Aleppo: Putin's Gift to Trump

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The trio 'guaranteeing' a political settlement in Syria has now destroyed the foundations of what was known as the Geneva Communique and the Vienna Process. This is the same trio dominating the Syrian battlefield, and that considers the military equation to be ready for starting a three-way division of the pie to the exclusion of the United States, Europe, and the Gulf Arab countries, not to mention the United Nations. The foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran, Turkey met this week after the fall of Aleppo, to draw a political roadmap that overrides previous accords that had called for transition in Syria by means of a governing body with full powers, culminating with new presidential elections. What the trio really guarantees, however, is the survival of Bashar a-Assad as president with full powers, to comply with Russian, Iranian, and Turkish demands. The Arab countries have been excluded from the Syrian issue, particularly the Gulf countries, which had special relations with Turkey. It was at some point thought that a Turkish-Saudi-Qatari trio was intent to arm the moderate rebels and prevent the fall of Aleppo. Clearly now, Turkey has withdrawn from this defunct trio, defecting instead to the Russian-Iranian axis in a cynical strategic shift. Ankara has disbanded the strategy established in the past with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while helping cement the Russian-Iranian roles in Syria, guaranteeing itself a seat on the 'winners'' bus. Turkey has thrown out its commitments and promises to the two Gulf countries. Both Turkey and Egypt, as the Gulf countries now understand, have defected to the Russian camp, providing Sunni cover to Moscow to evade the accusation of a Russian-Shiite alliance in the battle in Aleppo, one of the largest Sunni Arab cities. So what is Moscow planning after Aleppo? What is Turkey's next move after the deal with Russia on Aleppo and the Kurds in Syria? What of Iran's plans after the capture of Aleppo and what will the Gulf countries, European powers, and the US do after Aleppo?

The exclusion of the US from the Moscow meeting between Russia, Iran, and Turkey follows the US' own self-exclusion in Syria, and the desire of the Obama administration to be excluded. The tripartite meeting also comes in preparation for the Trump era, to pave the way for dealing with him from a launching pad on Syrian soil.

The broad title of the coming phase, according to the conviction of Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt, is Putin-Trump. Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeded in presenting himself as the number one partner for US President-elect Donald Trump, on the basis of their mutual desire for coexistence and deal-making. Iran decided that getting on board the Russian motorcade is the shortest way to the White House, presenting itself as a strategic ally and a battlefield partner that is indispensable for Russia. Egypt has seen a strategic opportunity in the relationship between Putin and Trump, reinforced by good economic ties with China, and got on board the Russian bandwagon in Syria. Turkey, for its part, found that its interests are best served by joining the Russian convoy travelling from Aleppo to the White House, with a message of reassurance to Donald Trump.

The US, which is voluntarily absent from Syria, appears marginalized and weak. The US is contenting itself with the smile of the weak secretary of state John Kerry and his handshake with his seasoned counterpart Sergei Lavrov. The Obama administration leaves Washington haunted by Aleppo. The outgoing US president helped in the making of the tragedy in Syria, by refraining to engage and by dissociating the US from Syria, paving the way for Russia to rebuild its influence in the Middle East. At the same time, Obama rewarded the Islamic Republic and blessed its intervention in Syria, even before repealing the UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting Iranian foreign military presence. These resolutions were later repealed as part of the package deal with Iran over its nuclear program, which led to an obsessive fixation by Obama with safeguarding it, often at the expense of fundamental US values. Barack Obama leaves the White House in a few weeks, dragging along two of his red lines that he had backtracked from: his warning regarding Damascus's use of chemical weapons; and his call on Bashar al-Assad to step down.

US President-elect Donald Trump has started exercising presidential powers before his official inauguration. It was for his sake that Putin rushed to benefit maximally from the extra time allowed by the transition between two US administrations, escalating militarily in Aleppo and coordinating politically and militarily with Turkey and Iran. Putin wanted to give Trump a precious gift made in Syria, packaged in the guise of eliminating ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and terrorist groups. Putin gifted Trump the achievement of the battle of Aleppo, so that the new president does not inherit this problem. Putin has decided that his friend Trump does not like complex problems, and prefers clever games and making deals, and for this reason, Putin wanted to finish 'purging' Aleppo before Trump entered the White House.

