Dennis Ross: No quick end in sight to region’s turmoil
London - Dennis Ross has been involved in US foreign policy for four decades, serving under every US president, except for George W. Bush, since Jimmy Carter. Although trained as a Soviet specialist, he worked with former US secretary of State James Baker to organise the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid. Under president Bill Clinton, Ross was elevated to principal US Middle East envoy and played a prominent role in the Camp David summit in 2000.
When Hillary Clinton became secretary of State in 2009, she named Ross her special adviser for the Arab Gulf and South-west Asia but he soon moved to the White House to advise President Barack Obama on the Middle East and, some analysts say, to ensure that Obama did not put too much pressure on Israel during Israeli- Palestinian peace talks. He left the administration in 2011.
In a recent conversation with The Arab Weekly, Ross addressed a wide range of topics related to developments in the broader Middle East.
He denied what many Arabs fear — that the United States was becoming closer to Iran. “Even if we wanted to do so, Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, is clearly against any real reconciliation with the US,” Ross said.
He noted that negotiations with Iran were limited to the nuclear issue and Western sanctions specifically tied to Iran’s nuclear programme.
“The US is retaining its sanctions against Iran for reasons of [sponsoring] terrorism and [abusing] human rights,” Ross said. “That is one of the reasons the Iranians are now complaining that they are not getting what they expected in terms of access to the international financial system because US banks cannot do business with Iranian counterparts and, unless other countries have large amounts of dollars on hand, they cannot do business in dollars, which also greatly restricts what is possible.”
Although the Shia-led government in Iraq is regarded by suspicion among many in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Ross argued that backing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was an important objective.
“The government led by Prime Minister Abadi is trying to be inclusive,” he said. “He is constrained by the Shia militias and the Iranians but the US is trying to support an approach that includes the Sunnis and also provides security and arms for them.
“Excluding the Sunnis will only ensure that even if [the Islamic State] ISIS were to be defeated, it would be replaced by a radical successor. Mosul must be liberated but [Shia] militias like Asai’b Ahl al-Haq cannot play a part in the liberation.”
As for Syria, Ross said the United States hopes that the Vienna principles will produce a peaceful outcome to the Syria conflict. He added, however, that “the administration is not prepared to exercise any leverage in the pursuit of those principles because it sees the use of force as futile in Syria. The Russians do not, believing they have used force to change the balance of power and secure Assad in power.”
Ross was not optimistic about a quick end to the region’s civil wars and uprisings.
“There is a struggle over identity and who is going to shape it,” he said. “There are proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. There is a Sunni- Shia divide and none of this will be settled soon.
“The question is: Will Iran agree not to try to dominate the region? I suspect that the more pragmatic forces in Iran can only succeed when it becomes clear that the policies of the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] are too costly.”