American Return Shuffles States’ Cards in Syria
Enab Baladi’s Investigations Team
A new US strategy that may lead to clash with Russia
“The relations between our country and Russia are at their worst crisis.” This statement by US President Donald Trump, in August last year, summarizes US-Russian relations which have witnessed, and are still witnessing, tension on the political arena in the areas of influence of the two countries.
However, conflicts between the two sides were obviously deepened in the Syrian arena. These conflicts further emerged after the arrival of Trump to power in the beginning of 2017, and his repeated statements about the need to restore the “American Authority,” which has been diminished under former President, Barack Obama, in several files, most notably Ukraine and the Syrian file, and which allowed the emergence of Russia to be in the forefront of the Middle East equation. This was confirmed by the US President who said, last July, that “the Russian presence in Syria is only the result of mistakes made by the previous US administration, and if President Obama did what he should have done, I think, we would not see any existence of Russia and Iran in the Syrian landscape today. ”
Consensus Points between the US Strategy and the Opposition
A year after Trump arrived at the White House, the US administration set its strategy in Syria for the next phase, which was summarized by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his speech at the Hoover Institute of American Stanford University on January 17. He said that the United States has to stay in Syria to eliminate terrorism and Iranian influence, and reach a political solution away from the current president of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad.
Ahmad Ramadan, a member of the founding body of the Syrian opposition coalition, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that “American policy was late in defining its vision due to several factors, including American recognition of the Iranian threat in Syria and its effects on the stability in the Syrian State, which comes in parallel with the threat of cross-border terrorism.”
The American strategy shares with the opposition several points, according to Ramadan, “the threat of terrorism on the one hand and the Iranian threat on the other, as well as the need not only for stability in Syria but for a complete and comprehensive political solution that allows the reconstruction of the Syrian State, based on the Geneva reference and the United Nations resolutions.” He pointed out that what should be clear in this subject is “the need for mechanisms to apply this vision on the one hand, and to emphasize the important issue addressed by Tillerson in his speech, that there is no future for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, because we consider this issue to be the starting point for the treatment of any issue, for no issue can be addressed unless this corrupt system, which is a partner of terrorism, Iran, and all terrorist organizations is removed. ”
US Strategy Contradicting the Russian vision
The new strategy of America contradicts the vision of Russia which seeks to impose a political solution in Syria through a national dialogue conference for all Syrian factions under the label of “Syrian National Dialogue” in Sochi later this month. Through this conference, Russia will impose the decisions of the Conference on the United Nations after giving them international legitimacy, which will make the UN-backed Geneva negotiations meaningless.
However, many analysts consider that America will not allow Russia to reach a solution on its own and that there will be no political solution without the approval of the United States. So, Washington is working to abort Sochi conference before it is held by convincing its allies in the United Nations not to recognize it, which prompted Moscow to accuse Washington of obstructing the conference process through statements that negatively affect the position of the Syrian opposition, and pushing groups of opposition not to take clear positions about the conference. This was in reference to the “Supreme Body of Negotiations,” which warned of the “danger” that could be caused by “Sochi conference.”
A New Cold War
Tillerson’s statements and the American strategy may lead to increased tension between the two parties, each seeking to extend its control over Syria, from the Middle East gate, while the Syrian people who has become the victims of international conflicts is still paying the price, as affirmed by Ramadan who called on all international and regional parties to “neutralize the situation of polarization and conflicts between them about the Syrians and their pain, because the Syrian people made great sacrifices, and we assume that everyone must neutralize their conflicts or polarization, including the creation of areas of influence of the major powers, as now happens for the US-Russian parties.”
On the possibility of an American-Russian clash, Ramadan pointed out that considering the situation of polarization between the two parties as typical only with the Syrian situation may not be accurate because there exist major issues between the two parties that overcome the Syrian scene which further complicates the situation in Syria.
Ramadan pointed out that “the existing crises in the US-Russian relationship are beyond the situation in Syria,” believing that ” the Syrian case remains one of the major problems facing the two parties though, which could develop to an issue larger than the current polarization, leading to an advanced stage in Cold War, and may even witness what is called hotspots or proxy wars.”
Turkey is playing both sides
Turkey was a key player in Syria and was able to achieve part of its endeavors to control a large area of Aleppo’s northern and eastern countryside and offer it to the Free Army factions, which are being funded by it.