However, Putin's strategy is not restricted to these courtesies towards Donald Trump. He is preparing for grand bargains, after cementing Russia's resumed great power role in the international arena through the Syrian gateway. The Russian victories in Syria come amid a growing hostility against the new resurgent Russia in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin, no matter how much he denies this and seeks over from Turkey and Egypt, remains the Russian president who concluded a deal of strategic importance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially in Syria. He did this while proclaiming that he was against radical Islamism and the rise of Islamism to power. But it turned out he meant Sunni and not Shiite Islamism. Indeed, the Islamic Republic was the first theocracy in the region. In other words, Putin brought Russia to the Middle East through the sectarian gate, radically fuelling the Sunni-Shiite strife as many a US administration had done. Russia's return to the Arab region and its role in Syria was not welcomed by the Arabs, rather the contrary. Many questions therefore surround Russia's investment in the region, and the specter of retaliation will haunt Russia.

The Russian-Iranian relationship will be subject to much scrutiny, therefore, as it became for some time now clear their partnership in Syria amounts to a full alliance. This is a clear message to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, which Moscow see as divided and divergent when it comes to relations with Russia as well as with Iran. For this reason, for example, Russia and the UAE have established special relations, despite differences on Iran. Furthermore, Russian-Saudi relations did not collapse because of Russia's clear bias in favor of Iran, strategically and in Syria, as this was offset in the Yemeni theater where Russia has refrained from intervening or obstructing. What kind of relationship will Moscow and Tehran have after Aleppo? The foundations of their strategic alliance will survive. However, there will be some divergence on certain principles that Russia and Iran will have to address to protect their alliance. Indeed, Russia desires to end its direct (and vital) military role in the Syrian war, while Iran is bent on expanding its military roles in the war. Russia wants to strengthen the Syrian regular army as the cornerstone of the state and the regime, while Iran wants to implement the Revolutionary Guards model in Syria and Iraq, to weaken the regular army in favor of paramilitary groups.

These are radical not cosmetic differences. Yet they don't mean that the alliance is brittle. Qassem Soleimani went on a victory parade in Aleppo, to the embarrassment of Russia, and Russia's generals were not happy. But decision makers in Moscow will not protest publicly, because they know Iran has resolved to purge ISIS from Syria and Iraq, to restore the Shiite Crescent project - the implementation of which is a strategic priority for Iran, proceeding with Russian and American consent.

Turkey has a different priority: safeguarding the regime of President Erdogan, even if he had to ally himself to the devil and renege on every single promise he had made. Turkey has blocked all roads for the delivery of weapons and influence from the Gulf states to Syria, after the same happened in Iraq with US-Iranian partnership. Ankara has staked its supreme interests on Russia, abandoning in practice its call for Assad to be toppled. By joining forces with Russia and Iran, it is even guaranteeing Assad's legitimacy. This forces the Gulf states to reconsider their positions, now effectively restrained by the collapse of what was once a joint Turkish-Saudi-Qatari strategy.

Russia has gained a lot from Turkey after the deal between Putin and Erdogan, possibly including Erdogan's renunciation of his scheme to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Asia. Indeed, the statements issued by the trio clearly emphasized a secular Syria, which was traditionally opposed by Turkey.

Interestingly, the trio spoke of the territorial integrity of the Syrian soil, at a time when Iran is active on the ground in altering the region's geography to establish contiguity with Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Turkey opposes the emergence of a Kurdish entity in Syria even as Kurdish statehood in Iraqi Kurdistan has become inevitable.

The grey area in Syria remains large. But it is clear that Russia has resolved to draft a military and political roadmap that upends old agreements and paves the ground for a new kind of a Russian-American partnership that will give a whole different meaning to the term 'grand bargain'. Translated by Karim Traboulsi:

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