A surprise visit by President Vladimir Putin to Russian operated Khmeimim Airbase in Latakia marked the completion of the two-year military campaign to defeat DAESH in Syria. The Russian President addressed that Moscow and Damascus have accomplished their mission to defeat DAESH, and conditions for a political settlement under the direction of the United Nations are now favorable.
The delegation representing the Syrian government rejoined UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva on Sunday, and the delegation walked out a week ago due to the opposition rejecting any future role for President Bashar Al Assad in Syria. Negotiations are now focused on a resolution unanimously approved by the UN Security Council calling for a transitional government and elections.
The Russian withdrawal of troops from Syria is quite a significant development after two years of Russian involvement in the war to combat terrorism. DAESH may be defeated militarily, but there are other terrorist groups who still pose a threat to civilians. Now that DAESH is no longer gaining or holding onto large portions of territory, they cannot change the strategic situation on the ground. This may be a victory on terrorism, but not yet a victory for the Syrian people, especially given the fact that the United States continues to have a strong military presence in the region, specifically Eastern Syria. There is some light at the end of the tunnel for Syria because all the regional actors are looking for a political settlement to end the almost seven-year war.
The word ‘terrorist’ is bandied a lot in Syria, and Damascus has not only called DAESH a terrorist group, but they have called opposition groups terrorists as well. The Russian withdrawal has paved the way for a gradual transition into the political peace process because most of the military fighting has diminished and now is a key time for diplomacy. The Russians played an essential role for supporting the Syrian government and the Syrian Arab Army, but now Russia, Iran, and Turkey are making significant improvements in reducing the tensions in the de-escalation zones that were setup during the Astana talks.
Syria has been the most successful component of how Russia has been able to broaden its diplomatic credentials in the Middle East. Syria has been portrayed by Russia as a key mediator, and Moscow’s role has been absolutely essential for Damascus to get to this point in time. Moscow has also been a key component for leading a political settlement, and we have to look carefully at what Putin said and confirm that Russia will also have a long-term role in the country as well. In addition, there is also a domestic desire for Putin to declare a withdrawal of Russian troops with the Russian elections right around the corner in 2018.
There are frustrations from both the Syrian government and the opposition to end the war. Russia’s success, with help from Syria, Turkey, and Iran, has marked a turning point for a new political peace process. Two years ago, Russia and Turkey were on opposite ends of the conflict. The Turkish Air Force shot down the Russian jet in 2015, but now, in 2017 into 2018, Russia, Iran, and Turkey are sitting at the same table despite having very different political views and objectives in the war.
Diplomacy is coming through now, but small components of military conflict will continue in the Kurdish region, Idlib will be an issue, and the southern front near Jordan will be key as well. What has been remarkable about Russian diplomacy is Russia’s maneuverability to talk to both sides and all players in the region, and they are all talking to each other.
In addition, Russia has been able to reconcile with Turkey after being on different sides for two years, and Iran and Russia have been talking to each other even though they have different objectives as well. Astana has also been more successful and effective than Geneva for various reasons whoever one wants to blame, but Egypt has also come on board as a reconciliation player, and there are countries within the Arab League which are supporting the Syrian government like Algeria, Oman, and Kuwait, so things are looking brighter than they were six years ago.
When it comes to U.S foreign policy, there has always been some finger-pointing from within the foreign policy establishment on what the constructive policy for Syria will be in the future. Some worry that Moscow and Tehran are filling the vacuum for U.S involvement, and it seems like the U.S has been almost irrelevant from the latest political talks. The United States will continue to remain involved in Syria with respect to counterterrorism initiatives, but the Trump Administration made it very clear when it cut ties to rebel training programs that it has no clear connections to the civil conflict in the war and this contributed to a very confused Syria policy over the last few years.
The United States will focus on transnational anti-DAESH operations which are not solely focused on Syria, but in Iraq as well. Iran, Turkey, and Russia have brought forward coordination between their different positions to work together to move towards a political settlement, but of course looking into the new year, challenges still remain. Iran and Syria want total victories in Syria, Turkey is focused on the Kurdish issue, and Russia has focused on not only withdrawing from Syria, but maintaining a long-term presence there. These are the main priorities for the three countries, but they have put differences aside and talked to one another.
Israel is obviously a major player in the Middle East. Tel Aviv has tried to put pressure on the Russians to deal with Iran and the United States. The timing of President Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, along with the shared concerns from Riyadh and Tel Aviv over Iran could not have come at a more simultaneous time.
Iran’s strategic position in the Syrian conflict concerns Israel because of the potential options Iran has to exert its influence in the region by supporting Shia militias in Syria and Iraq, into Lebanon. Throughout the Syrian conflict, Israel has had alarming concerns of Hezbollah smuggling arms from Iran to Lebanon through Syrian territory, and Israel has been working with Russia very closely on maintaining Russian guarantees that will help Israel leverage its security apparatus. It will be interesting to see Israeli-Russian cooperation continue by solidifying strategic corridors from Lebanon to Iran, and enhancing trade ties.
The Syrian people have gone through a very grim seven-year war of destruction and bloodshed, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Because the U.S has no constructive policy in Syria, Russia will continue to become a major player in the political peace process. With Turkey and Iran talking with the Russians, the roadmap for a political dialogue is clear, and diplomacy is the only way forward.
Assad will remain in power until the 2021 elections, and the question now becomes, how can a dialogue be built towards a political solution for the next elections? How inclusive can a political process be for the Syrian people and how can reconciliation efforts be effective for civil and social change in Syria? If Syrians were left alone to decide their own future, more positive developments of political reconciliation can take place between the government and the opposition to resolve major differences for a united Syria that is democratic, prosperous, and free for all people.