The Syrian saga is set to last for a longer time still. Russian President Vladimir Putin had prematurely declared mission accomplished in Syria, just like US former President George W. Bush had done during the Iraq war, before it became a quagmire and a protracted conflict that drew in the US for long. Senior US military officials had warned Putin against rushing to declare the defeat of ISIS, and made it clear to him that the US would remain in Syria anyway. The gaps in US-Russian accords then widened as a result of Moscow’s insistence on monopolizing the political process in Syria, upending the principles of the UN-sponsored Geneva Communique and replacing them with the Russian-sponsored Sochi process. The gaps widened also as US interest receded regarding a deal Putin wanted tailored to fit his interests and his alliance with Iran and the Syrian regime, forgetting perhaps that Obama was no longer in the White House and that Trump’s advisors are mostly generals who understand well the language of negotiations and deals on the eve of the end – or prolongation – of war. The attack by more than 13 drones on Russian airbases in Syria in Hmeimim and Tartus, marks a deep breach in the prestige of victory that Putin had wanted to be become his halo, signaling that Russia and its allies remain vulnerable on the ground to formidable military attacks. Those allies imposed on each other by circumstances have started bickering and scattering. Indeed, Turkey, Iran, and Russia – the guarantors of the Astana Process and de-escalation zones – are now at odds over the fate of Idlib. Turkey is furious at the Syrian regime offensive backed by Iran and greenlighted by the Russians. Tehran is concerned by the protests at home including against Iranian involvement in Syria. The elections in Russia are worrying Putin in light of the Syrian developments, which threaten to undo the achievements that he had wanted to sell to his voters – instead he finds himself surrounded by the prospects of contagion from the Iranian protests against costly foreign adventures, and the prospects of a repeat of the backlash against Bush’s war in the US, where a majority still blames the former president for taking their country to war. Putin finds himself to be the only one who wants in earnest to exit the Syrian war, as Iran and the regime in Damascus drag their feet pending the decisive military victory they desire no matter how long it could take. All this takes place amid an American insistence on maintaining major military and civilian presence in the stabilization and reconstruction phase, and in shaping the transitional political process in Syria away from Russia’s dictates, and amid increasing Israeli talk of measures to prevent Syria becoming an Iranian base on Israel’s borders. All these factors and others mean that the Syrian crisis is likely to be prolonged, shattering the hopes and expectations of many for an end to the war there soon.
The Kremlin will accuse Washington of being the prime mover behind the prevention of closure in Syria and the continuation of the conflict there, including by enabling the Syrian rebels to humiliate Russia with drones, just like it had done four decades ago in Afghanistan by supplying stinger missiles to the mujahedeen to down Soviet warplanes. Washington has denied direct involvement in the attack on the Russian bases, but it has not concealed its annoyance by the Russian ‘arrogant’ imposition of unacceptable political solutions and conduct as a victor who gives out chunks of influence to his friends while ignoring US interests. Another key point of contention is the Iranian presence and role in Syria. US presence in Syria is massive and involves thousands of troops in several strategic bases, and experienced flight crews trained through the international coalition and close coordination with the Russian air force on Syria operations. The richest one-third of Syria’s territory is effectively under US control. No doubt, the Kremlin is aware of all this, but what is starting to vex Moscow anew is the shift in US policy this year, with the US allocating funds for rebel groups it backs, and the decision by the Trump administration to fully engage in Syria after former President Obama’s decision to give Russia the upper hand there.
At the political level, Russian diplomacy continued to think it has veto control over Syria as it replaced the Geneva process, first with the Vienna, then Astana and Sochi processes, to bury the principles of the Geneva Communique. Russia thought it could thus keep Bashar al-Assad in power at least until the elections in 2021, and appease Iran on this issue. Suddenly, however, Moscow found itself surrounded by US moves that could frustrate its plans and felt extremely concerned. Indeed, political settlement in Syria is for Moscow a key for a military exit that Putin needs in an election year, and for securing the Russian bases there. He also needs it in order to declare a real rather than a premature victory.
However, it is not the US alone that may be thwarting a complete Russian victory in Syria. To be sure, Iran’s plans and interests require continuing military operations especially in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, Eastern Ghouta, Daraa and elsewhere. Thus, Syrian regime operations backed by Iran are going ahead, and these operations require a long time to reach their conclusions. According to one international official, while Russia is rushing to try to end the conflict, Damascus and Tehran need more time to finish their project for military settlement.
Turkey finds itself holding the short straw. Ankara has called on Russia and Iran to stop Damascus’s violations of the de-escalation agreements in Idlib, but it is itself violating its terms by deploying troops forces. Relations between Ankara and Moscow are strained because Moscow is accusing the Turks of backing the expansion of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). And recently, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan broke his silence on Assad’s fate and returned to calling for him to step down. Relations between the ‘guarantors’, Iran, Turkey, and Russia, are therefore not pleasant.
Relations between Moscow and various Syrian opposition groups is not the main concern for Washington, although the US has shown renewed interest in providing serious support to the opposition different from the treatment extended by the previous administration. The main difference revolves around the fate of Iran’s gains on the ground in Syria and the US lack of trust in Russia’s claims that these gains are modest and that Tehran’s militias would withdraw with the end of the war. In truth, Iran’s project in Syria marks the main point of separation between the US and Russia in Syria. And if Moscow continues to support Tehran’s regional projects that extend via Syria, then US-Russian relations and regional relations are poised for more deterioration.
Israel’s recent stances, both official ones and the ones voiced through the media, are interesting in light of a report that highlighted the existence of Israeli strategic discussions on the ‘day after ‘the war in Syria ends, and the developments of the ‘northern front’ with Syria and Lebanon as well as Iran’s efforts to transform Syria into a military base on the border with Israel and how to thwart this plan. According to Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s government is discussing the matter in both its strategic and tactical dimensions, and making diplomatic efforts with the US and Russia on the issue.
Meanwhile, everyone is keeping an eye on the domestic events in Iran, but also on the dimensions and repercussions of the Iranian project in Syria and its implications for regional relations and US-Russian relations.