Can the US and Russia reconcile policy differences over Syria this year?
This year will be pivotal if peace is to be a real possibility in Syria. Unfortunately, in the first week of 2018, all signs point the other way with the United States and Russia stepping up their war of words.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Russian newspaper, in late December, reported that the chief of Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, described the US military presence as “unintelligible.”
The US base is in the self-proclaimed “de-confliction zone” at a strategic Syrian highway border crossing with Iraq. Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the global coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), earlier declared that the American military presence would continue to prevent terrorists from returning to the liberated areas.
Gerasimov said the location of the US base was “contrary to common sense, especially now, when Syrian territory has been liberated from ISIS formations.”
Slamming US motives for staying on in Syria, Gerasimov continued: “There is no one left. There is no threat to you from the territory of Syria. What is there and for what purpose?”
The only possible purpose, he concluded, was for the United States to gather defeated jihadists, enabling them to regroup and challenge Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
The United States rejected the assertions, even as its forces confront and attack the Syrian military. The United States acknowledged that it has about 2,000 troops in Syria and they have, as President Donald Trump’s letter to Congress in December stated, undertaken “a limited number of strikes against the Syrian government and pro-Syrian government forces.” Yet, US Defence Secretary James Mattis has denied that coalition forces have clashed with allies of the Assad regime.
Even so, unlike the US forces, the Russian military is in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government and the initiative on war and peace in Syria increasingly seems to lie with Russia. This is apparent as Moscow prepares for the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue.
The partnership among Russia, Iran and Turkey has strengthened, further marginalising the United States. The trio, through the Astana peace process, concluded several agreements, the most important of which was the creation of de-escalation zones. The previous year saw a notable shift in US policy towards Syria as it went from advocating regime change to a grudging acceptance that the Assad government has a role to play in the peace process.
Above and beyond Russia’s aspirational role on peace in Syria, its growing closeness with Iran and Turkey epitomises its growing Middle Eastern presence. Setting itself against both its European allies and the world at large, the Trump administration is pursuing two immensely unpopular foreign policy initiatives — threatening to decertify the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement and preparing to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Both measures elicited international condemnation, with Trump’s Jerusalem announcement achieving the rare result of uniting both the Sunni and Shia faithful and producing a UN General Assembly rebuke to the United States in the form of a non-binding resolution.
On the face of it, Russia’s Middle Eastern initiatives appear to be more popular in the region than US policy. It’s not clear whether Washington will recalibrate but it is at least likely to remain put in Syria. It may be safe to say that 2018 will be a difficult year for US-Russian relations on Syria.