The United States has reaffirmed its red lines in Syria, and this attests to the seriousness of its policy in the country. There is no room for doubt. A few days ago, the response of its troops and the Air Force to the popular regime in Damascus sent an unambiguous message to everyone involved in the conflict in the Levant. It was a message to the regime, to its Russian and Iranian allies, as well as to Turkey. The title of the message does not require explanation: you cannot change the rules of engagement. Meddling with the Syrian Democratic Forces, the group supported by Washington in the east and north of the country, is forbidden. Yet the operation was not the first of its kind. In the fall of 2016, the international coalition’s forces struck the Syrian army and inflicted heavy losses.
At the time, Washington acknowledged that the strike was a “mistake.” But last spring, U.S. planes raided forces loyal to the Syrian regime that tried to approach the Al-Tanf base. About a month after, the U.S. shot down a plane of regular troops as punishment for the bombing of Kurdish forces in Raqqa province. The latest strike represents the American determination to protect a region of Syria that accounts for about 40 percent of the Levant, which is its “share,” and that Damascus cannot approach. Neither can Tehran, regardless of its promises to liberate all of Syria. Moscow cannot be worried by what Donald Trump’s administration perceives to be America’s strategic interests. Ankara is not able to make progress with an olive branch, no matter how large it is, concerning the Kurdish areas in Manbij and other areas east of the Euphrates under their administration.
Russia condemned the recent U.S. operation in Deir el-Zour. It criticized the movements of the Syrian government forces for not coordinating with the reconnaissance operations carried out by popular forces, which killed more than 100 people. Russia remembers the experience of the Sochi conference well, and after the group of five* and France’s renewed action in the region, it cannot ignore or change the mechanisms of international conflict. Russia is not alone in the arena. It cannot ignore all the competing international, regional and local forces on the Syrian front. It must also respect the U.S. umbrella over the northeast portion of the Levant. Washington’s accusation that Russia wants to control the most important oil fields in the Deir el-Zour is exaggerated. Washington’s new Syrian policy, and the region in general, has reversed the policy of Barack Obama’s administration. The United States is now strongly present in the Levant as well as Iraq. It can be said that its military bases throughout the region constitute a tight barrier to the Russian ground presence on the Syrian coast. They are also present in the southern region near the border with Jordan, not to mention the policy of its ally, Israel, whose raids have become almost routine on the regime’s sites in Damascus and Iranian-sponsored militias in the southern region bordering Jordan. Hence, the importance of the American strike in the Deir el-Zour area. It is a strategic location on the border of Iraq. It can be used to barricade the road that Tehran is aiming to control on its way to the Mediterranean coast.
The Russian military presence in Syria is not threatened, but it certainly faces a new level of challenges. Moscow will soon find itself being forced to send more and more gear into Syria, even after President Vladimir Putin’s announcement from Hemeimeem base about the “victory” over terrorism and the start of the withdrawal of some troops from Syria. This would be a drain on the capabilities of its forces, and this challenge extends past the military part to the political aspect. Russian diplomacy in Sochi made clear that it cannot proceed alone in shaping the parameters of any settlement. There is the group of five, there is the voice of the French, and Europe in general is looking for a role, albeit a belated one. There is a proposal by the United Nations to condemn the regime of President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons. This is a threat that grows daily and may hurt Damascus and its allies sooner rather than later. More serious than that, Russia faces the threat of a breach of its understanding with Iran and Turkey, especially after the wide gap between its partners in Astana. It could inspire the United States and other countries that insist on the role of the international organization in finding a political settlement to mandate collective action that paves the way toward a solution through this dialogue conference and others. Yet, the U.S. knows well that President Assad and his partners do not care about any solution. He is clearly supported by Iran.
This does not mean that the Kremlin doesn’t cling tightly to the bases in Hemeimeem and Tartus, even if they are considered to be an advanced line of defense for Russia in its escalating international role. The Russian Defense Ministry announced a few days ago that it is working to strengthen the bases of its forces deployed in Syria after one of its airplanes was shot down and bases were attacked by rockets and drones. Moscow does not hide its opposition to the reform plan of the five countries (America, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates*), as it fears the curtailing of the powers of the president and an adjusted composition of the House of Representatives. This is because it would affect the reconsideration of the agreement under which Damascus gave the two bases legitimacy to remain for 50 years and an option to renew every 25 years. It is true that it has “forced” the international envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to work with the constitution committee to draft a constitution under U.N. supervision, but it is also true that no guarantee will force the regime to make the expected concessions later on. It merely has to represent the final statement of the conference and present it to Tehran, who will see it as they want to see it, rather than what it really is.
Russia is well aware of the content of America’s recent message from Deir el-Zour and recognizes the rules from the Cold War. Damascus and Tehran do as well. It is true that Iran condemned the recent American strike, and that President Hassan Rouhani attacked the American presence in the Levant, accusing Washington of attempting to divide the country. However, it is also true that Iran is being realistic and pragmatic while facing the storms that are blowing at home and abroad. Just as he heard the voice of citizens raging, he expressed readiness for dialogue to solve the problems of the region, “especially with regional states,” without “countries not from the region,” apparently referencing the United States. He considered that the faithful implementation of the nuclear agreement opened the way to discuss the role of Trump and European governments in the management of his country and the region, along with other issues. It remains to be seen if President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is receiving U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, comprehends the Americans’ message asking him to limit his threats to the Kurds and reevaluate his continued rivalry with Washington. Everyone knows that the incursion of his forces into Syria is dependent on a number of necessary requirements, rather than a simple green light. While he may not remain attentive to intercepting Iran, which may be interested in courting the Kurds, he cannot ignore the position of America and Russia. The latter has given up on him and that hinders his ability to deploy his forces in the Idlib region to end the existence of hardline factions, notably the Al-Nusra Front. Russia also may not allow Erdogan to expand his war on the Kurds.
The task of American officials in Ankara should not be difficult, as there is common interest in a truce. The success of U.S. policy in Syria also benefits Turkey. Therefore, the continuation of Erdogan’s campaign against the Kurds in their region is not in their long-term interest. There is no wisdom in encouraging the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Democratic Union Party to renew ties with the Syrian regime. The party will not hesitate to hand over its positions to the regime’s forces and its Iranian and Russian allies if military pressure on these “forces” increases. That would simply mean strengthening the hegemony of the Islamic Republic in the Levant at the expense of Turkey’s interests and security. It is therefore in both Washington’s and Ankara’s interest to reach an agreement that the Afrin campaign should be stopped at a certain point. It is the responsibility of Tillerson and McMaster to reassure their traditional Turkish ally, a key member of NATO, of their commitment to retaining the integrity of Syrian territory and not allowing the Kurds to declare an independent entity that forms a base for the PKK. **If America’s primary policy goal is to confront Iran’s expansion in Syria, then the achievement of this goal serves the strategic interests of Turkey, which found itself being dragged toward Moscow and Tehran and away from its historical ties with NATO countries two years ago. It is not in its interest today to rehabilitate the regime and turn the Levant into a base for Iranian and Russian dynasties. Its goal, like the goals of its traditional allies, is to remove President Assad, preserve its interests in the Levant, and, above all, not fall under the control of Iran and Russia, its historic adversaries.
*Editor’s note: In late January 2018, a document drawn up by the United States, Jordan, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia for U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura containing proposals for reforms to the Syrian constitution was reportedly leaked to press. The author appears to be using the term “Group of Five” to refer to these countries although he later lists the U.A.E. as part of this group in place of Jordan.
**Editor’s note: The PKK is the the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an organization based in Turkey and Iraq.