The new rules of the game in Syria

Today, Syria is paying the price of Hafez Assad’s heir’s inability to establish Arab and international relations that truly serve the country’s interests.
Monday 01/06/2020
A US soldier stands near a Russian military armoured personnel carrier in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province. (AFP)
A US soldier stands near a Russian military armoured personnel carrier in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province. (AFP)

Official Russian media reported that President Vladimir Putin issued “orders” to negotiate with Syria over handing additional installations and maritime areas over to the Russian army. It was an interesting way of putting things. It certainly depicted a new reality in Syria that many in the region, notably Iran and its proxies, refuse to take note of. As usual, they prefer to escape this reality!

This new reality is represented by the existence of agreements, or more accurately, specific understandings that make Russia the sole guardian over the Syria we once knew, or what was left of it. Russia has decided to expand its zone of direct control in Syria and it will get what it wants. Contrary to Iran’s dreams, Moscow will not leave any room for Iranian presence along the Syrian coast, just for the sake of confirming who the boss is in Syria and that it is up to Russia, not Iran, to determine Syria’s future role in the region.

It seems clear that there is some sort of Russian-American understanding regarding Syria. There is, in addition, an American blessing for a Russian-Turkish-Israeli understanding on the future of Syria. This understanding is based on the premises that the situation in Syria cannot continue as it is and that Iran has no place in Syria. If Iran’s goal is to support the minority regime that Bashar Assad symbolises, then all that can be said now is that this system exploded from within.

The evidence for this division is the recent rift between the two branches of the ruling clan, the Assads and the Makhloufs. In a surprise reversal of fortunes, the Assads decided to simply lay their hands on Rami Makhlouf’s fortune. It is rather difficult to estimate the actual size of this fortune, just as it is difficult to determine who among the two rivals will emerge victorious. For the moment, the Assads have the upper hand, but the Makhloufs still enjoy a rather distinctive status among the Alawites. Besides, with his fortune stashed away behind dozens of front companies in Europe, the Gulf, Russia and many of its satellite countries, Rami Makhlouf is not out of the fight yet.

In any case, Syria’s future now must be looked at from the angle of the Russian-Israeli-Turkish understanding that America has blessed. The American blessing is due to several reasons, including that the administration of US President Donald Trump is now more concerned than ever with the US’s domestic problems in an election year. It has enough on its plate right now with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact and, more recently, the fallout over the police killing of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota’s largest city.

As busy as it is, the American administration will never steer far away from the Syrian file, which it considers an integral part of the Iranian file. Evidence of this American interest is the enforcement of the Caesar Act. This is a very brutal act that imposes tough sanctions on the Syrian regime and anyone who deals with it. Russia will no doubt take this matter into consideration, given that the primary goal of the act is to bypass the United Nations Security Council and its resolutions, where Russia and China have been able to protect the Syrian regime for a long time through their veto powers.

The one party that made time work for it in the Syrian crisis is Israel. Turkey as well to some extent, but its role in Syria was characterised by passivity. Turkey has missed all of its opportunities since the Syrian revolution to intervene in a way that would allow it to play a positive role in protecting Syrian citizens. It is true that it opened its frontier to hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing the regime and its oppression, but it is also true that, like Israel, it wagered on the crisis eroding with time and on arriving on the Syrian scene by 2021.

By mid-2021, Bashar Assad will find it difficult to secure another term for himself, even by cheating in the elections. What will do the Syrian regime in is the horrible and very real economic crisis. It is so bad that Lebanese Hezbollah is no longer concerned with saving the Syrian regime militarily but has moved on to saving it economically, even at Lebanon’s expense!

Pending mid-2021, Russia’s strategy is to collect as many playing cards as possible in the Syrian game in order to become the sole decision maker in the country. That’s when Bashar Assad will discover that he has become powerless and that a bankrupt Iran will not be able to save him again. That’s also when Putin will be starting to collect the dividends of his country’s huge investment in Syria, especially since September 2015 when it sent its planes to the Hmeimim base, supposedly to stop the opposition from invading and controlling the Syrian coast.

In a nutshell, there is a new game in Syria in light of the Turkish occupation of a border strip in the north of Syria and Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights that it has been occupying since June 1967 … that is for 53 years now!

How far will the US-Russian understanding on Syria reach? This is the big question in light of the coming in force of the Caesar Act, which is bound to have terrible and far-reaching repercussions, not only inside Syria, but also on any entity that wants to deal with the Syrian regime, including Russia, China and European companies.

Putin’s “order” to the relevant authorities in his country to negotiate an expansion of the Russian presence in Syria, just a few days before the coming into force of the Caesar Act, is definitely no coincidence. It is also no coincidence that this order came in light of an understanding with Turkey and Israel with an American blessing, and at a time when all Iran can do is display useless acts of defiance like sending five oil tankers to Venezuela, a country with one of the largest oil reserves in the world.

The rules of the game in Syria have changed while the Syrian regime has missed all the opportunities it has been given to rehabilitate itself. This June 10, 2000, will mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of the founder of the current regime, Hafez Assad. Today, Syria is paying the price of his heir’s inability to establish Arab and international relations that truly serve Syria’s interests. Instead, he preferred Iran’s embrace. What we are witnessing today in Syria is the culmination of a series of miserable regime failures that made various powers, headed by Russia, think about how to have greater control of a part of Syria. And we know that the Israeli and Turkish occupations of parts of Syria are not going to disappear tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.