The U.S. is abdicating its role as a diplomatic powerbroker to Russia in Syria. The U.S. is ultimately empowering a political process driven by Russia that will not secure America’s strategic objectives in Syria. Those objectives include the Trump Administration’s focus on “neutralizing” Iran’s influence and “constraining its aggression” as well the lasting defeat of Salafi-Jihadists such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held an informal meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam on November 11. The two leaders later released a joint statement that ostensibly reiterated their commitment to previous agreements on the Syrian Civil War, including bilateral military de-confliction, de-escalation zones, and a negotiated settlement through the UN Geneva Process. The statement nonetheless reinforces a number of persistent fallacies regarding the interests of Russia in Syria.
Fallacy #1: “Russia intends to conduct a serious anti-ISIS campaign.” The U.S. and Russia praised “successful…enhanced de-confliction efforts” that “dramatically accelerated” the defeat of ISIS in Eastern Syria. President Trump also noted that the “successful implementation” of the deal will “save thousands of lives” in the Syrian Civil War. This statement reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the tactics used by Russia in Syria. Russia has waged a violent and indiscriminate air campaign against civilian infrastructure in opposition-held regions of Western Syria as well as areas governed by ISIS in Eastern Syria. The Russo-Iranian Coalition intends to soon redirect this brutal campaign against Idlib Province in Northern Syria. The U.S. risks legitimizing current and future crimes against humanity conducted by Russia and Iran on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – thereby fulfilling the narratives of global oppression promulgated by ISIS and Al-Qaeda across Iraq and Syria.
Fallacy #2: “Russia intends to counter Iran in Syria.” The U.S. and Russia reaffirmed their support for an ongoing ‘de-escalation zone’ in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces in Southern Syria brokered on July 7. The statement noted further progress under a recent Memorandum of Principles signed by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan on November 8 that called for the “reduction and ultimate elimination of foreign forces” – particularly Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah - from Southern Syria. Russia nonetheless remains unlikely to effectively enforce any such agreement against Iran and Syria. Russia shares fundamental and enduring strategic interests with Iran, starting with a mutual desire to expel the U.S. from the Middle East. The current ‘de-escalation zone’ has preserved – rather than limited – the freedom of movement of Iran and Hezbollah along the Golan Heights and Syrian-Jordanian Border.
Fallacy #3: “Russia intends to deliver a meaningful political settlement in Syria.” The U.S. and Russia stressed their support for constitutional reforms and internationally-monitored elections under a political settlement via the UN Geneva Process. Russia has nonetheless taken active steps to subvert and co-opt the Geneva Process through the rival Astana Talks hosted by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as its plans for an upcoming ‘Syrian Congress on National Dialogue’. Russia and Assad remain unlikely to concede to free and fair elections or reforms that meaningfully constrain the power of the regime. Assad leveraged legal and authoritarian means to dominate similar ‘democratic elections’ in Syria in 2014. Any faux political settlement that fails to address the legitimate grievances that sparked the Syrian Revolution will only perpetuate the conditions that fuel ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria.