The apology offered to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey by U.S. Vice President Biden is unimportant. What is really important is what he said disclosing that our view of the Syrian situation is still completely different from the American view. This can be summed as follows: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are of the opinion that the continuation of the Syrian regime is the problem and that it has to be brought down by means of supporting the Syrian revolution so that one of the most important reasons for the birth of ISIS, the subject of the current coalition, is no more. The Americans see things differently. That simply means “the continuation of the Syrian regime”. Consequently, it is essential to reconsider the Jedda coalition against ISIS so as to specify its objective before being dragged behind the American vision, which – if we assume it is based on good intention – may just be blurred, or if the intentions are otherwise, may have a different agenda altogether.
The Saudi-American disagreement over Syria is very old, it is as old as the Syrian revolution, which too has become “very old” indeed as it approaches its fourth year. Whereas Saudi Arabia wanted rapid intervention since the first year so as to bring the affair to end and save the Syrians and the region from the woes of war, the American policy was characterised by tardiness and contentment with issuing statements and drawing red lines that were never respected by the regime’s head Bashar Al-Asad, and then retraction in the last five minutes. Such a situation angered Riyadh with Washington more than once; that anger was no longer discrete and was leaked to the media more than once. This was one of the reasons why U.S. President Obama visited Riyadh last March. So, will Biden’s recent statements reopen the Saudi American wounds?
What was it specifically that which Biden said and managed with it to anger Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates in one go? He accused the three countries of being responsible for the rise of extremist groups in Syria including ISIS. In a meeting with Harvard University students he said: “Our allies in the region have been our major problem … What have the Saudis and the Emiratis been doing? They were determined to bring Asad down and sponsor a Shiia Sunni war by proxy. So, they pumped hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tonnes of weapons to whoever wanted to fight against Asad. Yet, those who received that aid were Al-Nusrah Front, Alqaeda and the radical Jihadists who came from all over the world.” He concluded his statement saying: “These countries have realised their mistake and they are now part of the coalition against terrorism.” Then he added salt to the wound by likening his country’s alliance with Saudi Arabia to the Western alliance with the Soviet tyrant Stalin during the second world war.
We expect to hear such rhetoric from Tehran but not from the U.S. Vice President who is supposed to be part of the White House’s close circle of decision makers and should know exactly what Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have done in Syria. It should not have been far away from the sight and hearing of the American intelligence services whose personnel are stationed in the south and the north of Syria. Thus, it would be naïve for the concerned countries to accept his apology that was formulated in a manner that does not negate the disastrous statement and that was aimed only at keeping the coalition against ISIS without offering any explanations about the objectives of the campaign, which have become too vague. They now talk about a war that may last “for weeks or months or years”.
There are things about this war and this coalition that ought to cause concern. The first is the failure to specify the enemy, which becomes known only after it is bombed. The bombing has targeted groups other than ISIS and the Nusrah, including groups that are known to be moderate such as the Hazm movement that was trusted by the Joint Operations Room and was enabled to obtain the U.S. made TOW advanced anti-tank rockets. Many of the positions bombed belonged to armed groups that had been fighting against the regime while the bombing of ISIS, which poses a real threat to the civilian population, was delayed when it was on the outskirts of Kobani. Syrian activists are astonished, but they keep quiet because they do not want to be perceived as if they opposed the coalition having repeatedly appealed for foreign intervention to save them from the regime of Bashar Al-Asad and from his army and exploding barrels, which he continues to drop on top of his “citizens”. This led to the cracking of the black joke that says that the coalition bombs during the night and Bashar bombs during the day. More than one military expert expected that the coalition airforce to impose a no fly zone over the north of Syria at least to protect coalition planes while carrying out their missions against terrorism. Yet, none of this has happened yet.
Another thing that exposes U.S. inconsistency, which may not after all be an inconsistency if we were to listen once more to the statements of Ayatollah Biden, is the American insistence on rejecting the Turkish proposal to impose a buffer zone and a no fly zone in the north of Syria. This is what President Erdogan has been insisting on as a precondition for joining the war against ISIS in addition to another condition, namely an American unequivocal commitment to the downfall of Bashar Al-Asad as part of the war on terrorism. The aim of the Turkish President is clear; he wants to drag the United States into an intervention that would eventually lead to bringing Asad down and to putting an end to the conflict that has gone on for too long and that is now posing a threat to the regional security of Turkey and the rest of the region.
It is rather strange that America is refusing this legitimate request from its allies. This has not been a strictly Turkish demand; it has also been received from the Saudis. This is particularly significant that Turkey, and perhaps other countries in the region, is not ready to intervene and is willing to be provide the ground force to settle the matter once and for all with ISIS and Bashar together provided international support is available. This is exactly what the Americans asked for more than once. Yet, now they only ask for it against ISIS.
If we were to assume, once again, that they have good intentions, perhaps they are exaggerating concerns, based on previous mistakes in Iraq, that once the state collapses chaos will sweep across the region. As such, and until Obama rearranges his cards and develop his full plan for combatting ISIS, it would be useful for the countries concerned about the rotten Syrian situation, and which have been harmed by it, to put their differences aside and formulate a plan for the day after, for the aftermath of the downfall of Bashar Al-Asad in which the role of each of these countries is determined. This would require reaching an agreement between these states and the modern Syrian opposition on the measures of politically building the new Syria. Only then would it be possible to classify the revolutionaries in accordance with their acceptance of the principles of democracy and their readiness to share power with others or their refusal to do that.
If we do not do that, and so long as the Americans are talking to the Iranians and then apologising, let us then expect an arrangement that will surprise us all. Let us remember that no hostility remains for ever and no friendship remains for ever. Interests are the ones that last.
Published originally in London Alhayat Newspaper on 11 October 2014.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.