Will the US-Russian détente benefit Syria?
How the next US president engages Putin is bound to have ripple effects on the Syrian civil war
This week’s terrorist attacks in Ankara, Berlin and Zurich underscore once again that Syria’s entrenched conflict extends well beyond Syria’s borders and that the failure to pursue a comprehensive political solution, which is required to bring the war to an end, is bound to increase the flow of refugees seeking a better future in Europe.
The poisonous cocktail comprised of terrorism, civilians as victims, refugees and increasing Islamophobia throughout much of the Western world could inflame tensions between Europeans and refugees fleeing ISIS and other regional extremist groups; Europe’s longstanding peaceful coexistence between Christian and Muslim citizens could become a collateral in the process as identity politics and political tribalism – along ethnic lines – could replace values centering on commonalities which is bound to negatively impact European politics for decades to come.
The Syria factor
With less than five weeks in office, US President Barack Obama is once again harvesting the rotten fruits of his initial decision not to enforce his own red lines on Syria, even after President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in 2013.
The residents of eastern Aleppo, the country’s largest city, have over the past week re-experienced the perils of Syria’s six-year long civil war as they face an emboldened regime determined to take advantage of the international community’s inability to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict by seeking to change the facts on the ground, at least until Donald Trump enters the White House as the next US president on January 20.
While little is known about the US president-elect’s Middle East policies, beyond his campaign promise to restore ties with Moscow in order to jointly defeat ISIS, the likely price for Russian anti-terrorism cooperation will be the survival of the embattled Assad-regime, which for obvious reasons cannot be toppled as it enjoys what appears to be the Kremlin’s unconditional military support.
On the upside, a potential US-Russian détente could pave the road of the establishment of a humanitarian safe zone in Syria to help stem the massive wave of desperate refugees seeking a better future in Europe.
But, as the 11th-hour siege of eastern Aleppo is illustrating that rapprochement with Russia was never expected to be easy. For those who had thought that President Vladimir Putin of Russia would offer his incoming US counterpart an olive branch by leaning on the Syrian leader to prevent him from taking the kind of action he is taking in eastern Aleppo – or any other drastic measures that could once again enflame the Syrian conflict, have been sorely disappointed.
How the next US president engages Putin is bound to have ripple effects on the Syrian civil war, its fragile UN-sponsored peace process and potentially on the broader war against ISIS. Given these enormous stakes, it is perhaps not surprising that Putin is seeking to strengthen his hand vis-a-vis Trump as he closely monitors how the president-elect fends off allegations brought forth by US Democrats – and their friends in the mainstream media. These charges center on how Trump not only lost the election by the popular vote to Hillary Rodham Clinton but was elected with the help of Russian intelligence agencies.
This argument, which has been formally propagated by Clinton supporters, including former campaign chairman John Podesta, along with the leaders of the Democratic Party, allege that Trump’s victory was largely enabled by alleged Russian intelligence services supplying the WikiLeaks organization with a trove of damaging e-mails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as well as those belonging to Podesta’s personal email account as part of an orchestrated strategy to damage Clinton’s credibility on the eve of the US election.
While the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has concluded that Russia intelligence was indeed responsible for the hacking of the DNC computer network, President Obama announced on Friday December 17 that no Russian hacking had taken place since he requested during a meeting with Putin in September “to cut it out…or face significant consequences.”
However, Obama’s latest statement on the controversial matter deviates from allegations brought forth by the Clinton-campaign and from the Democratic Party in general which attempt to tie Trump’s victory to the spells of Putin as part of an orchestrated effort meant to discredit Trump before he even takes office.
Ironically, during Obama’s heated re-election campaign against Mitt Romney in 2012, the president ridiculed his Republican opponent for describing Putin as America’s greatest geopolitical foe.
A path forward?
Given these dynamics, it is not surprising that Trump was once again sharply rebuked by leading US foreign policy experts, from both parties, for what appears to be his top diplomatic goal: to improve relations with Putin’s Russia.
This objective is not limited to Trump as both President Obama and George W. Bush before him sought early in their terms to cultivate a personal relationship with Putin. Their respective efforts were ultimately rebuffed when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 – which was lambasted as illegal - and subsequently dispatched troops to Syria in 2015 to help shore up support for the embattled Assad regime, its principal regional ally.
Putin’s track record underscores why many within the US foreign policy establishment fear that the Russian leader would exploit Trump’s desire to turn a new page to the detriment of US global interests and those of its long-standing allies, including in the Middle East.
However, by nominating General (Ret.) James Mattis for Secretary of Defense, Trump is signaling his decision to walk back on his uncompromising campaign rhetoric on foreign policy matters pertaining to Russia, Syria, NATO and Iran. The Mattis nomination also sends a clear message to President Vladimir Putin of Russia: do not equate Trump’s campaign promise to pursue detent over the Syrian conflict as a sign of weakness as the general - also known as “Mattis the mad dog” – will be responsible for executing his defense policy and global military posture.
The nomination further underscores Trump’s desire to remain unpredictable on international stage, especially vis-a-vie Russia and China, while at the same time sending a reassuring message to NATO allies. The nomination of ExxonMobile Corporation CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, who enjoys long-standing personal relationships with numerous world leaders, is signalizing a pragmatic approach to diplomatic deal-making and his nomination has already been warmly welcomed by Washington’s Arab allies and cautiously by the Kremlin as well.
Meanwhile, President Assad’s decision to double down in eastern Aleppo as part of his quest to change the facts on the ground – with Putin’s tacit approval - suggests that it is far from clear whether Russia interested in detent with Washington and certainly not at any price as the recent events in Syria have suggested.
Sigurd Neubauer is a Non-Resident Fellow at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @SigiMideast.