On the eve of the G-20 Summit in Germany’s Hamburg next week, the US and Russia are undergoing a bilateral, as well as international reconfiguration. There is consideration for ongoing conflict and the strategic implications and relations with vital countries in the world and the Middle East, where Washington and Moscow converge on the goal of crushing Daesh but differ on other alliances and priorities in the region.
US President Donald Trump wants to take to the G-20 his achievements at the Riyadh Summit, where he launched a new global front against extremist terrorism, led by the US in partnership with Muslim nations as the vanguard. The current crisis with Qatar has pierced a hole in the Trump administration’s bid, so Washington has deployed its Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to lead a firm mediation effort backed by US leverage, while the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, made it clear that the administration’s priority is terrorism rather than the location of US military bases in Qatar. Haley has also clarified that the White House’s warning to Syria’s President Bashar Assad that he and his army would “pay a heavy price” if he stages another chemical weapons attack, was also a message to Russia and Iran, who support him in killing his people.
Russia, meanwhile, has reserved the right to retaliate, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov saying Moscow would respond appropriately if Washington takes preemptive measures, which he called a pretext for “provocative actions.”
This does not mean that the US and Russia are on the verge of clashing in Syria, particularly since the US Defense Secretary James Mattis has stated that Damascus heeded Washington’s warning regarding chemical weapons. Moreover, Russia cannot appear to be supporting a chemical attack by the regime on the eve of the G-20 Summit, where Russia wants to arrange a summit meeting with the US that would mark a turning point in bilateral relations. However such a reset remains difficult in light of ongoing federal investigations in the US into allegations of Russian meddlings in the US presidential election, and alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign with the Russian intervention in the democratic process. Nevertheless, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are keen to have not just a superficial meeting, but a serious summit to discuss various important issues from bilateral relations, to regional alliances and international conflicts.
Iran will be at the top of the agenda for Russian-American dialogue, regardless of what level it is discussed at, because the fate of Iran and its proxies in Syria remains a crucial sticking point in any deal — or confrontation.
Tehran is aware of this, and for this reason, it is repositioning in anticipation of either scenario, through Hezbollah’s escalation in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilization Force’s (PMF) challenge to the government of Haider Al-Abadi in Iraq over control of the border with Syria. The same applies to Turkey, which is also at the center of bargains, accords, and contradictions in Syria and Iraq, and their extensions in Qatar, not to mention its regional status as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Washington is considering designating as a terror group. Such a move would not upset Moscow, which has long warned against former President Obama’s virtual support for the Muslim Brotherhood project in the region under the guise of democracy and the Arab Spring.
Indeed, the spaces for American-Russian convergence are available if the shackles of investigations are somehow removed, although the grand bargains will remain on hold pending their outcome.
The Qatar crisis has reopened old issues, including the Muslim Brotherhood project endorsed by Turkey’s President Erdogan, which Qatar has been accused of executing in Egypt, Syria, and even Gulf countries. The Trump administration has built special relations with key countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are leading the boycott of Qatar on the one hand, and on the other, constitute the necessary grounds of the anti-terror front established at the Riyadh summits crucial for the US president. As Haley made it clear, Trump will not compromise on this, even if that means him relinquishing the US base in Qatar. To the American president the Riyadh Summit is a strategic achievement that he shall carry with him to the G-20 summit in Hamburg.
The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, led a necessary discussion at a ministerial level, using US leverage with Qatar and other Gulf countries, not just to contain the crisis but also to find a radical solution to. This is a good start, but the task at hand requires a full and serious engagement. It may require Tillerson to dedicate a significant amount of his time and energy to monitor the implementation of reasonable and actionable demands, or the appointment of a high-level US figure capable of deploying its leverage to guarantee the delivery of promises though a time table and an implementation mechanism.
The Kuwaiti mediation still retains an important dimension, especially that the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad is leading it. The role of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in support of the Kuwaiti and American initiatives also carries important weight. However, there is no alternative to a senior American role in tackling the crisis with Qatar, given its regional ramifications. What is being proposed is a change of approach, not just to contain some differences. The choice for Qatar is to belong to the US-backed Gulf Arab house or to bilateral alliances with Iran and Turkey, and herein lies the challenge for Doha now.
Washington does not fully endorse the demands the Gulf has made against Qatar, but it agrees with the significant areas behind those demands, especially in relation to Iran and counterterrorism. The Trump administration entered the fray of mediation after initially distancing itself from the crisis, when it realized that the Kuwaiti mediation required an American boost, with US interests deeply impacted by developments in the Gulf.
The need for dialogue is evident. But with tensions still running high, and with so much on the table, it might be a case of knowing where to start.
Following a meeting between Tillerson and Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani this week, it was clear Doha was willing to engage in dialogue and negotiate the demands, after ignoring them and instead escalating through Turkey and Iran.
