State­ments of the ob­vi­ous will not end the Syr­ian con­flict

Arab News - - OPINION - OSAMA AL-SHARIF | SPE­CIAL TO ARAB NEWS Osama Al-Sharif is a jour­nal­ist and po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor in Am­man.

IT was not the long awaited face-to-face meet­ing that the world was ex­pect­ing be­tween Don­ald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Viet­nam last week­end. In­stead the two lead­ers met briefly and the White House and the Krem­lin is­sued a joint pres­i­den­tial state­ment on Syria, which US of­fi­cials said was the re­sult of “months of fairly in­tense dis­cus­sions.” It stated the ob­vi­ous: Rus­sia and the US agreed to con­tinue joint ef­forts to fight Daesh un­til it is de­feated, con­firmed their com­mit­ment to Syria’s sovereignty, in­de­pen­dence and ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity and called on all par­ties to the Syr­ian con­flict to take an ac­tive part in the Geneva po­lit­i­cal process.

And per­haps as an af­ter­thought they also agreed that there was no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion to the six-year-old con­flict; prob­a­bly the un­der­state­ment of the year in light of the de­ploy­ment of US, Rus­sian, Turk­ish, Ira­nian and regime troops in Syria, not to men­tion the pres­ence of a mixed bag of armed mili­tias.

Trump said the state­ment would save lives in Syria, but the is­sues the two sides agreed on were never di­vi­sive; de­feat­ing Daesh, pre­serv­ing Syria’s sovereignty and ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity and com­mit­ting to the Geneva process. Per­haps the last was the most im­por­tant el­e­ment in the state­ment. Since its mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in Syria in 2015, Moscow has been work­ing to cre­ate al­ter­na­tive venues to Geneva in an at­tempt to by-pass the prin­ci­ples agreed upon in the first Geneva com­mu­nique.

It launched high-level tech­ni­cal talks in As­tana this year, spon­sored jointly with Turkey and Iran, and in re­cent weeks has pro­posed host­ing most par­ties to the con­flict in the Rus­sian re­sort of Sochi. Mean­while, a fresh round of talks is ex­pected to take place in Geneva on Nov. 28. Pre­vi­ous rounds have failed to achieve progress on the pro­posed tran­si­tional pe­riod that should cul­mi­nate in pres­i­den­tial and leg­isla­tive elec­tions.

But while prospects for the Geneva process ap­pear bleak, As­tana, on the other hand, has made some progress. Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey are work­ing to cre­ate and im­ple­ment so­called de-es­ca­la­tion zones to curb the fight­ing. How­ever, the ar­range­ment has been re­jected by most Syr­ian op­po­si­tion groups while the lat­est joint state­ment on Syria was de­scribed by the High Com­mis­sion for Ne­go­ti­a­tions as be­ing of lit­tle im­por­tance.

There is no doubt that an un­der­stand­ing be­tween Washington and Moscow on Syria’s fu­ture is fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant. But the joint state­ment is skimpy on de­tails. For ex­am­ple, one of the most cru­cial is­sues on the ta­ble, postDaesh, is the sta­tus of for­eign troops and mili­tias in Syria. This is a deal breaker for many play­ers, in­clud­ing a ner­vous Is­rael, which has crit­i­cized the cease­fire agree­ment reached be­tween Jor­dan, the US and Rus­sia last July. It is note­wor­thy that the three coun­tries agreed last Satur­day to bol­ster that agree­ment by des­ig­nat­ing a de-es­ca­la­tion zone in south­ern Syria.

But no sooner had the an­nounce­ment been made than di­ver­gent views over its sub­stance be­gan to ap­pear be­tween Rus­sia and Washington. One cru­cial is­sue has to do with the pres­ence of pro-Ira­nian mili­tias in the zone that in­cludes south­west­ern Syria, close to the Syr­ian-Is­raeli bor­der. Jor­dan be­lieves that the deal pro­vides guar­an­tees to keep those mili­tias at least 30 kilo­me­ters away from its borders. But for Is­rael the is­sue is far more threat­en­ing: It wants all pro-Ira­nian mili­tias out of Syria al­to­gether. Rus­sia, with its close ties to Iran, will not com­mit to this.

The po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion that both Trump and Putin want to pur­sue is fac­ing in­sur­mount­able chal­lenges. The fate of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad re­mains a ma­jor ob­sta­cle, but there are other is­sues in­clud­ing the pres­ence of US troops in eastern Syria, which the regime calls oc­cu­pa­tion, the fate of Syr­ian Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, Turkey's mil­i­tary build-up in Idlib, the role and com­po­si­tion of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion and Iran’s long-term goals in Syria. Aside from agree­ing to fight and de­feat Daesh, the US and Rus­sia dis­agree on al­most every other is­sue.

Lack of clar­ity over the pa­ram­e­ters of the po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment will con­tinue to dog var­i­ous par­ties to the con­flict. But sooner rather than later the US will find that Rus­sia’s dom­i­nant role in Syria chal­lenges Trump’s re­cently dis­closed an­tiIran strat­egy. For the US, re­cent geopo­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in Iraq and the Gulf can­not be sep­a­rated from the fi­nal out­come of a Syria deal. Iran’s grow­ing in­flu­ence in Iraq and Syria, and by ex­ten­sion Lebanon, has be­come a cen­tral na­tional se­cu­rity threat to Washington’s re­gional al­lies. For Trump to im­ple­ment his anti-Iran strat­egy, he can­not ig­nore Tehran’s long reach over Bagh­dad, Da­m­as­cus and Beirut, both po­lit­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily.

For now, the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion has no al­ter­na­tive but to end rifts and join forces — some­thing it hopes to do at a meet­ing in Riyadh next week. This is one way of rein­vent­ing it­self af­ter a se­ries of set­backs. Its united stand at the next Geneva con­fer­ence may give cre­dence to the po­lit­i­cal process; one that may gain trac­tion, but is very far from reach­ing a des­ti­na­tion.

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