Putin’s plan: Moscow handles Syria, U.S. looks after Iraq

Requirements of the Russian war on terror in Syria, according to Putin, include having Moscow in the lead

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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At the end of this month, New York will be see several initiatives, talks, understandings, and deals come together under two main themes: terrorism and immigration. Both issues in the minds of world leaders are closely linked to Syria and other crises in the Arab world.

The U.S. President Barack Obama called for a world summit on terrorism, with ISIS first and foremost in his mind.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin tasked his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to chair a ministerial session of the U.N. Security Council titled “Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Settlement of Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa and Countering the Terrorist Threat in the Region.”

The common denominator between the U.S. and Russian priorities today is reducing the Syrian issue to a terrorism issue.

Raghida Dergham

President Putin has effectively declared to the world that Russia intends to fight a war directly against ISIS and similar groups in Syria, while keeping the Syrian regime as a key ally in this war. Russia wants the United States to be a military partner – including of the Syrian regime – in this bid.

Putin wants to meet with Obama on the sidelines of the 70th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Obama is now considering whether the meeting will serve one of the key goals behind the Russian leader’s movements in Syria, namely, diverting attention away from Ukraine. The U.S. president is also considering whether he really wants to be drawn into the Syrian crisis, which he has avoided for years. He might therefore bless Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war against ISIS, as long as Putin does not ask the United States to officially bless the alliance with the Assad regime.

It is worth quickly examining what Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s shrewd envoy to the U.N., told the U.S. network CBS about the Russian strategy. He said: “I think this is one thing we share now with the United States, with the U.S. government: They don’t want the Assad government to fall. They don’t want it to fall. They want to fight (ISIS) in a way which is not going to harm the Syrian government.”

He added: “On the other hand, they don’t want the Syrian government to take advantage of their campaign against [ISIS]. But they don’t want to harm the Syrian government by their action. This is very complex.”

It is not clear whether what Churkin is saying is based on assumptions or whether it is a fact that the U.S. government does not acknowledge publicly. If this is just a Russian interpretation of U.S. policy, then it is part of its strategy to sell its pitch because it assumes that Washington will not demur. Churkin continues: “To me, it is absolutely clear that... one of the very serious concerns of the American government now is that the Assad regime will fall and [ISIS] will take over Damascus and the United States will be blamed for that.”

The Russian envoy also said that Russia wants the Assad government to be party in the peace negotiations, and that the United States and all other players “have to work with the government. We are not saying they have to sit at the same table necessarily with Assad, but they are the Syrian government and they need to work with them. They are fighting [ISIS] on the ground.”

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke to CNN, criticizing the Russian diplomacy calling for rehabilitating the Assad regime that “gases its people, that barrel bombs its people, that tortures people who it arrests simply for protesting and for claiming their rights – that’s just not going to work.”

The Syrian president himself may be an obstacle to any U.S.-Russian accords, but an agreement over preserving the regime could be the way out of this impasse. So far, the U.S. position expressed by Barack Obama is that Assad has lost legitimacy and must leave. The U.S. president and his administration omitted this condition many times publicly, but this remains the official position that Obama has not yet explicitly abandoned. On the other hand, and in very clear terms this time, the Russian president has stated that Russian support for the Syrian government will continue politically and increase militarily, being the indispensable ally in the war on terror in Syria.

Russian diplomacy is going to New York at the end of this month, carrying a comprehensive project for engagement in the Middle East. By contrast, U.S. diplomacy seems reticent and like it is being dragged against its will to discuss crises in the region.

This does not mean that the U.S. administration has withdrawn from the Middle East. The results of the visit by Saudi King Salman to Washington is proof of this. However, the distance between engagement and non-withdrawal is important strategically, and Putin’s Russia is resolved to take advantage of the gap to the maximum extent possible.

The common denominator between the U.S. and Russian priorities today is reducing the Syrian issue to a terrorism issue. Washington has refrained from intervening on Syria through a presidential decision years ago. This non-engagement has practically helped turn the Syrian crisis from a civil uprising to a civil war that has become a magnet for terrorism, with the consent of several players including the Syrian government and Arab, regional, and international governments.

