By Osama Al-Sharif*
It was not the long awaited face-to-face meeting that the world was expecting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Vietnam last weekend. Instead the two leaders met briefly and the White House and the Kremlin issued a joint presidential statement on Syria, which US officials said was the result of “months of fairly intense discussions.”
It stated the obvious: Russia and the US agreed to continue joint efforts to fight Daesh until it is defeated, confirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity and called on all parties to the Syrian conflict to take an active part in the Geneva political process.
And perhaps as an afterthought they also agreed that there was no military solution to the six-year-old conflict; probably the understatement of the year in light of the deployment of US, Russian, Turkish, Iranian and regime troops in Syria, not to mention the presence of a mixed bag of armed militias.
Trump said the statement would save lives in Syria, but the issues the two sides agreed on were never divisive; defeating Daesh, preserving Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and committing to the Geneva process. Perhaps the last was the most important element in the statement. Since its military involvement in Syria in 2015, Moscow has been working to create alternative venues to Geneva in an attempt to by-pass the principles agreed upon in the first Geneva communique.
It launched high-level technical talks in Astana this year, sponsored jointly with Turkey and Iran, and in recent weeks has proposed hosting most parties to the conflict in the Russian resort of Sochi. Meanwhile, a fresh round of talks is expected to take place in Geneva on Nov. 28. Previous rounds have failed to achieve progress on the proposed transitional period that should culminate in presidential and legislative elections.
But while prospects for the Geneva process appear bleak, Astana, on the other hand, has made some progress. Russia, Iran and Turkey are working to create and implement so-called de-escalation zones to curb the fighting. However, the arrangement has been rejected by most Syrian opposition groups while the latest joint statement on Syria was described by the High Commission for Negotiations as being of little importance.
There is no doubt that an understanding between Washington and Moscow on Syria’s future is fundamentally important. But the joint statement is skimpy on details. For example, one of the most crucial issues on the table, post-Daesh, is the status of foreign troops and militias in Syria. This is a deal breaker for many players, including a nervous Israel, which has criticized the ceasefire agreement reached between Jordan, the US and Russia last July. It is noteworthy that the three countries agreed last Saturday to bolster that agreement by designating a de-escalation zone in southern Syria.
But no sooner had the announcement been made than divergent views over its substance began to appear between Russia and Washington. One crucial issue has to do with the presence of pro-Iranian militias in the zone that includes southwestern Syria, close to the Syrian-Israeli border. Jordan believes that the deal provides guarantees to keep those militias at least 30 kilometers away from its borders. But for Israel the issue is far more threatening: It wants all pro-Iranian militias out of Syria altogether. Russia, with its close ties to Iran, will not commit to this.
The political solution that both Trump and Putin want to pursue is facing insurmountable challenges. The fate of President Bashar Assad remains a major obstacle, but there are other issues including the presence of US troops in eastern Syria, which the regime calls occupation, the fate of Syrian Kurdish political ambitions, Turkey’s military build-up in Idlib, the role and composition of the Syrian opposition and Iran’s long-term goals in Syria. Aside from agreeing to fight and defeat Daesh, the US and Russia disagree on almost every other issue.
Lack of clarity over the parameters of the political settlement will continue to dog various parties to the conflict. But sooner rather than later the US will find that Russia’s dominant role in Syria challenges Trump’s recently disclosed anti-Iran strategy. For the US, recent geopolitical developments in Iraq and the Gulf cannot be separated from the final outcome of a Syria deal. Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria, and by extension Lebanon, has become a central national security threat to Washington’s regional allies. For Trump to implement his anti-Iran strategy, he cannot ignore Tehran’s long reach over Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, both politically and militarily.
For now, the Syrian opposition has no alternative but to end rifts and join forces — something it hopes to do at a meeting in Riyadh next week. This is one way of reinventing itself after a series of setbacks. Its united stand at the next Geneva conference may give credence to the political process; one that may gain traction, but is very far from reaching a destination.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator in Amman.
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