US: Syria Policy Flip Flop

Moscow, Russia (SCF) – Russia and the US have signed a deal that they hope will avoid clashes between their air forces in the skies over Syria, officials from both countries said. The document is focused on the technical details such as what channel the pilots will communicate on and which language they will use when speaking to one another.

The news hit the radar screen on the same day US State Secretary John Kerry announced he will meet with leaders from Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to discuss «real and tangible options» for a political solution to the Syria crisis.

Meeting reporters in Spain, where he was on an official visit, the Secretary said that he would travel to the Middle East «in a few days» for more talks on Syria — but did not elaborate on what options were being discussed. «I will be coming back in a few days and will meet with leaders from Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to work through real and tangible options that could perhaps reignite a political process and bring about a political transition in Syria», he said.

Moscow confirmed it had been informed of the US initiative. Russia would welcome talks in any format, said the speaker of the upper house Valentina Matviyenko regarding the US proposal for multi-party talks on the Syrian crisis.

Last week Washington refused to receive a Russian military delegation, headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, to discuss coordinated action on the fight against terrorism in Syria.

Now what is behind this foreign policy flip flop?

With its Syria policy in dire straits, Washington is reviewing the strategy. No longer it calls for declaring a «no-fly» zone in Syria. It seeks new approaches to adapt to new realities.

The Russian military involvement in Syria turned the US into an observer instead of being an active actor, a new and unexpected role for Washington. There is nothing the US can do about the Syrian government forces offensive supported by Russian aviation.

The options on the table? Joining Russia in its anti-ISIS effort is excluded. The US cannot side with the Assad government for the reasons well understood. No way could the administration sell such a turnaround to its people and lose face in the eyes of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

A ground offensive launched by joint forces of Iraqi forces and Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State (the Caliphate) is a far-fetched possibility. Iraqi Shia soldiers will hardly want to fight for control of Sunni-dominated areas. The preparation will take too much time and effort against the background of Russia-supported offensive making advances.

The only way to stop to suspend the Russian military operation is launching talks on Syria’s future to include Damascus and pro-Western Islamists. It would justify a cease-fire.

Actually the US has already given ground by saying it can put up with the prospect of Assad staying in power during a transition period. Washington can exert pressure of the armed opposition to make it more pliant. There is another issue that is much more important – the future of Syria. Will it remain one nation?

This issue cannot be solved without the main parties involved in the conflict: Russia, the US, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It’s not about Assad, it’s about the nation’s fate.

In words all the major participants support the idea of Syria’s integrity. At that, voices are heard saying the fragmentation is a fact accompli being part of broader process as the Middle East is going through major changes. Some say Syria and Iraq are doomed to be partitioned. This opinion is widely spread. This is a dire prospect. No way could clear boundaries be drawn to divide numerous confessions and nations. The fragmentation of Syria and Iraq will negatively affect the situation in the whole region with too many things intertwined. The Middle East will get mired in incessant violence. The partition of Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will inevitably hit the agenda. Greater Kurdistan will become an issue. How will Turkey react?

That is the scenario to be avoided at any cost. The fragmentation of Syria and Iraq will ultimately strengthen radical Islamist groups propagating the idea of a caliphate to unite all Arabs and Muslims. The idea will become popular.

Russia does its best to prevent the events unfolding this way. The goal of Russia is not to take Latakia away from Syria, as some say it is. This affirmation does not ring true. The mission is to preserve the country’s integrity to prevent the chain reaction of national divisions. It’s hard to achieve through military actions alone, but it’s quite achievable through comprehensive negotiation process. Syria has existed as one state for a century. It has its history as one state. Russia attaches great importance to the goal of preserving Syria’s integrity to keep the wars away from its borders. Moscow does not side with Shia Muslims against Sunni Muslims. It stands for peaceful coexistence between the branches. Russia is not the only one to see the prospects for Syria’s partition as a national threat.

The dismemberment of Syria would jeopardize the security of Iran, Jordan and Turkey with the possible cessation of Syrian Kurdistan. Saudi Arabia may become a victim of backlash. All parties involved have to reckon with this reality. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman said his country stands for Syria’s unity during his visit to Russia in June. No Syrian neighbor is interested in the country’s partition.

With the Russia’s operation launched, Syria’s chances for remaining one state have incredibly grown. But if Syria’s territorial integrity is preserved, Russia will inevitably become a key player in the region.

The US cannot support the fragmentation of Syria openly, it rather stands for soft solution of dividing the country into self-governed enclaves. Some well-known savvies espouse the idea.

Richard Nathan Haass is an American diplomat who has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations since July 2003, prior to which he was Director of Policy Planning Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department and a close advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell. In his piece Testing Putin in Syria published by Project Syndicate he writes, «In the meantime, the United States and others should pursue a two-track policy.

One track would channel steps to improve the balance of power on the ground in Syria. This means doing more to help the Kurds and select Sunni tribes, as well as continuing to attack the Islamic State from the air. Relatively safe enclaves should emerge from this effort. A Syria of enclaves or cantons may be the best possible outcome for now and the foreseeable future. Neither the US nor anyone else has a vital national interest in restoring a Syrian government that controls all of the country’s territory; what is essential is to roll back the Islamic State and similar groups.»

In his A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse Henry Kissinger says by and large the same thing.

According to him, the geopolitical pattern of the region is in shambles with Washington losing the ability to independently set the agenda. The author notes that «These conflicting trends, compounded by America’s retreat from the region, have enabled Russia to engage in military operations deep in the Middle East, a deployment unprecedented in Russian history. Russia’s principal concern is that the Assad regime’s collapse could reproduce the chaos of Libya, bring ISIS into power in Damascus, and turn all of Syria into a haven for terrorist operations, reaching into Muslim regions inside Russia’s southern border in the Caucasus and elsewhere.»

«In a deeper sense, Russia’s purposes do not require the indefinite continuation of Mr. Assad’s rule. It is a classic balance-of-power maneuver to divert the Sunni Muslim terrorist threat from Russia’s southern border region. It is a geopolitical, not an ideological, challenge and should be dealt with on that level. Whatever the motivation, Russian forces in the region – and their participation in combat operations—produce a challenge that American Middle East policy has not encountered in at least four decades», Kissinger stresses.

The US foreign policy guru notes that it’s more important to prevent the emergence of caliphate than getting rid of Assad. He writes, «As the terrorist region is being dismantled and brought under non-radical political control, the future of the Syrian state should be dealt with concurrently. A federal structure could then be built between the Alawite and Sunni portions. If the Alawite regions become part of a Syrian federal system, a context will exist for the role of Mr. Assad, which reduces the risks of genocide or chaos leading to terrorist triumph».

That’s the rub! What Mr. Kissinger offers as US goals to be pursues is nothing else but fragmentation of Syria. That’s what has happened in Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan actually exists as a sovereign state. The country is partitioned under the disguise of Kurdish autonomy which exists only on paper. The strife between Sunni and Shia communities led to ISIS capturing swathes of Iraqi territory. The idea of a federal state has failed in Lebanon.

Will the US and Russia efficiently cooperate in a bid to preserve Syria as one state? That’s what the process boils down to. Being flexible and adaptable to new reality will boost US credibility in the Middle East. The talks with Russia and other key actors is a good chance not to miss. The Middle East plunged into the quagmire of perpetual chaos and wars is what all parties strive to avoid. There is a strong motivation for reaching an agreement.

Image Source: DAVID HOLT, Flickr, Creative Commons Syria 2007 008 Damascus Bashar al-Assad

Image Source: DAVID HOLT, Flickr, Creative Commons
Syria 2007 008 Damascus Bashar al-Assad

A victory over radicals and armed opposition is not the only prerequisite peaceful settlement in Syria. A comprehensive agreement on the country’s future to include Syrians and all the parties involved, including Russia, the US and the EU, is a must.

This report was prepared by Andrei AKULOV for Strategic Culture Foundation.