Unsustainable approach

Hussein Haridy
Wednesday 12 Jun 2019

If leading Arab countries are serious about curbing Iranian influence in the Middle East, Syria is the place to start

Saudi diplomacy scored three successes in the course of two days in May.The Holy city of Mecca hosted three summits on two days in a row. On 30 May, Mecca saw an Arab emergency summit as well as another summit for the heads of states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was attended by Qatar, represented by its prime minister, a first since the eruption of the diplomatic and political crisis in June 2017 that pitted it against the Arab quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. 

The third summit was the 14th Islamic summit of the member countries in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The two emergency summits were called by the Saudi government in response for the two attacks against four oil tankers near the coast of the United Arab Emirates in early May as well as two drone attacks against two Saudi pumping stations a few days later.

So far, no one has claimed responsibility, and probably no country or group will ever admit it is behind these attacks.

However, the White House national security adviser, Ambassador John Bolton, said during his visit to the United Arab Emirates last week that Iran is probably responsible in this regard and he said that Tehran used mines to launch this particular attack.

The three summits were unanimous in singling out Iran as the one country responsible for all the mischief in the Middle East, the Gulf and in Yemen.

No one would try to absolve the Iranians from interfering in Arab affairs, nor will anyone try to depict the Iranians as innocent bystanders before serious problems in the region.

However, papering over the role played by other regional powers in meddling overtly and covertly in Arab affairs makes the positions adopted against Iran in the three summits less credible.

Those who gathered in Mecca to discuss and debate the serious and grave questions facing Arab and Muslim countries should have adopted a more rigorous approach towards the role played by Israel and Turkey in Syria, for instance.

It was surprising that the participants condemned what they called Iranian intervention in Syria while ignoring completely the Turkish occupation of northern Syria and its active and blatant support for terrorist groups operating in this part of Syria.

Nor did they call on Israel to respect the sovereignty of Syria by ceasing to launch regular attacks against targets within Syria on the usual pretext that the targets were Iranian or weapon shipments for Hizbullah in Lebanon.

In this respect, it came as no surprise that the Gulf emergency summit has shown full support for American positions and actions against Iran. Maybe it was no coincidence that Ambassador Bolton made an official visit to the United Arab Emirates two days before the two emergency summits in Mecca.

During his stay, he signed a defence cooperation agreement with his Emirati counterpart, Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, on 29 May, between the United States and the United Arab Emirates.

The Mecca summits should have opted for a more independent approach towards Iran instead of aligning with the present American approach vis-à-vis Tehran.

The reason is that the White House is more interested in reaching a long-term modus vivendi with Iran that would guarantee Israeli interests, on the one hand, and prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons anytime in the future.

The question of curbing Iranian missile programmes will be more difficult to negotiate. As things stand now, it is highly doubtful that Tehran would discuss it as long as Israel keeps threatening Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

The other day, the secretary general of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, warned that in case of war against Iran, the whole Middle East would be on fire, meaning that Israel would come under missile attack, missiles that he claimed in his remarks were lethally perfected.

Hardly anyone predicts a war erupting between Washington and Tehran anytime soon, if ever. When the time comes and the Iranians would be ready to negotiate with the Americans a revised nuclear deal that would meet American conditions, the heightened tension that we have seen last month between the United States will become a distant memory and people would reconsider it for what it really was.

First to pressure Iran to accept the idea of renegotiating the nuclear deal of July 2015, and secondly as an indirect message to the North Koreans that they could face the same military pressures if they fail to denuclearise according to American terms and conditions.

Regardless of the positions adopted in Mecca towards Iran last month, it won’t be a bad idea if some Arabs and the Gulf governments keep channels of communication open with Tehran, and most importantly that relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran don’t deteriorate further.

In other words, the present tensions with Iran should be contained as much as possible. Most importantly the Iranians should not feel threatened by any Gulf country in case Washington decides to resort to war with Iran in the future, even if it is a distant possibility at present.

If some Arab countries are really serious about curbing Iranian influence in the Middle East, Syria is the place where this strategy could work. Unfortunately, the Mecca summits missed it.

In this respect, Yemen also comes to mind. However, and due to the fact that the United Nations is heavily involved in the Yemeni conflict and succeeded in negotiating the Stockholm Agreement, the top priority should be Syria where the efforts by the United Nations have not been as successful.

To counter Iranian long-term influence in the Middle East, the starting point should be Syria. This is the reason why Arab powers, foremost among which is Saudi Arabia, should get involved once again and work gradually with the Syrians to rebuild mutual confidence and restore trust.

The present Arab approach as far as the situation in Syria is concerned is untenable and unsustainable in the medium and long term. Egypt has an interest in becoming a bridge between Damascus and Riyadh.

It won’t be easy, but we should seriously work on it. We can’t let Turkey occupy northern Syria with the ultimate aim of annexing certain parts of Syria to Turkey.

This task is all the more urgent in light of a tripartite meeting in Israel during this month that will be attended by the United States and Russia. The aim of this meeting, proposed by the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is to discuss the security situation in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

The true Israeli interest is to mobilise full Russian and American support against the long-term entrenchment of Iran in Syria.

If Arab countries, or some of them, seriously want to roll back Iranian influence and its role in the Levant, the starting point is to begin thinking how to re-establish relations and communication with the Syrian government.

Without which, and amid the unconvincing persistence of condemning Iran for its role and presence in Syria, it is doubtful that the Mecca approach in this regard would prove practical, credible, effective or sustainable.

Furthermore, Arab governments should adopt a more offensive approach towards Turkish and Israeli roles in Syria and the larger Middle East.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Unsustainable approach

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