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US and Russia playing dangerously close to the precipice

The end of 2017 was marked by cautious optimism in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced victory over Daesh and pledged to reduce the Russian contingent in the country. Moscow’s diplomacy emerged triumphant, with apparent US acquiescence, as four Russian-brokered de-escalation zones dotted the map. The deconfliction line along the Euphrates between Russian and American-supported forces prevented any incidents and allowed anti-terror operations to come to fruition. Putin and Donald Trump met in Vietnam and issued a communique supporting a political solution in Syria through the Geneva process. On the other hand, Russia had Turkey and Iran commit to the Astana process, which culminated in a political dialogue conference involving several Syrian factions in Sochi.

The first two months of 2018, however, have completely reversed any optimism. Today, Syria and the region are on the verge of dangerous escalations, which could lead to unforeseen consequences. This month, and for the first time since the 1980s, Syria and Israel clashed head-on. And the United States carried out a strike in Deir Ezzor, which killed several Russian citizens belonging to a private security company, in what was the most serious incident between the two nuclear powers since the Cold War. Turkey is continuing its invasion of Afrin, the de-escalation agreement in Eastern Ghouta has collapsed and all political initiatives have ground to a halt. 
We have, it could be argued, entered one of the most critical points in the Syrian conflict since it began seven years ago. But what are the reasons behind this sudden breakdown of understandings on Syria? And what will the consequences be if tensions continue to escalate?
The main catalyst behind the current tensions is a subtle shift in the American strategy in Syria, from deconfliction with Russia to confrontation. What complicates matters even more is that this shift comes at a moment of particular Russian vulnerability. 
The professed goals of the US strategy for Syria, announced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in mid-January, are to continue dialogue with Russia while trying to contain Iran. There seems to be, however, differences of opinion on how to deal with Russia within the American administration. Trump and Tillerson, it could be argued, lean more towards rapprochement with Russia; this was the case in the 2017 Hamburg and Danang meetings between Trump and Putin. On the other hand, Trump’s national security advisor H. R. McMaster sees in Russia a threat equal to, or even greater than, Iran.

He thinks both countries are out to challenge the American position in the Middle East and the world over. The US, he asserts, must stand up to these threats. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is adamant on maintaining US boots on the ground east of the Euphrates at any cost.

Syria seems to be the chosen arena for these great powers to settle larger geopolitical disputes, meaning the real victims in all of this — as for the past seven years — are undoubtedly the Syrian people.

Fadi Esber 

The events of recent weeks show that the McMaster line seems to be preponderant in the making of US policy toward Russia. The US refused to acknowledge the Sochi conference, putting forth (alongside its allies) its own propositions on a political solution in Syria. American forces responded to an alleged breach of the Euphrates deconfliction line by Syrian troops and Russian contractors with a massive strike that left dozens dead and injured. Through rapprochement with Turkey, the US is trying to break the emerging Russian-Turkish detente in Syria, which has had detrimental consequences for America’s Kurdish allies and Turkey’s overall position in NATO. Finally, the US led a diplomatic effort for a resolution in the UN Security Council on a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta. This is an important precedent, because Ghouta is supposed to be a Russian-sponsored de-escalation zone. The resolution, therefore, is yet another American challenge to Russian policy in Syria.
Russia has built its policy in Syria on a careful balance between deconfliction with the US and cooperation with Iran and Turkey through the Astana process. Putin has been trying to lower tensions ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, but now he is faced with a more aggressive US. The Astana triangle, on the other hand, is under great pressure. The US is aggressively pressuring Iran while trying at the same time to repair its teetering alliance with Turkey. In Afrin, Turkish forces attacked government-supported groups that entered the region to bolster local Kurdish militias. Russia has so far succeeded in preventing a major conflagration there, but the battle is far from over. As for the de-escalation zones — a celebrated Russian diplomatic achievement — they too are under a lot of pressure. Apart from Eastern Ghouta, fighting has come to a halt in Idlib, but the province is now witnessing massive rebel infighting between Al-Nusra and its former Islamist allies Ahrar Al-Sham.

These escalating Russian-American tensions are weakening the delicate order put in place by last year’s diplomatic understandings, which reduced the intensity of conflict and gave impetus to the political processes. Any of the incidents occurring in the past two months — the exchange between Syria and Israel, the death of Russian personnel, frictions between Turkey and Syria, tensions between the US and Iran, and the conflagration in Eastern Ghouta — could have lit the tinderbox. Sober diplomacy has, so far, been able to prevent impending disaster.

The US and Russia are now playing dangerously close to the edge of the precipice. The Americans have not reconciled to the fact that Russia is building its own sphere of influence in the Middle East, let alone the wider suspicions of Russian attempts to undermine the entire Western political system. Halfway around the world, Moscow sees the recent aggressive moves in Syria as part of a continued relentless assault by the US and NATO. Yet the cost of conflict in say, Ukraine, is too high for both powers. Alas, Syria still seems to be a good place for these great powers to settle larger geopolitical disputes. The real victims in all of this — as for the past seven years — are undoubtedly the Syrian people.
  • Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.