Amid Syria chaos is hope for US-Rus­sia co-op­er­a­tion

The National - News - - OPINION - RAGHIDA DERGHAM

Rus­sia will not suc­ceed in sep­a­rat­ing Eu­ro­pean na­tions from US pol­icy in Syria, with the with­drawal of Ira­nian forces and prox­ies from Syria and the start of a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion a con­di­tion for any as­sis­tance in the re­con­struc­tion of the war-torn na­tion. Rus­sia’s leader Vladimir Putin is try­ing to con­vince the Euro­peans, par­tic­u­larly Ger­many and France, that their in­ter­ests re­quire them to com­mit to the re­con­struc­tion of Syria, or face the prospect of a new wave of refugees.

How­ever, the is­sue is more com­plex that Moscow seems to imag­ine, be­cause even if the Euro­peans some­how come to ac­cept this, they will not be able to de­liver, be­cause there is too much at stake for them: re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton; Eu­ro­pean cor­po­ra­tions that re­sist pres­sure from their gov­ern­ments; and the Euro­peans’ un­will­ing­ness to pro­vide a front for the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Bashar Al As­sad, in­stead of hold­ing him ac­count­able for his ac­tions in Syria.

Moscow is con­cerned that the US con­di­tions are a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to en­sure Rus­sia is stuck in the Syr­ian quag­mire to pro­long its mil­i­tary in­volve­ment and in­crease its costs. Rus­sian of­fi­cials are frus­trated be­cause US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had ap­peared to be in agree­ment with Mr Putin dur­ing his election cam­paign, and again at the Helsinki sum­mit, be­fore the top of­fi­cials in his ad­min­is­tra­tion and the mil­i­tary took over, launch­ing a stricter pol­icy for Rus­sia, Syria and Iran.

The thrust of the US en­deav­our is to thwart Rus­sia’s role as the pa­tron of Syria’s fu­ture, spoil Mr Al As­sad’s vic­tory, which has been achieved mainly by Iran and Rus­sia, and ex­ploit Iran’s ex­pan­sion­ism in Syria to push back against the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps and de­feat its projects in the re­gion. In the light of these de­vel­op­ments, US-Rus­sian re­la­tions have taken a big hit and the much-touted “deal” be­came caught in the Ira­nian spi­der’s web. While this may push Rus­sia closer to Iran and Turkey, it will not save it from the Syr­ian morass.

The key to an Amer­i­can deal with Rus­sia, clar­i­fied by the US na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, John Bolton, would be a Rus­sian en­dorse­ment of the ef­fort to re­move Ira­nian forces and prox­ies from Syria. While Moscow may be will­ing to get on board, the devil is in the de­tails. Mr Bolton is not ask­ing Moscow to part­ner up with Wash­ing­ton in the broader project of forc­ing Ira­nian forces back to their coun­try’s bor­ders, from wher­ever they are de­ployed in Iraq, Le­banon, or Ye­men. Nor is he ask­ing the Rus­sians to im­pose sanc­tions on Iran that em­u­late those that US will hit it with on Novem­ber 4. Rather, Moscow is re­quired to dis­en­gage from the strate­gic and tac­ti­cal al­liance with Iran in Syria, a de­mand that has so far proven to be too high a price for the Rus­sians to pay, un­less it comes as part of a wider deal.

“US de­mands are ex­ag­ger­ated,” a high-level Rus­sian of­fi­cial told me. “The Amer­i­cans must be more mod­est.” The of­fi­cial de­scribed the cur­rent state of Rus­sia’s re­la­tions with the US as “bad”, say­ing progress re­quires dis­cussing “the to­tal­ity of is­sues … be­cause we can­not dis­cuss one par­tic­u­lar is­sue sep­a­rately”.

He was re­fer­ring to myr­iad out­stand­ing is­sues, in­clud­ing the ex­pan­sion of Nato, the In­ter­me­di­ate-Range Nu­clear Forces treaty, di­ver­gence on the ques­tion of ter­ror­ism, and con­flicts in Ukraine, Syria, and the Mid­dle East. This is in ad­di­tion to aca­demic and strate­gic ques­tions, such as the na­ture of the Amer­i­can project in the wider world.

The con­tra­dic­tions be­tween the two pow­ers have in­creased re­cently. Wash­ing­ton has pur­sued sanc­tions to im­pose its pol­icy and per­haps even to cre­ate a new po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic world or­der. Oth­ers who lack such abil­i­ties are push­ing back, in­clud­ing Rus­sia.

The Rus­sian view holds that the US ap­proach in Syria is to main­tain a mil­i­tary, po­lit­i­cal, and eco­nomic pres­ence, and that “chang­ing the regime in Da­m­as­cus re­mains” a pos­si­bil­ity on the US agenda, ac­cord­ing to the Rus­sian of­fi­cial.

The Rus­sians con­verge with Iran in con­sid­er­ing only Sunni ji­hadists as ter­ror­ists, while the Amer­i­cans add to the list Iran and its mili­tias. This is a big dif­fer­ence that some see as a form of Rus­sian back­ing for Shi­ites and US back­ing for Sun­nis since Mr Trump took over. Pre­vi­ously, US sup­port had vac­il­lated be­tween Sun­nis and Shia through­out many decades of con­flict in the Arab and Is­lamic re­gion.

It can be said that the state of US-Rus­sian re­la­tions is a big­ger worry for Moscow than for Wash­ing­ton, given the suc­cesses of Mr Trump’s agenda in­ter­na­tion­ally. Mr Trump’s for­eign pol­icy team is now ho­moge­nous and can co­or­di­nate strat­egy. Al­though solid in its po­si­tion, this team is open to ro­bust re­la­tions with Rus­sia, be­cause it is seen as more of a po­ten­tial part­ner than a ri­val.

This week, the Val­dai Club, a think tank fa­mous for its con­tri­bu­tion to shap­ing Rus­sian for­eign pol­icy and backed by Mr Putin, will con­vene its 15th an­nual ses­sion in Sochi. Mr Putin is ex­pected to at­tend. The Val­dai Club’s chair­man, An­drey Bys­trit­skiy, a vet­eran ex­pert on US-Rus­sian re­la­tions and their im­pli­ca­tions for re­gional is­sues, was a dis­tin­guished guest at the Beirut In­sti­tute sum­mit in May.

It is worth re­call­ing what he said at the time con­cern­ing Iran. Ac­cord­ing to Mr Bys­trit­skiy, Iran was a “tac­ti­cal ally” for Rus­sia, at a time when Moscow needs a “con­stel­la­tion of part­ners”. To­day, what Rus­sia needs to do is de­cide Iran’s po­si­tion in this con­stel­la­tion.

Hope­fully, the con­ver­sa­tion at this year’s ses­sion, which I will have the hon­our of at­tend­ing, will come up with new and pos­i­tive ideas about how to de­velop US-Rus­sian re­la­tions and steer both na­tions in the di­rec­tion of co-op­er­a­tion rather than con­flict. A lot de­pends on which di­rec­tion these re­la­tions take, es­pe­cially as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is se­ri­ous not just about its pres­ence in Syria, but also the need for Iran’s de­par­ture from the coun­try, all while keep­ing the door open to a deal with Rus­sia.

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