Towards A Difficult Phase Marked by Assad’s Survival

Some have read the developments on the field, international accords, and the realignments in Iraq and Syria as the beginning of the end, hoping that not only will this end the bloodletting, but will also engender stability and signal the start of reconstruction, with positive implications for the two countries and their neighbors, and for Syrian and Iraqi IDPs and refugees.

On the other hand, others see the latest development as part of an advanced bid to partition Syria and Iraq, to accommodate the interests of players like Russia, the US, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and European powers, as well as Kurdish factions and others, although this may not lead to the desired stability and could have the effect of exacerbating suffering and conflicts.

The Russian-American equation currently indicates that the U.S. president, who is floundering in internal turmoil because of charges of “collusion” with Russia during his campaign, has not yet been able to grasp the complexities of foreign policy especially in the Middle East, where the top members of his administration differ fundamentally on both strategy and tactics.

Furthermore, it seems that the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who has boasted of his ability to steer the events in Syria since he forced an alliance with Iran and the regime in Damascus, today finds himself unable to execute an exit strategy from Syria’s crisis before it becomes a Russian crisis.

The engagement between the Russian government and the Trump administration on Syria, however, is quite different from the time of former President Obama, and the partnership between then Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in managing the Syrian crisis.

The Trump administration has different policy and approach, and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson does not want to be another Kerry, who had spent his time making semi-illusory partnerships and marathon visits that did not lead to the Nobel Peace Prize he and Lavrov had dreamt of, after failing to reach peace in Syria.

The Trump administration’s priorities are fighting terrorism and defeating ISIS and similar groups. However, long-term U.S. policy does not stop with the man currently in the White House, and is always seeking to serve fixed strategic and economic interests as well as fixed alliances such as with Israel. For this reason, it may be worthwhile to read the developments in Syria and Iraq from the grey zone until America’s internal storms quiet down.

Syria’s crisis began with one layer, that of a quest for introducing change and reform to the identity and nature of the regime in Syria, which was met with a military crackdown by the regime. The rest is history. Layers upon layers were then accumulated with the introduction of terrorism, after imprisoned extremists were released and foreign terrorists were invited to Syria by a multi-national decision. Bashar al-Assad resolved to turn the conflict into a war on terror in which he stood in the front lines to tell the world: I am an indispensable partner in the war on terror.

Assad succeeded on both counts. He turned Syria into an arena for a war on local and global terrorism. He succeeded in forging a partnership with Russia and Iran to guarantee his survival and indispensability. Assad also succeeded in turning the Syrian conflict into an international refugee crisis, with the goal of forcing others’ hands into accepting his Russian and Iranian-backed priorities.

Sources familiar with the thinking of international and regional actors in Syria speak of ‘realistic reconsiderations’ citing the remarks by French President Emmanuel Macaron, who seems to have reassessed French policy for the last seven years, and hinted at accepting Assad remaining in power “as a temporary fact” instead of demanding a clear roadmap for his departure.

Macaron also accepted the view that considers the Syrian crisis a counter-terrorist priority, bypassing all previous French policies and positions, saying that ISIS, not Assad, is the enemy of the French people. The new French president wants to be the first European partner of the new US president. And the main gateway to a special relationship is the fight against ISIS and its elimination, especially in Syria. This is the achievement that Donald Trump wants and Raqqa will be the prize.

Raqqa will be the turning point in Syria, according to one source involved in efforts to deal with the conflict in Syria. Indeed, after the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS, there will be no pretexts left for any side currently using ISIS to justify their presence in Syria, the source explained. Raqqa’s liberation will also have a psychological and symbolic importance.

This means that international diplomatic efforts are preparing for the coming phase of peeling the layers of the crisis and simplifying the priorities with realism, after the Raqqa priority.

One layer that can be readily peeled, so to speak, regards the so-called de-escalation zones, meant to contain civilian deaths and establish quasi-safe zones across Syria. According to one international source, “we are trying to link the de-escalation zones to a political settlement that would emphasize Syria’s territorial integrity.”

