In what might be characterized as a breakthrough by the trying standards of Middle East diplomacy, US President Barack Obama forged a diplomatic consensus with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) around the possible benefits of a nuclear agreement with Iran and a more collaborative approach to security in the Middle East.
No one expects the GCC countries to embrace a nuclear agreement with Iran, given the well-earned animosity and mistrust between Iran and some of the GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the bloodletting taking place in Syria and Yemen. And there will of course be leaks about the understandable anxieties of certain Arab leaders with Iranian behavior whether there is a nuclear agreement or not, as change is neither immediate nor smooth, let alone assured.
But the detailed US-GCC Joint Statement following the May 13-14 Washington Summit should now be the benchmark for the positions of the United States and the GCC in addressing Iran and the broader issues of regional security in the Middle East. The summit statement should nullify the tired talking point by US critics that the Barack Obama administration is somehow selling out its Arab allies by pursuing a deal with Iran. Following the Camp David Summit, the United States and the GCC are, at least for now, and with eyes wide open about Iran, on the same page.
The joint statement “emphasized that a comprehensive, verifiable deal that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is in the security interests of GCC member states as well as the United States and the international community.”
Barbara Slavin reports that “GCC assistant secretary general Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg told a press conference May 15 that the Camp David summit ‘exceeded the expectations of most of us’ by reassuring GCC states of an ‘unequivocal’ commitment to their security. President Obama also stressed, Aluwaisheg said, that an impending nuclear deal with Iran does not represent a ‘pivot’ toward Tehran.”
While reassuring the GCC that the United States has its back, Obama also made clear that “the purpose of any strategic cooperation [between the United States and the GCC] is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran, or to even marginalize Iran.” An annex to the joint statement noted that “the United States and GCC member states reaffirmed their willingness to develop normalized relations with Iran should it cease its destabilizing activities and their belief that such relations would contribute to regional security.”
Seyed Hossein Mousavian writes that Iran has its own incentives to normalize relations with GCC countries: “Over and above the economic woes, Tehran will also have to focus on efforts to stabilize its surrounding environment, requiring, among other things, mending fences with its neighbors to prevent such potential security threats as the still rampaging Islamic State in Syria and Iraq from menacing Iran as well in the coming years. This, as already manifested in the Iranian assistance in the anti-IS military campaign, should serve as a base for better regional interaction between Iran and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf as well as with Turkey and Pakistan.”
The annex also referenced a forthcoming, second meeting of the US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum Working Group on Counterterrorism and Border Security. This column has repeatedly emphasized the need for a “new, regionally based mechanism to address counterterrorism taken up by those countries most affected by the rise of forces affiliated with al-Qaeda and jihadists.”
The US-GCC Joint Statement made no mention of a safe or no-fly zone in Syria, which had been an aspiration for some GCC countries and Turkey. White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told the Washington Post, “We have not seen a no-fly zone as being a viable option that can contribute to essentially changing decisively the situation on the ground given the nature of the fighting that’s taking place in urban areas and across the country.”
Last week, Al Monitor reported on the remarks by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter 6 that a no-fly zone in Syria is “a difficult thing to contemplate,” describing the establishment and enforcement of “safe zones” as “a major combat mission.”
Julian Pecquet reports that the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed by the House of Representatives this week and referred to the Senate, requires the Department of Defense to provide a report on the feasibility of creating a no-fly zone in Syria, as well as seemingly conflicting provisions that Syrian rebel forces backed by the United States can defend themselves against the Syrian government, and that those groups that use US assistance to battle government forces would be precluded from further aid. The NDAA will now be taken up in the Senate.
The joint statement annex noted that the GCC committed to intensifying “efforts to combat extremist groups in Syria, notably by shutting down private financial flows or any form or assistance to ISIL/DAESH [Islamic State], Al Nusrah Front [Jabhat al-Nusra], and other violent extremist groups, and to intensify efforts to prevent the movement of foreign terrorist fighters in and out of Syria.”
The focus on foreign terrorist fighters will be put to the test, especially regarding Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. Some US partners in the region have been seeking to engineer a split from al-Qaeda by a faction within Jabhat al-Nusra, as reported by David Ignatius on May 12. Cengiz Candar writes: “Turkey has become a strong supporter of the Army of Conquest that defeated the regime forces. That front mainly consists of al-Qaeda’s Syria branch Jabhat al-Nusra and the jihadist group Ahrar ash-Sham. Turkey’s support for and benign attitude toward the latter is an open secret. The Turkish-Saudi alliance cemented by Qatar that has transformed itself into heavy support for the actions of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham may produce certain battlefield advantages for the non-IS Islamist opposition in Syria, but unless it’s fully endorsed by the United States, it’s far from certain to bring the regime down.”
Whatever Bashar al-Assad’s crimes, the normalization or acceptance of al-Qaeda “factions,” past or present, should be cause for alarm and give greater urgency to diplomatic efforts to end the war sooner rather than later. There is no future for Syria in the advances of the “Army of Conquest” seeking an Islamic state in Syria. In December 2013, this column wrote that the rise of the Islamic Front, was “a disaster for Syria’s opposition and future. Most Syrians will likely want no part of the front and its jihadist brothers, given its agenda, patrons and increasing levels of foreign fighters.”
More encouraging for those seeking a diplomatic solution and political transition in Syria than the efforts to mainstream Jabhat al-Nusra may be the meeting in Sochi on 12 May between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In a joint press conference Kerry said: “From the Geneva communique to the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons, I would emphasize that we have seen what happens when Russia and the United States work together. It is clearly possible to make real progress and make important things happen … There is an urgent need, we agree, for that same kind of cooperation that brought about the removal of weapons from Syria — chemical weapons — that has characterized our cooperation on Iran. The same kind of effort is now necessary on some other challenges that we face together.”
This article originally appeared in Al-Monitor