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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Probing the grey area between the red lines of the US-Russia feud

Is there room for accord between the Kremlin and Washington?

File photo of Vladimir Putin. Mikhail Klimentyex / Kremlin Pool
File photo of Vladimir Putin. Mikhail Klimentyex / Kremlin Pool

It is hard to believe there will be a swift deescalation of the tensions that exist between the US and Russia. The Russians are, after all, furious with what they say is America’s conceited claim that Washington may have lost the battle in Syria but that it has ultimately won the war. The Americans are no less angry about what they see as Russia’s deceit on the Syrian issue. There is, however, still a possibility for compromise if the two sides address their differences rationally and if they abandon the baggage of mutual distrust.

On efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is no serious divergence between the US and Russia, despite the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, recently travelled to the Russian capital to convey his rejection of the US as the only peace broker, after Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But when Mr Abbas told Vladimir Putin that he was looking for an international broker for the peace process to replace the US, Mr Putin’s reply was that he had spoken with Mr Trump on the phone about Palestinian-Israeli differences. In other words, he made it clear to him that Moscow does not want to inherit Washington’s burden just yet.

During his Middle East tour, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to reaching peace between the Palestinians and Israel. Mr Tillerson said in Cairo that the final boundaries of Jerusalem must be determined in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, suggesting Washington’s decision did not mean a “unified Jerusalem” as the Israelis had wanted. The Palestinian issue was also discussed in Mr Tillerson’s stops in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

Jordan, in particular, sticks to the original vision of the two-state solution, because it realises that Israel wants to replace it with its old vision for Jordan as the alternative homeland of the Palestinians. Washington will never agree to such an Israeli proposal and is strengthening ties at all levels with Jordan. Indeed, Amman remains an important partner in the new US strategy for the Middle East, and a cornerstone of the alliances Washington is building with moderate Arab and Muslim nations.

In Egypt, Mr Tillerson pressed the reset button on US-Egyptian relations, restoring them to their state before Barack Obama had embraced the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Now, years after the military intervention to depose the Brotherhood, Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s Egypt is a cornerstone of Trump’s strategy, which covers cooperation in the war on terror, collaboration on security and Egypt’s role in the political process in Syria.

Yet Moscow does not fear warm US relations with Egypt and Jordan. On the contrary, Moscow and Cairo are in constant contact and have made accords on Syria and other issues, and only this week, Jordan’s king visited the Russian capital to reaffirm good relations between the two nations.

The main issue of contention between Washington and Moscow remains on the definition of Iran’s intentions. For its part, Russia “agrees with the Iranian modus operandi in Syria,” according to one high-level Russian source, who added, “we fight side by side with Iran ... so how can we not agree with the Iranian approach?”

The Trump administration understands this well and this explains why it has escalated its positions against Russia, after hints came out of Moscow suggesting it believes an "axis of resistance" has prevailed in Syria (involving the regime, Iran, Hezbollah and others).

In Russia’s view, the regime in Damascus saved both Syria and Russia from the scourge of “terrorism”, with the help of the axis of resistance, according to the Russian source. “The Americans put together a broad alliance against the axis, which leaves no room for accord,” he added, saying a constructive dialogue with the Americans appears almost impossible.

Such views reflect the opinions of a broad segment in Russia. According to this faction, the Russian view is that “the US is in a state of total hysteria on Russia”, the source said.

The US condition for cooperating with Russia in Syria is nearly impossible to meet, according to the source, as it requires “sabotaging the axis of resistance with the designation of Hezbollah as a terror group and Iran as an aggressor, and adopting a transition in Syria that would lead to a new, alternative regime”. The source added, “I cannot imagine a Russian-American conversation revolving around this agenda – the US and its allies are asking Russia to dismantle its alliances while the US wants to dismantle Russia itself.”

Russia, the source further explained, is not at odds with America's allies in the region with regards to Yemen or Libya, but Syria is different and Lebanon is an extension of that conversation.

On the subject of Hezbollah, prior to arriving in Beirut Mr Tillerson said the group was part of the Lebanese political process. Mr Tillerson called for Iran to withdraw from Syria and for Hezbollah to end its activities outside Lebanon, saying that the group's involvement in regional conflicts threatens the country's security. Naturally, this line diverges from Moscow’s vision for the role of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, at least at present.

Despite all the major differences that shape the US-Russian relationship, decision-makers in the two countries have various ways by which they can probe the grey area between their red lines. For Russia, this would enable it to climb down from its intransigence on its alliances in Syria, without undermining its national interests and special position in Syria. For the US, it would enable it to build confidence with Russia, with reassurances that Washington does not intend to strip Moscow of its influence, bases and reconstruction contracts in Syria.

The path to accord between the Kremlin and the White House will only become clear if agreement is what both sides really want.