Russia boosts Iran’s role in Syria, while US blocks Tehran’s passage in Deir Ezzour
Relationships between Washington and Moscow have reached a new intersection relating to the Syrian conflict. Though both the United States and Russia agree on fighting terrorism they still differ on several files related to Syria.
The core of the problem which will be discussed by both foreign ministers Sergei Lavrov, who is on his first visit to Washington since US President Donald Trump assumed office, and his American counterpart Rex Tillerson will focus on Iran’s role in Syria.
It will also hone in on Moscow’s support for Tehran’s Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as perceived by Washington and Gulf states.
Moscow taking the lead over Washington
With the new administration in the White House lead by Trump, the United States has established a strategy focusing on three phases: destroying ISIS, establishing de-escalation zones and establishing peace.
The US has tried cooperating with Russia regarding this strategy, but was faced by collusion between Damascus and Moscow when the Syrian regime bombed Khan Sheikhoun with chemical weapons last April, as the Russian military experts were in Al Shayrat airport when a plane caring the poisonous shipment took off.
Washington’s bombing of Al Shayrat airport was a move to stop the Syrian regime from using weapons of mass destruction again.
While the US believes that Moscow guarantees that the Syrian regime won’t use chemical weapon again, they have agreed to work on a plan to destroy ISIS.
The United States believes that Russia, through the Astana talks held on May 4, has done a diplomatic maneuver as they succeeded in “stealing” or “acquiring” the American strategy and republished it with a Russian agenda.
The US believes that Russia, through the Astana talks, has done a diplomatic maneuver as they succeeded in “stealing” or “acquiring” the American strategy and republished it with a Russian agendaPierre Ghanem
Russia boosting Iran role in Syrian
Washington is objecting that the Astana talks shows Tehran as a leading nation for establishing a de-escalation zone, while in reality, Iran’s original role is to support the Syrian regime.
The United States has its reservations to changing the way Iran is viewed; from an aggressor to endorsing it as a nation that guarantees stability and fighting terrorism.
Washington had commented on the Astana talks by saying that “Iran’s activities in Syria have contributed to violence and not stopped it. Also Iran’s support for the Assad regime contributed to the Syrian people’s misery.”
But what is worse was the draft put forward by the Russians to the Security Council in order to adopt the outcomes of the Astana talks, and trying to convince the international community to give Iran a cover regarding what it did in Syria directly or indirectly through Hezbollah.
The moment Lavrov and Tillerson meet face-to-face in Washington, the American stance will be as follows: Tillerson will need to confront Iranian interference in the Middle East while Lavrov will want to defend Iran’s role in Syria.
The worst scenario for both diplomats is that the Trump administration sees that Russia cannot implement its strategy in Syria and keep the Bashar al- Assad regime in power without the help and support of Iran and the supporting Shiite militias.
Tehran’s passage goes through Deir Ezzor
The situation on the ground is putting great pressures on both the American and Russian sides. The Americans are preparing for the last stage of the battle to retake Syria’s Raqqa, the de-facto ISIS “capital” with the help of Kurd and Arab forces, and this fight will take a long time.
The Americans want to support the same forces or other Arab forces in Deir Ezzor’s southern Bukamal so as to move fast on the northern areas and control International Highway that links Syria with Iraq and consequently controlling Deir Ezzor, as it will be the last city controlled by ISIS and in the middle of the road between Damascus and Baghdad.
The aim of gaining this city by the United States will stop Iran and its supporting militias from having control on this route which links Iran’s borders with three Arab capitals.
On the other hand, the Syrian regime, with the cooperation of Moscow and Tehran, wants to regain control of what’s left in the Palmyra area and go forward to Deir Ezzor and the connecting the International Highway between Syria and Iraq.
Syrian Foreign Minister Waleed al-Mouallem has confirmed this by saying that the Syrian regime’s “target is to reach Deir Ezzor.” This will be unfavorable for the United States if this road is reclaimed with the support of Russia.
The disagreement over Turkey
What is disturbing Washington regarding Moscow’s actions is that their attempts to reach an understanding with the Russians in recent months have reached a deadlock.
It is not clear to the Americans if Russian President Vladimir Putin has any intention to cooperate with the Trump administration.
In recent months, Moscow has worked to deepen the American Turkish disputes regarding the Syrian conflict and gave Turkey a role in guaranteeing the outcomes of the Astana talks, while Washington could not reach any understanding with Ankara regarding Kurdish militias in Syria.
While Turkey considers the Kurds terrorists, the United States considers them one of their few allies on Syrian territory and counts on them to reach Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
The list of disputes between Washington and Moscow is very long and fundamental and the hardest part in it is that both countries look towards Syria now not only as the passage to destroying terrorism, but also as a passage to establish influence in the Middle East.
Pierre Ghanem is an Al Arabiya correspondent based in Washington, D.C.