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US-Russian convergences and divergences on Syria

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has “reassured” the world that he has an accord with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Syria. Meanwhile, the US Defense Department said it will retrieve arms supplied to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) after some of its factions rejected American conditions for continued support, foremost among them ending the fight against the Syrian regime and focusing exclusively on Daesh.

The war of sanctions and diplomatic vendettas between the US on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other, will still not dissuade Tillerson and Lavrov from meeting next week in Manila, with the war on Daesh and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) top of the agenda.

Russia is trying to show some flexibility to avoid losing its partnership with the US in Syria, but without compromising the principles that govern its relations with Tehran and Damascus. By contrast the US has been fickle, unworried about the reputation it has garnered for abandoning friends and partners when its interests dictate it.

President Donald Trump’s administration has gone further, embracing contradictions and aligning itself with Russian realpolitik, albeit haphazardly. Both sides claim their accords on fighting terrorism and on “de-escalation zones” will be followed by the revival of a political process focusing on Syria’s future, a new constitution, elections and the opposition’s participation in power, which is currently monopolized by the regime.

Both sides realize there can be no coexistence between totalitarian Baath Party rule and a genuine democratic process. Moderate Syrian rebels have surrendered to the facts on the ground, after having betrayed each other then being betrayed by their allies and friends. To begin with, these factions were not ready or able to fight a formidable military alliance comprising Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. 

The opposition fell victim to US abandonment and false promises, while Arab Gulf powers were involved in the Syrian war in the service of American regional projects. The opposition made several fateful mistakes, including believing it could fight two enemies, the regime and the extremists. In the end, it found itself required to fight only the extremists, who were fighting the regime alongside the opposition but with a different agenda.

Moderate opposition fighters, particularly FSA factions, have now accepted Russian, Iranian and US diktats. But Washington is still figuring out its tactics’ order of importance, and Tillerson has a learning curve to catch the threads of the strategic game in Syria in which Lavrov is so well versed. In Iraq, Tillerson has conducted himself naively, deliberately or otherwise, and in the Qatar crisis he has taken a long time to make an initiative.

But the chaotic Trump administration is not solely responsible for US policy. Most long-term policies are decided by the US establishment on the basis of national interests. That is why there is some continuity with former President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in Iraq, which invited international terrorism to the region, handed over Iraq to Iran, and removed Iraq from the strategic military equation with Israel.

And there is continuity in US policy with former President Barack Obama’s inaction in Syria, as he sought to appease Iran and back the rise of Sunni extremists to power in Egypt and elsewhere, fostering chaos in the region.

Russia has the ability to pressure and influence Assad, as well as Iran and its militias, given the vital air cover it provides for their operations. But Moscow will not apply pressure as long as US policy is weak and passive.

Raghida Dergham

Tillerson is the diplomatic face of the administration of a very unusual president, who took office at a tense time for Gulf countries, which were reeling from the Obama Doctrine that had downscaled its traditional regional alliances in favor of a shift in US-Iranian relations.

The promises Trump made a few months ago at the Riyadh Summit, to turn Obama’s page and launch his own doctrine, were soon shaken because of US moves on the ground vis-a-vis Iran’s projects in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, which were marked by appeasement and acceptance of facts on the ground. The promises were also shaken due to vague US attitudes and roles in the Qatar crisis.

Tillerson dithered at the start of the Qatar row. He should have acted immediately by intervening personally and appointing a high-level envoy.

At that time, it was possible to rein in the crisis on clear bases. But two months on, the task is more difficult, even with Tillerson appointing this week two envoys to help mediation efforts. Indeed, Washington has sent mixed messages, allowing both sides in the crisis to interpret them in their favor. This is exacerbating the row, with repercussions for the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The GCC was once a source of security, economic and political convergence among its six members — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar — despite disagreements between them on some issues. Today, the 40-year-old GCC is crumbling, and integration among its six members is being reversed.

It may be said that the GCC minus Qatar will not collapse or be disbanded. It may also be said that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the main powers in the Gulf and will spare the GCC from collapse. But even a nominal collapse serves Iran’s grand regional strategy of becoming de-facto leader of a Gulf security system. Then Tehran would decide whether its main security partner will be the US or Russia.

It is no coincidence or fluke that US-Iranian hostility was curtailed under Obama, who acknowledged the legitimacy of the theocratic regime in Tehran even as it believes in the right to export its religious revolution. US reluctance and pussyfooting in the Gulf and the Qatar crisis are not reassuring.

It is not incomprehensible that the Trump administration is deliberately overlooking Iran’s major advances on the ground as part of its Persian Crescent project, which cuts across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is not enough for Tillerson to say Iran’s military presence in Syria is unacceptable. There should be mechanisms and a timetable for demanding its withdrawal from this Arab nation.

We are facing tacit US acceptance of facts on the ground imposed by Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, without any serious effort to halt the Persian Crescent project, which the Trump administration claims to oppose. Senior administration figures have said they would stop Iran from directly or indirectly controlling territories captured from Daesh and other extremists in Iraq and Syria.

But events on the ground suggest they have backtracked for the sake of defeating Daesh. Tillerson has said this issue will be part of the accords with Russia, though the latter has repeatedly indicated it would not abandon its friends and allies in Syria. Moscow is proud of its reputation as a reliable ally, in contrast with the US reputation of quickly abandoning allies except Israel, which is part of the American domestic landscape.

Tillerson has said Iran’s withdrawal from Syria is crucial to ending the conflict. One hopes this is a serious position reflecting long-term US policy, rather than remarks meant for media consumption. The same applies to promises of a political settlement in Syria after the battle for Raqqa against Daesh, and the carving of de-escalation zones, a process led by Russia.

The US must not just say Bashar Assad has no part in Syria’s future; it must prove it is serious about this, bearing in mind that Russia has a diametrically opposed position. Lavrov will not compromise on the relationship he seeks to have with Tillerson, so Russian policy on Syria will be more restrained, especially vis-a-vis Assad. Bloomberg reported that Moscow wants Assad to accept a symbolic sharing of power with the opposition.

This defies the spirit of the Geneva communique and subsequent documents in Astana and elsewhere. Moscow has supported Assad from the start, shoring up his position and defeating the Syrian opposition. It will not abandon him unless there is a grand bargain with the US that justifies this price. But such a bargain is far off now as Assad grows more intransigent by the day following military gains enabled by Iran and Russia.

He believes he has won, and so the Baath Party should remain in control of Syria and even teach those who rebelled against him a lesson. Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council who is close to the Kremlin, was quoted as saying Assad’s obstruction of the political process created tensions with Moscow.

Russia is not willing to fight a war for Assad to achieve victory, Kortunov said, though it is unclear whether such remarks are serious or meant for media consumption. But clearly Russia has the ability to pressure and influence Assad, as well as Iran and its militias, given the vital air cover it provides for their operations. But Moscow will not apply pressure as long as US policy is weak, hesitant and passive.

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.