By Arab News
By Raghida Dergham*
The trio “guaranteeing” a political settlement in Syria has now destroyed the foundations of what were known as the Geneva Communique and the Vienna Process. This is the same trio dominating the Syrian battlefield, and that considers the military equation to be ready for starting a three-way division of the pie while excluding the US, Europe, the Gulf Arab countries and the UN.
The foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met this week after the fall of Aleppo to draw a political roadmap that overrides previous accords that had called for a transition in Syria by means of a governing body with full powers, culminating in presidential elections.
What the trio really guarantees, however, is the survival of Bashar Assad as president with full powers, to comply with Russian, Iranian and Turkish demands.
Arab countries have been excluded from the Syrian issue, particularly the Gulf states, which had special relations with Turkey. It was at some point thought that a Turkish-Saudi-Qatari trio was intent on arming moderate opposition and preventing the fall of Aleppo. Clearly now, Turkey has withdrawn from this defunct trio, defecting instead to the Russian-Iranian axis in a cynical strategic shift.
Ankara has disbanded the strategy established in the past with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while helping cement the Russian-Iranian roles in Syria, guaranteeing itself a seat at the table of winners. Turkey has thrown out its commitments and promises to the two Gulf countries.
Both Turkey and Egypt, as the Gulf countries now understand, have defected to the Russian camp, providing Sunni cover to Moscow to evade the accusation of a Russian-Shiite alliance in the battle for Aleppo, one of the largest Sunni Arab cities.
What is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s planning after Aleppo? What is Turkey’s next move after the deal with Russia on Aleppo and the Kurds in Syria? What of Iran’s plans after the capture of the city? What will the Gulf countries, European powers and the US do?
The exclusion of the US from the Moscow meeting between Russia, Iran and Turkey follows America’s self-exclusion in Syria, and the desire of the administration of President Barack Obama to be excluded. The tripartite meeting also comes in preparation for the era of President-elect Donald Trump, to pave the way for dealing with him from a launching pad on Syrian soil.
The broad title of the coming phase, according to the conviction of Russia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt, is Putin-Trump. Russia’s president succeeded in presenting himself as the No. 1 partner for Trump on the basis of their mutual desire for coexistence and deal-making. Iran decided that getting on board the Russian motorcade is the shortest way to the White House, presenting itself as a strategic ally and battlefield partner that is indispensable for Russia.
Egypt has seen a strategic opportunity in the relationship between Putin and Trump, reinforced by good economic ties with China, and got on board the Russian bandwagon in Syria. Turkey found that its interests are best served by joining the Russian convoy traveling from Aleppo to the White House, with a message of reassurance to Trump.
The US, which is voluntarily absent from Syria, appears marginalized and weak. It is contenting itself with the smile of the weak Secretary of State John Kerry, and his handshake with his seasoned counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The Obama administration leaves Washington haunted by Aleppo.
The outgoing US president helped in the making of the tragedy in Syria by refraining to engage and by dissociating the US from Syria, paving the way for Russia to rebuild its influence in the Middle East. At the same time, Obama rewarded Iran and blessed its intervention in Syria, even before repealing the UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting Iran’s foreign military presence.
These resolutions were later repealed as part of the package deal with Iran over its nuclear program, which led to an obsessive fixation by Obama with safeguarding it, often at the expense of fundamental US values. He leaves the White House in a few weeks, dragging along two of his red lines that he had backtracked from: His warning regarding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons and his call for Assad to step down.
Trump has started exercising presidential powers before his official inauguration. It was for his sake that Putin rushed to benefit maximally from the extra time allowed by the transition between US administrations, escalating militarily in Aleppo and coordinating politically and militarily with Turkey and Iran. Putin wanted to give Trump a precious gift made in Syria, packaged in the guise of eliminating Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups.
Putin gifted Trump the achievement of the battle of Aleppo, so that the new president does not inherit this problem. Putin has decided that his friend Trump does not like complex problems, and prefers clever games and making deals. For this reason, Putin wanted to finish “purging” Aleppo before Trump entered the White House.
However, Putin’s strategy is not restricted to these courtesies toward Trump. He is preparing for grand bargains after cementing Russia’s resumed great power role in the international arena via the Syrian gateway. The Russian victories in Syria come amid growing hostility toward a resurgent Russia in the Middle East.
Putin, no matter how much he denies this, remains the Russian president who concluded a deal of strategic importance with Iran, especially in Syria. He did this while proclaiming that he was against radical Islamism and the rise of Islamism to power. It turned out he meant Sunni, not Shiite, Islamism. Indeed, Iran was the first theocracy in the region.
In other words, Putin brought Russia to the Middle East through a sectarian gate, radically fueling Sunni-Shiite strife as many a US administration had done. Russia’s return to the Arab region and its role in Syria were not welcomed by Arabs, on the contrary. Thus many questions surround Russia’s investment in the region, and the specter of retaliation will haunt it.
As such, the Russian-Iranian relationship will be subject to much scrutiny, as it has been clear for some time now that their partnership in Syria amounts to a full alliance. This is a clear message to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, which Moscow see as divided and divergent when it comes to relations with Russia as well as with Iran.
For this reason, for example, Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have established special relations despite differences on Iran.
Furthermore, Russian-Saudi relations did not collapse because of Russia’s clear bias in favor of Iran, strategically and in Syria, as this was offset in the Yemeni theater, where Russia has refrained from intervening or obstructing.
What kind of relationship will Moscow and Tehran have after Aleppo? The foundations of their strategic alliance will survive, but there will be some divergence on certain principles that they will have to address to protect the alliance.
Indeed, Russia seeks to end its direct (and vital) military role in Syria, while Iran is bent on expanding its military role there. Russia wants to strengthen the Syrian regular army as the cornerstone of the state and the regime, while Iran wants to implement the Revolutionary Guards model in Syria and Iraq, to weaken the regular army in favor of paramilitary groups.
These are radical, not cosmetic differences, but they do not mean that the alliance is brittle. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Al-Quds Force, went on a victory parade in Aleppo, to the embarrassment of Russia, whose generals were not happy.
However, decision-makers in Moscow will not protest publicly because they know Iran has resolved to purge Daesh from Syria and Iraq and to restore the Shiite Crescent project, the implementation of which is a strategic priority for Iran, proceeding with Russian and American consent.
Turkey has a different priority: Safeguarding the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even if he had to renege on every single promise he had made. Turkey has blocked all roads for the delivery of weapons and influence from the Gulf states to Syria, after the same happened in Iraq with US-Iranian partnership.
Ankara has staked its supreme interests on Russia, abandoning in practice its call for Assad to be toppled. By joining forces with Russia and Iran, it is even guaranteeing Assad’s legitimacy. This forces the Gulf states to reconsider their positions, now effectively restrained by the collapse of what was once a joint Turkish-Saudi-Qatari strategy.
Russia has gained a lot from Turkey after the deal between Putin and Erdogan, possibly including the latter’s renunciation of his scheme to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Asia. Indeed, the statements issued by the trio clearly emphasized a secular Syria, which was traditionally opposed by Turkey.
Interestingly, the trio spoke of Syria’s territorial integrity at a time when Iran is active on the ground in altering the region’s geography to establish contiguity with Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Turkey opposes the emergence of a Kurdish entity in Syria even as statehood in Iraqi Kurdistan has become inevitable.
The grey area in Syria remains large. However, it is clear that Russia has resolved to draft a military and political roadmap that upends old agreements and paves the way for a new kind of Russian-American partnership that will give a whole different meaning to the term “grand bargain.”
*Raghida Dergham is columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989.