US losing control in Syria as Russia-Iran axis gains ground
Despite the change of rhetoric between US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the United States has continued to lose influence, political and military, in the Middle East to the Iran-Russia axis.
Since January 2017, the Russia-led Astana political process, including Iran and Turkey, has run parallel to the internationally recognised Geneva process. Moscow drew in Ankara after the Turks changed their priorities from overthrowing Iran’s and Russia’s client, Syrian President Bashar Assad, to containing the Syrian Democratic Forces. The United States has empowered the group, which is an arm of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as a partner against the Islamic State. “De-escalation zones” created by Astana allowed Assad’s battered regime to eliminate pockets of resistance one at a time, until only Idlib was left.
This reshaping of the military picture in Syria was leveraged into political currency, positing Assad as a counterterrorism partner and intended to redraw the Geneva terms so it was no longer about transitioning Assad out but negotiating the terms under which he would stay.
The Istanbul summit at the end of October, during which Germany and France broke away from the Geneva set and treated with Turkey and Russia, is a signal that what George Washington University’s Hassan Hassan called “the Astana-isation of Geneva” is nearly complete.
The Istanbul communique was written, whether on “reconstruction” or elections, in terms the Kremlin devised long ago to legitimise Assad’s power. While European diplomats privately voiced displeasure about Berlin and Paris signing on to this, the United States publicly endorsed it.
Inside Syria, the situation is worse. Trump has, rhetorically, placed countering Iran at the centre of his Middle East policy. The United States pulled out of the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions against Tehran. Where it really matters, however, Iranian influence has been allowed to expand — in coordination with Russia.
The clearest indication of Trump’s lack of seriousness about Iran was allowing the collapse of Daraa, the Syrian enclave on Israel’s border held by Southern Front (SF) rebels.
The SF’s moderation was not in doubt — extensively vetted by the United States, elements had crossed that most sensitive of lines by establishing relations with Israel — and its utility, in the coldest terms, was clear, providing a buffer against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for both the Jewish state and fragile Jordan.
Yet, the United States first cut off the SF’s support by ending the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme and then stood aside as Russian airpower enabled IRGC-led troops to capture the area in July. That Moscow convinced Israel to hold fire, despite Russia’s hollow position in Syria, underlined how far astray Western policy has gone.
Worse, the Wall Street Journal reported that, since the pro-Assad coalition took Daraa, approximately 2,000 rebels abandoned by the United States have been recruited by the IRGC, working through its Lebanese branch, Hezbollah. These rebels-turned-Hezbollah fighters are paid $250 per month, more than Assad’s regular army.
At the other end of Syria, Turkey mobilised its rebel proxies for a possible offensive against the PKK east of the Euphrates, one of the groups involved was Firqat al-Hamza, which was part of both the CIA’s anti-Assad programme and the Pentagon’s disastrous train-and-equip programme. The United States can hardly be surprised her discarded assets have sought alternate patronage.
The Trump team’s bet on Saudi Arabia as an anti-Iran pillar makes strategic sense, in view of the Saudis’ commitment to contain the Iranian threat but it cannot bear alone the weight Trump has placed on it. The Saudis are a necessary component of the anti-Iran coalition but any effort to confront Tehran’s designs in the Levant also needs to engage Turkey.
The front line against Iran is in Syria and the Gulf states do not have the tools for a significant “pushback” in that theatre. Of the other options, the PKK is not politically reliable and Israel, which can do some of the heavy lifting, has political limitations.
There are signs the United States realised it needs Turkey to achieve its stated goals in the northern Middle East and the US rhetoric saying Assad must go, the sine qua non of a serious anti Iran policy, has reappeared. Yet it is all so very late, slow-moving and unspecific that it lacks credibility, even if there is intent.
Beyond Syria, the indicators are just as discouraging. In Yemen, the Trump administration is signalling its unwillingness to see the Saudi-led coalition’s mission through against Iran’s allies and in Lebanon the cash continues to flow to a state security apparatus under IRGC dominance.
After Daraa, it is both much more difficult to enact a serious anti-Iran policy and more difficult to imagine that the Trump administration actually desires to, at least if it involves risk and cost at any detectable level.