The problem is that these temporary arrangements pending political transition in Syria suggest a de-facto partitioning of the country, and nothing is more permanent than the temporary.

Partition is almost impossible for a number of realistic considerations, according to the assessment of international figures involved in the Syrian issue. Partition is too costly for any sponsors. Russia does not want it for its own reasons, and the same applies to Turkey. A Balkan-style partition of Syria, for example into five regions, would require huge subsidies from the sponsors of the respective regions, according to one high-level source, who said: “Partition is threat we must avoid. No one wants to inherit a torn piece of Syria”.

Another source indicated the US, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Jordan do not want partition, but that “Iran has not disclosed its plans, although partition could also lead to a Kurdish state that Iran does not want.” This source acknowledged that Israel stands to benefit greatly from removing Iran and Hezbollah from the area adjacent to the Golan Heights, and the Russian-American arrangements in southwestern Syria are a setback for Iran and Hezbollah’s strategic ambitions.

Jordan is an important part of Russian-American accords, and also benefits as a partner because the arrangements have removed Iran and Hezbollah from the border with the kingdom. While Iran is not pleased with these developments, it has been forced to accept the Russian-American decision to remove any non-Syrian military presence in the south.

The three pillars of President Trump’s policy in Syria are: freeing Raqqa from ISIS, assuring Israel’s strategic interests, and cutting off the Iranian Crescent project stretching across Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, confirmed by multiple sources who have denied Trump is backing down from the measures concerning Iran. Iran’s presence in Syria, according to sources close to the American-Russian conversations on this issue, is Russia’s responsibility. For this reason, Iran is worried by the Russian agenda after the Trump-Putin summit in Hamburg and subsequent understandings on the ground.

But can the Trump administration despite its fragmentation really head off the crescent project that Iran has invested blood and treasure in? “Don’t underestimate US capabilities,” one source said. “But be careful of relying on US threats on promises,” another cautioned. Regarding the fate of Bashar al-Assad, a source said: “No one is demanding Assad’s departure now. Assad will later be removed through a political process.” But another source said that the nature of the regime in Damascus means it is unable to accommodate immediate changes. In other words, Assad is here to stay for now.

Talk about Assad’s departure though American-Russian accord that distinguishes between Assad’s removal and the regime’s survival may not be far off, if the difficult deal is concluded. There is also a difference of opinion. Some say the countdown for the end of the conflict in Syria has started based on the destruction of ISIS and a reasonable exit of Russian forces and militias, with European role in reconstruction and a coming UN-backed political process. Others believe the post-ISIS phase will be long and stability will not come soon to Syria or Iraq, as long as the Trump administration is stumbling and appearing naïve before Russian-Iranian shrewdness and experience.

The latter view does not agree that Iran is losing in Syria and Iraq. It says that the safe zones will weaken the Syrian rebels and benefit Iran, which wants to expand them. Meanwhile, according to the proponents of this view, the Trump administration is selling the Gulf countries sweet talk, while it is blessing and accommodating Iran’s expansions in Syria and Iraq.

Some indicate that Washington is actively backing Iraq’s PM Haider al-Abadi, while confronting the Popular Mobilization is beyond his ability. The US is doing nothing vis-à-vis the expansion of the Popular Mobilization, which have become Iraq’s alternative ideological army, while being loyal to Iran. Finally, they say that Donald Trump, by silently consenting to Putin’s insistence on guaranteeing the security of the Syrian regime in Damascus, has given the impression that he has no other concern in Syria except the destruction of ISIS.

Herein lies the dilemma: What new forms of ISIS will emerge if the destruction of ISIS was the only goal sought in Syria and Iraq, without the necessary political solutions? The problem of the US today is that the strategic issues are taking the backseat, in light of the divisions and internal prosecutions. President Trump and his White House crew lack the necessary experience compared to the leaders of Russia and Iran. The shrewd US officials like the defense secretary and the national security adviser are shackled in many ways by a White House that tweets its whims, and by the investigations into the alleged involvement of some of Trump’s associates with the Russians.

The current phase has complex implications, because it is still entirely in the gray zone.