A series of major events has shaken a number of Arab countries recently, threatening their individual national security as well as collective Arab regional security. The most recent was the Turkish invasion into northern Syria, targeting Syria’s Kurdish citizens.
The invasion should come as no surprise to anyone. Ankara had been preparing for it for months in the framework of a US-Turkish understanding in accordance with which the US would withdraw its forces from border areas, leaving its allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), exposed and vulnerable. Then the US and Turkey would create a “safe zone” in which would be collected the remnants of the Islamic State (IS) group.
The US president’s subsequent statements about Washington’s continued support for the Kurds could not cover up that agreement and its consequences, no matter how much verbiage was given to the need for Turkey to adhere to its obligations to keep civilians out of harm’s way, not to attack the Kurds, and to take custody of some 32,000 IS prisoners and their families and to prevent them from making a terrorist comeback.
Shortly before this development, Iran staged a direct drone and missile attack against Saudi oil installations. This was not the first incident of its kind. Not long before that came similar attacks against the Emirati Fujairah Port, against oil freighters in the Gulf and against Abha airport in Saudi Arabia.
Houthi claims of responsibility did not exculpate Iran of using those weapons itself or by proxy. All available evidence shows that Iran was behind those attacks either directly or through the provision of money, arms and training.
These incidents occurred after the US opened a door to interact with the terrorist Houthi group. Despite US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s condemnation of Iranian behaviour as “a declaration of war” and despite Iran’s downing of a US drone over international waters, the bottom line in the US response to Iranian actions was that they did not take place on US territory.
Thirdly, after many years of negotiation and despite numerous appeals on the part of research centres and assessment teams concerning the potentially detrimental impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Sudan and Egypt, Ethiopia has once again moved to ignore Egypt’s historical rights to the Nile, a transboundary watercourse.
The US response to Ethiopia’s attitudes was feeble and failed to appreciate Egypt’s vital interests. How strikingly this contrasts with all the encourage Washington has given Israel, recently, by relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem and condoning the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan and Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.
The foregoing developments and many others show that all regional powers bordering the Arab world — Iran, Turkey, Israel and Ethiopia — have tried in one way or another to exploit the “immune deficiency” that has afflicted the Arab region since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in order to gobble up territory, expand their sway and augment their interests at the expense of Arab countries.
If this tells us anything, it is that we need to thoroughly revise Arab strategies that have long been based on the existence of special relations with the US which would work to help us strike a balance with hostile regional powers, to build bridges with them or to deter their ambitions in our region. Actual practice has put paid to such thinking. Washington, under Donald Trump, is in a process of withdrawal. It is recoiling inward for fear of those “endless wars”, as Trump just put it a few days ago. The once mighty deterrent power has shrunk into a soft power that betrays its allies at every turn.
Arab strategies also depended on special relations with other international powers, such as Japan, Germany, France and the UK, because of oil. But when it came to the crux, the reactions of those powers were not commensurate to the nature or magnitude of the crises.
At best they made some ineffective stabs at mediating or other types of diplomatic action. But mostly, they were waiting for the US to shake itself out of its current mood as they struggled to contend with their own problems having to do with China, Brexit or the future of the EU.
Lastly, our strategies were also informed by a belief that international law and UN bodies such as the General Assembly and Security Council had some special force when it came to settling disputes between the Arabs and their regional neighbours. Again, realities have proven that the force of law and these bodies carry little weight in the face of hostile powers bent on exploiting the current weakness of the international order in order to use military force for the purposes of blackmail and winning privileges and gains to which they have no right.
These adverse developments are coming at time when Arab countries are working to implement radical reform programmes to set their countries and societies more firmly and dynamically on the path to progress and development. They do not need confrontations and tensions that obstruct the realisation of these goals and aspirations. Striking an appropriate balance between domestic and external challenges is not impossible once we come to the conviction that is pointless to wait for the US “Godot”.
There are options available. Above all, formulating a new strategic revision should take place within an Arab framework and be based on what already exists, such as the quadripartite coalition and joint military manoeuvres, the most recent of which was the “Red Wave” joint exercises in the Red Sea.
A feasible strategy must also be based on a clearer understanding of the contemporary global order in which the US is finished as the world’s sole superpower, leader of globalisation and main driver of major technological developments in the world. The world has shifted to a tripartite order, headed by the US, China and Russia. The first is on its way out, the second is keeping its feet planted in the Middle East and the third is growing closer to this region’s heart and has close relations with all parties.
It should be stressed, here, that Russia, at present, holds the keys to the situation in the Levant and the complex weave of political and ethnic/sectarian relations that shape the Syrian crisis. Therefore, President Vladimir Putin’s forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia may offer hope for new opportunities. Perhaps the Russian proposal for a regional security conference will open the door to Arab action, especially when security and development are brought together into a single package.
The details of such a concept are not the sort of thing to be bandied about in the press. They need to be studied and discussed soberly in political and diplomatic frameworks whose priorities are stability in the Middle East, preventing foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of Arab nations, the preservation of territorial unity and integrity, halting the arms race and pressing the fight against terrorism.
The starting point is to condemn Turkish and Iranian military interventions in the region and to establish relations based not just on nonaggression but also on good neighbourliness, mutually beneficial exchanges, a halt to antagonistic propaganda and ceasefires on all battle fronts, whether in Yemen or in Syria. An Arab summit is needed in order to set this in motion and its main focus would be to consider how to forge a new and serious Arab strategy.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.