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Syria: Between Uncle Sam and the Russian Bear

September 21, 2015 at 4:14 pm

The thick diplomatic fog in Syria has cleared up over the past few months, partly as a result of the lack of any new political horizons and partly a result of a new and elevated ceiling of expectations. This has occurred with the presence of preliminary international and regional understandings regarding the general outlines for a political solution, which coincided with the clear breakdown of barriers to such a solution. This was evidenced by the activation of communication between Saudi Arabia and Russian and the secret visit of former Syrian intelligence chief, Ali Mamlouk, to the Kingdom.

The renewed Russian support of Bashar Al-Assad does not aim to reinforce these diplomatic efforts, rather to reflect their failure, and at the same time, offering a quick surgical procedure that would rescue his rapidly crumbling regime. The regime has also lost its presence in many vast areas in the past few months, paired with consecutive defeats in the Idlib providence, while its remaining troops were besieged in Deir Ezzour and Dara’a. There is great concern for Damascus at the moment.

So, the Russians are seeking to keep their ally in order for them not to lose all of their cards in the Syrian game. Therefore, they are planning to keep their pawn as a player in the Syrian arena, even if in a limited capacity and as a representative for a limited class or sect of people, or in what the regime describes as “useful Syria” which extends from Damascus and Homs to areas in western Syria reaching Latakia and Tartous.

Today, even the most optimistic people and those supporting the Syrian regime no longer expect or hope for a military resolution to the crisis in their favour. However, at the same time, the new Russian message is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not allow there to be a military resolution in favour of the other side, even if that requires direct and large-scaled Russian military intervention to support Al-Assad.

On the other hand, what about the American position? It is interesting that during the qualitative development in the Russian position, General Lloyd Austin, a senior official in the Middle East, admitted to a Congress committee that only five or six US-trained moderate opposition fighters remain after Al-Nusra Front eliminated the first batch of 54. Austin’s statements seem to be a joke that reflected the level of contradiction in the American position and the lack of an effective strategy that could eliminate Al-Assad’s regime early on. However, today the US is decisively in favour of Al-Assad’s survival, along with the continuation of the current state of chaos.

Beyond this, Obama is directly or indirectly the true partner of the Russians and Al-Assad’s ally, and they are brought together by two main concerns that are enough to act as the common ground for the cooperation the Russians are currently talking about. The first concern is the matter of the day after Al-Assad’s regime falls. This is the scarecrow used by the West and the Americans against the opposition and Arab states opposed to the regime. The second concern is the rise of Sunni Islamist movements, beginning with Daesh. America considers combatting this organisation as its top priority and implies that it is the true enemy, even more than Al-Assad.

Despite this, President Obama and his administration continue to voice the first position they announced, i.e. that the US will not accept Al-Assad as a partner in the fight on terrorism, describing him as the direct reason behind the rise of Daesh. However, at this time in particular, the level of contradiction in American strategy regarding Syria first and foremost, and Iraq second, is very obvious, as the American administration has accepted partnership with the Syrian regime in the war on terror by means of America’s lack of support for the armed opposition and the US’s failure to achieve its projects of cultivating a moderate opposition based on its own agenda. The Americans then teamed up with Al-Assad’s allies to launch strikes on Daesh, along with Al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and refused to cooperate with other large factions, such as Ahrar Al-Sham.

This complicated American agenda in Syria has driven American analysts to admit (after General Austin’s admission and the growth of the Russian role) that the officials themselves in Washington do not know what the American strategy in Syria is. This will only grow in complexity and contradiction with the Russians pushing the American administration to coordinate with them in Syria, at least technically, in order to avoid a clash between two international forces in the area, especially in terms of air raids, in the event that the Russians decide to participate in them.

Is there an American failure in Syria in exchange for a Russian success? It is hard to rule out this result, especially since we are seeing the decline of the diplomatic solution and more engagements in the armed conflict. Some Americans may see this as a predicament they avoided, and a trap they did not fall into, while the Russians may engage in military intervention that they may not be able to end in their favour. This intervention seems limited at the moment, but it may evolve and develop later on and the Russian Bear may find itself in a quagmire similar to that in Afghanistan. However, it is clear that it is the Syrians who will ultimately pay the price of such international speculation.

Translated from Al-Araby, 21 September 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.