The Syria crisis has seen too many actors playing different yet identical games just as it has seen too many twists, taking place on pretty regular intervals. Whereas the last month (April) saw the proverbial demonization of Assad, as also Russia, for launching a so-called chemical attack that invited a subsequent US missile strike on the Syrian army, this month (May) has seen the US participating in the Russia-Iran led Syria talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. What makes it a truly dramatic development is that these talks are based upon the fundamental principle of restoring peace in Syria under Syria’s incumbent leadership, further leading to transition. Now, this is a point that has been the bane of contention between the US-led and Russia-led alliances, a point that saw intense reinforcement by the US and its allies in the wake of the verbal and diplomatic spree that had followed the chemical attack and US strike. While the US and its allies then stated in unequivocal terms that Assad “must go”, Russia and its allies maintained that the Syrian regime had nothing to do with the attack nor did it have in its possession any chemical weapons.
It seems that the dust has settled now and the Trump administration is now apparently revisiting the prism guiding its Syria policy. Welcome the US undersecretary, Stuart E. Jones, who is a professional career diplomat, in Astana.
Stuart Jones’ arrival came after the phone conversation between US President Donald Trump, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. According to reports, the White House said the conversation was a “very good one” and the Kremlin was satisfied that it was “businesslike and constructive”. It was left to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to add texture to it. He said: “Well, it was a very constructive call that the two presidents had. It was a very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.”
For example, while Jones’ presence in Astana stresses that the US remains committed, even if theoretically, to political settlement in Syria, what lends further credence to the up-coming meeting between American and Russian presidents who would try to find “common grounds on Syria” on the sidelines of G20 summit during a possible one-on-one meeting at the beginning of July.
Clearly all this points to the fact that emphasis is back in the US on reaching a political settlement with Russia. But the key questions remain unanswered: what change has made the US revisit its position vis-à-vis the whole Russia-Iran led peace process? Will it lead to a major breakthrough?
Apparently, no significant change has happened at least within the US policy circles which remain dominated by the military establishment. Military brass is visibly in the driver’s seat on foreign-policy issues and the Pentagon harbors an enduring hostility towards Russia and is quite comfortable with an adversarial relationship with Moscow (read: the Pentagon officials think that Russia is a ‘foreign policy test’ for the Trump administration).
Is the US participation then a likely-to-die-soon development, rooted as it seems in the Trump administration’s attempts to carve out an independent foreign policy course to rescue itself from the defence establishment?
Whereas the gradual dispatch of Steve Bannon, chief strategist, into political oblivion in the White House suggests a ‘defeat’ for the anti-establishment elements, it cannot still be gainsaid that within Trump administration there is still a chance of co-operation.
For instance, the very decision to participate in the Astana talks shows that not only the Trump administration is not seeking regime change in Syria, it isn’t ratcheting up, very much unlike the Obama administration, pressure in Ukraine. In fact, in his remarks following talks in March in Moscow, Tillerson did not even mention Crimea once.
Still, there is a lot that doesn’t seem possible at this stage and would seem too much to expect. For one thing, Russia does no longer seem to think that a grand bargain is possible with the US, involving a rebalancing in Asia and beyond, due primarily to the way the Trump administration has succumbed on various occasions to the establishment.
Therefore, what is more likely to happen is small bargains in separate dealings on the various issues both Russia and the US have locked their horns in. The little-bit softening we have seen is not a massive melting of the ice; it is only a narrow opening, not apparently capable of experiencing a heat-boom. For a boom to happen, a lot depends upon how the Trump administration deals with the domestic pressure coming in the wake of its warm gestures. Will another twist take place? Let’s wait and see!
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.