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


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