Toward a difficult phase marked by Assad’s survival
Some have read developments on the ground, international accords, and realignments in Iraq and Syria as the beginning of the end. They hope this will end the bloodletting, engender stability and signal the start of reconstruction, with positive implications for the two countries, their neighbors, and refugees and internally displaced Syrians and Iraqis.
But others see the latest developments as part of an advanced bid to partition Syria and Iraq, and to accommodate the interests of players such as Russia, the US, Iran, Israel, Turkey, European powers, Kurdish factions and others. This could exacerbate suffering and conflict.
US President Donald Trump has not yet been able to grasp the complexities of foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Top members of his administration differ fundamentally on both strategy and tactics.
Furthermore, it seems Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has boasted of his ability to steer events in Syria since he forged an alliance with Iran and the regime in Damascus, is today unable to execute an exit strategy from Syria’s crisis before it becomes a Russian crisis. But engagement between Moscow and the Trump administration on Syria is quite different from the time of former President Barack Obama.
The Trump administration has a different policy and approach, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson does not want to be another John Kerry, who spent his time making semi-illusory partnerships and marathon visits that did not lead to the Nobel Peace Prize that he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had dreamt of.
The Trump administration’s priorities are fighting terrorism and defeating Daesh and similar groups. But long-term US policy does not stop with the man currently in the White House, and is always seeking to serve fixed strategic and economic interests, as well as fixed alliances such as with Israel. For this reason, it may be worth reading developments in Syria and Iraq from the gray zone until America’s internal storms quiet down.
Syria’s crisis began with a quest for reform to the identity and nature of the regime, which responded with a military crackdown. The rest is history. Layers upon layers were then accumulated, with the introduction of terrorism after imprisoned extremists were released and foreign terrorists were invited to Syria. Bashar Assad resolved to turn the conflict into a “war on terror” in which he is an indispensable partner.
He succeeded on both counts, turning Syria into an arena for a war on local and global terrorism, and forging a partnership with Russia and Iran to guarantee his survival and indispensability. Assad also succeeded in turning the conflict into a global refugee crisis, with the goal of forcing others to accept his Russian- and Iranian-backed priorities.
Sources familiar with the thinking of international and regional actors in Syria speak of “realistic reconsiderations.” They cite remarks by President Emmanuel Macron, who seems to have reassessed French policy and hinted at accepting Assad remaining in power “as a temporary fact” instead of demanding a clear roadmap for his departure.
The three pillars of Trump’s Syria policy are freeing Raqqa from Daesh, assuring Israel’s strategic interests and thwarting Iranian dominance from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
Raqqa will be the turning point in Syria, according to a source involved in efforts to resolve the conflict. After its liberation from Daesh, there will be no pretexts left for any side currently using the group to justify their presence in Syria, the source said. Raqqa’s liberation will also have psychological and symbolic importance.
This means international diplomatic efforts are preparing to peel away the layers of the crisis and simplify priorities with realism after Raqqa. One layer that can be readily peeled regards the so-called de-escalation zones, which are meant to limit civilian deaths and establish quasi-safe zones across Syria. According to an international source, “we are trying to link the de-escalation zones to a political settlement that would emphasize Syria’s territorial integrity.”
The problem is that these temporary arrangements, pending a political transition in Syria, suggest a de-facto partitioning of the country. But a Balkans-style partition would require huge subsidies from the sponsors of the respective regions, according to a high-level source who said: “Partition is a threat we must avoid. No one wants to inherit a torn piece of Syria.”
Another source said the US, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Jordan do not want partition, but “Iran hasn’t disclosed its plans, although partition could also lead to a Kurdish state that Iran doesn’t want.” This source said Israel stands to benefit greatly from removing Iran and Hezbollah from the area adjacent to the Golan Heights, and the Russian-American arrangements in southwest Syria are a setback for Iran’s and Hezbollah’s strategic ambitions.
Jordan is an important part of the Russian-American accords, and benefits from them because they have removed Iran and Hezbollah from the border with the Hashemite kingdom. While Iran is not pleased with these developments, it has been forced to accept the Russian-American decision to remove any non-Syrian military presence in the south.
The three pillars of Trump’s Syria policy are freeing Raqqa from Daesh, assuring Israel’s strategic interests and thwarting Iranian dominance from Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. This is confirmed by multiple sources. Iran’s presence in Syria, according to sources close to American-Russian conversations on this issue, is Moscow’s responsibility.
For this reason, Iran is worried by Russia’s agenda after the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg and subsequent understandings on the ground. But can the Trump administration, despite its fragmentation, head off regional dominance that Iran has invested blood and treasure in? “Don’t underestimate US capabilities,” one source said, but another cautioned: “Be careful of relying on US threats or promises.”
Regarding Assad’s fate, a source said: “No one is demanding Assad’s departure now. He’ll later be removed through a political process.” Another source said the nature of the Syrian regime means it is unable to accommodate immediate changes. In other words, Assad is here to stay for now. But talk of his departure via an American-Russian accord that distinguishes between his removal and the regime’s survival may not be far off.
Some say the countdown to the end of the conflict has started, based on Daesh’s destruction, a reasonable exit of Russian forces and militias, a European role in reconstruction and a UN-backed political process. Others believe the post-Daesh phase will be long, and stability will not come to Syria or Iraq, as long as the Trump administration is stumbling in the face of Russian-Iranian shrewdness and experience.
The latter view does not agree that Iran is losing in Syria and Iraq. It says the safe zones will weaken Syrian rebels and benefit Tehran, which wants to expand them. According to proponents of this view, the Trump administration is selling the Gulf countries sweet talk while blessing and accommodating Iran’s expansion in Syria and Iraq.
Some say Washington is actively backing an Iraqi prime minister who is unable to confront the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
Herein lies the dilemma: Without political solutions, what new forms of Daesh will emerge if its destruction is the only goal sought in Syria and Iraq? The Trump administration lacks the necessary experience compared to the leaders of Russia and Iran.
Shrewd US officials such as the defense secretary and national security adviser are shackled in many ways by a president who tweets his whims, and by investigations into alleged involvement of some of Trump’s associates with Russia. The current phase has complex implications.
— 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.