What endgame in Syria after Washington’s declared strategy?

Tillerson’s plan for Syria sounded cool-headed and reasonable but it needs the right conditions to be implemented.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Qualitative change. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a meeting of 29 diplomats pushing for sanctions and criminal charges against the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris, on January 23.  (AFP)
Qualitative change. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a meeting of 29 diplomats pushing for sanctions and criminal charges against the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris, on January 23. (AFP

It is no secret that the United States has decided to have a permanent presence in Syria. Thanks to its presence, it has gained control of a good portion of Syria’s riches in the regions of Al-Jazira and east of the Euphrates, namely oil and gas, huge areas of agricultural land and significant water resources. The United States also controls the Kurdish card in the Syrian conflict, which incenses Turkey.

The fact remains that whenever Turkey threatens to use force in Syria and whenever it builds up its forces to regain the enclave of Afrin, it finds itself getting closer to Russia and Iran and away from its traditional ally, the United States. With Afrin operations in progress, Turkey is playing a dangerous game. It is paying the price for not seriously dealing with the Syrian situation from the beginning of the revolution in March 2011.

The new development in Syria is the American policy that is beginning to take shape. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke on this on January 17. The US administration is quietly working on clarifying its policies far from the din caused by President Donald Trump’s big talk. Tillerson laid it on the table: The United States wants to preserve Syrian unity and there will be no room in Syria for a “murderous” regime or a “malicious” Iranian presence.

Tillerson’s speech is important in that it marks the first time that a real political and strategic sense for US presence in Syria has been communicated. Tillerson declared that the US military presence in Syria has become a reality and that it would be “focused on ensuring that ISIS cannot re-emerge,” that it would help bring about “the permanent departure of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and his family from power… through the UN-led Geneva process,” that it would contribute to ejecting Iranian military advisers and fighters from the country and that it would assist in the return of all refugees to their homes.

Tillerson’s plan for Syria sounded cool-headed and reasonable but it needs the right conditions to be implemented. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the US administration of wanting to partition Syria. Such discourse is usually used to hide Russia’s fiasco in Syria stemming from the wrong belief that something right can be built on Assad staying in power.

No such thing is possible for the simple reason that the Assad family regime has never been legitimate. It was basically a repressive minority regime born of a military coup in March 1963. Eight years later Hafez Assad became president.

In its approach to the situation in Syria, Russia does not seem to have learned from its recent past. If illegitimate regimes had any chance of lasting, the world would still be dealing with the Soviet Union and its allies.

Russia is trying to build legitimacy for a regime that had no legitimacy to begin with. No wonder then that its Syrian policy has been a big failure.

The Syrians themselves have refused the Assad regime. Russia may try — and sometimes succeed — to save Bashar Assad but there will be no escape from admitting that Russia is just one of five partners involved in determining Syria’s future and competing for domination there.

These five parties are Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey and Israel. That is indeed the general picture of the situation in Syria and, as long as Assad and his regime are not gone from Damascus, no Sochi talks will be able to decide Syria’s future.

In light of the recent developments, the question that needs to be answered is how serious the United States is in its plan for Syria. What is sure is that there is a qualitative change in Washington, especially after the publication of “Fire and Fury.” With Trump embroiled in the investigation about his Russian connections and other matters, Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster likely have enough room to play a bigger role in shaping US policies, including those regarding Syria.

An American success in Syria is not essential. The only sure thing is that Russia will not decide Syria’s fate alone. Every day, the situation in Syria becomes more complex and it certainly won’t be solved by exploding barrels or Iran’s sectarian militia or Russia’s mighty ships.

Anyone wishing to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity must steer away from the Iranian axis and forgo Bashar Assad. For the past seven years, the only side that benefited from his remaining in power has been Israel. Syria has been shredded to pieces to satisfy Israel’s security greed in the first place. The occupied Golan Heights are a forgone Israeli property and Israel will undoubtedly reap more territory as long as Assad remains in Damascus.

Anyone wishing to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity must steer away from the Iranian axis and forgo Bashar Assad. 
 

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