Upon hearing the statements made by Nikki Haley, Doha understood what was on the mind of the US presidency and what its priorities were. What matters here is that the Trump administration has decided to engage to resolve the crisis, before Trump heads to the G-20 summit with the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries, including Vladimir Putin, to ensure his new global front against terror is not riddled with holes.
The warning issued by the Trump administration to Damascus that any use of chemical weapons would be met with dire consequences, is also part of the image the White House wants to promote on behalf of Trump ahead of the G-20 summit — the image of a firm and bold leader who does not hesitate, the opposite of his predecessor Barack Obama. Donald Trump wants all those concerned to know that there is a big difference between the two men. Trump wants to take a message to Hamburg saying the days of “leading from behind” are over, and that burying heads in the sand as atrocities, such as gas attacks in Syria, are committed will not be his style. He wants to make it clear that standing idly by while Iran and her militias in Syria and Iraq commit violations for the sake of preserving the nuclear deal was Obama’s policy, but will not be Trump’s approach.
Trump wants the G-20 summit to be an opportunity to unshackle himself of accusations, prosecutions, and campaigns in the US, and to prove that he can lead despite it all.
This will still not be easy because the world is well aware of the events unfolding in the US and the extent of the dangerous divisions there. Yet world leaders who traveled to Washington to meet Trump, or those he met abroad have shown respect for the US presidency, and a desire to maintain permanent relations with Washington. Therefore, all those who will meet him in Hamburg will be friends of Donald Trump.
Vladimir Putin wants to be one of those friends, and Russian diplomacy is wishing its coveted grand bargain was within reach. The dilemma is that Russia is a worry for US diplomacy. The White House is split over the nature of the meeting between Trump and Putin, because there will be delicate and serious consequences for the US presidency, and because Trump is not a president who sticks to protocol but sometimes diverges from his own administration and creates problems for himself that are hard to contain.
Even if it is decided to meet, one that is by design not warm or with pre-arranged understandings, the top members of the administration can negotiate with their counterparts in the Kremlin, if the Trump administration manages to develop a comprehensive and clear policy on various issues. So far, the Trump administration appears distraught sometimes, and at other times, firm and determined to act, especially in the context of the war on Daesh, albeit without a clear plan yet.
In Iraq, where forces have recaptured Mosul and are on the verge of liberating the areas occupied by Daesh, factions affiliated with the Tehran-backed PMF are moving to control the border zone with Syria, having already captured the Al-Waleed crossing between the two countries. Their aim is to implement Iran’s project to establish a crescent linking Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is trying to take control of the security and borders of his country, but he is facing a challenge from the PMF, backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The US has expressed its opposition to the deployment of the PMF in areas recaptured from Daesh. However, there is nothing to indicate that there is a practical strategy on the ground to prevent the PMF from executing Iran’s project.
In Syria, there is no clarity regarding the fate of the militias imported by the IRGC into this Arab country, and which seem to be priming themselves to replace Daesh after its defeat. Washington has adopted a policy of disallowing militias from advancing or remaining in Syria, but the implementation remains vague and perhaps on hold until Russian-American relations move beyond the current domestic considerations in the US.
In Lebanon, the US administration and Congress seem determined to contain Hezbollah through sanctions and joint measures with the Europeans. The International Affairs Committee in Congress is pushing a bill to get the EU to designate Hezbollah a terror group. Washington noted remarks by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last week, in which he said thousands of Afghan, Pakistani, Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi fighters are now ready to come to Lebanon to repel any possible Israeli attack, in what is a clear hijacking of the Lebanese government’s sovereignty and a clear intention to turn Lebanon into an extension of the Syrian theater and the IRGC operations there. “It is Hezbollah’s right to mobilize its allies in a confrontation in which its enemy mobilizes all its allies,” Nasrallah said, adding: “As we have fought together in Syria with the IRGC, the Iraqi PMG, and Syrian popular forces, we will fight together in Lebanon as one rank and one alliance, if the enemy assaults Lebanon.”
Washington and Moscow have both made guarantees to Israel that the Golan Heights would remain free of IRGC-backed militias, and there are measures being prepared to turn the peacekeeping detail in the area into more than an observation force. The Golan front, which was always neutralized in the Syrian conflict with Israel, will continue to be out of the equation with a Russian-American decision and Iranian consent, as part of the silent truce with Israel.
The Lebanese front is different, although it is also subject to the same Iranian-Israeli equation. The Iranian decision regarding Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is not ready to be announced yet, and perhaps Hezbollah’s verbal escalation is part of the bargaining. However, there is a danger here that Washington and Moscow both realize and take stock of.
The Russian-American dialogue is necessary but may not have yet matured by the time Trump and Putin join the G-20 summit. It is imperative to initiate it, but not just for the sake of US and Russian interests, but also because of its implications for the fate of regional conflicts.
• 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 Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham