By Raghida Dergham*
President Barack Obama has a precious opportunity to carve out a legacy for himself and carry out a coup against the reputation of weakness, repudiation and retreat that has dogged and haunted him. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had invited the U.S. president to a war, which has opened a window for Barack Obama to shape his own fate rather than leaving his historical political legacy in the hands of others. If he shows boldness and acts decisively from a position of strength and leverage, President Obama will be able to leave the White House on a white horse of sorts, instead of leaving the presidency while being chased by a reputation for political failure and for contributing to the strengthening of terrorism – and perhaps even to the return of terror to the U.S. homeland. Yet limiting military action to airstrikes and covert operations against ISIS and similar organizations will not reap success for President Obama and will not rescue him from disappointment in his performance, whether at home or internationally. Barack Obama must therefore make qualitatively new political decisions and forge solid and conscious alliances if he wants to have the legacy of a president who took advantage of the opportunity and altered the way history was set to perceive him.
Not long ago, Barack Obama appeared to be running after the Islamic Republic of Iran. This became the main theme in Obama’s legacy to be, in which he sought to become the president who made peace with Tehran and took the United States out of the confrontation with the Islamic Republic. Obama seemed desperate for appeasement with Iran at any cost, and risked traditional U.S. ties with the allies in the Middle East in order to please Iran. Obama turned a blind eye to the excesses of the mullahs’ regime in Iran, and vowed not to support any Iranian opposition, seemingly declaring his respect for the Iranian regime and his recognition of its legitimacy. He claimed not to see the flagrant violations of Security Council resolutions, with the direct intervention of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Syria and its support for Hezbollah’s overt involvement in the conflict there alongside President Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. president had said should step down for having lost his legitimacy. He turned left and right to avoid seeing Iranian hegemony in Iraq where Sunnis were excluded. Obama maintained the de facto partnership with Tehran in supporting former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies led to the emergence of the ISIS phenomenon, with support from a Sunni uprising that had had enough marginalization. Obama fought al-Qaeda in Yemen using drones, but he kept mum over the direct Iranian intervention in support of the Houthis there – with the result being that they are now creeping into Sanaa, seeking to topple the government and deliver the country to chaos. In short, Barack Obama had resolved to exempt the Islamic Republic of Iran from accountability, because it was the core of his presidential legacy.
In stepped ISIS
ISIS changed the equation. What happened in Iraq when the Iraqi army retreated before the ISIS onslaught was a major defeat for Iran. Iran no longer enjoys the formidable reputation of being the victor in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. Suddenly, the illusion collapsed. Suddenly, the Islamic Republic of Iran appeared brittle and breakable – at least in relation to one of its three main demands, namely, forcing the United States and the rest of the world to bless its expansionist regional ambitions in the Arab countries, on the grounds that it is a major regional power with the “right” to do so.
Moderate Iran represented by President Hassan Rowhani has yet to eliminate hardline Iran represented by the Revolutionary Guard. Moderate Iran wants to restore Iran’s natural status rather than its expansionist status. It wants to rescue the economy and promote respect for rights internally. Moderate Iran does not want regional hegemony and does not want to enter the Syrian war as a direct party in the civil war. It does not want to wage the wars of terrorism as a party.
President Obama is able to help Iran make positive turns that would be beneficial for Iran, the Middle East, and the United States.
The first important message he must send out to Tehran is that the war on ISIS requires Tehran necessarily and inevitably to reconsider its policies on Iraq and Syria primarily, and also Yemen and Lebanon. Only this way can the needed alliances be built to defeat ISIS. These alliances and partnerships include most definitely the moderate Sunnis, at both the level of governments and the level of local populations, which require political ammunition in order to renounce ISIS, as they had renounced al-Qaeda before through the Awakening movements.
Some in Iran may think that President Barack Obama will fight extremist Sunni groups like ISIS on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Iran would hit two birds with one stone: Relieve itself from a war that it directly wages to defend itself; and benefit from the U.S. war on ISIS to improve its odds for victory in Syria with the survival of the regime, and in Yemen by toppling the government. Indeed, another U.S. president had waged a war on behalf of Iranian interests, that is, when U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, ridding the mullahs in Tehran of two of their most important enemies – the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
It is important for President Barack Obama to make it clear to Tehran that he does not intend to go to war on its behalf, even as he seeks to push back ISIS wherever it is, as he has vowed. It is important for him to persuade Tehran that the time has come for clear and public attitudes, even if this requires challenging the status quo inside Iran.
