22.06.2016 Author: Pogos Anastasov

Are There any Prospects for Future Russia-US Cooperation on Syria?

45345345345In recent days, American sources and major US-controlled media, including Arabic media, have produced a whole range of statements that cast doubt on the prospects of further US-Russian cooperation on the contentious Syrian issue. Particular attention was given to an appeal drawn up by 150 US State Department officials, addressed to President Barack Obama, which was made public on June 18. The main focus of this appeal was to convince the US President to reconsider the current policy on Syria, and return to the policy of regime change in Damascus. This, in their opinion, is the best way to combat ISIL forces. Understandably, these statements are made in the midst of the presently widespread anticipation by many of Hilary Clinton’s ascension to the White House. Obviously, many of the bigwigs in Washington have grown weary of Obama’s foreign policy, which has been somewhat sluggish, and the representatives of the US political establishment are anxiously waiting to take decisive action to restore shaken US prestige, especially in the Middle East.

On June 18, the Arabic-speaking media, especially the Al-Hayat newspaper, published so-called “explanations” of the position of the US State Department. The main issue in the arguments was that American diplomats are putting forward to the public the fact that, according to them, it is only Russia that is making the situation difficult because of the way it has chosen to deal with the issue. Russia, supposedly, has become a ‘stumbling block’. Russian diplomats have allegedly made it clear to the Americans that they renounced any proposals that the American-European coalition made regarding the new constitution, which were supposed to consolidate a parliamentary form of government and thus “undermine” Assad’s authority, and then return to a presidential form of government. The Russians are said to have reasserted the fact that Assad’s position is out of the question as far as military or political intervention is concerned, otherwise, “all that remains of the regime shall crumble.”

How valid is this interpretation? After all, the Russian President, speaking at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17 clearly said, “We very much hope that our partners, especially the US, will begin working in a transparent and open manner with their allies, who support the opposition, in order to encourage the opposition to engage in constructive joint operations with the Syrian authorities.”

Vladimir Putin further emphasized, “I agree with the proposals that have been put forward by our partners, especially the US, who are saying that (I don’t know, maybe I’m revealing too much but, on the other hand, this is already well known: both in the region and amongst the negotiators from both parties, and by the government, as well as by the opposition, that the American proposal, I believe, is acceptable, perfectly acceptable) there is a need to think about the possibility of incorporating the opposition into the existing power structures. A good example is in the government. We need to think about what powers this government is going to have. However, here, too, you have to avoid crossing the line. In such a case, we must begin from the current realities that we are facing today, and avoid striving to apply unenforceable and unattainable goals. Many of our partners say that Assad must go, but then go on to say, no, let’s restructure the government so that, in practice, it would also lead to his ousting. However, perhaps, this is also unrealistic. Therefore, we must act carefully, “step by step”, gradually achieving the confidence of all parties involved in the conflict. “

From these words, which, as we note, no one has called into question, it follows that Russia is not acting as a stumbling block to the issue. Russia is willing to consider any proposal. In fact, Russia actually stands in support of the proposal forwarded by its US partners. Why then is the media awash with all these unrealistic and false publications?

It seems that they are a direct result of the fact that the tactics that the US and its partners are employing are proving to be ineffective. Unable to achieve the intended goal of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad through military means by forces controlled by Turkey, Qatar and the Saudi Arabian opposition, including the operations by Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria, Washington’s bigwigs are now trying to revise the outcome of these military battles at the negotiating table. And since the proposed methods of squeezing Assad out of power are failing dismally, then naturally, they are now trying to employ blackmail and threats, as evidenced by the letter of dissent reported in the Wall Street Journal that was written by 51 diplomats of the State Department, the recent “incident” with the American plane that attempted to prevent the Russian Aerospace Forces from bombing the allegedly moderate opposition, and then flooding the Arabic-language media in connection with the incident.

The US State Department and their stooges in the Arab world are not satisfied that Russia still sees no difference between ISIL, the Al-Nusra Front and such groups as the Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, or Jaish al Fatah. How is it possible to note the difference if these ‘different’ groups have both together and separately repeatedly violated the cease-fire agreements and staged attacks on residential areas and the terrorist attacks on civilians?

