The remarks by Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN, regarding Washington’s priorities in Syria, constitute both a convergence and a divergence with Russian priorities, as set out by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in an interview with Al-Hayat.
Both the US and Russia agree on the goal of purging terrorists from Syria, so that it can no longer serve as a haven for them. However, Haley has rushed to stress that Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, must be made to leave Syria, while Bogdanov said that this was a sovereign decision to be determined by the Syrian government at the right time. Haley spoke of the need to secure the borders of US allies, meaning primarily Israel, but also Iraq and Turkey. Bogdanov linked any such guarantees for Israel to the issues of its occupation of the Golan Heights in Syria and the Shebaa Farms in Lebanon, calling on the representatives of the state parties to hold a roundtable for the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Turkey remains at the forefront of the tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow — and is wary of making mistakes that would implicate it further.
In the meantime, a noteworthy tripartite meeting in Turkey’s Antalya brought together the military chiefs of the US, Turkey and Russia earlier this week, to discuss regional issues led by Syria and Iraq. At the same time, there have been some key developments on the ground with Kurdish implications for Turkey in Syria, with US and Western forces deployed to Manbij. In addition, the Trump administration has started developing its strategy for the coming battle for Raqqa, which the US considers a top priority and crucial for the elimination of Daesh. This comes amid conflicting reports regarding the possible partition or reunification of war-torn Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. Iran and Kurdish forces are focal in talk of partition, for different reasons, but the signals coming from the new US administration suggest an intention to head off any partition plans that would reinforce the Iranian project in Syria and Iraq. This is while the signals coming from Russia suggest willingness to coexist with partition, if political settlements that consider Iran’s interests fail. The US-Russian-Turkish-Iranian nexus in Syria and Iraq is compound and complex. The Arab Gulf countries seem to be in a wait-and-see posture on this, but are existentially concerned when it comes to the balance of relations with Turkey and Iran.
Indispensable Kurdish fighters
The Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, appreciates the resolve of the Kurds as serious fighters who have proven their worth in the front lines of the war on Daesh. For this reason, it is committed to supporting the Kurds as an indispensable instrument in the bid to crush Daesh. Furthermore, the Kurds and the Arab Sunni tribes are, in the view of the Trump administration, the most deserving candidates to capture the areas liberated from Daesh, and not Iran with its Persian Crescent project extending from Daesh-held territories in Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon, which is dominated today by Hezbollah, a proxy of Tehran.
Russia agrees with the US over supporting the Kurds. Russia is keen to give Kurds a pivotal status in the new Syrian constitution, in which Syria is renamed the Syrian Republic, replacing the Syrian Arab Republic. According to a well-informed observer, the party guaranteeing Kurdish interests in Syria right now is Russia.
Interestingly, Bogdanov, in his interview with Al-Hayat, challenged Turkey and its objections to Kurdish statehood in Syria, saying: “Why does Turkey bless Kurdistan in Iraq but not Kurdistan in Syria? I believe this is none of their business. This is an Iraqi and Syrian affair. The Syrian people, not the Russian or Turkish people, decide the form of the state and the leadership, and this is our position. Changing the regime and other arrangements is a sovereign and internal matter.”
Fears of partition in the Arab world
Interestingly too, when Bogdanov was asked about fears of partition in the Arab region, about the rise of a Kurdish state in Iraq and the possibilities of partition in Iraq and Syria, he interrupted to add, “and in Yemen and Libya.” He stressed respect for countries’ sovereignty, but also the principle of self-determination. He said: “Sometimes, there are constitutions that contain federal or decentralized principles, and this is important to find mechanisms to resolve problems (if) there would be a legal and constitutional way.”
Bogdanov added in reference to what he saw and heard in Erbil: “There is a government, a president, a flag, and all the components of a state. We want the same thing in Syria. We told them this question must not be addressed to Russia because this is a consensual matter stipulated in the Iraqi constitution. They agreed to this idea and implemented it legally.”
In other words, Russia is open to the possibility of a Kurdish state in Syria, not just in Iraq, or at least a Kurdish region as part of a federal or confederal Syria. Turkey is opposed. Iran is anxious but it is bargaining. Iran fears the Kurdistan model would spread to its territories, where Iranian Kurds also have similar ambitions. However, Iran also realizes that keeping a foothold in Syria and Iraq requires agreeing to partition in the two countries.
The view from the US
The Trump administration seems aware of all this. Figures close to the administration speak of reunification in Syria, to head off the Iranian project, and reclaim Turkey from Russia if a Russian-American deal falls through. They also say that the reunification of Syria means, practically, getting Assad to step down because he would be unqualified and incapable of leading a united Syria.
At least, this is their stated position, but what is happening behind closed doors is a different matter, particularly since talk of deals is still in the early stages, while the partition of the Arab countries is a long-standing Israeli quest. What is clear at this stage is that Russia is not currently prepared for a deal with the US that would require sacrificing its strategic ally Iran. It is also not ready to sacrifice Assad at this juncture. What is also clear is that the Trump administration will not accept, under any circumstances, Iran claiming the territories liberated from Daesh. Yet the Kurds are not going to hold these territories by themselves. The current talk focuses on a combination of Kurds, Sunni Arab tribes and fighters being prepared to become the boots on the ground who will hold these territories.
Washington does not agree with Moscow that the Syrian army should do the job. This must have been a key part of the discussions between senior leaders in the Turkish, Russian, and US armies in Antalya. Both the east and west banks of the Euphrates were tackled in the discussions, after Turkey guaranteed “cleansing” its borders from Kurds west of the Euphrates. The important party that was absent-yet-present in the talks was Iran, which is keen to have a place in Syria to guarantee contiguity between Iraq and Lebanon.
What does Israel want meanwhile? This is the mystery question, bearing in mind that in the past it had a truce with Iran that some considered tantamount to collusion with the project for the Persian Crescent, and bearing in mind that Jews and Persians have never in the past fought a direct war. Some say that what Israel wants now is to dismantle Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal, and contain Iran’s missile capabilities, which are not included in the nuclear deal, as Tehran affirms.
Will these issues be subject to deals or will they trigger wars? If the latter is true, will war be declared on the weakest link, that is Hezbollah in Lebanon, or will war come as a result of the Trump administration’s need for a later, bigger war that would distract away from the internal crisis surrounding it?
Any grand bargain between the US and Russia is still far off, in light of the US distrust of Russia, and the doubts a segment of the American public harbor vis-a-vis their president. Iran is still the subject of contention between the Trump administration and Russia. Iran is worried, because so far, all signals indicate the new US administration is not willing to accept Iran’s regional ambitions. But it is also reassured because Russia is not yet ready to throw Iran under the bus, despite all talk to the contrary.
Turkey remains at the forefront of the American-Russian tug of war. In turn, Turkey is wary of making mistakes that would implicate it further. Turkey insists on building bridges with Russia, but is not willing to abandon its membership of NATO. It is trying to navigate stormy seas, and the lifeboat currently is its partnership on the ground in Syria against Daesh, together with the US and Russia.
• Raghida Dergham is columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat
newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP — the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.