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Contours of a Russian-American ‘deal’ on Syria

The bargaining for a potential Russian-American deal on Syria has started. It is without a putative “grand bargain” that would take into account Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russia, which remain a less attainable goal at present.

Discussions are actually centered on Iran’s position on Syria and on a corridor and airbase to feed Hezbollah, which will not be able to maintain a presence on the Golan due to compliance with Israel’s strategic demands.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow when he met with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for nearly four hours and with President Vladimir Putin, indicates that a serious dialogue has begun between the Trump administration and Putin’s government. The dialogue will take into account the bilateral relationship and the elements of a potential deal with Syria as the starting point.

The US-British-French draft resolution at the UN Security Council condemning the use of chemical weapons in Idlib and calling for international inspection of Syrian airbases was met with Russia’s eighth veto. This occurred after the Russian envoy called for postponing the vote considering the few agreements reached between Tillerson and Lavrov.

Still, any sign of escalation in New York was tempered as discussions began in Moscow.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, gave an inkling into the US position vis-a-vis Russia in the Security Council which the US chairs this month and which stresses the “partnership” with Russia in Syria.

Lavrov and Tillerson agreed on several points — a belief in the need to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and to collaborate in the fight against Daesh.

Calling for a unified Syria means in fact rejecting the partition started on the ground to benefit the Iranian idea of a Shiite “crescent” going through Syria.

Therefore, there is now talk of a corridor and airbase for Iran as a means to compensate Tehran which Moscow does not yet want to abandon.

To be sure, Moscow wants a deal with Washington, but not at any price. Both Russia and the US recognize that Bashar Assad will have to go sooner or later, and that he is just a temporary “hitch.”

Washington’s main message to Moscow is that the time is ripe for securing an exit strategy from Syria after guaranteeing some of its key interests there.

If not, Russia will inherit a broken Syria full of jihadists like Daesh, a US-empowered armed opposition, and the American intent to sink both Russia and Iran in a Syrian quagmire.

Moscow’s message to Washington is that it is ready to bargain, provided that the deal does not seek to undermine Russia’s prestige which has been restored by its intervention in Syria along with its strategic interests.

There is a wide range of issues on which the two sides might see eye to eye as a result of the US military strike in Syria, which paved the way for serious negotiations.

American decision-makers working on Syria and a Russian role, within and without the US administration, comprise top military brass, well-versed in the region’s geopolitics.

Haley won the admiration of this influential circle and is now the mouthpiece of the military-political policy-setting wing of the Trump administration.

The main message the US wished to send by its rapid military response to the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun was to draw red lines in the sand for Russia and Iran.

Moscow is able to contain Tehran’s ambitions in Syria and has many means to accomplish this, including making Iran militarily vulnerable in Syria by withdrawing its protective cover on the battleground. Iran is well aware that it cannot shore up Assad alone.

Raghida Dergham

Its objective is to end the bloodletting in Syria and let the Kremlin know that the Trump administration is aware that Russian-Iranian policy in Syria is based on a military rather than a political solution.

Therefore, in a departure from Obama’s policy, the administration decided that military action was needed.

There are nearly 1,000 US troops and massive reconnaissance assets in Syria. Military plans have been drawn which enabled Trump to take the decision to strike almost instantaneously rather than arbitrarily.

He surrounded himself with expert military and political planners and exercised his role and powers as president based on professional, pragmatic advice.

These influential US foreign policy stakeholders want a strategic dialogue with Russia, but are looking to shape the future of their relationship from a position of absolute US military superiority.

In other words, their wager is that Russia will not dare confront the US militarily and that all its future moves in Syria will factor in US strength.

In the US view, this is a negotiating hand, and it is willing to repeat the military message if needed but always using the “art of the deal.”

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is benefiting from giving the impression that it escalates the situation with Russia because it helps to remove suspicions of close ties with the Kremlin.

Fears of an escalation with Russia could also help sell a deal and change the Americans’ attitude vis-a-vis the Russians.

The main axes of negotiations sought by Trump’s White House with the Kremlin, according to sources well versed in the new talks, include: Curbing Iranian influence in Syria; defeating Daesh and safeguarding Israeli interests.

The main American message to Russia, sources say, is: “Buyer beware. If you break it, you buy it.”

This, in the Trump administration’s belief, could compel the Kremlin to accept the offer of a strategic partnership with the US.

In other words, if an agreement between the two fails, Syria could become the site of decades of Somali-style civil wars.

The terrorists that flocked to Syria could return to their home countries and settle scores. The group would include Chechen and Central Asian fighters from Russia’s five neighboring Muslim republics. This may happen while Russia is drawn further into the Syrian quagmire.

Russia’s commitment to Assad is tactical, provisional and up for negotiation, according to the US view today. Discussions are in full swing to find alternatives to Assad that would be acceptable to both Russia and the US.

Since Washington is not in a hurry to remove Assad and is willing to accept the survival of the pillars of the regime in Damascus without the Assad dynasty, the prospects for an accord exist. Assad’s fate is no longer the main hitch if strategic understandings that secure US and Russian interests in Syria, each with its set of conditions, are reached.

Yet, the fate of Hezbollah and of the Tehran-backed militias in Syria remains the biggest obstacle.

Moscow is not willing to abandon Tehran, and Washington understands why it is difficult to expect this.

Therefore, there is talk about a pragmatic resolution to the Iranian involvement in Syria.

Hezbollah is ready to pull out of Syria as soon as Tehran decides, but Tehran will not decide unless it can retain a corridor to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Moscow is willing to pressure Iran to accept the accords once reached with Washington, and it is coming under US pressure to curb Iranian influence in Syria.

Russia is able to contain Iranian ambitions and projects in Syria and has many means to accomplish this, including making Iran militarily vulnerable in Syria by withdrawing its protective cover on the battleground.

Iran is well aware that it cannot shore up Assad alone, or impose its plan for Syria without Russia.

The Trump administration is using that equation in order to ask the Kremlin to make up its mind on Iran.

What Moscow does not want is to suggest that it would approve a regime change in Damascus, not because it is committed to Assad’s remaining in power but because it fears the principle of changing regimes from Syria and Ukraine might apply to Russia itself.

Moscow will not give up its achievements in Syria in the absence of US guarantees that its vital interests in Syria are guaranteed, from military bases to reconstruction deals, and to preserving its status as a major player in the Middle East.

Until the Trump administration fully accepts these fundamental Russian interests, Moscow will not back down from its commitment to Assad or its alliance with Iran.

Talk about a deal is still in the early stages, and the path leading to a deal in Syria is rugged and full of surprising obstacles, both inside Syria and outside, including regarding the NATO-Russian relation and the developments in Ukraine, the other component of the still elusive “grand bargain.”

The US will not intervene militarily directly in Syria or Ukraine. Instead, it will rely on its military and economic edge to warn Russia, which remains weaker, of its might which is nonetheless on display in Syria.

Trump’s administration, unlike Barack Obama’s, will not be neutral; it is willing to strike if needed, certain that Moscow will not dare confront it militarily.

It is ready for a deal with Russia and does not fear a Russian rejection because it knows that it would further harm Russia and sink it further into the Syrian quagmire.

If Syria is the place where Putin’s Russia restored its prestige and world-power status under Obama, it might also be the place where Trump might “make America great again.”

• Raghida Dergham is a 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.