However, some forces in Washington still stubbornly refuse to see this, but instead choose to see Bashar al-Assad as the root of all evil, and are unwilling to establish deeper cooperation with Russia on the antiterrorist agenda, refusing to take the necessary steps in order to make the Syrian opposition groups that are backed by the US and its regional allies dissociate themselves from terrorists, particularly the Al-Nusra Front, and convince their ally, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to block the Turkish border with Syria, through which the terrorists continue to receive arms and reinforcements.

However, the language of threats and blackmail (John Kerry, however, later had a slip of the tongue when he said that this was not the case and that this is how they express theirconcern about the state of affairs) is hardly appropriate. The most accurate analysis by the same Arab media states that the “Lame duck”, Barack Obama, will not take any action regarding the Syrian question, and will certainly not seek to renew the inter-Syrian negotiations, and will limit, together with his allies, the success of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Army with the help of their team in Syria, both indirectly and directly by employing his (as well as English and French) elite forces. This will thus stop the regime from expanding its sphere of influence. The aim of his policy is to wait for the arrival of a “decisive” Clinton, who, like many in Washington are hoping, will return to the old and proven tactics of regime change, crush the Assad regime and force Russia to withdraw from the Middle East.

Of course, such risks are real. Neocons have repeatedly expressed their recklessness and willingness to put the peace of the whole world at stake for the sake of US global dominance, punishing all forms of resistance they encounter on the way. However, a more-balanced analysis suggests that it is, in fact, too early to be frightened by threats from the State Department which is yearning to employ a strong hand. Even if Hillary Clinton gets into the White House (which is not yet clear), it will still be very difficult for her to go along this path again.

First, the US policy of military intervention in the affairs of Middle Eastern countries has been deeply discredited, and continuing to propagate it will only further alienate the countries of the region from Washington.

Second, no one has revoked the US strategic bet on Tehran, and Hillary Clinton will have to ponder long and hard over the issue before changing the rules of the game and restoring the alliance with the house of Saud (as is actively being promoted in Riyadh), which, from the current point of view of the Americans themselves, has still not proved that it can become the gendarme of the Middle East in an environment where the US intends to strategically distance itself from the region in favor of confrontation with China and Russia. In other words: the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad would mean for the US that the long-term alliance with Tehran would be undermined, but this is urgently needed to address the problem of strangling Russia within its ‘Anaconda’ plan and thus satisfy the Saudis, who then, according to the United States itself, would not be able to cope with the consequences of this victory.

Third, Washington’s European allies are now much less inclined to support US military adventures than ever before, as they understand that the inevitable collapse of Syria in the event of the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad would ultimately lead to violence against Christians, Alawites and other non-Sunni minorities, and to a new wave of millions of refugees heading to Europe. After all, Europeans are now keen on establishing a healthy dialogue with Moscow, largely because of their fear that the Syrian chaos might escalate even further.

Fourth, the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, that the State Department talks of with such fervour, would result in an immediate direct conflict of the strategic interests of Washington’s allies (Ankara and Riyadh) in Syria, who are individually pursuing antagonistic goals there and will only remain on friendly terms until the overthrow of the current government. The White House, of course, is satisfied with the partitioning of Syria into zones of influence for these countries’, but they would inevitably be in a state of confrontation with each other for a long time because of the role of the Kurdish factor and access to the coastal zone. In this case, Washington would be dragged in to sort out these problems with them, as well as with Tehran. Ultimately, “victory” in Syria could result in the collapse of Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, leaving Washington without any allies (or with greatly weakened allies), and Tehran would win the major strategic prize, because it would be left with all the dividends should Fallujah be freed from ISIL by Iraqi regular troops (not Kurdish troops). In other words, the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad could become a Pyrrhic victory for the warring party in the US capital.

What, then, could Moscow’s policy in Damascus be?

Firstly, it is necessary to continue firmly upholding the Russian position that is enjoying increasing support in the region. Russia’s firm stance, its subsequent promotion of the idea of the inadmissibility of regime change by force, its appeal to its partners to cooperate in the promotion of the negotiation process, the maintenance of the ceasefire and ensuring antiterrorist cooperation might help to keep Washington from taking hasty steps, at least until the elections and in the period before the new president enters into office in January.

Secondly, taking into account the risks that there might soon be a hawk in the White House, it is clear that the Syrian forces should take back Raqqa by January 2017 and lift the blockade on Deir ez-Zor in order to cool down the hotheads in the State Department

Pogos Anastasov, political analyst, Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.