Ending Syria’s War Will Require All Hands on Deck

The United States and Russia will have to cooperate, says former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy

Nabil Fahmy served as Egypt’s Foreign Minister from 2013 to 2014. In this interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen, Fahmy makes the point that the United States, Russia, the Arab states, Iran and Turkey will all need to work together to end the conflict in Syria. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: What is your assessment of Russia’s actions in Syria?

Fahmy: It is too early to say. What they did was not surprising at all. They filled a vacuum that was there. There was really no significant success in dealing with ISIS on the one hand. Secondly, there was a political vacuum, almost a dormancy, and they jumped in.

As a result of that the anti-ISIS coalition with a Western base has become a bit more active. The United States itself has committed more support and the Vienna process has started. In that sense I see some positive reaction.

Now, is it enough to determine that the step itself was good step or a bad step? For me, the judgment comes on its implications on the political process, not on how many ISIS fighters they killed or not.

The problem, frankly, for the West or for that matter Russia hasn’t been who can bomb more effectively. It is actually who can control the territory after the bombing and how does that change the landscape. That is political much more than just air bombing.

Q: You have mentioned that the US-led coalition cannot defeat ISIS without Russia’s help. What factors can help put all actors on the same page? Do you believe, for example, that the longer Russia’s military role in Syria drags on the greater will be the opportunity for a meeting of minds in Washington and Moscow?

Fahmy: The ISIS problem is a terrorist problem and also a socio-economic problem because they feed on the frustrations of people who feel marginalized. It goes beyond the Arab world into the West and into Russia. It is not only about bullets, it is about how do you deal with the political and socio-economic problems. Therefore, it can’t be done only by a foreigner, it needs cooperation.

For that reason, I think we are looking at a three-step approach. First, terrorists have to be combated robustly. Armed force is something I support. Second, this ISIS issue is Syria and Iraq, it is not only Syria, so it reflects on regional security. We need to address the regional security concerns that exist to create the stability after the bombing. And, thirdly, unless you move the Syrian agenda and stabilize the situation in Iraq it will continue to fuel ISIS’ mushrooming.

To deal with the Syrian situation and stability in Iraq you need to have US-Russian engagement, Arab-Iranian engagement, and Turkish engagement in the political process. These three flanks are enough reason to understand that this cannot be solved by any one party alone and it cannot be solved by one source of action, in other words military, political, or a Marshall Plan for development alone.

Q: Is there now a greater understanding of this opinion and do you see this reflected in the Vienna process?

Fahmy: Yes and no. I see the optics clearly indicate that the parties understand that they need to talk to each other. The indication was not only the Russian and American participation in Vienna, but also the Saudi and Iranian participation in Vienna, among other countries. This was the first time the Iranians came to the table. But many of those coming to the table still distrust the other parties and still believe that the Vienna process, or the New York process today [December 18], is simply buying time for other steps or other interests rather than a sincere effort to solve the Syrian problem.

I actually think it is both. There is no question it is buying time, but it also serves to deal with the  Syrian problem. That’s why engagement is important because the trust factor will not be resolved in one meeting. It is going to have to be resolved through an intensive, multidimensional, multi-state diplomatic process.

Q: Are Arab states doing enough in the war against ISIS, especially when it comes to addressing the ideological root of this problem? What more should they be doing?

Fahmy: Obviously the answer is no. If it was enough it would have solved the problem, but they have realized that you need to deal with the intellectual, the societal, the political background, and the frustration that exists.

[Egyptian] President Sisi, for example, has repeatedly said we need to change the Islamic dialogue. He has actually called on Al-Azhar in Cairo to play the leading role on this. You saw the Saudis announce the Islamic coalition against terrorism. And, of course, the Egyptians had their initiative on the Arab rapid deployment force in the Arab League, which still hasn’t happened.

So is there an understanding now that the Arab world needs to do more? Yes, I think so. But there is also a realization that the problem has become so complicated that one we don’t have the resources to do it alone, and second, if we don’t do it in coordination with the foreign parties they may actually work against this process.

I’ll give you a quick example. In Egypt, we have repeatedly said that the issue of terrorism is not only in the Syrian theater or only in the Iraqi theater, it is throughout the region. Up until very recently that was not a vision that the Western world accepted. But after Paris, after the problems in London, and after hearing of possible Daesh infiltration into Libya it has become more accepted now.

Part of the ISIS problem was created by false and faulty Western and for that matter foreign policies in the Middle East. Not all of it, but part of it. So foreign countries need to engage, one, because they have the political influence, two, because they have the hard resources to do that, and third out of responsibility for their former policies. Arabs can’t do it alone, nor can the foreigners.

Q: Is the Saudi anti-terrorism force, which excludes Iran, Iraq, and Syria, an anti-Iran force as [former Iraqi National Security Advisor] Mowaffak Rubaei suggested in an interview with the New Atlanticist?

Fahmy: First of all, the announcement came quickly so I at least am not fully versed on the scope of that. Secondly, I don’t think that the membership is closed. Thirdly, they talk about it more as a coalition. But you are right. Even this initiative comes in the context of what is happening in the region and there is strong sensitivity between the Saudis and the Iranians in particular.

None of these initiatives are solutions to the problems. They are simply attempts to move things forward. So lets wait and see before we either consider that this is the ultimate answer that nobody could think of before, or that it is a failure even before it starts.

Q: Syria President Bashar al-Assad’s future has been a key point of disagreement between Washington and Moscow. Is it a mistake to let this issue come in the way of finding a solution to the war?

Fahmy: It was a mistake on both sides from the very beginning of the process. What they should have discussed was the strategic issues that relate to Syria and the region rather than the tactical issues or the modalities for who governs. It has become a main issue therefore it is not going to be taken off the table at this point. But to get to an answer, rather than waste time only on the question, we need to develop a landscape instead of guarantees on what Syria will look like post-solution and then walk back and develop a roadmap on how to get to that objective. So we respond to the concerns of the different parties about the day after and then you can get a more reasonable discussion on “OK, how do I get to that day?”

Q: Given the fact that the war in Syria has dragged on for almost five years is there today a viable Plan B?

Fahmy: No.

Q: What is your assessment of President Obama’s Middle East strategy, but more specifically his strategy in Syria?

Fahmy: I’m not sure exactly what it is. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It is clearly shifting and I’m not sure he actually has enough time to have a strategy. This is not a problem that will be resolved in the next six months, but if he is able to lay the foundation for a solution by a serious engagement in geopolitics at the global level and at the regional level in the Middle East, he may lay the foundation of success toward the end of his term or the beginning of the next administration.

This is going to take a serious Russian-US dialogue, a serious dialogue between Arabs and Iran and Turkey about their politics but also about the Syrian issue. We cannot afford to delay that, but it would be naïve to think that it is all going to happen very quickly.

Q: The Iran nuclear deal has been one of the key accomplishments of the Obama administration. What are its implications for Egypt and the greater Middle East region?

Fahmy: I think the deal is a step forward. However, it is either a step forward toward a more tumultuous Middle East with a much more substantial arms race or it’s a step forward toward a new political and security paradigm in the Middle East. Which result will be determined not by the deal itself, but by what we do after the deal.

Specifically, on the disarmament component, this is about extending the breakout time. It is not about ending Iran’s nuclear capacity. If we use the fifteen odd years to negotiate and implement a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East then this deal will be a very positive step towards erasing the nuclear threat, and that would include the Israeli threat.

Israel is the only Middle Eastern country that is not an NPT (nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) member, so the zone free of nuclear weapons will have to include Israel as a non-nuclear member. I encourage them to engage in the negotiations. If we do that then this deal has opened the door for serious negotiations on this issue. If we end up wasting time and after fifteen years or so all we have done is postponed the breakout time for a while and then allowed it to continue again you would have expanded the asymmetry between the nuclear capacity of Israel, Iran, and the Arab world. That is going to lead to an arms race.

The other aspect of that are the political implications of the deal beyond arms control. The deal removes sanctions against Iran and provides them with tremendous economic resource in exchange for the delay of the breakout time. If that is used in an aggressive foreign policy it leads to much more instability in the Middle East and there are implications in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and throughout the region. So the deal would actually have catastrophic implications.

If, on the other hand, this opening leads Iran to be a more constructive player in the Middle East then this deal will have had a positive effect. Again, on this political track it depends on what we do post-deal rather than on the deal itself.

Q: President Sisi’s critics say that Egypt today is looking a lot like the Egypt of late 2010—the final months of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. What is your assessment?

Fahmy: The two revolutions we had in 2011 and 2013 created a tremendous desire for social and political engagement by the Egyptian people. That desire was legitimate. I think expectations were probably exaggerated that this could happen so quickly and therefore there are a significant amount of Egyptians who feel more could have been done. More openness in the political system and all that.

Frankly, I also don’t think that you can put the genie in the box again. You can slow the pace of progress but you can’t take the knowledge and the desire of people to engage away from them, especially with the communications revolution that exists.

I don’t see it as a pre-2011 retake, if you want, but I recognize that a lot of Egyptians thought that we would be farther off than we are now and we need to keep working on it.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: “To deal with the Syrian situation and stability in Iraq you need to have US-Russian engagement, Arab-Iranian engagement, and Turkish engagement in the political process,” Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s former Foreign Minister, said in an interview with the New Atlanticist on December 18. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)