It’s usually the victors who convene peace conferences, to cement their gains, and that’s what Russia and Iran are trying to do in Syria. The wild card in their calculations is Donald Trump’s America.
U.S. troops, in Syria to fight Islamic State, won’t be packing their bags now the jihadist group is essentially beaten. They’re staying on. But it’s not clear what role they’ll play in the wider Syrian conflict that’s also entering its endgame. Washington is in the unaccustomed position of watching from the sidelines — while its rivals, and some of its allies, team up on a peace plan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking agreement on that plan’s outlines when he hosts counterparts from Iran and Turkey at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday. Some elements are clear – Bashar al-Assad is set to stay in power – and others are more contentious, like the fate of Syrian Kurds. America’s sole effective allies on the ground, they’re distrusted in Ankara and Tehran.
Beyond those details, a wider pattern is emerging. America has thrown in its lot with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Ranged against that unlikely coalition is an increasingly powerful alliance between the three leaders meeting in Sochi. When it comes to designing the settlement that could reshape the Middle East, they hold most of the cards.
“The future of Syria is pretty much in the hands of this triumvirate,’’ said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They’re the most dominant on the battlefield, and they’re the most dominant in terms of diplomacy. The U.S., in comparison, is strategically adrift.’’
‘Won’t Walk Away’
The Syrian war has killed about 400,000 people and displaced millions more. The U.S. and its allies blame Assad for most of the carnage. When Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week that American forces will stick around — “we’re not going to just walk away right now’’ — he cited the need to ensure progress toward a viable peace.
That was widely seen as code for countering Iran. While Putin’s military intervention in 2015 was the turning point for Assad, Iranian fighters also played a key role as the Syrian president regained territory from jihadists and U.S.-backed rebels. Now, the specter of Iranian dominance in postwar Syria is alarming the Saudis and Israelis, who see the Islamic Republic as their most dangerous enemy. For help, they’ve turned to Trump, who has called Iran “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.”
The U.S. is eyeing ways to counter Iran across the region, according to Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon.
There’s plenty still to be done against Islamic State there too, Pahon said in an interview Monday. The jihadists still hold territory; and where they’ve already been driven out, America’s Kurdish-led allies need help “to transition to local governance, to create infrastructure, to ensure folks can get back to their homes, and to establish the security conditions that prevent ISIS from taking control again.”
But the U.S. is also identifying “new areas’’ to undermine Iran’s influence – including in Syria, he said. “We will work with allies to put pressure on the Iranian regime, neutralize its destabilizing influences and constrain its aggressive power projection,’’ Pahon said. “I can’t get into any more detail.’’
Israel fears a renewed threat from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia near its borders, while Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim power, sees its Shiite rival Iran gaining regional ascendancy. Yet both countries have kept channels open with Moscow, recognizing Putin’s growing clout in the Middle East.
The Saudis won’t be in Sochi, but they’ve organized another meeting this week that could advance the Russian agenda. They’re hosting Syrian opposition movements, and have been pressing the biggest one to combine with two smaller factions less hostile to Assad. The main Western-backed group’s leader, Riad Hijab, unexpectedly resigned on Monday, without giving an explanation. He was an opponent of Putin’s diplomacy – and his departure could open the way for a united Syrian opposition that could go to a Russian-led peace conference in Sochi, then on to UN talks in Geneva.
“Russia, America, everyone should appreciate that the Saudis are doing the nearly impossible job of trying to unify this badly fragmented Syrian opposition,’’ said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political analyst based in the United Arab Emirates.
Like the Saudis, Turkey has been in the “Assad must go’’ camp for most of the war. It now appears to be largely on board with Russian plans. Turkey’s focus has switched to the Syrian Kurds, whom it regards as terrorists linked to a separatist group at home. American support for the Kurdish fighters, who control a swath of northeastern Syria, has infuriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
His spokesman Ibrahim Kalin lashed out at America in a recent commentary, accusing it of looking for “new excuses’’ to maintain its military alliance with the Kurds. An editorial last week in Sabah, the biggest pro-government newspaper, argued that Russia and Iran have “sounder’’ policies than the U.S., and “need to be at the center of measures Turkey will implement from now on.’’ Iran’s army chief made a rare three-day visit to Turkey in August.
Turkey’s NATO army has already clashed with America’s Kurdish allies, and it’s threatening a bigger attack. Iraq, where the U.S. and Iran battle for influence, is also hostile to the Kurds and collaborating with Assad’s forces in the strategic border area.
That’s one fault-line in the Sochi alliance – and potentially common ground between Russia and the U.S. Putin, who spoke to Trump on Tuesday, agrees that the Kurds “have shown their effectiveness in fighting terrorism,’’ according to Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Affairs, which advises the Kremlin.
‘Lot of Caveats’
Russia hasn’t abandoned hope of collaborating with the U.S. over Syria, and defusing the standoff with its former Cold War rival. Competition is more likely though, because of the “looming battle over zones of influence,’’ Suponina said. “Russia insists that Assad should control the whole country, but the Americans want to keep some areas under their protection.’’
There are currently 503 U.S. troops in Syria but “there’s a lot of caveats to that,” the Pentagon’s Pahon said: The number doesn’t include temporary forces on specific missions, or units transferring in and out.
Seeking to build a coalition against Iran, Trump has told allies that he’ll be tougher than a predecessor they all believed was weak. Some, like the Saudis, see reassurance in the American “boots on the ground,’’ said Abdulla, the U.A.E. analyst.
The U.S. president also campaigned on a pledge to avoid getting sucked into intractable conflicts. To be effective, his administration would need to remain in Syria “for years and years,’’ helping its Kurdish allies to set up an autonomous enclave, according to Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now a fellow at Yale University and the Middle East Institute in Washington.
That’s what happened in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. This time, “I personally don’t think the Americans are going to stay that long,’’ said Ford. The rival front, whose leaders are meeting in Sochi, is solidifying. “It just shows how little influence the Americans have in Syria.’’