The meeting of the Russian and US president meeting on 8 July 2017, which was held on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg received a lot of attention world wide. Being the first meeting between the two leaders since Trump received his duties in the White House is not what attracted the uproar, but the volume of the outstanding issues between the two countries, and the distrust and strategic rivalry, which defines the relationship between them at this critical stage.
Again, things did not turn out as Moscow had hoped, and the results achieved did not meet its aspirations. It did not succeed in linking its most tricky files – Ukraine, Syria, sanctions and the expansion of the Atlantic. It also failed to dissipate suspicions about its interference in the US election, an accusation that has been exploited by many parties within the United States to question Trump’s legitimacy and restrict his options. The only declared result was some ratification of the ceasefire agreement in the south of Syria, which was reached in Amman and has been already known publicly before the meeting. This achievement came to test Russia’s influence on its allies (Iran and the regime), and its ability to control them. So could it be the opening of a Russian-US conditional cooperation in the Syrian file? Would it be extended to other regions? And how will it reflect on the Syrian issue and the positions of the involved regional powers? These imposing questions will not have answers before further developments on the field are revealed, bearing in mind the previous unencouraging experiences of ceasefire agreements, and because the Russian-American conflict is not exclusive to the Syrian arena. It has a strategic character, driven by interests and roles, the nature of alliances, and the distribution of power and influence in the world.
Up to the fall of Eastern Aleppo, Russian-American relations in the Syrian conflict, politically and militarily, could be described as a desired deception under the banner of searching into possibilities of cooperation between them to end this conflict. But after the failure of the famous Kerry-Lavrov agreement, which exposed how powerful the deep state was when strategic turns were to be made, more tension and suspicion between the two sides began to build up. America did not accept Moscow as a partner in the international coalition to fight terrorism, but it had no objecting to Russia fighting it in its way if they were serious about it? The US closed the door on bargaining, on Syria and elsewhere. Thus, Moscow increased the size of its intervention and support for the regime’s forces. It laid the path of Astana in cooperation with Turkey to impose a political and field reality to ensure the enforcement of its vision of the solution and enabled it to avoid the hindrance of Geneva 1 and the following international resolutions that Russia had a say in their formulation.
In addition to this tension was the accusations to Moscow of interfering in the American elections and its contribution in bringing Trump to the White House, which created a big problem that is still burning. The United States has stepped up its involvement on the ground. It enhanced its counterterrorism drive in Mosul, Raqqa and elsewhere, building bases, seeking to gain more local allies, installing bases for them, providing support, training, and protection. Thus, the US appeared to be embarking on a new strategy towards Syria and the region, departing from Obama’s repositioning, but without announcing the content of this new strategy so far. There are signs of escalation in the Russian-American relationship since the US aircraft hit a Syrian military post in Jabal al-Thardah which sent a message of disabling the Kerry-Lavrov agreement. In addition to bombing Al-Shueirat military airport, and the US air force downing a jet fighter belonging the regime when its forces advanced towards al-Raqqa and collided with QSD forces. Lavrov was compelled to declare that “coalition air forces could be possible targets” regardless of how serious his threat was or how able was he to carry it out.
After Aleppo, events have shown that Russia was rushing a solution, and America was slowing it down. Russia is afraid and does not want to slide down more into the Syrian quagmire, and lose its bids in the intervention, while America is working to delay the process to gather the largest number of keys to solution militarily and politically, and here lies the Russian concern. This concern reflected in a climate of pessimism and low expectations of Trump and Putin’s meeting among the Russian officials and observers. The President of the Russian Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, Fyodor Lukyanov, predicted – in spite of his belief that Trump saw that “Russia was useful on some issues”. He said: “The West is not intending to interfere in Syria, but has taken a decision to divide it, and Russia will find itself faced with two choices: either to engage in an aimless war, to defend Syrian and Iranian interests, and to lose everything in the region as a result, or to persuade Bashar al-Assad to accept the division, and in this case Moscow will probably keep the bases of Hameim and Tartous “. This statement deserves a pause. Is Moscow threatening the Americans on the eve of the summit that they will go in a separate option of a division if Washington continues its positions? Can Russia bear the consequences? And what will be the position of its Iranian ally? Or is it just words that Russian officials are used to manipulating?
