Can the US pressure Russia to relinquish Assad?
The US missile attack against a Syrian regime airbase undoubtedly introduced a new dynamic to the 6-year-old conflict in Syria. The attack, which came in response to a chemical weapons massacre suspected of being conducted by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces against opposition-held Khan Sheikhoun is not merely symbolic.
This first deliberate military attack against the Assad regime by the United States does not necessarily indicate a change of course in Washington’s Syria policy. However, it does provide the United States with leverage lost during the Obama administration.
The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at the airbase ended the military inaction of the United States in Syria and marked a significant alteration in strategy. The April 7 attack quickly ruled out the option of the Trump administration cooperating with the Assad regime in countering terrorism and placed the willingness to use military force on the table.
The strike inevitably resulted in confrontation with Russia and is the cause for an increase in tensions between Washington and Moscow. As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US-Russia relations have hit a “low point.” He also stated that Assad should not have any role in the future of Syria and that Moscow was capable of pushing for his departure.
Russia has propped up Assad and kept his regime alive throughout the Syrian war. The question is how feasible it is that we see Russia renouncing Assad.
Clearly, the United States is reassuming a leadership role on the international stage, particularly in the competitive battle of influences in the Middle East. Russia’s growth of effective influence in Syria, particularly since Moscow intervened militarily in 2015, is the result of American inaction.
The new US role seems to be derived from an understanding that the US-led coalition cannot eradicate the Islamic State (ISIS) from Syria and counter al-Qaeda while the Assad regime remains in power. Washington has finally recognised that the brutality of the Assad regime and growing jihadism in Syria are two realities that keep each other in business. This is combined with an apparent interest of the Trump administration to push Iran and its proxies out of Syria.
US allies view Washington’s new role in Syria as cautiously positive. Gulf allies, in particular, have a keen interest in having US support and leadership to counter growing Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Tehran and Moscow share a long history of rivalry; however, their interests converged in Syria because of their mutual opposition to the American-led international order. The Russians have been reportedly in conflict with the Iranians over their end goals in Syria particularly on issues related to Tehran-backed sectarian, non-institutionalised militias.
Both the United States and Russia share the objective of a unified, stable post-war Syria. The result of US-Russian talks on Syria will be largely dependent on how capable the Trump administration is at stimulating divergence between Tehran and Moscow.
Pushing the Russians to conflict with the Iranians will not be enough for the United States to bring the Syrian war to an end. Washington has to seek more leverage in Syria and the region.
In order to influence the outcome in Syria, the Trump administration must put an end to the Assad regime’s air force by attacking all active airfields while increasing support to nationalist-oriented rebels in cooperation with regional powers, including Gulf states, Turkey and Jordan.
Grounding Assad’s air force would provide military advantage for the pro-opposition camp, which would create conditions for effective measures to politically end the Syrian war. Once Assad is no longer able to target opposition-held areas by the air, an actual ceasefire is reachable and thus a meaningful negotiation for political transition.
Of all actors involved in the Syrian war, Assad is the least interested in peace. He hopes to win the war against his opposition by military means. Accordingly, to establish a meaningful political track, Assad should not simply be invited to attend the political talks and be expected to hand over Damascus to a transitional body according to the Geneva communiqué. Assad should see his military option abolished and be given no other option but to participate meaningfully in talks and end the war.
It is possible to ultimately counter al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS, in which the Syrian rebels’ nationalist, democratic narrative — that is anti-Assad — is essential in the fight against jihadist factions and eventually for the creation of a stable Syrian state.
If the United States wants to reassert itself as an influencer in the region, Washington must pronounce a clear, robust strategy to politically and militarily rejoin the equation to balance Russian influence and uproot unleashed Iranian expansionism.
White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster got it right: Time has come to have a “tough discussion” with Moscow, he said. At the end of the day, it is up to the Russian calculus to decide between the United States and Iran.