Unless a major accident occurs on the ground, there will not be a US-Russian clash in Syria, because no one in Washington or Moscow wants the verbal tensions between them to become a military confrontation.
Most Arab countries — led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Jordan — do not want US-Russian military friction. For one thing, they are all keen on strengthening bilateral ties with Russia at a time when their alliance with the US under President Donald Trump is being shored up, after it took a hit under former President Barack Obama.
Israel is reassured by its relations with Moscow, especially in terms of the guarantees it has received over preventing Iranian and Iranian-backed forces deploying close to its borders near the Golan. Israel’s alliance with the US and the US protection for Israel’s strategic interests are also as solid as ever.
Iran, meanwhile, seems to be the only virtual beneficiary of a possible clash between the two powers, for a number of reasons. First, Iran would like to avoid any US-Russian accords that would sacrifice Iran’s role in Syria, and the implications for Iran’s regional projects. As a result, some in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may seek to lure further US measures in Syria’s airspace, with the hope of dragging Washington and Moscow into a confrontation. However, Tehran’s political leadership no doubt is fully aware of the consequences of an official policy aiming to instigate a US-Russian military showdown in Syria.
True, the political climate resulting from the US investigations into allegations of Russian meddling in the presidential elections has paralyzed any deals the Kremlin and the White House were dreaming of concluding. However, it is also true that the US establishment and American people, and even the generals in the Pentagon and White House, do not want a military confrontation with Russia, unless Moscow commits the error of intercepting US planes following its warnings to this effect. In that case nothing will be off the table, and Washington would have a clear and violent reaction. But Moscow is well aware of this and the consequences it entails.
The past three weeks saw a marked increase in tensions in eastern Syria between the US-led international coalition and Syrian regime forces and their Iranian-backed allies. This follows the coalition’s downing of three planes supporting pro-regime forces, after the coalition accused them of flying close to a no-combat zone agreed with Russia.
Initially, the Russian Ministry of Defense said Russia would deal with coalition planes if they fly west of the Euphrates in Syria, where Russian aircraft operate. This was followed by a Russian media escalation, including the touting of a scenario for a proxy war, with Moscow beefing up the capabilities of the Syrian regime army to confront future US attacks. However, the Kremlin’s spokesman avoided talking of a direct military confrontation between Russian and US forces, but said the situation was extremely worrying.
The Pentagon’s statement suggested Washington is keen to de-escalate in Syria. However, it stressed that the Department of Defense will not tolerate any hostile intentions or actions by the pro-Damascus forces, indicating Iran-backed forces are mustering in the desert in eastern Syria.
Iran, as some believe, is pursuing a heavy-handed policy in the region to intimidate its foes and reassure its allies. Iran launched ballistic missiles into Syria, covering the same distance as between Tehran and Riyadh, in a threatening message of intimidation. However, Tehran is not as assured of its abilities as it was in the past, when a friendly US President Barack Obama was in the White House, pursuing policies that diverged from the traditional US relationship with the Arab Gulf allies. Iran now lives in the age of Trump, and its abilities are now more about provocation than in getting its own way.
Tehran is anxious about both the evolution of American-Arab relations, and the prospect of an accord between Washington and Moscow.
The Trump administration certainly needs a coherent and clearly defined policy. It must have its capabilities ready to deploy against Iran in Syria and in the region. Currently there is demagoguery and loss and infighting in the Trump administration and with Congress, which allows room for miscalculations by both friends and foes. This is dangerous in a region ravaged by conflict and direct and proxy wars.
However, it would be wrong to conclude that the investigations saga in Congress, the intelligence community, and the Department of Justice — or the temperament of the tweeter-in-chief who never sleeps — means that the US state is out of order. This is a superpower in which internal politics and the orientations of its four-year-term administration does not stop its machinery. Its strategic policies are long-term, and now they focus on destroying the terrorism of Daesh and similar radical Sunni jihadist groups. Today, the US establishment believes adding Shiite extremist groups to the terror list, especially those in Syria, also serves US interests.
Iran is both confident and anxious. Iran is confident about its cunningness, patience, and open horizons in the Arab sphere that it can breach with its sharp instruments in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. But it is anxious about the prospects of US-Russian accords, and the evolution of American-Arab relations involving important countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
In Saudi Arabia, there has been a revolution on many levels, with King Salman appointing his son Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince and deputy prime minister. The king appointed a number of new young ministers and advisers, most of them below 40 years of age, and who include sons of late kings. By doing so, Saudi Arabia has moved from a horizontal to a vertical succession, moving away from the rule of elderly officials to make room for the younger generation, in fulfillment of the bold Vision 2030 reforms.
Saudi Arabia has executed a radical transition moving into the age of young leadership and a fresh new vision without revolutions or coups like the ones much of the rest of the Arab region has grown accustomed to. Disillusionment turned out not to be a Saudi burden, but the burden of others who had spoken of concern about its fate.
This calm yet seismic shift is not in the interests of Iran, ruled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC, in opposition to the reformists represented by President Hassan Rouhani. Iran’s expansionism — in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon — is the policy of the IRGC, which has spawned the likes of the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and countless militias in Syria. Unfortunately, the IRGC is cornering young reformist forces in Iran and preventing them from reaching power.
President Donald Trump has blessed the transition in Saudi Arabia, and he maintains a special bond with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The crown prince has suggested his country is willing to normalize relations with Iran if it changes its behavior and ends its military intervention in Arab countries. President Trump can help develop conditions for this normalization by adopting clear and practical policies on Iran, Russia, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. That is if his goal is indeed to contain conflicts, especially between Sunnis and Shiites, and to put an end to accusations of the US stoking such tensions.
Any clear roadmap should have Moscow as its main title. To be sure, Moscow will not abandon its strategic relations with Tehran over Syria, as a gift for Trump or the US. And realistically speaking, Trump does not have the ability to forge deals with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, while being tied down by investigations and fierce battles with the media and the intelligence community, as well as the traditional levers of power in the US establishment.
What the US president can do is leave foreign policy to the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the National Security Council without any intervention from his men in the White House, who do not understand the language of strategic interests. Trump can instruct his Cabinet to declare a clear, actionable policy away from his tweets, so that his administration can be taken seriously and so that those wagering on US divisions or his impeachment are frustrated.
There is a responsibility falling on the shoulders of Putin too. He has stubbornly clung to oneupmanship, and believes his strategic alliance with Iran must weather the Trump administration and all Arab attempts to convince him to loosen that alliance.
Putin understands the significance of what has happened in Saudi Arabia, and has good ties with the crown prince as well as the leaders of the UAE and Egypt. These leaders in turn understand that there is no possibility for Russia to abandon Iran, but are trying to influence Moscow in order to contain Iran.
This is the dilemma. Russia is not prepared to amend its Iran policies at this stage. However, Moscow is well aware of Iran’s quest to implicate it in a clash with the US in Syria that it does not want. The Kremlin must go beyond avoiding a clash, however, and must work to contain Iran’s regional ambitions starting in Yemen and Lebanon, and Iran’s escalatory efforts in Syria. Otherwise, there is a high chance for miscalculation to occur, and the consequences of a clash would be dire.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of the Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.