Syria must become diplomatically proactive in order to adapt to the changing regional geopolitical situation of the early Biden era during a time when both its Iranian & Russian allies are already talking with the US otherwise it’ll be left out of the negotiation process and ultimately told what to do without any reliable alternative if certain issues of relevant importance are decided without its input.
The “Low-Hanging Fruit” Of The “New Middle East”
Syria is the “low-hanging fruit” that the new Biden Administration might “pluck” in order to make a powerful foreign policy example of its ambitions in the so-called “New Middle East”. The war-torn country continues to struggle to reach a political solution to its externally exacerbated military crisis despite the de facto “Lines Of Control” (LOC) having largely solidified over the past few years in the northern and northeastern parts of the Arab Republic presently under foreign occupation by Turkey and the US respectively. Its “Israeli” enemy reportedly hit 50 targets in the country last year, arguably with Russia’s “passive facilitation” at the very least, while American-led international sanctions have crippled its economy. Nevertheless, the Syrian leadership’s resilience in refusing to “compromise” on issues that it regards as non-negotiable from a national security standpoint seriously aggravates America because it shows the rest of the world that this small country is still able to stand toe-to-toe with the former superpower and survive. It’s for that reason why the neoconservative-neoliberal “deep state” alliance that returned to power behind the scenes under Biden might soon target it.
The Precarious Regional Situation
The regional situation is very precarious from the Syrian point of view. The most powerful Arab countries in the world are increasingly coming out of the closet about their long-running not-so-secret de facto alliance with “Israel”. This importantly includes the UAE, the most regionally significant Arab country with which Syria has relations after the two entered into a rapid rapprochement over the past few years. Additionally, there’s no doubt that Russia and “Israel” are de facto allies, as was argued by the author in his September 2018 analysis on the subject for Global Research and in the second answer to the question that he was recently asked by Iran’s popular Farhikhtegan daily (the English original of the interview follows the Farsi translation in that same link). Turkey’s continued occupation of Syria’s northern territories is troublesome, but it’s practically impossible for Damascus to remove Ankara’s forces both because the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is incomparably weaker than their counterparts by all metrics and also due to the government’s agreement to abide by the Russian-brokered Astana pacts which informally acknowledged “spheres of influence” over its territory.
The Biden Administration’s Negotiations
One of Biden’s first actions in office was to order a new military convoy to enter the country from Iraq, which strongly hints that Syria is very prominent on his “deep state’s” mind. He’s also halting his predecessor’s planned repositioning of some US troops in certain countries, which in practice means that former President Trump’s faux withdrawal from Syria won’t ever happen. At the same time, the US successfully brokered an agreement to extend the New START with Russia for another five years but also announced that it’ll push back against what it regards as so-called “Russian aggression” across the world. Since the largest Russian military deployment outside of its borders is in Syria, it once again follows that the Arab Republic will become the focus of Russian-US negotiations over Biden’s grand strategy. In addition, the US is also attempting to revive the JCPOA with Iran, and recently stopped support for offensive operations in Yemen as well as froze arms deals with its two primary antagonists, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It also delisted the Ansarullah as a “terrorist” group. Its unstated goal is to enter into a detente with Iran for the purpose of remaking the “New Middle East”.
“Trust” Is Irrelevant In International Relations
Since Syria’s Russian and Iranian allies are already in talks with the US, it’s only natural that Damascus enter into some sort of discourse with Washington as well in order to not be diplomatically left out from these processes. This doesn’t imply that the country lacks “trust” in Moscow or Tehran, but just that it’s in Damascus’ interests to play some sort of role in whatever the eventual outcome of their talks might be in order to not be told what to do by either of them without any reliable alternative if one or both of them reach an agreement with Washington about issues of immediate relevance to Syria. Russia and Iran have the political will to improve their relations with the US, but only as part of a negotiated process whereby “compromises” will inevitably be made, should that scenario come to pass of course. It can’t be discounted that their influential roles in Syria might become part of whatever larger deal they conclude for regulating their relations in a more comprehensive way during the Biden era and beyond. Syria must therefore soberly assess the situation before seriously considering whether it’s worthwhile to enter into talks with the US too, even if only to buy itself time.
