Assad’s ‘victory’ — a disarmed, declawed Syria
The Baathist state is no more and its map has been redrawn by Sergei Lavrov of Russia, with help from Iran and Turkey and the tacit agreement of the US.
THE time has come to share spheres of influence and interests in Syria. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has emerged as a shrewd tactician now in possession of the keys to Syria’s new map. Lavrov’s, however, is not a Sykes-Picot style demarcation map. Rather, it defines Russia’s sovereignty over Syria with the blessing and partnership of the US; with practical reassurances to Israel headlined by the Golan Heights; with guaranteed influence for Iran and Turkey; and with assurances for Kurdish factions over self-rule.
This Syria will be quasi-demilitarized and unsovereign. Whether this is partition or sharing of influence, the Syria that we knew is gone. All talk of an Assad victory is invalidated by the fact that he allowed himself to be used in the war on terrorism, which the Syrian regime summoned and all foreign powers without exception exploited. The subsequent weakening of the power of the ruling Baath party will undermine and phase out the regime and the president himself, because the power of the Baath regime stemmed from its monopoly over Syria, which is now history.
All this is fine with the silent partner, who fully consents to turning Syria over to Russian tutelage, distributing territories and corridors as it pleases, because the US wants a Syria with its teeth removed. In other words, we may as well bid farewell to the central state in Syria, because the continuation of that arrangement would render tomorrow’s Syria unstable, contrary to the desires of the Russian, US, European, Turkish, Iranian, and Israeli partners. To be sure, Lavrov’s map has redefined stability on the basis of sharing parts of Syria. And all the leaks about a US strategy to contain Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are lip service meant to appease Arab ears.
US diplomats, both civilian and military, are constantly consulting with the Russians behind the scenes on all regional issues. This is not odd in itself, except that many of these consultations have been a closely guarded secret even from the allies of the two sides in the Middle East. In reality, nothing has radically changed under Donald Trump in terms of US-Russian accords on Arab conflicts. He has to all intents and purposes followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Barack Obama, albeit he has escalated verbally and made empty promises that he quickly reneged on for “pragmatic” reasons.
Those who believe that the US Congress will object to and obstruct Trump’s de-facto appeasement of Iran are guilty of wishful thinking. The priority of the Congress is Israel, and Israel is fine with the status quo. Indeed, the deals and accords have guaranteed for Tel Aviv control over Syria’s Golan Heights, as both a security buffer zone and de-facto annexed rather than occupied territories. Some may argue that UN resolutions and the UN Disengagement Observer Force preclude the annexation of the Golan, which Israel occupied 32 years ago. However, Lavrov’s map gives Israel a neutralized front with Russian, US, and international guarantees. It has also provided reassurances that no serious Syrian demand will henceforth be made for restoring the Golan Heights, because the old Syria is gone, and the new Syria now consists of spheres of Russian, US, Turkish, and Iranian influence without a significant central leadership. In other words, Syria will now be removed from the strategic equation with Israel, after Egypt was removed through the Camp David accords and Iraq through Bush’s invasion.
Turkey has found a lifeline in the relationship with Russia. For this reason, it gave up Aleppo earlier, fully realizing that the city was the crucial linchpin of the future of Syria’s opposition. The Russian president Vladimir Putin has tamed his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and has managed to coax him into partially abandoning his sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood project, at least for now. Erdogan has discovered that the relationship with Russia is his best weapon with Europe, which has shunned Turkey and is almost regretful of having it as member of NATO.
The two men share a hatred for the alliance now, although one sees it as an arch foe while the other sees it as a necessary evil. The German chancellor Angela Merkel this week protested over a TurkishRussian arms deal, stressing that the contradiction between membership of NATO and purchasing Russian missile systems was not hypothetical. Merkel did not object to the Russian sponsorship of the Turkish-Iranian deal in Syria, which included Turkish military control in northern Syria, and an Iranian corridor from Tehran to Beirut via Syria and Iraq. To be sure, Germany in its own way is a sponsor of the Iranian projects in the name of safeguarding the nuclear deal no matter Tehran’s violations in other issues.
Turkey has a guaranteed military presence in northern Syria indefinitely, with US-Russian blessing. But it is not clear yet what Turkey will do with the Daesh militants flooding to its gates, and what Turkey will do with the Muslim Brotherhood project, bearing in mind that the Russians are forging a special relationship with Egypt, and both issues deserve scrutiny at some point. At present, Moscow is keen for Egypt to play a role in Syria, but it continues to speak the language of the battlefield, where the priority remains for Turkey and Iran. The Russian-sponsored deal between Turkey and Iran would also allow Iran to control the area south of the Syrian capital to guarantee two main things: Preventing the independence of any Syrian government in Damascus, and the corridor crucial to Iran’s regional strategy. Here, Moscow may deliver on its promise of removing militias from Syria but only after the defeat of Daesh and the subduing of Syrian rebels of all backgrounds.
Washington does not mind. All the US threats to Iran are folklore now, part of the rhetoric on containing and reining in Iran’s expansionism in the Arab world. This is the “last concern” of the Americans, however. All this rhetoric is calculated, but certainly the Trump administration will not abandon the nuclear deal with Iran no matter how much the US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley steps up her attacks on Iran, and the US-led international coalition will not stop Iran from seizing territories liberated from Daesh in Syria and Iraq. There would not be any US steps to contain Iran’s influence in the two countries after operations against Daesh are concluded, when it will be too late any way. The Trump administration has reneged on its promises; its promised new strategy is to avoid blame, but it will do little differently.
The US’s deliberate absence has left the arena wide open to the Russians to draw the new map of Syria and beyond. Washington has turned the page on strategic, economic and military rivalry with Moscow and has decided the time is ripe for accords and influencesharing with the Russians across the region.
In Iraq, where partition has become inevitable, both powers oppose the hasty Kurdish referendum for independence and secession. Practically, both realize that this scenario will not favor the Kurds, but will in fact benefit Iran, which has swept across Iraq’s sovereignty and land to implement its Persian/Shia crescent project. Both powers understand what would be left for Iraq’s Sunnis, once the rulers of Iraq, is a bitter loss, and a state devoid of power and resources.
Both have read well the Arab weakness and the Gulf’s priorities, and have promised new demarches in Yemen. There, both the US and Russia want Saudi Arabia to exit from the conflict, but while knowing the path to the solution they have not yet taken it. Indeed, the main knot in the Yemen crisis is Iran, and the US and Russia are not applying pressure there, knowing full well that Iran would not easily surrender a gateway to the Saudi border via the Houthi rebels. Here, too, there are a lot of promises and but no real measures.
In Lebanon, where Moscow and Washington agree on the priority of containment, both are reassured that the situation is under control, but they are not doing enough to sustain the country’s stability. The requests made by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during his visit to Russia last week included support for the army, another matter that both the US and Russia converge upon. However, regarding the other demand on the demarcation of Lebanese borders with Syria and Israel, the latter governed by the 1949 armistice agreement to the present day, there is an inexplicable reluctance by the Americans and Russians.
Sergei Lavrov’s tour of Arab capitals, and the Iranian and Turkish consultations in the capitals of the three guarantors in Syria — Russia, Turkey, and Iran — confirm that the time of sharing influence in Syria has come. The Arab absence from this is painful, and a testimony of how scattered the Arab states are. True, Lavrov came to the Arab capitals before declaring his map, and has informed us that key Arab capitals have agreed to the new equations. Ultimately, however, Iraq and Syria are on the verge of replacing an old map, SykesPicot, with a new one — the Sergei Lavrov Map.
Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham