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The American gamble on Russia in Syria

Khairallah Khairallah

Published: Updated:

The Daraa battle raises plenty of questions, especially in the wake of a change in the American position regarding the advancing forces of the regime towards Daraa, which are coming close to the Jordanian border and from where the Syrian revolution began.

It is not clear what changed and made Americans tell Syrian rebels in that area that they will not be intervening. The message has left the rebels to fend for themselves and leaves them all alone, as it tells them: “You should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us.”

Will Russia force Iran out of Syria?

The message received by the factions that are defending Daraa and its surrounding areas — and which the Americans call southwest Syria to differentiate between it and the Golan front which is proscribed — is more than clear. It seems that American talk about maintaining de-escalation in the Syrian south has become a thing of the past. There’s no value in the agreements reached between US, Russia and Jordan on the matter. There was certainly implicit Israeli approval on these agreements that seem no longer suitable these days.

There is a new American policy regarding dealing with Syria. This policy is based on letting Russia handle South Syria within the context of an American-Russian-Israeli agreement. It’s not clear whether Russia, which has sought to seal a deal with the Trump administration for a long time now, will implement what’s required from it in Syria, i.e. get rid of Iranian presence in the country whose leaders always criticized Arabs who spoke of reaching a settlement with Israel while they were actually maintaining its security!

The basis of the new American policy which has begun to crystallize depends on Russia and its ability to force Iran out of Syria, fully aware that Iranians and sectarian militias affiliated with them have infiltrated the Syrian regime’s regular army units and wear their military uniforms. Is this American gamble right or will Russia manage to take the American administration to where it wants like what President Vladimir Putin did in the summer of 2013?

How Putin duped Obama

In August 2013, the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in its war against its people. It used these weapons in the surroundings of Damascus a few days after President Barack Obama warned the regime of crossing “red lines,” primarily in terms of using chemical weapons. The Russian president intervened and succeeded in convincing Obama not to strike at the Syrian regime, thus saving the latter. It would have been enough to order a series of strikes against some sensitive positions, including the military airports, for the Syrian regime to go where it should go, i.e. into exile.

However, Putin who displayed a great amount of shrewdness and acumen on how Obama thinks knew how to manipulate the situation. He proposed the idea of getting rid of chemical weapons storage facilities under international supervision to the then US president. Obama was calmed down but it turned out that the Syrian regime never got rid of all of its chemical weapons. Thus, resorting to these weapons every now and then became even more frequent in the future.

Will Trump be different than Obama in Syria? This is what the Daraa battle will reveal. Will Iran stay in Syria under the cover of the regime and its army, or not? This is simply what’s on the line these days amid talk of a meeting between Trump and Putin soon.

Khairallah Khairallah

In order for Donald Trump to appear different from Obama, he ordered two air strikes against the Syrian regime because of its use of chemical weapons. The strikes had a symbolic importance but nothing more, and they showed an absence of US seriousness in weakening the regime and putting an end to its evil practices against its people. The US, however, took strategic measures represented in controlling “the beneficial Syria,” i.e. east of the Euphrates, where there is water, agricultural wealth, oil and gas. It’s also strategic in terms of nearness to the Kurds and for controlling the road that links Iraq with Syria and which Iran aims to control.

Will Trump be different than Obama in Syria? This is what the Daraa battle will reveal. Will Iran stay in Syria under the cover of the regime and its army, or not? This is simply what’s on the line these days amid talk of a meeting between Trump and Putin soon.

Iran cannot stay in Syria

The Daraa battle will show whether it’s possible to rely on Russia to get Iran out of Syria. It seems that not only the US is betting on Russia, but even Israel is betting on it. Israel prefers that Iran withdraws from Syria without having to engage in a war that may be costly, especially if Iran decides to open the south Lebanese front through Hezbollah.

In all cases, Iran cannot stay in Syria. What’s certain is that Russia understands this formula and comprehends it better than anyone else. The party which seems incapable of dealing with this formula is the Syrian regime which knows well that it does not have any margin to maneuver in case Iran withdraws. Without Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s only option would be that of an obedient student. This choice is close to a role which Assad knew how to play when he did during one of Putin’s visits to the Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia. One remembers how a Russian officer prevented Bashar from being near the Russian president when he checked out of the base?

The American option in Syria may be right. Russia may use the bet placed on it to launch a policy of its own. This, however, is unlikely for two reasons. First of all, the Kremlin needs an understanding with Washington and the second one is that there is a desire to avoid a war that seems inevitable if Iran insists on staying in Syria.

What’s certain is that Israel is not the only party that cannot co-exist with Iran’s presence in Syria. There is another problem called Jordan which knows well what it means if the Syrian regime forces – which are approaching its borders if Daraa falls – are infiltrated by Iran and its militias.

The Daraa litmus test

Actually, Russia will for the first time have to be very clear. Is it capable of implementing its pledges in south Syria or will it let Israel strike Iranians and non-Iranians wherever they are in Syria?

Changing American policy regarding what’s happening in Daraa and its surroundings will provide a chance to know the extent of Israeli-US-Russian coordination. What’s more important than all this is that it will be revealed whether Iran has the desire to bear the consequences of withdrawing from Syria and the results of the Syrian regime’s transformation into a mere Russian puppet after it has spent years playing both Iran and Russia simultaneously.

This article is also available in Arabic.

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Khairallah Khairallah is an Arab columnist who was formerly Annahar's foreign editor (1976-1988) and Al-Hayat's managing editor (1988-1998).

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.