2017-11-13 By Richard Weitz
The joint presidential statement of November 11 on Syria was clearly the most important product of the intense Russian-US diplomatic dialogue that proceeded the Trump-Putin meetings in Vietnam.
According to the State Department, “this statement really builds on months of fairly intense discussions with the Russians and a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy led by Secretary Tillerson with the support of our military teams.”
The State Department briefing explained that the statement “codified” the new three-phased US strategy for Syria–prioritizing the enduring defeat of ISIS, de-escalating civil strife in Syria, and facilitating UN-led efforts to end the Syrian conflict to include the emergence of a broader-based Syrian political process and government.
It also reflected the reality that Washington really has no one else to talk to in Syria besides Moscow:
“The statement also reflects our view, as the President discussed earlier today, that despite our many differences with Russia, our two countries are capable of working together on difficult problems where interests converge and our doing so is profoundly in our national security interest.
“Perhaps nowhere is that more true than in Syria.
“The reality on the ground in Syria and those with influence is something we must take account of when developing our own approaches.
“We have made clear we will not work with the Assad regime, we will not obviously work with the Iranians who share fundamentally divergent interests from ours, therefore we must find opportunities to work with Russia where we can, seek to narrow differences where possible, mindful of the gaps that will inevitably remain.”
Although the document was developed by the two countries’ diplomats, both presidents cited the statement to affirm their shared intent to cooperate where possible and manage their differences where necessary.
The text listed a series of admirable principles, including a desire to finalize ISIS’ defeat, avert military confrontations between Russian and US forces as well as their local partners, and reduce humanitarian suffering in Syria.
The text affirms that the Syrian conflict has no military solution, but the renewed fighting in Aleppo province since then demonstrated that, at least in the short run, the parties willingly use military force to strengthen their bargaining position ahead of any peace talks.
Additionally, the text papered over critical unresolved differences between the Russian and US governments.
While Washington and Moscow both oppose ISIS, their diverging perspectives over the legitimacy of the Assad presidency and the other Syrian insurgent groups persist.
The text’s support for “Assad’s recent commitment to the Geneva Process and constitutional reform and elections” overlooks the past lack of enthusiasm by the Syrian government for this process.
It is unclear whether Moscow will push Assad to make a more genuine effort at national reconciliation now that the insurgency against his regime has weakened and whether Washington will press Moscow hard to do so.
Furthermore, while the US wants the Astana talks to focus only on the de-escalation zones, Russian, Syrian, and Iranian representatives are considering using them as a means to drive a larger peace process that would include Kurdish groups currently backed by the United States.
The Russian and US governments also likely differ in their interpretation of their “commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character.”
Washington seems flexible about an enduring Russian military presence in Syria but wants to see the curtailment of the Iranian and Hezbollah forces there.
The State Department briefing reaffirmed Washington’s view that, “Syria should be free of Iran, free of Hizballah, free of all these militias that the Iranians have imported.”
In the past, the Russian government has argued that only its military forces and those of Iran and Hezbollah are legitimately operating in Syria since the Assad government invited them to deploy, whereas Moscow has labelled US and Turkish military presence in Syria as illegitimate since they are unwelcome by the Assad government.
The statement’s pledge to keep the communication channels open only “until the final defeat of ISIS is achieved” suggests that this defeat, however welcome, would be followed by a collapse of the local ceasefires and intensified fighting between their partnered forces.
A recurring problem with the regionally-limited Russian-US ceasefires in Syria is that the Syrian government has exploited these pauses to redeploy and concentrate its forces in areas outside the ceasefire zones for renewed offensives, with many civilian casualties.
We are seeing the same process today in Aleppo province.
Already Syrian and Iranian forces have announced plans to reoccupy parts of Syria like Raqqa recently liberated by US-backed forces from IISS. Syrian and Iranian officials have declared that they will seize the Syrian territory now controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and deal with the US and Turkish “invaders” supporting them.
Although the Trump administration had hoped to strengthen ties with Russia to weaken Russian-Iranian and Russian-Chinese ties, for well-known reasons this has not proved possible.
Indeed, Putin had a considerably longer and more wide-ranging meeting with Chinese President Xi JinPing at the APEC Summit.
“As Xi rejoiced at the event, “This is the fifth time we have met this year, and we are steering China-Russia relations along the path of healthy and sustainable development.
“Great development results are there for everyone to see. Both our countries strongly support each other in protecting the key interests of our countries, and political mutual trust is getting stronger.
“We have a truly trust-based strategic partnership, and our practical cooperation brings new records.”
Furthermore, Washington and Moscow skipped over their differences over how to limit the use of chemical weapons in Syria and to hold people responsible for past chemical terrorists acts in Syria.
Perhaps most importantly, the preoccupation with Syria unfortunately makes it easier for urgent issues in the Russian-US relationship to displace attention from the more important ones of Iran, Ukraine, and Korea.
Editor’s Note: The Russians will probe, push and seek to expand their influence and ensure that the expansion East of Europe stops.
Clearly, Putin will achieve greater recognition for Russian interests and power, and his policies in the Middle East are part of that effort.
That is inevitable.
Watching some in Congress acting like children thinking they are playing a game in their minds akin to pin the tail on the Donald are missing the point — there is a need to debate and forge a new strategy to deal with the Russians.
What is a realistic approach to engagement and deterrence with Russia?