In other words, the U.S. president can remind Iran that it is in dire need to have the sanctions against it lifted, and that this is possible if it is honest in nuclear negotiations and if it abandons its quest to have the know-how to make a nuclear bomb “a few turns-of-the-screw away.” However, the U.S.-Iranian relationship requires more than a nuclear agreement, particularly since ISIS poses a threat to U.S. national interests. Thus, it is time for President Obama to tell Tehran that it must stop its meddling in Syria and its adventures in Yemen.
Why would Iran listen? First, because ISIS is a threat to it as much as it is a threat to others. Second, because postponing decisive military action against ISIS in Syria will lead not only to the group’s expansion to the point of radically weakening the Syrian regime, but also to the point of turning Syria into a Vietnam for Iran in an even more dramatic manner.
The U.S. president can send the same message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is now at the top of the list of the targets ISIS wants to take revenge against, given Putin’s policies in Syria and his attempts to present himself as the leader of the war on ISIS and similar groups in the Syrian war. ISIS has vowed to retaliate on Russian soil, and Putin understands that his victories in Syria are neither real nor permanent, though he is showing stubbornness. Barack Obama can give Putin a way out of the impasse, though this requires Putin to adopt qualitatively new policies in Syria.
Why would Putin cave in on Syria, when he is showing intransigence and defiance in Ukraine? Because he might be in dire need of being rescued, if Barack Obama proves his seriousness and determination, and shakes off his reputation for weakness and retreat.
Perhaps Obama intends to not rush strikes against ISIS in Syria, exactly in order to convince Tehran and Moscow of the need to push for a radical political transformation to resolve the “Assad obstacle,” just like the “Maliki obstacle” had been resolved. If the Maliki problem had not been resolved, it would not have been possible to mobilize support from and build an alliance with the six GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia, to wage war on ISIS.
If Moscow and Tehran dither and wager on Barack Obama’s weakness, then Syria will eventually become a “graveyard” for all sides in the war of attrition and mutual exhaustion. Obama may be able to claim that he acted from the outset with farsightedness, and that this was an achievement for him because he steered clear of the Syrian conflict, and left Syria an arena to degrade foreign fighters of all types and backgrounds as well as their sponsors, and to defeat the regime.
So far, Barack Obama has appeared as a loser twice: When he endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who were defeated, forcing him to adjust course; and when he endorsed Iran without accountability, and when it was defeated in Iraq, he hastened to adjust course as well.
New regional relations
Now, the U.S. president is formulating new regional relations that are critical, after he had relied on positions and policies that suggested he was abandoning the U.S. traditional relations of alliance. Today, the U.S. president is relying drastically on Saudi Arabia, and he realizes that the UAE plays a crucial role in containing and fighting extremist Islamist groups in more than one place.
He has an opportunity for partnership in cleansing Islam from bloody extremism with Muslim leaders and peoples. He has an opportunity to initiate unprecedented collaboration between the Gulf states and Iran, if plays well the cards he has available.
In his talks with Turkey and Qatar, for example, the U.S. president has to be convincing on having made a final decision saying that it is too late for reviving the Muslim Brotherhood project in the Middle East.
In his talks with Iran, the U.S. president has to be convincing when he tells Tehran that he has abandoned the bid to place the entire future of his legacy in its hands. He must be convincing when he tells the leaders of Iran that the United States would not bless its regional ambitions because its Arab partners – who are indispensable in the war on ISIS and similar groups – would not agree to remain in the partnership or the alliance if the U.S. president intends to offer this war as a gift to Tehran to expand in the Arab countries. In other words, the U.S. president must show that he is trustworthy, particularly since he had lost this quality at some stage. The litmus test of this trustworthiness lies in whether or not Obama will understand and accept the moderate Arab Sunni rejection of a dangerous war against Sunni extremism without U.S. political guarantees related to the nexus of American-Arab-Iranian relations.
President Obama has announced that he would be leading a war with non-American soldiers. Those “soldiers” happen to be moderate Arab Sunni state and non-state actors. This is a new kind of war, because previous wars involved American soldiers. Barack Obama is fighting a war with others’ soldiers. The U.S. president will not be able to win this war by means of airstrikes alone, and he has erred in comparing the situation with ISIS to “successes” he made in the aerial wars he is fighting in Yemen and Somalia, where no permanent victory has been achieved in the kind of aerial warfare America is waging in these two countries.
The coming challenges are greater and graver. The Iraqi arena is simpler and easier. The Syrian arena is full of pitfalls. ISIS is terrorizing all corners of the Middle East, and setting off alarms in the U.S., Russia, and Europe. The pledge President Obama has made to destroy ISIS is not impossible to achieve, but it will definitely require Obama to adopt new American policies and to make a serious shift toward restoring confidence in the U.S. president.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine.