In his seminal work On War, the Prussian strategic expert Carl von Clausewitz coined his famous maxim: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” The starting point, thus, is politics, which means the pursuit of interests in all its dynamism, from contradiction and clash to agreement and concord.
Recourse to weapons is merely another means. Warfare is certainly more violent, but ultimately it is a means, alongside diplomacy, propaganda and other forms of manoeuvring and deceit, to attain more profound and important ends.
So, what is happening in the Middle East at the moment? Has politics returned in order to take what war has achieved and transform it into concrete results on the ground? Or is it all about making new preparations for bigger and bloodier wars?
Surely affairs in the Middle East are not just one big game of musical chairs in which untold numbers of parties rush to secure a seat they can hold on to before having to get up and scramble for another.
In fact, something suggests that we have reached a turning point and that politics has surged again, and more quickly and powerfully than many analysts imagined. Could that point have come with the Iranian agreement with the P5+1?
Or was it the victory that the Saudi-led Arab coalition achieved in Yemen, ending the era of Houthi/Iranian expansion and initiating the phase of the continuation of the legitimate Yemeni government?
Or is it to be found in the stagnation in the US-led international and regional coalition’s war against the Islamic State (IS), in which after a year of aerial bombardments and land offensives the self-resurrected “caliphate” not only still exists but also manages to recapture its losses?
Or perhaps the turning point came with Turkey’s entrance as a main player in the battle, thereby creating new balances, even if Ankara appears less interested in fighting IS than in taking on the PKK.
There are many questions. But then it is part of human nature to ask so many questions when things grow even more complicated than they were during the past five years. Warfare continues to rage, as it has since it began in numerous arenas in the region.
In spite of this, one is struck by the fact that politics that continuation of war by other means has entered the stage even as the guns and warplanes continue to thunder and roar. This is not a kind of soundtrack. It is a weave of war and politics of an intricacy that has not occurred in this region for a long time.
There is the continuous American movement, from the resumption of dialogue with Egypt to engaging Turkey in the war. There is the active Saudi diplomacy that is opening new political fronts with Moscow. Oman is definitely playing a role. While it is difficult to determine its exact size and weight, since this role came to light at the beginning of the US-Iranian dialogue, it has trained a spotlight on Muscat.
Iran has proposed an initiative for resolving the Syrian crisis and even the Syrian regime is trying to open channels, whether through its foreign minister or its intelligence chief. It is clear from the political activity that the priority now is to resolve the Syrian crisis, as this is the key to stability in the entire Fertile Crescent, and to defeat IS and its like, as these pose the major challenge to any regional order.
Setting priorities, in general, is not an easy matter, especially amidst a frenzy of issues in which blood and fire are tangled. Some of these issues bring the region to the brink of epic wars that are deeply rooted in the past and portend ravaging maelstroms if they are to become the future.
Whether the foreboding has its roots in sectarian divisions between Sunna and Shia or in the separatist drives of various groups, the general wisdom appears to have settled on the need to address the priorities on which all parties converge, at least the major parties, and at least for the timebeing.
In all events, the feverish political movement has not yet caused the guns to fall silent. Meanwhile, the political weapon is still being tested. While this in itself marks progress, it does not eliminate the varied obstacles. Prime among these are what to do with the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and his clique, and what to do in order to defeat IS.
The war against this monster is more than a year old, yet IS remains as savage as ever with its slaughter of innocent men, enslavement of women, rape of children and bombing of mosques, both Sunni and Shia it makes no difference to those latter-day Kharijites, the fascists of our times.
The question of Bashar is complicated. It is impossible for him to remain in power after having destroyed his entire country. When a ruler is no longer able to protect his country and its people his perpetuation in power is a form of historical and moral folly.
On the other hand there is the question of the honour of certain governments and political players in Tehran and Moscow. They know that Bashar is a lost cause, but what can they do when their credibility with their allies is at stake? There are ways out of the conundrum.
One is for Al-Assad to leave for medical treatment in another country under the care of his family. Then, while he remains president in name, his functions would be assumed by one of his followers who enjoys a good international reputation, such as Walid Al-Muallem, who would oversee the beginning of an interim phase the measures for which would derive from a skilful diplomatic blend of the Geneva 1 and Geneva 2 talks.
However, this solution will remain out of reach without a full and effective guarantee for the safety and wellbeing of the Alawites, and indeed all other minorities in Syria. This prerequisite might entail an international guarantee, perhaps even in the form of an international peacekeeping force until Syria pulls itself together again.
IS (or Daesh to use the Arabic acronym) is a cancer that is more dangerous to the region than any other threat. While Saudi Arabia and its allies succeeded through patient persistence in sustaining an aerial campaign that generated the appropriate conditions on the ground for a land offensive that is now on the verge of securing the entire Yemeni south, the US-led aerial campaign in Iraq and Syria has so far yielded only modest results.
In addition, it is still unclear whether the Turkish contribution will make a tangible difference, especially if Ankara persists on the assumption that its war against the Kurds is the crux of the problem. Clearly the war against IS requires an operational re-evaluation.
Either the aerial war has to be waged in a more effective way or, if necessary, land forces may have to be brought in, in order to settle the battle, until which point a solution to the Syrian crisis, and perhaps to the Iraqi and Lebanese crises as well, will remain elusive. This re-evaluation process has a strong political dimension. It could be that it is a major subject in the communications that are in progress at he moment. Indeed, this is very likely.
Defeating IS and a solution to the Syrian crisis combined with the current progress in Yemen and the inability of terrorism in Egypt to paralyse the state or create a base for a theocratic state may all be preludes to a new phase in the Middle East war that has dragged on much longer than necessary.