Months ago journalists used to hear realistic statements on Syria. “Practically, there can be no solution in Syria except through Russia” and “A ‘Russian Syria’ is better for the region than an ‘Iranian Syria’.”
For some time, it appeared that the “Russian Syria” was accepted by the Americans, Europeans, the region and Arabs. It became clear that this acceptance depended on Russia devising a political solution that would reduce Iran’s influence in Syria. Some believed that any solution based on the redistribution of power among Syrian forces would inevitably diminish the possibility of the emergence of an “Iranian Syria.”
Vladimir Putin has not been hesitant in reassuring his visitors or those he met outside his country. Despite his habitual cautious rhetoric, he was giving out assurances. His visitors used to leave meetings with him assured that he had understood their fears and demands.
The fear of ISIS, its brutality and concerns of its expansion pushed everyone towards preferring the Russian solution, especially after it became clear that Washington was in no way ready to use its military force to oust the Syrian regime or force it to accept “political transition.”
After ISIS was contained, the difficulties of the establishment of a “Russian Syria” began to emerge. The recent Israeli-Iranian clash in Syria and Turkey’s campaign in Afrin confirmed these difficulties.
The fear of ISIS, its brutality and concerns of its expansion pushed everyone towards preferring the Russian solution, especially after it became clear that Washington was not ready to use its military forceGhassan Charbel
Weeks ago, it became clear that a solution to establish a “Russian Syria” was losing ground. The ability of Russian jets to carry out heavy strikes in Syria was much more powerful than Sergei Lavrov’s ability to draft a solution for Syria. This solution should bring together the Syrian regime and opposition, the US, Europe, Israel, Iran, Turkey and the Arabs.
Had the “Russian Syria” had the first and final word in Syria, then the parties involved would not have acted in the way they did. They would not have crossed what were believed to be red lines drawn by Russia.
The red lines include Iran sending a drone to fly over Israel and the latter’s retaliation that saw it carry out air strikes deep into Syrian territory and its announcement for the first time that it had struck Iranian positions there. The Syrian forces had employed their rocket arsenal to down an Israeli jet, a move that they had previously avoided.
The problem with Lavrov’s solution is that the Kremlin is trying to achieve coexistence between contrasting interests and opposing policies. It wants to imply that the solution is slowly being devised and that it is taking into account all the concerned players.
The Kremlin wants to cater to Israel’s demand that Iran and its allies be kept away from its borders, while also taking into consideration Tehran’s interests. There is no doubt that the Iranians are counting on time to demonstrate that the “Iranian Syria” runs much deeper than the advocates of the “Russian Syria” believe.
Tehran is in no way willing to accept a solution that would weaken its Syrian link in the crescent that it has carved out for itself. If Tehran were to one-day show flexibility over the presence of its militias and missile factories close to Israel, then it would rather use this card in its dispute with the US, which is preparing to impose painful sanctions on the Iranian economy.
A difficult partner
Iran is not the only difficult partner. The Syrian regime, which was saved from collapse by Russia, can also be a very difficult partner. If during its days of weakness, the regime had refused to discuss the “political transition,” then what would its attitude be like now after overcoming this danger?
Moreover, those who believe that the Syrian forces would ultimately prefer to rely on Russia’s presence to reduce Iranian hegemony may be mistaken. They seem to have forgotten that the Iranian presence in Syria is not recent and it is actually much more familiar with the country’s structure and regime.
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Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is preparing to welcome both the Russian and Iranian presidents in Istanbul, is not an easy partner for anyone. His army’s presence in Kurdish Syria gives him the right to sit at the dialogue table later on and perhaps link his military withdrawal from Syria to the withdrawal of others as well. This possibility could gain ground if an improvement in ties between Ankara and Washington is achieved.
The obsession to break up the Kurdish belt on the Syrian border is not Turkey’s sole concern, but it also realizes the meaning of the establishment of an “Iranian Syria” that complements Tehran’s decisive role in Iraq. Turkey’s invitation to sponsor the Sochi peace course obligates Moscow to understand Ankara’s demands, especially since Turkey is an important economic partner for Russia.
Ties with Israel
We should also not underestimate the importance Putin is placing on preserving good ties with Israel. The issue is not strictly linked to Russian Jews who immigrated to Israel, but it is also part of Putin’s realization that Israel is a mandatory path to ease tensions with the US, should ties with it not improve.
The US is meanwhile lying in wait for Russia to discover the challenges and problems of what it believed to be an unprecedented victory in Syria. It is waiting east of the Euphrates with all of its soldiers and advisors. It is hoping that this region will prosper and that it can be set as an example.
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It trusts that Russia will not be able to launch Syria’s reconstruction plan because it is incapable of coming up with a convincing solution to concerned countries. It believes that Moscow’s partners will ultimately become a burden on it.
An “Iranian Syria” is unacceptable and a “Russian Syria” is not easy to achieve. A “Syrian Syria” is not being considered at the moment. Putin will try to stop the clash of opposing countries over Syrian soil. The solution however does not appear within reach and the Syrian people’s suffering is likely to continue.
At one point in the past Barack Obama had made light before his aides of the importance of Putin’s victory in Syria. He had ruled out the ability of the Syrian leader to reconcile all the contradictions in and outside his country. He did not rule out that the Kremlin would realize late that the Syrian gift is booby-trapped and expensive. Syria houses many problems. A booby-trapped gift and mischievous partners.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan's Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.
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