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Syria: The Tillerson Proposal to the Russians


It is wrong to assume that Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow ended in failure. Just after he left, Pravda.Ru reported that Tillerson does not lose hope to persuade Russia to begin cooperation with the US and refuse supporting the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Sergey Ordjonikidze, Deputy Secretary of the Russian Civic Chamber said the meeting ended “if not with coordination, then with correlation of mutual steps and approaches to a solution”. Briefly, we do not think that Tillerson’s Moscow meetings failed. In the contrary, because it happened after proving practically that the US will not shy from using force, it may have started a new effort to end the Syrian war. Once again, we are reminded that diplomacy cannot be effective if it was hanging on big words and emotional pleas.

It was also reported that in their meeting of April 14, that followed Tillersons’s visit, Foreign Ministers Jawad Zarif and Syria’s Walid Al Mualem, allegedly heard clearly a Russian warning to both not to repeat the Khan Shaikhoun chemical attack. We said three weeks ago that the three countries prepare for an epic fight to recapture Idlib. Assad thought he can pave the road for the march to Idlib by chemical weapons. The Russians had to pinch the ears of both not to do another Khan Shaikhoun. Furthermore, Lavrov laid out the US demands. On top, was that Iran’s presence in Syria has to be trimmed in order to address Israeli and Arab concerns.

The central point for the Russians remains to reach a deal with Washington that ends the conflict and directs available resources against terrorism. Moscow does not want its involvement to be indefinite. When the US used the Tomahawk to underline its position, the message was that the Americans can get involved, and this message could fit Russia’s plans to make its Syrian military effort as short as possible. The hard nut has always been Iran and Assad. Tehran insists on having access to Hezbollah in south Lebanon, and Assad insists on keeping his chair. They both can go far in their determination, but perhaps not as far as the US, which has enough assets in the region and in Syria. And if the Russians pull out their support, they will be stuck where they are.

Tillerson’s message in Moscow was something like: We do not want to get involved but we will, if we have to, to end the slaughter. If we do not work together to find a way out, the result will not be good neither to us nor to you. Your allies (Iran and Syria) do not behave responsibly.

The tomahawk helped him make his point.

Following Lavrov, Zarif and Muallem, some reports point to an alleged Russian offer to the Iranians to pull Hezbollah out of Syrian territories close to Israel in return for a safe passage to Hezbollah. Other reports point to a new understanding between Tillerson and Lavrov and add that the Russian offer to the Iranians is actually part of the understanding.

The Iranian position was to get all of Syria. Neither Israel nor the Turks or the Arabs can live with that. Assad’s wants to remain the President until he dies. Syrians, or at least good part of them, cannot live with that. If the two issues are not solved, the crisis will drag on. And Secretary Tillerson has some ideas on how to handle both issues.

For Assad’s future, there are still some differences, but they are not unbridgeable. One of those ideas boils down to Assad leaving his palace after a reasonably short transition. The plan is to preserve the State and choose a moderate Sunni, potentially a senior military officer, the head of the state.

However, due to Putin’s commitment to the Iranian leader, he will not decide the fate of Assad unilaterally. All he can do, if the Iranians reject the Russian proposal, is to pull out of Syria, or reduce his involvement there, and leave the war to the Iranians and Assad who cannot go too far on their own. Moscow’s argument with its two allies would be that it cannot risk confronting a determined US, nor could it continue defending acts like the Khan Shaikhoun chemical attack or remain until they both get their military solution and control “every inch” of Syria.

Russia would say that if the Americans get seriously involved, as they seem to be intending, they (the Russians) would not risk a confrontation with the US to fulfill Iran and Assad’s agenda. It was obvious that Tillerson’s message and the Tomahawk made an effect. On the other hand, Iran and Assad were keeping the political track opened, while trying to reach a military solution. They gave priority to the latter, but accepted the former in appearance only. Tillerson’s message indicated that the US rejects their approach and offers, instead, a genuine political settlement to the war.

If this approach works, it will stand on the other end of what we talked about in the last issue of MEB (What Should Follow the Tomahawk Attack on Syria). In other words, we are standing before two options: Either to work on changing the balance of force on the ground through building a relatively moderate force of Arabs and Kurds to confront Assad and Iran’s intransigent policies, or to do that through a deal with Russia. Briefly it is a top-down approach versus a bottom-up one.

Which one have a better chance of success?

The bottom up approach is laborious, will take longer, and not failure-proof. The top-down, that is the deal with Russia, is less risky, effective (it guarantees that the two powers will work together), and certain to have an instant effect on the ground. Moreover, the latter option keeps the state in its place, and only takes Assad out, eventually.

However, the problem with this approach is how to control the captured territories. This means that even if Russia accepts the Tillerson deal, a bottom-up approach will still be needed. The state, as it is right now, cannot control all of Syria. Order, stability, and repelling the terrorists will still need an effective force on the ground.

Absorbing the non-terrorist forces within any meaningful frame to control the ground will be a difficult job. It should take patience and caution. But at least we will have everyone working in harmony on the immediate question of terrorism, with the US and Russia training the forces and vetting them. A deal, particularly stating that Assad will leave “for health reasons”, or for whatever reason, will have an instant impact on the opposition. We believe that even most of the Syrian foot soldiers of Nusra will cross their organizational lines then.

If coupled with cleaning the mess in northern Syria through a strict demarcation of PKK areas and a clear verifiable commitment from the Party not to target any neighboring country from Syria’s territory, we can see then a glimmer of hope.

April 20, 2017

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