In the beginning of 2018, the momentum of Turkish intervention on the Syrian arena has increased, starting a new stage of playing both sides; the first with Russia and the second with America at the same time, despite the conflict of interests between the two sides.
Military movements in the vicinity of the city of Afrin, controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and the Idlib province, controlled by the opposition factions, point to a shift that could lead to a new clash on the Syrian front, spearheaded by the three poles (Turkey, America, and Russia).
Several questions and speculations have been raised about the goal of Turkey playing on the Russian and American sides at the same time. While some attributed it to the change in positions made by the Turkish government after years of conflict, others linked it to the oscillation of the Turkish government between the protection of its national security on the one hand, and supporting factions opposed to the Syrian regime on the other.
According to Turkish political analyst Mustafa Ozcan, Turkey is facing difficulties in the Syrian file since Russia is supporting the Syrian regime toward achieving full control over the Syrian territory, while the United States is backing the Kurdish forces which are classified by Ankara on the blacklists of terrorism.
Ozcan said in an interview with Enab Baladi that the current situation cannot be described as playing in both sides. Turkey is experiencing an “unenviable position,” which has pushed it to play on the side of all the influential forces in the Syrian file.
“The Turkish situation is serious now,” Ozcan said. “All Turkish developments and movements are now dependent on the Turkish government only, and what is going on in its borders is a process of protecting its national security, which is considered as a priority.
In Ozcan’s point of view, Turkey wants to complete what it had previously started in the Euphrates Shield operation. Its main objective now is to make the northern region of Syria safe, after stumbling over the past months because of the intervention of counter-forces including America and Russia, whose first step was to enter the city of Manbij in mid-2017.
According to the Turkish position and the recent statements, the Idlib province under the control of the opposition factions is linked to the fate of the Kurdish fighters in Afrin and Manbij, which the Turks have begun their operations on the ground to secure in coordination with Russia and Iran.
The Turkish developments came after a Russian deadlock on the Afrin file, the absence of seriousness about the Kurdish units’ departure from the region, or the suppression of its military role in the region, which led Ankara to a set of decisions that would defeat the Sochi conference, such as insisting on the non-participation of the Kurds. In fact, this is what America is seeking through opposing Turkey with the support of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria.
In terms of political action, Turkey is working on two tracks. The first is the “Geneva reference,” which is supported by US action, and the second is the “Sochi” conference which is promoted by Russia.
However, Turkey has reservations about the “Sochi” conference, namely the participation of the Kurds. It also has negative attitudes toward the Geneva reference with regard to America, which does not openly support the “Free Army” factions as it does with the Kurdish forces.
Turkish analyst Ozcan pointed out that there are different visions of the countries that support the Syrian file and that are still not compatible with each other so far. Turkey’s vision differs from all other international visions. It strives, to some extent, to preserve its interests and national security and support the factions of the Free Army as well as the Syrian people if possible.
“Among the priorities of the Turkish government is to ensure that there will be no Kurdish State,” said Firas al-Khalidi, a member of the delegation of the Higher Negotiations Authority. The Turkish move has been triggered by the PYD party announcement of its relationship with PKK and the recent US statement, which openly voiced its objection to the establishment of a Kurdish State.
Al-Khalidi said in an interview with Enab Baladi that what is required now is to suspend the activity of the PYD, thus eliminating the pretext of the Turkish. The PYD should declare itself as a Syrian party which adheres to the unity of Syria’s land and people and to stop its practices which have amounted to war crimes and demographical displacement of the Syrian people.
The Turkish-Iranian track in Syria, which Ozcan described as a kind of periodical harmony, cannot be ignored, for Iran has no consensus with Turkey, while Turkey is on a single path mainly based upon Iran’s approval of its positions. It has some reservations and sometimes has to bring it by its side at the level of real deal.
Will Iran be on the list of losers?
Unlike the previous years and in conjunction with the growing role of Russia, America, and Turkey in Syria and the conflict of interest, the Iranian element hasn’t been present during the making of policy in Syria, in a scene presenting indicators that may lead to the possibility of the decline of Iran’s role amid the increasing influence of the largest international powers.
