War or Peace: New Developments Will Determine Syria’s Future
ISIS has been reduced to insignificance and the rebels have been defeated in the south and everywhere else in Syria, except in the province of Idlib. This is a big step forward toward stability in the country. Although there are still many problems and contradictions between major actors that remain unsolved, there are signs that the negotiation process is picking up steam. The search for a peaceful solution appears to be going strong, but the list of those who are seeking it does not include the United States, at least not for now. Perhaps this reflects the realization that Washington is not ready for a positive role and its reliability as a partner is questionable.
The US rejected Russia’s invitation to take part in the tenth meeting on Syria between the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, which is being held in Sochi July 30-31 under the auspices of the Astana process. This event brings together the Astana trio (Russia, Turkey, and Iran), the Syrian government, and opposition leaders, as well as observers from the UN and Jordan. Washington refused to participate under the pretext that it sees the UN-brokered talks on Syria in Genera as a higher priority This is a feeble excuse, because the Astana process is not a substitute for the UN talks but rather a supplement to them. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Besides, the Astana initiative has led to the creation of de-escalation zones, while the Geneva process has failed to bring about any results and is at present stymied. While criticizing the diplomatic efforts of other nations, the US has not generated any initiative of its own.
It was announced on July 29 that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seeking to hold a summit in Istanbul with France, Germany, and Russia on September 7. Ankara’s ties with Berlin have been very strained recently. Last year, the German military had to leave Turkey’s Incirlik air base. France and Turkey are also divided on many issues, including their attitudes toward the Syrian Kurds. Paris strongly opposes Turkey’s EU membership. Nevertheless, Ankara preferred to discuss Syria and the situation in the region with these countries and not the United States.
A tripartite summit between Russia, Iran, and Turkey will also take place this year in Tehran. This was confirmed during the recent BRICS summit in South Africa.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has launched talks with the Syrian government. It has done so independently, without coordinating that step with the United States. The Council said on July 28 that it and the Syrian government had decided at a meeting in Damascus to “form committees on various levels” to develop negotiations to end the violence in Syria. The SDF is not seeking independence, but rather a political agreement on the status of Kurdish autonomy. A deal could settle the conflict in most of the country. Damascus and the SDC agreed that the committees would “chart a road map to a democratic, decentralized Syria.”
This raises the issue of what is the future of the United States presence in Syria. According to Reuters, “the Syrian Kurds have grown wary of the US, put on guard by conflicting statements over Washington’s plans in the country.”
Meanwhile, the US is not wasting time. It was reported on July 28 by Al Jazeera that “the United States is quietly pushing ahead with a bid to create a new security and political alliance with six Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Jordan” to oppose Iran. The organization that will be formed is tentatively to be known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). According to the source, a summit to discuss the formation of the new pact is tentatively scheduled to be held in Washington October 12-13. The information about the talks on establishing the new anti-Iranian group has been confirmed by the White House. “MESA will serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East,” said a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council.
If so, the US should stay in Syria to prevent Iran from gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea. A military operation is a real possibility. The Huffington Post notes that foreign-policy hawks, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and National Security Adviser John Bolton, are rallying around Trump now that the prospect of action against Iran is back on the table. Israel’s Debkafile reports that the situation in the Red Sea has deteriorated recently, posing a threat to international shipping and that Iran is to blame for it.
The US and Qatar launched a plan on July 24 to expand Al-Udeid airbase, the biggest US military facility in the Middle East, so it is capable of hosting around 10,000 American military personnel and aircraft used to attack targets in Syria and Iraq. Representatives from both countries have “laid the cornerstone for expanding” the military facility. Talks are underway to make it a “permanent” base.
There are two conflicting trends in Syria today. On the one hand, there are very promising prospects for a peaceful solution of the conflict. On the other hand, Syria could soon become a battlefield between MESA and Iran, thus once again bringing suffering to ordinary people in Syria. A third option is a mediation effort. Let it be conducted in a back room if need be, the main thing is to prevent the worst. Russia is the only one who can do it, as it has good working relations with all the pertinent actors. The Russian and US presidents stay in touch in order to discuss Syria. Moscow is friendly with the countries involved in the talks on establishing MESA, as well as those nations the alliance is being set up to oppose. Russia is already trying to make diplomacy work, and it’s hardly its fault that the US decided to ignore the Sochi meeting.