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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

US resolve on Syria an unwelcome surprise for Moscow and partners

The equation could be changing radically, now that the United States has recaptured the initiative

Polarisation regarding Syria has paralysed the political process entrusted to the stewardship of UN envoy Staffan De Mistura. EPA
Polarisation regarding Syria has paralysed the political process entrusted to the stewardship of UN envoy Staffan De Mistura. EPA

The change in US policy in Syria in the past two months, in terms of expanding its political role and solidifying its military presence, has left a dent in Russia’s conviction that it held the keys in Syria, including with regard to the roles of Turkey, Iran and the United States in the war-torn nation.

Polarisation has returned to the rival camps, and with it the contradictions within each of them. Those who were optimistic that the Syrian war was ending with an Assad victory and a strategic advantage for Iran and Hezbollah have suffered a setback and, likewise, those who believed Russia had reaped all the fruits and stood to dictate Syria’s future. This polarisation has also paralysed the political process entrusted to the stewardship of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, although all sides remain keen on preserving the political solution until its conditions fully mature.

According to an informed source: “It is difficult for any progress to happen in this stage of reassessment and realignment … the matter will take time, not just weeks or even months.” Indeed, the equation in Syria could be changing radically because the United States has recaptured the initiative in Syria, revived its influence in Iraq, and resolved to confront Iran on multiple fronts.

The war against ISIS, the former Nusra Front, and others has not ended yet, either, and perhaps this is deliberate. All actors in Syria and Iraq benefit from the existence of ISIS remnants, albeit to varying degrees. Recent developments in Iraq are positive, with the election of Barham Salih as president and Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister, both veterans of politics and diplomacy. The move signals a transition towards moderation, consensus, and national reconciliation, a real opportunity for an Iraqi national identity to coalesce away from the dictates of Iran or others. The developments in Iraq can also be seen in the context of containing Iran and its regional projects, in light of serious US pressures and measures against the regime in Tehran.

James Jeffrey, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, spoke to Al Hurra TV last week to explain the features of the new US policy in Syria. He said the US would stay on in Syria until the full withdrawal of Iranian forces and proxies, stressing that the US President Donald Trump would be the one to determine the nature of US presence there. Mr Jeffrey was echoing remarks the previous week by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who also said the US would maintain its military presence in Syria until all Iranian forces return to within their country’s border – which seems to suggest that the Trump administration will not condition its military presence on Iranian withdrawal from Syria or Iraq, rather that its goal is to force the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to return home from all its foreign deployments.

Perhaps this is what had prompted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to say at the UN this week: “It would be extremely naive and unrealistic to attempt to lock the Iranians within their own borders.” When asked whether Russia was supporting Iranian expansionism in the Arab region, Mr Lavrov protested, saying: “This is how fake news is born ... the legitimate Syrian government … invited Iran to help preserve Syria’s nationhood and fight terrorism”.

A few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “We should pursue a goal that there would be no foreign forces, [the forces] of third states in Syria at all … including Russia, if this would be adopted at the level of government of the Syrian Arab Republic.” Yet Mr Putin’s remarks primarily target the US-led coalition forces. Mr Putin is also making the distinction between the presence of Russian forces sanctioned by a “treaty” with the Syrian government, which also covers the Russian military bases in Syria, and the presence of Iranian forces at the mere “invitation” of the government. In other words, he has kept the door open to the possibility of an accord with White House over the departure of Iranian forces from Syria, while Russian and US forces remain.

Mr Jeffrey told Al Hurra that US forces are present in about one-third of Syrian territories, denying Syrian regime troops access to those areas, and through a wider presence if local allies are factored in, also denying access to Iranian forces. The US special representative said that while the mission of the US forces is to ensure the total defeat of ISIS, it must be understood that it was the Assad regime that produced ISIS. Therefore, he continued, ensuring the resumption of a political process is part of the US political mission, to put in place a government in Damascus that does not threaten its people, its neighbours, and does not produce a new version of ISIS. When asked whether the Trump administration believed Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s days were numbered, he said that the days of any regime that behaves like Mr Assad’s are numbered, which is why the Russians and Iranians have to invest immense effort and large sums of money to revive the “corpse” of the current Syrian government.

Regarding the strategy of the Russian-Iranian-regime alliance, Mr Jeffrey said that these forces control only half of the Syrian territory and population, and have hit a wall with the Turkish forces in the north-west and US allies in the north-east and the south, and do not control the oil and gas fields. They are sitting on a pile of ruins, without any hope of assistance from the international community to rebuild or restart the economy until a political process is resumed, he said, adding in response to a question about the survival of the regime that the Syrian regime can only do so with support from Russia and Iran, who would have to spend billions of dollars indefinitely.

However, Mr Jeffrey stressed that the US was not conducting military operations against the regime nor does it plan to as part of its agenda in Syria. Rather, the Trump administration is working to secure its interests there without a human cost to its forces, while Russia and Iran are suffering casualties in their effort.

Yet this does not mean that the US is on board with Mr Assad remaining in power. If anything, the rhetoric from the past two weeks suggests there is a change in the position regarding Mr Assad’s fate – after a while of sidestepping the issue.

Damascus is not the only side concerned by the change in US policy. Tehran is extremely anxious about US measures against it, targeting its home front and its presence in Iraq and Syria. Moscow too, because the new approach of the administration in Syria has halted the Russian victory parade in Syria.

What will Russia do? It is still too early to answer this question, bearing in mind that Moscow has leverage over Iran and the ability to meet US demands that would allow both great powers to reach an accord, should Moscow agree to disengage from Tehran. Such a decision would be a major and complex move, and the Kremlin will not rush into it unless it has guarantees of that grand bargain that is so close yet so far away.

Driving Iran out of Syria will not happen overnight. It is clear, however, that this is a firm goal that the Trump administration intends to see through no matter how much time it is going to take. The cost of US deployment in Syria is very low compared to those being felt by the Russians and Iranians, while the returns on its investment are very high.

Not long ago, the Kremlin thought its Astana strategic troika, along with Turkey and Iran, would guarantee its control over Syria. Now, Washington wants the Kremlin to reconsider this formula, as it is neither willing to enable Russia’s alliance with Iran, nor is it satisfied with the Russian rapprochement with Nato member Turkey.

Washington’s opposition to Russia’s delivery of the S-300 air defence system to Damascus does not mean the Kremlin itself is fully comfortable with its decision, which it had to make following Damascus’s accidental downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane. Naturally, Moscow will have its own crewmen operate the system even if it is officially in the hands of the Syrian military. The risk however is that Israel is well versed with the S-300 system, which means continued risks on the field in a way undesirable to Moscow, which wants to maintain good relations with Israel bilaterally and on Syria.