The current moment in Syria is particularly bloody despite the “successful ceasefire” that the Russians talk about. In fact, this ceasefire exists only in Russian officials’ and UN Envoy Staphan de Mistura’s statements. On the ground, it is war as usual. There are killings going on in Ghota, Suwayda’, Idlib, Hasakah, Aleppo region, Homs and even Damascus.
But the real game now is not on the ground. Neither It is around the negotiating table in Astana or Geneva. It has moved to the US-Russian closed channels of contacts working, at this moment, on a joint plan for Syria. All the rest, fighting and negotiating, is done by parties that focus only on influencing the US-Russia deliberations.
Syria’s Democratic Forces (SDF) has revived its race to Raqqa, to cut the roads of Turkey after Ankara re-established its working relations with the US. Assad is cracking down on pro-Russia units of his own loyalists’ militias to send a message to Moscow that he is still there. He is intensively bombing the armed opposition sites to inform all concerned that he is ready to defy even the Moscow’s sponsored -ceasefire. All this are messages, written in the only common language in Syria now.
Ultimately, this picture reduces the Syrian crisis to two central questions: What will the Trump administration want to do? And what will Moscow do?
The agenda of the US at the current moment is made of three points: Liberate Raqqa and finish ISIL, end the war and, finally, preserve state functions in Damascus. It looks identical to what the Russians say they want to do there. However, the roads to those joint objectives, as seen by each power, are remarkably different. Moreover, every step taken by one of the two to achieve any of those goals may complicate the other’s steps toward the same shared objective.
Theoretically, planners on the two sides can say that they can reach a joint road maps. But realistically, trying to do that reveals how difficult it is to agree. If you add the obligations each side has towards its allies, the picture grows even more complicated.
Take for example the Safe Zone (SZ) proposed by the US administration. The Russians see it as a challenge to the “sovereign” government of Bashar Al Assad. The Turks ask: what does it have to do, if anything, with the Kurdish drive to establish an autonomous region across our borders. The Iranians say “no go”, as this SZ will imply the presence of US forces on territories they believe it is within their reach. Assad says: whatever Tehran and Moscow decide, I will accept of course, then turns to try to improve his cut at the expense of both powers. The opposition says: Fine, but tell us what will be the fate of Assad at the end.
If a comprehensive deal is reached in Slovenia between Trump and Putin in their summit, it will naturally include a joint action plan on Syria. Such a plan will certainly provoke a reaction from Iran. Russia wants to say that its forces are in Syria, not for the eyes of the Iranians or Assad, but to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state. This irritatingly abstract phrase could be defended by Russian officials so long as there is no alternative plan to work between both the US and Russia-that is to say as long as an “action plan” (to prevent the collapse of the Syrian state) is not on the table. If a plan comes to the table, the practical questions and differences come to life. And a good part of those will be due to obligations of each to their allies.
Then comes the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s future policy on Russia. Will he be ready to integrate Syria in a comprehensive strategic understanding with Putin? Are the two powers ready to work together in the Syrian crisis alone in case they fail to reach a comprehensive deal?
In the case of reaching some “modus operandi” in Syria alone, some witty analysts would ask: Can Moscow deliver both Tehran and Assad? If it does not commit to delivering both, then what is the point in proposing a joint plan after all? Such a plan will be challenged on the ground by both, hence shifting the issue to the channels of Moscow’s relations with both of its allies.
And in the case of attaching Syria to a greater game that includes the Middle East, Central Asia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, the question would be: How far can Moscow go to get its allies to understand that it needs them to be behave according to its own individual deal with Washington?
It is clear that Moscow now is focused on fighting Al Qaeda and ISIL and thinks that the Syrian war, in its strategic definition, is over, and that it is time to get all to fight the two terrorist organizations in its coming phase. This is why Moscow is investing such a great deal of energy to get the Geneva conference going. It gives Russian diplomats a lot of wiggle room in preparation for their summit with the Trump team.
But Assad is reluctant to admit that Moscow’s perception of the conflict has shifted after the battle of Aleppo. He is still dwelling in his “every inch” pipedream. The Iranians are also publicly expressing their worries about the change in Moscow’s perspective of the conflict.
Many observers believe that the ultimate result will be that either Russia abandons Iran-Assad trenches and moves to a middle point, or that Iran and Assad will get it their way and convince Putin to commit to Assad’s goal of liberating each inch of Syria. It depends on the deal reached with the Trump team.
Assad and Iran are desperately trying to kick this moment of choice down the road. And this is why Assad surprised Moscow by escalating the fight in Barada valley and Dara, for example, and this is why he tried to engage the Turkish supported forces, Euphrates Shield, while they were approaching ISIL strong hold in Al Bab. The message of Assad is that he, and his allies, should use the momentum to “liberate every inch of Syria of all kinds of opposition groups”. He sees Russia’s hesitation the same way he saw it when Moscow accepted to postpone the battle of Aleppo during talks with the previous administration. When the Russians did not get anything from John Kerry, who could not give anything anyway, they resumed their attacks on Aleppo until they got it.
Russia is doing exactly the same thing now. It is telling Assad, Hezbollah and Iran to remain restrained until Moscow’s exchange with Washington clears the nature of the endgame. But if this exchange reached a positive conclusion, will they listen?
While we tend to believe that there is indeed a room for the Russians to shape events on the ground in Syria, that does not mean that it will “lose” its relation with Iran. In other words, those who believe that Russia will be bluntly asked to take steps against Iran and that it will accept- or even refuse, start from a wrong premise.
The reason is that the Trump administration pressure on Iran puts Tehran in a position where it needs Moscow more than Moscow’s needs it. Trump’s pressure will weaken the Iranian leverage over the Russians, who admittedly need the Iranians for their own geostrategic reasons.