Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reassured us that he agrees with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on the topic of Syria and the Department of Defense strategy to recover weapons from the Free Syrian Army after factions within it rejected U.S. conditions for continuing support. Not fighting Syrian regime forces and exclusively focusing on combating the Islamic State was at the forefront of these conditions. The war of sanctions and fierce diplomatic reprisals between Washington, Moscow and Tehran will not prevent Tillerson and Lavrov from meeting next week in Manila on the sidelines of meetings tied to Southeast Asia, where the war on the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra* will be an explicit priority for dictating policy.
Russia is standing firm by its policies — with some modifications in order to maintain its partnership with the United States in the Syrian matter — without giving up the principles governing its relations with Iran and the Syrian regime. The United States is volatile; it is not concerned about its reputation of dispensing with its friends and partners when it suits U.S. interests. The Trump administration is floundering in its contradictions and adjustment to Russian pragmatism. Both Tillerson and Lavrov arbitrarily claim that the agreement to confront terrorism and establish areas of “reduced tensions” will be followed by the revival of a political process for a future Syria, complete with a constitution, elections and the participation of the opposition in governing, instead of the Syrian regime alone.
Both of them fully realize there can be no coexistence between Baath Party rule, which will not tolerate power-sharing, and a real democratic process that produces an alternative to Baathist thinking and procedure.** Now, the moderate opposition is subject to the status quo after it failed itself at times, and at other times, its allies and friends failed it. Fundamentally, the opposition was neither prepared nor able to fight a military axis comprising Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Syrian regime in Damascus. At times it also fell victim to U.S. negligence, and at other times, U.S. misguidance toward the Gulf Cooperation Council*** powers, which exploited the Syrian War for its regional projects.
The moderate opposition committed several fatal mistakes, among them believing it could fight two enemies: the Syrian regime in Damascus, and the Islamic State group, Jabhat al-Nusra, and their affiliates. So, the opposition finds itself where it is today, fighting against other enemies of the regime, whose goals and agenda have nothing to do with the moderate opposition. Here’s the armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army itself, submitting to U.S., Russian and Iranian decrees, while Washington is formulating a succession of tactics one by one. Meanwhile, Tillerson is trying to take over the strategic game, which Lavrov is deftly controlling. Tillerson is lagging behind Lavrov on Syria. He is behaving naively on Iraq — by mistake or by design. He is slow in responding to the Qatar crisis in the Gulf. He is fighting off the sycophants and minions of this backward U.S. administration.
The chaos of the Trump administration does not necessarily mean it is solely responsible for U.S. policy because the United States adopts most of these policies for the long term and on the basis of U.S. national interests. Therefore, there are continuous threads tracing back to President George W. Bush’s "war on terror" in Iraq. He summoned international terrorists to the eastern Arab states, presented Iraq to Iran on a silver platter, and erased Iraq from the Arab-Israeli military balance. They also ran through President Barack Obama’s inaction vis-a-vis the massacres in Syria, cleaving to Iran, and supporting the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt and elsewhere to sow discord.
Tillerson is the diplomatic facade for the administration of an unusual president who came to power during a restless period for the Persian Gulf States because the Obama doctrine purposely undermined U.S.-Gulf relations to bring about a paradigm shift in U.S.-Iran relations. A few months ago, Trump came to the Riyadh summit vowing to replace the Obama doctrine with the Trump doctrine. He was shocked to learn the U.S. stance regarding Iranian endeavors from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon was characterized by a silent acceptance of the status quo. Trump was also shocked by the ambiguous U.S. position on the Gulf crisis between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt on the other.
Tillerson has dragged his feet since the Qatar crisis erupted. He should have moved immediately along two parallel paths: intervening personally and appointing a high-level envoy. He did neither. At that time, it was possible to apply pressure along clear lines. Now, after two months of crisis, the task has become more intractable, even though Tillerson assigned two delegations to solve the crisis. The Trump administration has sent mixed signals, which both sides have interpreted favorably despite their inherent contradictions. Intended or not, this dangerous input is absolutely contributing to the negative developments in the Gulf. This crisis is guaranteed to affect the future of the GCC, which has brought together the six Persian Gulf States militarily, economically and politically, despite the occasional conflict.
It might be argued that the transformation of the GCC from six members to five members without Qatar will not lead to the breakup or dissolution of the GCC. The Saudi-Emirati axis is the heavyweight in the Gulf; it cannot be affected by the fracture or breakup of the GCC. However, a de facto breakup of the GCC serves Iran and its security project in the region, which is based on Iran assuming security dominance in the Gulf. Iran is deciding whether its partner will be American or Russian. Iran is governing the Gulf region because it possesses the security tools in this case.
