territorial integrity.
In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad reiterated in his talks with the two Russian envoys that progress “must” be centred on “stopping the Turkish aggression and the withdrawal of Turkish and American troops as well as all other forces deployed, illegally, on Syrian territories.” He made it clear that resisting their presence by all means is lawful.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia is working on helping the Syrian government regain its sovereignty over Syrian territories, on the one hand, and ensuring Turkish security on the other. The Turkish president was expected to visit Russia on Tuesday, 22 October, to meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss the situation in northern Syria and the future work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee is that due to convene its first session 30 October.
In parallel, the Iranians and the Turks are in constant touch to coordinate their respective moves in Syria and the larger Middle East. Meanwhile, the Americans with their Arab allies and partners in the region, including Israel, keep talking about the Iranian threat.
After the visit to Ankara last week, Mr Pompeo flew directly to Israel and met the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to assure the latter that the US withdrawal from Syria, that paved the ground for the Turkish invasion of Syria, should not be interpreted as a weakening of American policy and resolve to defend the security of Israel.
The Arab security system is in complete shambles. The security of Arab countries has been outsourced to foreign powers.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.