Negotiable Iranian & Russian Positions On Syria
For instance, while the “principalist” faction of Iran’s permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”) is traditionally suspicious of talks with the US, its officially ruling “reformist” one is eager to reach a comprehensive agreement for regulating their regional relations as soon as possible. This might potentially see President Rouhani’s government including Iran’s anti-terrorist military presence in Syria as part of a larger “package deal” with the US. Russia, for its part, reaffirmed during Foreign Minister Lavrov’s annual press conference last month that “we cannot expel [the US from Syria], and we will not clash with [its] forces” there while also acknowledging “so-called deconfliction” talks with it. Considering this, it’s predicted that Moscow would strictly abide by its anti-terrorist mandate by not interfering if Washington recommences bombing operations in the Arab Republic, including if it coordinates them with Tel Aviv against the IRGC and Hezbollah. That could very well happen if Biden wants to threaten Iran with a “stick” in order to compel “compromises” from it with the JCPOA “carrot”. Syria would be the indisputable loser in that situation.
The Sanctions Shadow
The sanctions shadow must also be discussed before moving on to the rest of the analysis. Syria is urgently in need of reconstruction aid, but its closest Iranian ally doesn’t have the financial means to extend all that’s necessary in this respect while its traditional Russian and newfound Emirati ones are reluctant to risk violating US-led unilateral sanctions by doing so. As a powerful case in point, the influential Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) published an infographic last month showing that Turkish developmental aid to the occupied territories is almost six times as much as what Russia provides to the liberated ones according to OECD data and in particular “the data presented by Mikhail Mizintsev, Head of the Russian-Syrian Inter-agency Coordination Headquarters on Repatriation of Syrian Refugees, at the International Conference on the Return of Syrian Refugees on November 11, 2020” with respect to Moscow’s support. It’s worth remembering that the author of the present analysis released a piece back in April 2019 asking “Why Isn’t Oil-Rich Russia Helping Its Syrian ‘Ally’ Survive The Fuel Crisis?”, which chalked this up to US sanctions and Russia’s informal competition with Iran.
The Worst-Case Scenario
The worst-case scenario for Syria is if the US recommences or threatens to recommence (whether publicly or discretely communicated through the appropriate channels) its bombing operations in the Arab Republic, but this time openly targets the IRGC and Hezbollah instead of pretending to fight ISIS like it used to claim. Russia would stand back while Turkey might sense an opportunity to further advance its regional interests at Syria’s expense, thus compounding what could quickly spiral into an uncontrollable crisis for Damascus. The only way out, Syria might be told, is if it demands that Iranian forces leave the country and the political processes is restarted as soon as possible, the latter of which would heavily imply multiple “compromises” by Damascus on issues that it regards as non-negotiable from a national security standpoint. These include many of the stillborn proposals contained in the Russian-written “draft constitution” from January 2017’s first Astana Summit, none of which Syria made even a pretense of attempting to implement for reasons that are clearly explained in the preceding hyperlink, to say nothing of the unrealistic demands placed upon it by the US and its allies.
The Arab Republic Is Almost All Alone
As it stands, there’s nothing that Syria could do to survive this worst-case scenario without being forced into a series of seemingly never-ending “compromises”, and what’s so disturbing is that this dark scenario is much more realistic than many might realize. Iran might even be keenly aware of this and preemptively consider drawing down its military presence in the Arab Republic as part of a secret protocol to the deal that its “reformist”-led government might reach with the US over the JCPOA for more comprehensively regulating their relations. Without Iranian military support, Syria fears that it’ll become “overly dependent” on Russia, which in turn will manifest itself by Damascus having no reliable alternative to complying with many of Moscow’s “political proposals” such as those contained in the “draft constitution” that it wrote four years ago. Practically every country in the world apart from Iran and of course Syria itself wants Damascus to “moderate” what they regard as its “counterproductive, stubborn, and uncompromising stance” towards many political issues, which could then at least in theory scale back the sanctions and therefore facilitate much-needed reconstruction.
The Anti-Sanctions Incentive
This anti-sanctions incentive partially explains why Russia would “passively facilitate” the worst-case scenario that was just described, apart of course from its strict compliance with the solely anti-terrorist responsibilities contained in its military mandate which precludes it from defending Syria against conventional attacks by the US, “Israel”, and Turkey. The sooner that the sanctions on Syria are lifted, the sooner that Russian businesses can begin rebuilding the war-torn Arab Republic, managing others’ complementary efforts there (especially those of Moscow’s new uber-wealthy partners in Abu Dhabi), and resultantly profiting real handsomely from it. Syria needs all the reconstruction assistance that it can get, but it feels very uncomfortable making some of the “compromises” that are both implied (from the Russian side) and demanded (from the American one) of it. Even so, the worst-case scenario and even the second-worst one of Iran scaling down its military presence prior to ultimately withdrawing from Syria per a secret deal with the US that its ruling “reformists” might not inform Damascus of in advance could force it to do that anyhow, though with different degrees of pressure and pain.