By contrast, Moscow engaged in Syria directly – together with Iran and Hezbollah – in support of the regime in Damascus. They became parties to the civil war, and helped turn the Syrian issue into an issue of terrorism.

Today, Moscow and Washington want to defeat ISIS and similar groups in Syria and Iraq. For this reason, they are both carrying the terrorism issue to the United Nations, to mobilize international support.

The U.S.-led international coalition, which comprises Arab countries, and which has focused on Iraq, does not include Russia and Iran as official members, even though Iran is a secret partner in the war on ISIS in Iraq. This coalition has proven its failure against ISIS, and has failed to factor in the important political elements that are key to success.

Washington is responsible for this failure. Indeed, the Obama administration fixated itself on concluding the nuclear deal with Iran, and ignored the requirements for success fearing antagonizing Iran, and even chose to build a secret partnership with Tehran.

Thus, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the commander of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani were allowed to boast publicly of the secret partnership, losing the United States a lot of credibility that would have helped mobilize the necessary support to defeat ISIS politically and militarily.

Soleimani has a key link to Russia’s decision to engage on the ground against ISIS and its ilk in Syria. The Russian decision in this direction was made in the wake of Soleimani’s public visit to Moscow, in conjunction with dangerous setbacks for the regime in Damascus that have alarmed Tehran. The Russian-Iranian concern for the fate of the Syrian regime led to a shift in a direction opposite to the one predicted by President Obama, who had claimed Moscow and Tehran were willing to abandon Assad to preserve the regime. Both capitals have instead decided that discussing Assad’s fate is misplaced or premature, and that the developments instead require increasing political and military support for the Assad regime.

President Putin’s announcement of this decision and linking it to the war on terrorism ushers in a new phase in the Russian role in Syria. Putin spoke about a regional-international alliance, and is now spoking about an international decision to build a coalition against terrorism. The bottom line is that Russia has decided to fight a war on terrorism in Syria.

Putin is practically saying to Obama: You run the war on ISIS in Iraq, and I run the war on ISIS in Syria.

Raghida Dergham

The requirements of the Russian war on terror in Syria, according to the Russian president, include having Moscow in the lead. Putin is practically saying to Obama: You run the war on ISIS in Iraq, and I run the war on ISIS in Syria. This would require Washington to – publicly or tacitly – agree to Russia’s strategy to win that war in partnership with the regime.

The Russian leadership has decided that Syria is a key guarantor of its interests in the Middle East, and that the Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria is a strategic priority.

Many considerations are behind this thinking. First, Russia is present on the ground to exercise influence, by turning the port in Tartus to a Russian military base, and the civilian airport in Latakia to a Russian air base.

Another consideration is the oil and gas reserves off the Syrian coast and its implications for Russian oil and gas interests.

There is also the consideration related to restoring Russian prestige, after the United States excluded Russia from Iraq and the war on terrorism there, and after NATO “tricked” Russia in Libya.

Another major consideration for Russia is seeking to prevent Islamists from taking power, as the United States and Britain tried to engineer in Egypt by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Russia is seriously worried about Islamist terrorism, and is convinced that its victory in Syria would bring it to Russian soil.

In order for Russia’s strategy to succeed, Moscow has decided that there should be a political tack focusing on the conflicts of the Middle East, led by Syria. This is what’s behind the diplomatic bid to unify the Syrian opposition, with the real goal being reducing the Syrian National Coalition and preventing it from exclusively representing the Syrian opposition.

Russia moved to replace the Geneva process with a new one that does away with the fundamental idea in the Geneva I communique, namely, establishing a transitional governing body with executive powers. For this reason, President Putin spoke about Assad’s willingness to share power with the “sound” opposition – as defined by the Russian and Syrian governments.

Warning Europe against the flow of Syrian refugees, President Putin explicitly linked the issue to terrorism, saying that failure to comply with his proposals, including handing the Syrian issue over to him, would exacerbate the crisis of refugee flocking to the petrified European nations.

Russia is poised to return to the Middle East, from which it was ejected with the collapse of the USSR. The United States seems to be telling Russia to go ahead, because it is unwilling to engage – though it is not yet ready to fully retreat.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 18, 2015 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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