US out in the cold as Russia, Turkey and Iran team up on Syria
BEIRUT/ABU DHABI // With Syria’s rebels weakened by a major defeat in Aleppo, the biggest foreign powers active in the civil war are now pressing forward to find a settlement to the almost six-year-long conflict.
The defence and foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Moscow on Tuesday and agreed to work towards a peaceful solution to the war in Syria. Noticeably absent were delegates from the United States – previously a chief negotiator for the Syrian opposition – and, most strikingly, any representative from Syria.
“The format you see today is the most efficient one,” said Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. “It’s not an attempt to cast a shadow on the efforts taken by our other partners, it’s just stating the facts.”
The list of those attending the Moscow meeting reflected the shifted dynamics of Syria’s civil war, where foreign powers are able to temper the successes or otherwise of their local allies on the ground, and where the US has been sidelined for now by failed, stagnant strategies and an inability to maintain leverage in previous negotiations.
“If you’re going to have a tripartite arrangement that’s going to include anyone, then these are the three parties to include,” said Syria analyst Sam Heller, a non-resident fellow at the Century Foundation.
The Syrian government’s recapture of Aleppo, the country’s most populous city before the war, would probably have been impossible without Russian air strikes and the participation of thousands of troops from militias backed by Iran. The fall of Aleppo has left Syria’s rebels in disarray. Turkish-backed rebels in northern Syria are perhaps the most cohesive today and receive support through air power, artillery and troops on the ground – but only if they do Turkey’s bidding by fighting ISIL and the Kurdish YPG faction, not the regime.
Both the Syrian government and their rebel enemies vow to fight to the end. But the foreign powers they increasingly rely on after years of a devastating war have inherently different end goals, objectives that do not necessarily include total victory for their proxies. Although the rebels and Damascus may each continue talking about how to achieve victory, their foreign allies may be looking for a way to try to bring an end to the conflict. And they may have reached a point where, despite very different endgames, their agendas are aligned.
“This tri-lateral agreement signals that Russia and Iran are on the same page – for now – on what needs to be done with these rebel and Kurdish causes,” said Theodore Karasik, a Washington-based security analyst with Gulf State Analytics. “These countries are not interested one iota in a Kurdistan that emerges from the Syrian wreckage.”
Turkey’s alternate agenda is the clearest. While Ankara openly backed Syria’s rebels from early on, Turkey’s aims when it intervened in August were to move ISIL and the Kurdish YPG away from its border. While Turkey decried the siege and subsequent brutal assault on rebel-held eastern Aleppo, it did not permit its proxy forces – who were in vicinity – to try to break the siege. Turkish-backed rebels complained but continued fighting the battles Ankara chose for them.
But the gulf between Ankara’s goals and what those proxies want could spell trouble.
“It looks like we’re approaching some sort of breaking point between Turkey’s proxy use of the rebels and then what those rebels are willing to tolerate,” said Mr Heller. “Turkey’s instrumentalisation of these rebels for its own specific ends has only become more obvious and naked recently in ways that are pretty clearly mostly unrelated to the rebels’ own goals or to the Syrian revolutionary cause.”
Russia, Iran and Turkey may also be trying to lay the groundwork on a Syria settlement before a new US president takes office on January 20, bringing with him the promise of significant, though still ill-defined, changes to Washington’s Syria policy.
Washington under president Barack Obama turned the US into a bit player in Syria, limited to training and equipping Syrian rebels. When it became apparent that Mr Obama would not use – or even continue to threaten – military action in Syria after a chemical weapons attack in 2013 or during the siege of Aleppo, the US lost negotiating power with Russia.
As Mr Obama prepares to leave the White House, Russia has openly mocked America’s diplomatic overtures, at one point dismissing them as “whining.”
US president-elect Donald Trump, meanwhile, remains hard to pin down. He says he will work with Russia in Syria against ISIL but will not be locked into the civil war. Last week, he favoured creating “safe zones” in Syria – if the GCC countries paid for them. Russia and Iran’s operations to help the Syrian government retake Aleppo may have been accelerated partly to present the incoming US president with a fait accompli.
Moscow in particular may hope that a US president already predisposed to coordinating with Russia in the Middle East will become its partner – a stunning geopolitical turn of events.
“I think that’s what’s on offer by president Putin to resident Trump,” Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said.
“In other words, I already have a security architecture in place. I can take care of your top priority called ISIL. If you sort of either get out of the way or, preferably, join this security architecture, we can get this done faster.”
*With additional reporting by Associated Press