The meeting took place as planned, and took longer than was allocated to it. It touched on most of the outstanding issues between the parties, Syria, Ukraine, and the sanctions, but the most prominent topic that overshadowed the meeting, was the Russian intervention in the US elections, which Putin denied again, according to Trump’s tweet. What is more remarkable was Senator Lindsey Graham’s statement when he described the meeting as “disastrous”, saying that ” Trump wants to pardon Putin and forget about it, so I am more determined to put forward new sanctions proposals on Putin to President Trump”. On the other hand, Senator John McCain responded to another Trump tweet on the possibility of cooperation and progress by saying: “Yes, it’s time to move forward, but there is a price to pay”. These varied responses show that Russian-American relations will remain hostage to American internal rivalries. Therefore, it is understandable that the summit would declare a lonely modest outcome of de-escalating in southern Syria (the provinces of Quneitra, Daraa and Suwaida) according to the Russian term, or of a safe area or similar, according to the American description. It is known that this agreement was accomplished in Amman before the summit, where negotiations took place two months among Russia, America, and Jordan, with the most concerned Israel in the background, concluding that this region was to be free of any presence of Iran and its affiliated militias.
Far from what was portrayed by an exaggerating Russian media as a victory of Russian policy and positions in the face of the West, the American submission to the will of Russia, and a recognition Moscow’s role and its interests in Syria, the agreement is still vague. This is either because it is incomplete and needs further negotiations to draw lines of contact and define the depth of the area and the monitoring mechanisms and who will do it, or because it includes clauses and imposes commitments on the signatories, that still need some time and measures to reach out to the affected parties. But most importantly, it will be a test of the seriousness of the Russians and their ability to oblige their allies, far away from this area.
Many doubt the possibility of this agreement success, as it was made without the participation, or even the opinion of the parties concerned, locally and regionally. There are further questions and queries about it and the intentions of the parties, and the depth of the target area. Will it reach the administrative boundaries of the province of Damascus countryside, or will it stop at a depth of 30 km or 50 km, where it can reach the borders of Damascus International Airport, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are stationed nearby and using it to transfer weapons and equipment and fighters? What is Iran’s position then? Since the agreement as a whole is an Israeli interest, will Israel accept the deployment of the Russian military police to implement it?
Russia will be keen to apply this agreement, as it represents a first chance for the Russians, in which the United States accepts to cooperate with them in some way, and this test will be followed by others, at least in the Syrian file. But the task will not be as simple as they think. Iran which will exit the south will certainly try to sabotage the agreement if it does not take on another front. The Syrian regime will interfere with this contract if not try to undermine it all together, although it has not commented on it so far, and may wait for gaps in the agreement to know how it must act.
However, if the United States is serious about its implementation and is keen on the interests of its allies, Israel and Jordan, it will increase its chances of success and will open the possibility to extend it to other regions. This will pave the way to start a phase in seriously seeking a political solution to the Syrian issue, which the United States had often acted to delay. However, with all the possibilities and uncertainties surrounding its application, it will have a great impact on the positions of the involved regional states and will push them to recalculate and rearrange their files. The margins that they exploited on the ground of Russian-American rivalry may have narrowed, and this requires repositioning these parties in the fields of war and politics and form alliances of a new kind!
When the agreement on the South of Syria states that the region concerned is free from the Iranian presence and any foreign militias it automatically means that Iran is targeted. Its military presence, which was sought to be a bargaining chip with “Israel” on roles and influence in the future, is targeted. Its alliance with the Russians is another target, and the most prominent American demand in the administration’s new policy is to dismantle this Russian-Iranian alliance and facilitate its mission to reduce Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq.
It is not yet clear how the Iranian reaction will be, and what are the available options for Iran. The agreement not only puts it in a clash with the Russians, seriously threatens its alliance with them but also with the Israelis and the Americans. Therefore it is expected that Iran will be cautious in its reactions, and be inclined to do more than say or threaten as it usually does. This trend is manifested in the brief and general statements of its officials, such as when the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasimi said that “the truce agreement in the south announced by the American and Russian presidents was not binding on Iran.” While other officials quickly demanded that the ceasefire is circulated all over Syrian territory, noting that Iran was ready to participate in securing a cease-fire. It may be naïve to believe that Iran will swallow up the agreement and its consequences, and withdraw its militia tails from that region, but what is the possible Iranian response, and on which fronts?
