Trump’s U-turn on Syria checks Iranian ambitions

Sunday 30/04/2017
Listening but not hearing. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson holds a news conference in Ankara, on March 30. (AFP)

Beirut- US President Donald Trump is raising eye­brows in Damascus. His top officials were say­ing in early April that decapitation was no longer on the table and that the United States had to deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad as a “political reality.”

Exactly one week later, the very same figures — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, UN Ambassa­dor Nikki Haley and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer — were calling on Assad to step down, go­ing to the extent of comparing him to Hitler.

After ordering an attack on a Syr­ian airbase on April 7 Trump said that “my attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed.” A week later, when speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Trump was asked about Assad’s departure and said: “Are we insisting on it? No.” He added that it was not impossible to achieve peace with Assad still in power.

The latest U-turn reportedly comes after Tillerson’s visit to Mos­cow where he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia President Vladimir Putin. Contrary to initial reactions, the visit went well and was much bet­ter than expected.

The two sides agreed on “cau­tious yet improved” collaboration, restoring direct talks over military operations in Syrian airspace, co­operating in the war on the Islamic State (ISIS) and agreeing to put their full weight behind their proxies in the next round of UN-mandated Switzerland talks, known as Gene­va VI, scheduled for May 15.

Tillerson wanted Russian help in ejecting Hezbollah fighters from the Syrian battlefield, yet, Russian diplomatic sources said, Lavrov agreed only to keep them away from the Syrian-Israeli border and the occupied Golan Heights but not from the rest of Syria, which is far enough, for now, for the United States.

The early April remarks by US officials were music to the ears of Moscow and Damascus but it struck a discordant note across the region, especially in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been ardent supporters of Assad’s rebel opponents.

Ever since Trump was inaugurat­ed in January, all players in the Syr­ian conflict have been waiting for an official stance on Syria on which they could build policy. While the vacuum lasted — more or less since mid-summer 2016 — each player tried to grab as much territory as possible to make their gains a de facto reality for the new president.

The first winner was Moscow, which controls everything from Aleppo in northern Syria down to Damascus and all major cities in-between. It has accommodated the Turks with a safe zone on the bor­der, which lies within Russian-held territory, including the cities of Ja­rabulus, Azaz and al-Bab.

There is plenty of talk on the table to accommodate the Jorda­nians as well with a no-fly zone in the southern city of Daraa, which would be used to keep ISIS at bay (known as the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Army) and to resettle 1.2 million Syrians who have been living in Jor­dan since 2011, draining the already stagnant Jordanian economy.

Iran carved out a sphere of in­fluence with boots on the ground around the heavily symbolic Shia shrines within Damascus, on the strategic Damascus-Beirut high­way and in the Qalamoun Moun­tains overlooking Lebanon. If Russia’s new agreement with the United States bears fruit, it would mean pushing Iran and its Leba­nese proxy away from the Syrian- Israeli border and out of the Golan.

The Kurds, to date, are the big­gest winners in the Syria War, overrunning large areas of north-eastern Syria, defeating ISIS along the way and sending shivers down the spine of their traditional foe, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was left with only a fraction of the territory he had hoped to acquire. Erdogan’s plan was to topple the Syrian regime and replace it with a proxy Islamic government similar to that of Mu­hammad Morsi’s in Egypt in 2012. He hoped to crush the Kurds along the way and, after 2014, ISIS.

That did not happen, because Russia intervened in September 2015. Erdogan then tried to divide the country, with his eyes on all of northern Syria, which Turkey has coveted since the fall of the Otto­man Empire a century earlier.

That was made impossible by Russia’s key December victory in Aleppo, depriving Syria’s armed opposition of its last urban strong­hold in the north and opening the way for further advances by As­sad’s forces.

Six months ago, Erdogan had to downgrade his ambitions and set­tle for a buffer zone along Turkey’s southern border with Syria. That meant abandoning a plan to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish zone on Turkey’s periphery while driving a wedge between Kurdish towns and cities east and west of the Euphra­tes River, creating space in which he could relocate 2.3 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.

In early April Erdogan called off Operation Euphrates Shield, a Turkish-backed offensive to occu­py cities on the border, seemingly in keeping with Tillerson’s pro-As­sad remarks. He has since said this operation had been Turkey’s first in Syria but, inspired by Trump’s U-turn on Syria, perhaps not its last.