From Hamburg we heard, for the first time, of a US-Russian “common understanding” on Syria. From Baghdad came the good news about the liberation of Mosul. From Lebanon, we heard how eager those infatuated with the country’s sovereignty were to return Syrian refugees back to the regime that had displaced them.
The “understanding” between Washington and Moscow regarding what remains of old Syria stems firstly from their own interests, and secondly from those of certain regional players. But if observers seek to know the details without delusions, they need to assess some issues.
Currently, Moscow’s top priority in Syria is to maintain its presence in the eastern Mediterranean after losing big in Iraq, North Africa and former South Yemen. For this reason, the Kremlin has gone as far as direct involvement in the fighting, establishing military bases and even suggesting a blueprint for a new constitution.
The second priority is to exploit Iran’s presence while twisting Washington’s arms in the hope of ensuring maximum US concessions, whether in the Middle East, Eastern Europe or elsewhere. These two priorities have been translated on the ground in Syria because of former US President Barack Obama’s belief in Iran as a regional partner. Moscow is striving to cement that belief under the Trump administration.
But in Washington, despite the entrenchment of the deep state, we have witnessed a marked change in the handling of the Iranian file. It may be true that the Trump administration is not planning a war on Iran, as it may need it in the future for wider geopolitical interests.
But contrary to Obama’s eager approach, the Trump administration wants Tehran as a small partner that obeys when ordered, not a big partner that decides and enforces. This is also how Israel, Washington’s influential strategic ally in the Middle East, wishes to see Iran’s future role.
Like Moscow and Tehran, Washington has far greater objectives than the fate and interests of the people of Syria, let alone who will lead it and under what title. Syria has become a partitioned failed state whose cities and villages have been deserted by half its population.
Before the 2011 uprising, all political posts in Syria’s government except the presidency were meaningless, given that the real power rested in the hands of the president and his security apparatus.
But today, the real power is in the hands of those who control military bases, order airstrikes, organize mass displacement and provide it with international legal cover. So even the presidency has become meaningless, and the issue of who fills the post is now a minute detail in a much larger picture.
In Syria, Russia may be willing to sacrifice its ‘special relationship’ with Iran if a regional agreement is in place that takes into account Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli demands. But getting Iran out of Iraq looks like a far more difficult mission at this stage.
Eyad Abu Shakra
As for Iraq, we have been hearing one question: What will happen after the liberation of Mosul? Daesh, like Al-Qaeda before it, has carried out the task expected of it: Destroying the political and demographic presence of the Sunni Arabs, who played a pivotal role in founding modern Iraq in 1920. Today, between Iranian dominance and the countdown to Iraqi Kurdistan’s secession, Iraq’s situation does not look much better than Syria’s.
If Washington’s declared strategy toward Syria and Iraq is based on planting a wedge between Tehran and Moscow, it should be said that Iran’s hegemony over Iraq is religiously, politically and geographically much stronger than in Syria. The Iranian presence in Syria remains practically a strategic bridge to Lebanon and the Mediterranean.
In Syria, Russia may be willing to sacrifice its “special relationship” with Iran if a regional agreement is in place that takes into account Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli demands. But getting Iran out of Iraq looks like a far more difficult mission at this stage, more so in the absence of a serious US commitment.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah — Iran’s virtual occupation force — is trying to end the phenomenon of Syrian refugees for which it was responsible. After expelling the population of most Syrian border areas with Lebanon under the watchful eyes of the international community, Hezbollah is now hell-bent on displacing the population of Lebanese border towns that it feels are hindering its direct support to the Assad regime and Iran’s presence in Syria.
This means targeting the Sunni border town of Arsal, which has hosted tens of thousands of displaced Syrians, and expelling its population under the pretext of eradicating “takfiris.” This is the same justification used throughout the last few years in the demographic changes taking place via the Assad regime’s notorious “green buses” and “liberation” by Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq.
If there was an international decision taken at the highest level regarding Syria’s future, based on the recent US-Russia understanding, it would be pretty difficult to stop it. Several regional players that once claimed to be opposed either to the Americans or the Russians, or both, now seem to be working with the two superpowers.
Regardless of whether the US is willing or able to get Iran out of Iraq, the situation in Syria and Lebanon looks quite different. The future of northern Syria is now linked to Turkish and Kurdish calculations. What happens in southern Syria — bordering Jordan, southeast Lebanon and the Israel-occupied Golan Heights — will depend on Arab and Israeli moves.
If the US-Russia understanding manages to rid Syria of Iran’s presence and redefines its political and demographic affairs, the thorny issue of what to do with Syria’s president will lose its importance as real power is now elsewhere. But if Iran maintains its foothold in Syria as a result of a tacit deal, we should expect more suffering and “green buses.”
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.