Initially, Iran has increased its forces in the area concerned, despite the stability of the ceasefire, which went into effect on 9 July 2017. Still, no significant violations have been recorded so far. So are the Iranians preparing to exploit any loophole that may arise? Or will it, with the regime, work to create and invoke them to resume military operations? This cannot be excluded.
The second response front will be the Arsal area and the Syrian-Lebanese border. Hizballah has threatened to launch a war in this region to expel the “terrorists” from it, as Hassan Nasrallah put it in his last speech, and tighten his control over the Syrian-Lebanese border. This has already started with the Lebanese Army raiding the Syrian refugee’s camps, demolition their tents and arresting hundreds, some of which were killed under brutal torture.
The dessert (Badia) front will be the most targeted front for the Iranian response at this stage. More Iranian militias are moving into the battle axils in an attempt by Iran to control the largest area of the Syrian Badia and the Syrian-Iraqi border and to secure the roads to connect and supply them. It seems the Iranians are still trying to preserve the dream of connecting Tehran and the Mediterranean, and to impose itself and the regime as a party to fight against “Daesh” in Deir Al-Zour, and a party to any settlements that can take place in this part of Syria that is rich in oil and phosphates. So, it is engaged in a heated race with the Americans and their local allies to reach Deir Al-Zour and Bu Kamal. When the official in charge of the Syrian file at the US State Department, Michael Ratney, states that “the ceasefire decision does not cover the north of Swaida and Al-Qalamoon,” does this mean that he is throwing a carrot to Iran to keep it away from the southern front noiselessly? Will Iran understand that it is allowed to operate in these two important gates to the Badia?
Iraq could also be one of Iran’s areas of response, and Iran would increase its pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. In this context, the warning of the Iranian Supreme Guide to Abadi from trying to weaken the crowd is nothing but a direct threat of mobilizing the crowd to thwart the American policies and those who cooperate with it. It also pushes towards the Kurdistan region and the threating to invade in the event the province taking any steps towards independence after the referendum on the corner.
At the political level, it is unlikely that Iran will speed up tensioning relations with the Russians on the background of the south agreement or the agreements that could follow with the Americans, because under the new American administration Iran needs them, just as they need it with its massive presence on the ground. On the other hand, Russia will not risk pursuing US trends without a reasonable price; the US administration does not seem to be in a position to offer any so far. Upon these developments, and pending the possible trial of the south agreement, Iran is likely to adopt a quiet diplomacy and manoeuvre at the political level. Ali Shamkhani’s declaration, after meeting the Russian envoy to Tehran, that “the tripartite agreement is appropriate to resolve the crises of the region,” demonstrates this trend. This comes in parallel with the active field action on more than one front to avoid colliding with the Americans, because they know that they can cause harm, if not militarily, by supporting the forces opposed to the rule of the mullahs in the Iranian interior. On the other hand, these developments may create an atmosphere for less tense relations with Turkey on the Syrian arena.
Turkey is also interested in the recent events in Syria, especially if the South Agreement is successful and is extended to the North of Syria, which is included in the de-escalation agreement in the four regions, that was endorsed by Astana 3, and Turkey was one of the guarantors in that agreement. What worries Turkey most is the deteriorating relationship with the United States, its historically. When it was excluded from the battle of Raqqa, its surge in the Euphrates operation was suppressed, and its relations with the European Union became strained. On top of that all, its internal situation, which has been fragile since last year’s coup, hich doubles its obsession with the emergence of a Kurdish entity on its southern border double.
Turkey is aware that the United States, and the West in general, is seeking to limit its ambitions and role in the region, including the Syrian arena. This is confusing its policies and movements. Syria is vital to its national security and interests, and it does not want to lose its influence. Consequently, it is forced to re-calculate and arrange its files differently to take the new international trend into account. Therefore its threat to launch a new military operation under the name of Euphrates’ Sword, after assembling on the borders of Afrin, will only be implemented within the arrangements of Russia and America, and it could be even very early to assume that would happen.
Unlike Iran and Turkey, Saudi who has been actively involved in the Syrian conflict, resorted to silence and disregard, without announcing any new directions in the Saudi policy. There are three possibilities for this trend. First, it could have decided, on the advice of the US, to dedicate efforts to end the war in Yemen. Second, it could have preferred to operate silently after its cooperation with Turkey was shaken in the Syrian file. Third, it could have enlisted in the new American strategy in dealing with all the region’s conflict as a whole, after being content with Trump’s directions. In this possibility it appears to be more open to Iraq, receiving the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, a privilege that was forbidden to al-Maliki, and this makes this possibility outweighs the first two.
Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria and its internationalisation, Jordan was keen to emphasise that it had no desire to intervene in this conflict, but many factors were forcing it to follow the developments with great care and caution. First of all, Jordan has links to the south and strong ties and relations by geography and history. Second, The vast number of displaced Syrians who sought a refuge in Jordan, almost as much as a third of its population, despite its poor resources and potentials. Third, the fear of the Iranian expansion in Syria, and Jordan was the first to warn of the threat of the Shiite Crescent, and it equally fears cross-border jihadist organizations such as al-Qaeda, Daesh, Al-Nusrah and others. Additionally, Jordan found itself involved in the conflict as a result of its alliance with more than one of the countries concerned, by becoming the headquarters of the activities and training centres and the mobilisation and organisation of armed factions, and the MOK Room, which manages the file in the south of Syria. It participated in many international conferences to discuss the Syrian issue, and finally was a party to the tripartite agreement on the Syrian south, and will be a party to its monitoring mechanisms as well.
If the agreement succeeds and solidifies, Jordan will have secured its northern borders, avoided the problems of military intervention, sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees back to their homes, and got rid of their economic and moral burden. If the agreement fails, it will inevitably be forced at some point to intervene in an alliance that binds it to the United States and others.
As usual, the political opposition in the Negotiating Body and the coalition welcomed the agreement and demanded that it was to be extended to all Syrian territories. As for the armed opposition, the southern front, which is the primary concern of the agreement, issued a statement declaring its acceptance and commitment and complained about being excluded from the negotiations. It also criticized the agreement for banishing Iran and its militias from the south but keeping them around Damascus, where they would always pose a threat to Syria and its revolution. But the most important message in this statement was addressed to the factions of the north, stating that the southern front was and will remain part of the forces of the revolution, and that no one will be able to knock a wedge between them and the rest of the revolutionary forces in the other parts of Syria.
It seems that the Syrian revolution and the complexities of the situation that surround it have been victimised by a cruel game of nations, which have cost the Syrians dearly. The local forces of conflict have become excluded from the considerations of the intervening countries since the United States tightened its grip on this conflict. Therefore, it is no surprise that the south agreement, and any subsequent agreement, can be signed and declared without the knowledge of any Syrian party, and the Geneva rounds become pointless, pending the maturity of a deal among the intervening countries to end this bloody conflict. Will the revolutionary forces surrender to this situation or will they be able to break out? The experience of the opposition, political or military, is not encouraged in this regard, but in any case, the end of the conflict will not mean the end of the revolution, and the bid will remain on the will of the Syrian people to adjust this course.
The Russian president’s statement before the summit that “this stage is the worst in the history of Russian-American relations” is the best description of the reality of the relations between the two countries, not merely a precaution or a lowering of the ceiling of expectations. The tension between them is increasing, and the possibility of cooperation is still far away. Complications and disagreements with America or its allies prevent such cooperation, with which Russia fears slipping further into the Syrian conflict or unintentionally plunging into a confrontation with the United States, a thing that it does not want, and is out of its capabilities. Although all outstanding issues between the parties were discussed, the result was limited to the ceasefire in the south. This orphan outcome was considered by Russia as a significant achievement, because if it succeeds – and its success is a Russian mission – it will open a hole in the wall of relations between them, and it could encourage other steps in Syria or elsewhere. Thus all other parties will have to deal with These developments, and be prepared to deal with a new stage of more cooperation between the Russians and the Americans on the Syrian arena.
Aside from what is intended and desired, it seems that cooperation is still far, as long as it is tied by the phrase “if the other party is ready,” which is still heard in any statement from the officials of the two countries, concerning the Syrian file.