The last hours were significant, highly revealing and had long-term effects.
From Hamburg we heard, for the first time, of US-Russian “common understanding” on Syria. From Baghdad came the good news about the “liberation” of Mosul, and from Lebanon we heard how eager those infatuated with Lebanon’s “sovereignty” were to rid their country of Syrian refugees by returning them back to the arms of the regime that had displaced them … although those arms have kept the Lebanese “warm” for more than three decades!
The “understanding” between Washington and Moscow regarding what remains of old Syria, firstly, stems from their own interests, and secondly from those of some regional players. However, if observers seek to know the details without delusions, they need to stop and assess some issues.
Currently, Moscow’s top priority in Syria is to maintain its presence in the eastern Mediterranean after losing big in Iraq, north Africa and south of the Arabian Peninsula (namely, former South Yemen); and for this reason the Kremlin has gone as far as direct involvement in fighting, establishing military bases, and even suggesting a blueprint for a new constitution.
The second priority has been to fully exploit Iranian presence while twisting Washington’s arms in the hope of ensuring maximum American concessions, whether in the Middle East, Eastern Europe or elsewhere. These two priorities have been translated on the ground by Moscow in Syria after benefitting from Barack Obama’s belief in Iran as a regional partner against ‘Political Sunnism’.
Indeed, the Russian leadership is currently striving to cement that belief under the present Republican administration, which Moscow hoped would reach the White House, if not facilitated it.
The ‘deep state’
On the other hand, in Washington, and despite the entrenchment of ‘deep state’, we have witnessed a marked change in its handling of the Iranian file. It may be true that Donald Trump’s administration is not planning a war on Iran, as it could need it sometime in the future within the context of wider geo-political interests; But contrary to Obama’s eager positive approach, Trump’s Washington wants Tehran as a small partner that obeys when ordered, and not a big partner that decides and even enforces. This is also how Israel, Washington’s influential strategic ally in the Middle East, wishes to see the future role of Iran.
Like Moscow and Tehran, Washington too has far greater interests and objectives than the fate and interests of the people of Syria, let alone who would lead it and under what title; in has become a de facto partitioned ‘failed state’ whose cities and villages have been deserted by half of its population!
In Syria, Russia may be willing to sacrifice its ‘special relationship’ with Iran if a regional agreement is in place taking into account Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli demandsEyad Abu Shakra
For a start, before the 2011 uprising, all political posts in the Syrian government, with the exception of the presidency, were meaningless given that the real power rested in the hands of the president and his security apparatus. However, today the real power lies in the hands of those who control military bases, order air strikes, organize mass displacement, and provide it with international legal cover. Thus, even the presidency has become redundant and meaningless, and the issue of who fills the post is now a minute detail in a much larger picture.
This is what has been taking place in Syria. As for Iraq, we have been hearing one question: What will happen after the liberation of Mosul? No doubt the answer or answers to this question would clear a lot of the region’s ambiguity!
Actually, ISIS – like Al Qaeda before it – has carried out the ‘task’ expected from it; destroying the political and demographic presence of the Sunni Arabs who played a pivotal role in founding modern Iraq in 1920. Today, between the effective Iranian dominance achieved through Tehran’s henchmen like Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, Hadi Al-Amiri and Qais Khazali on one side, and the countdown of Iraqi-Kurdistan secession on the other, Iraq’s situation does not look much better than Syria’s.
Iran’s hegemony over Iraq
Furthermore, if Washington’s declared strategy towards Syria and Iraq is underpinned on the premise of planting a wedge between Tehran and Moscow, it should be said that Iran’s hegemony over Iraq is religiously, politically, and of course geographically, much stronger than its temporary effect in Syria. In fact, despite intensive campaigns of naturalization, Iranian presence in Syria remains practically a strategic ‘bridge’ to Lebanon and the Mediterranean.
In Syria, Russia may be willing to sacrifice its ‘special relationship’ with Iran if a regional agreement is in place taking into account Turkish, Kurdish and Israeli demands. Getting Iran out of Iraq, however, looks a far more difficult mission at this stage, more so without a serious American commitment, that does not seem to be there anyway.
Well, what about Lebanon? Here Hezbollah, which is Iran’s virtual occupation force, is attempting to finish off the phenomenon of Syrian refugees for which it was responsible in the first place. After uprooting and expelling the population of most Syrian border areas with Lebanon under the watchful eyes of the international community, from Tal Kalakh and Al-Qusayr in the north, and Al-Zabadani and Barada valley towns and village, via the area of Qalamoun, Hezbollah is now hell-bent on uprooting and displacing the population of Lebanese border towns which it feels are hindering its direct support to the Assad regime and Iran’s presence in Syria.
This means targeting the Sunni border town of Arsal which has played host to tens of thousands of displaced Syrians, and expelling its population under the pretext of eradicating “Takfiris”. This, incidentally, is the same justification used throughout the last few years in the demographic changes taking place through the Assad regime’s notorious ‘green buses’ and ‘liberation’ skills of the ‘Mobilization Forces’ in Syria and Iraq respectively.
I believe if there was an international decision taken at the highest level regarding the future of Syria, based on the recent US- Russia ‘understanding’, it would be pretty difficult to stop it. Several regional players that once claimed to be opposed either to the Americans or the Russians or both, seem to be now working with the two superpowers.
Moreover, regardless of whether Washington is willing or capable of getting Iran out of Iraq, the situation in both Syria and Lebanon looks quite different. The future of northern Syria is now linked to Turkish and Kurdish calculations, while what happens in southern Syria bordering Jordan, southeast Lebanon and Israel’s occupied Golan Heights will surely depend on Arab and Israeli moves.
In conclusion, if the US- Russia ‘understanding’ manages to rid Syria of Iranian presence and redefines its political and demographic affairs, the thorny issue of what to do with the Syrian president would lose its importance as real power is now somewhere else. However, if Iran maintains its foothold in Syria as a result of a tacit ‘deal’, then we should expect more suffering … and ‘green buses’!
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.