Syria’s Public Starting Point For Secret Negotiations
Syria appears to at the very least be somewhat aware of the extremely difficult diplomatic-military situation that it’s in, which might explain why its permanent mission to the UN told Newsweek last week that it was open to talks with the Biden Administration so long as the latter first withdraws its illegal occupation forces, returns its oil, and stops meddling in its internal affairs. None of these proposals are likely to be unilaterally implemented by the US, but they’re a public starting point for discussions and thus a face-saving way for Syria to enter into them behind the scenes on that pretext. Damascus, as was explained earlier in this analysis, doesn’t want to be left out of the fast-moving diplomatic-military processes in the region as Washington’s neoconservative-neoliberal powerbrokers seek to impose their vision of the “New Middle East” onto the region throughout of the course of potentially forthcoming deals with Moscow and especially Tehran (which Ankara might exploit to advance its interests in Northern Syria). “Israel” is also once again in a political crisis, and the past few times that this happened, Netanyahu bombed Syria more frequently than ever as a distraction.
In the event that Syria does indeed enter into secret negotiations with the US, it’ll have several goals in mind. Other than the publicly stated ones, these might include exploring how flexible the Biden Administration is on accepting an indefinitely continued Iranian military presence on its territory, especially in the context of the more comprehensive deal that those two are trying to negotiate for regulating their regional relations. The best that Syria can probably hope for is that the US doesn’t intend to publicly pressure Iran too much on this front during the sensitive negotiation process for fear of frightening the “principalists” into forcing the “reformists” to immediately stop the talks in order to save face. Rather, it would be best if those three — the US, Iran, and Syria — agreed on a “compromise” connected to Iran’s dignified but phased withdrawal from the Arab Republic together with the US’ parallel withdrawal per Damascus’ request and America simultaneously advising its domestic political proxies to abandon their hitherto stubbornness in refusing to respect the legitimate government’s sensitivities in the peace process.
The Logic Behind The Proposed Quid Pro Quo
Anything other than that quid pro quo — such as the commencement of joint US-”Israeli” anti-Iranian bombing operations in Syria (which Turkey would also exploit to advance its own interests in the northern part of the country) or a sudden downscaling of Iran’s military presence without any parallel American one and tangible progress on the peace process in support of Damascus’ position — could lead to an eventual disaster for Syria. The country would be forced to react to the deals that others, including Russia (per its de facto alliance with US-backed “Israel”), cut behind its back in pursuit of their own interests (which is of course natural in today’s hyper-realist world). That would result in Syria remaining an object of International Relations instead of the subject in Mideast affairs that deserves to be as is its sovereign right. For that to happen, though, Syria has to get a clearer idea of American strategic intentions and their timeline, and this can only be accomplished through direct (though secret) talks with it instead of relying on Russia and Iran (who are already talking to it for different reasons) to hopefully tell it everything that they discussed, which is unrealistic to expect from them.
It might turn out that the US isn’t willing to play ball with Syria for whatever its reason may be, which would thus relegate Syria back to the regional diplomatic periphery whereby it’ll be forced to react to the deals that others cut behind its back instead of proactively pushing its own interests throughout the course of these multiple ongoing negotiation processes (US-Russia, US-Iran, and perhaps also US-Turkey). Nonetheless, Syria should still do its utmost to try and become diplomatically relevant to the Biden Administration in as direct of a way as possible in an attempt to ensure its interests as realistically as it can. These relate to the need for the US to eventually withdraw from Syria, sincerely support the peace process (ideally in alignment with Damascus’ vision as much as possible), and lift the crippling sanctions regime so that the long-overdue reconstruction process can begin. In pursuit of these goals, Syria will likely have to accept the eventual withdrawal or at least serious downscaling of Iranian military forces, the inevitability of some (even if mostly superficial) political “compromises”, and perhaps some other unexpected things in order to stop Biden from starting a new war.