It’s not a coincidence nor the cursory decision of an administration to end the hostility and estrangement between Washington and Tehran pursuant to the Obama doctrine. This confers legitimacy to the ruling regime — a theocratic government that forces religion on the state and a regime that believes in a clerical rule and its right to export its revolution.
U.S. reluctance to manage the Qatar crisis — as it can and should — is not reassuring. It is leading to the breakup of the Persian Gulf States and the unwinding of the economic, political and collective security agreements between them. It's not logical for U.S. generals to turn a blind eye to Iran's major progress toward building the "Persian Crescent,” which is taking hold on Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese lands.
It's not enough for Tillerson to state the presence of Iranian soldiers in Syria as unacceptable. It’s not enough for Tillerson to call for mechanisms and timetable measures for ending Iranian military presence in Syria, pursuant to the demands of the major powers. We are witnessing the U.S. president bowing to the status quo imposed militarily by the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah in Syria. Trump is making no effort to stop the creation of the Persian Crescent, which his administration claims to oppose and promises to forestall. U.S. generals pledged to stop Iran from directly or indirectly seizing lands liberated from the Islamic State group and Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria. However, what's happening on the ground confirms they’ve retreated from their pledges in the name of the main U.S. priority — defeating the Islamic State group.
Tillerson assures us this matter of utmost importance will be included in agreements with Russia. However, Russia has clarified over and over again that it will not abandon its friends and allies in Syria. Russia is proud it has succeeded in earning a reputation for dependability and making good on its pledges, especially in contrast to the United States’ quick disposal of its friends and allies — excluding Israel, which is a vital U.S. ally. That is, Russia's goals in Syria are consistent, whereas America's are unpredictable.
In spite of all of this, Tillerson's announcement that the withdrawal of Iranian forces is a necessary condition for settling the conflict is no small thing. Hopefully, Tillerson's comments are serious and represent long-term U.S. policy, rather than empty political speak. Moreover, with regard to the promise of a political settlement in Syria, it’s not enough for Tillerson to say there is no future for Bashar Assad when he knows that Russia fundamentally disagrees with him on the matter. If Washington wants to be taken seriously, it must act seriously.
Lavrov, a seasoned diplomat, will not squander the relationship he wants to build with Tillerson, the longtime oilman. Therefore, Russian policy will be very cautious and precise, particularly regarding Assad. The Bloomberg News reported that Moscow wants Assad to accept a "symbolic power-sharing” agreement with the opposition. This is not what the Geneva Conference or communiqués from Astana stipulated at all. Moscow supported Assad from the beginning, kept him in power and broke the back of the Syrian opposition. Russia will not abandon him unless there is a big U.S.-Russian agreement that demands that price. Such an agreement is very far off right now, whereas Assad is becoming more intransigent regarding concessions and power sharing after winning military victories on the ground with his Iranian partners under Russian air cover. He considers himself victorious and wants the Baath Party to take back the reins of power. He wants to teach a lesson to all those who defied him with all the tools of revenge at his disposal.
The director general of the Russian International Affairs Council and Kremlin associate, Andrey Kortunov, reportedly said that Assad's aim to frustrate the political process created "strain" on his relationship with Russia. He added, "Russia is not prepared to declare war in order for Assad to achieve victory." This is important, although it is not clear if it’s serious or merely talk.
It’s clear that Moscow possesses the tools to pressure and influence Assad, his regime, Iran and its militias in the form of Russian air cover, which is still essential to their military operations, as well as Russia’s bilateral relations with Syria and Iran. Moscow won't use these tools as long as U.S. policy is characterized by weakness, hesitation and prostration.
What's unclear is whether U.S. long-term policy is so clever it’s purposely giving the impression that Russia is in the driver's seat on Syria, whereas in reality, the United States is content to pragmatically pursue U.S. strategic interests at the expense of its enemies and friends alike.
*Editor's Note: Jabhat al-Nusra or al-Nusra Front is a jihadi terrorist organization fighting against the Syrian government forces in the Syrian Civil War.
**Editor's Note: The Baath Party was formed in Syria in the 1940s, and separate factions have ruled in the country since 1970.
***Editor's Note: The Gulf Cooperation Council is a regional political and economic alliance of countries in the Arabian Peninsula.