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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Amid the tensions in Syria, there is hope for US-Russian cooperation

Mr Trump's foreign policy team is cohesive and able to co-ordinate strategy, but Mr Putin has choices to make about which partners he really wants

President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Helsinki, Finland. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Helsinki, Finland. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Russia will not succeed in separating European nations from US policy in Syria, with the withdrawal of Iranian forces and proxies from Syria and the start of a serious political transition conditions for any assistance in the reconstruction of the war-torn nation. Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin is trying to convince the Europeans, particularly Germany and France, that their interests require them to commit to the reconstruction of Syria, or face the prospect of a new wave of refugees.

However, the issue is much more complex than Moscow seems to imagine, because even if the Europeans somehow come to accept this, they will not be able to deliver, because there is too much at stake for them: relations with Washington; European corporations that resist pressure from their governments; and the Europeans’ unwillingness to provide a front for the rehabilitation of Bashar Al Assad, instead of holding him accountable for his actions in Syria.

Moscow is concerned that the US conditions are a deliberate attempt to ensure Russia is stuck in the Syrian quagmire to prolong its military involvement and increase its costs. Russian officials are frustrated because US President Donald Trump had appeared to be in agreement with Mr Putin during his election campaign, and again at the Helsinki summit, before the top officials in his administration and the military took over, launching a stricter policy for Russia, Syria and Iran.

The thrust of the US endeavor is to thwart Russia’s role as the patron of Syria’s future, spoil Mr Al Assad’s victory, which has been achieved mainly by Iran and Russia, and exploit Iran’s expansionism in Syria to push back against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and defeat its projects in the region. In light of these developments, US-Russian relations have taken a big hit and the much-touted “deal” became caught in the Iranian spider’s web. While this may push Russia closer to Iran and Turkey, it will not save it from the Syrian morass.

The key to an American deal with Russia, clarified by the US national security adviser John Bolton, would be Russian endorsement of the effort to remove Iranian forces and proxies from Syria. While Moscow may be willing to get on board, the devil is in the details. Mr Bolton is not asking Moscow to partner up with Washington in the broader project of forcing Iranian forces back to their country’s borders, from wherever they are deployed in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Nor is he asking the Russians to impose sanctions on Iran that emulate those that US will hit it with on November 4. Rather, Moscow is required to disengage from the strategic and tactical alliance with Iran in Syria, a demand that has so far proven to be too high a price for the Russians to pay, unless it comes as part of a wider deal.

“US demands are exaggerated,” a high-level Russian official told me. “The Americans must be more modest.” The official described the current state of Russia’s relations with the US as “bad”, saying progress requires discussing “the totality of issues … because we cannot discuss one particular issue separately”.

He was referring to myriad outstanding issues, including the expansion of Nato, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, divergence on the question of terrorism, and conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East. This is in addition to academic and strategic questions, such as the nature of the American project in the wider world. Not long ago, the official said, the US wanted to promote democracy and now it is emphasising American sovereignty. “Perhaps this is a better approach, but what about balancing US sovereignty with the sovereignty of others?”

Russian suspicions of US motives run deep. There is clear accord with regard to reducing the involvement of US and Russian forces in Syria, but otherwise, the Russian source said, there is little common ground. The official also said US actions “indicate they intend to partition Syria … the Americans pursue fragmentation as a policy… we have tasted this in the time of the Soviet Union.”

The contradictions between the two powers have increased recently. Washington has pursued sanctions to impose its policy and perhaps even to create a new political and economic world order. Others who lack such abilities are pushing back, including Russia.

The Russian view holds that the US approach in Syria is to maintain a military, political, and economic presence, and that “changing the regime in Damascus remains” a possibility on the US agenda, according to the Russian official. The official also claimed that transition in Syria means preparing to hand over power to the opposition. Defending the Iranian military presence, the official said it was “to fight terrorism … asking for Iran to withdraw now is dangerous because it would give the terrorists and their supporters a boost to step up their attacks … Our position is clear: the Americans are providing cover to … terrorists to topple the regime; branding is not important, they are fighting the regime through ISIS, Nusra or others, and this is the big difference between the Russian and American positions.”

The Russians converge with Iran in considering only Sunni jihadists as terrorists, while the Americans add to the list Iran and its militias. This is a big difference that some see as a form of Russian backing for Shiites and US backing for Sunnis since Mr Trump took over. Previously, US support had vacillated between Sunnis and Shia throughout many decades of conflict in the Arab and Islamic region.

It can be said that the state of US-Russian relations is a bigger worry for Moscow than for Washington, given successes of Mr Trump’s agenda and its outcomes internationally. They include North Korea, a renegotiated Nafta agreement and pushing European Nato allies to ramp up their defence spending. Domestically, the US economy is booming, and Mr Trump’s candidate for the Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative, has been confirmed following a bruising battle in Congress.

Mr Trump’s foreign policy team is now homogenous and can coordinate strategy. Although solid in its position, this team is open to robust relations with Russia, because it is seen as more of a potential partner than a rival.

This week, the Valdai Club, a think tank famous for its contribution to shaping Russian foreign policy and backed by Mr Putin will convene its 15th annual session in Sochi. Mr Putin is expected to attend. The Valdai Club’s chairman Andrey Bystritskiy, a veteran expert on US-Russian relations and their implications for regional issues, was a distinguished guest at the Beirut Institute summit in May. It is worth recalling what he said at the time concerning Iran. According to Mr Bystritskiy, Iran was a “tactical ally” for Russia, at a time when Moscow needs a “constellation of partners”. Today, what Russia needs to do is examine Iran’s position in this constellation.

Hopefully, the conversation at this year’s session, which I will have the honor of attending, will come up with new and positive ideas about how to develop US-Russian relations and steer both nations in the direction of co-operation rather than conflict. A lot depends on which direction these relations take, especially as the Trump administration is serious not just about its presence in Syria, but also the need for Iran’s departure from the country, all while keeping the door open to a deal with Russia.