Will Iran be the losing party in Syria? This question has been raised in the past few days, and as a response to it analysts stated that it is the preliminary results of US steps seeking to curb “the wide expansion of Iran” in the Middle East, especially in Syria, in addition to a series of measures which Russia and Israel are implementing consensually.
According to Syrian opposition Firas al-Khalidi, Iran is still an active agent and has not changed the way it has been handling the international scene. He stated “we are used to the way Iran reacts through its massacres and criminal acts that are offensive to humanity.”
He pointed out that the international community and all its actions has not managed to change Iran’s current position. No assessment can be made for the moment, and no stand can be taken concerning what is currently happening inside Iran.
The opinion of Brigadier-General of the Free Army and former member of the delegation of Astana, Ahmed Berri, has been similar to Khalidi’s statement. He considered that Iran is still active in Syria, stating that it is showing a standpoint in public while working on several different schemes in secrecy.
Berri added to Enab Baladi that the Iranian project, which consists of spreading Shi’ism in the region, is ongoing. Iran cannot retreat this project, especially after the losses that have incurred in previous years.
However, the Iranian project in Syria is faced with the American rejection, which is striving to limit its role in Syria as much as ISIS’, according US officials, who have confirmed this during a series of previous statements.
The growing role of America in Syria is currently representing a threat to the Iranian project. At the beginning of January, the United States has started implementing measures which signs have begun to manifest by welcoming leaders of the Free Army to discuss the possibility of activating military support again in order to fight terrorism and Iranian militias.
Israel also rejects the Iranian project in Syria, especially in the south of Syria, which has witnessed the targeting of Iranian bases in the vicinity of Damascus and Daraa.
In late 2017, the Iranian side has appeared as a prominent force in the south of Syria, ignoring the agreements of other countries (Russia, USA, Jordan, Israel).
Tehran’s moves indicate that it intends to reach one of the two fronts, either reaching the Golan or the Jordanian border. However, its moves have been hindered by Israel which has publicly announced its search with Russia to prevent Iran from reaching its borders.
According to a previous report issued by the Israeli Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in middle 2017, “Iran has turned into the first core problem facing Russia in Syria, for it will reduce the chances of fulfilling Russian interests there.”
MEMRI noted that Russia treats Iran as a “volatile State whose behavior cannot be predicted in advance,” suggesting the success of Trump’s mechanism against Iran.
The report revealed that the Russians are currently seeking to eliminate the Iranian role in Syria gradually, noting that the Iranians “are confident that the Russians are interested in leaving them in order to achieve other interests.”
The influential countries in southern Syria consider the arrival of the Iranian militias to the Syrian-Jordanian and the occupied Golan boarders as a “regional red line,” which necessitated direct interventions and which failed to curb the Iranian attempts of expansion in the context of the deceiving deviations that Iran has made in recent months.
Syrian Researcher: US return in the Syrian game… Iran is the loser
To find out about the new US strategy in Syria, Enab Baladi met the academic researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Sasha Al-Alou, who stated that “there are new American strategic features, but they are still unclear and can be inferred through the US intention to keep its bases in Syria, and changing arguments and justifications that stand for the existence of these bases from only confronting ISIS to Iranian influence. This argument is considered to be open-ended and difficult to be restrained by a time frame, such as ISIS war. The US position, which is rejecting and hindering the convening of Sochi conference following Moscow’s way, falls within this new, vague or unclear strategy, in addition to obstructing the reconstruction process and linking it to the political solution, which satisfies both, the United States and Europe. All these positions reflect the tendency of the new US administration to return as a direct and major player in the Syrian file. As opposed to the approach of the previous administration, which was trying to withdraw from the Middle East issues in favor of other regional and international powers (Russia, Turkey, Iran). “
Al-Alou added that this new approach of the American administration does not mean that there is a desire for undermining the Russian military and political effort in the Syrian file. Blocking or trying to block Sochi conference aims rather at hindering Moscow’s attempt to undermine the international effort to find a political solution, which is embodied in Geneva reference, as well as offering Russia a single victory in an international crisis such as the Syrian file which America and Europe have failed to solve for years.
Therefore, the researcher believes that Sochi conference will not be held only in one case, namely if Moscow is able to make a concession, that is adapting its vision to the political solution in Syria in a manner that meets the American-European vision. However, on the other side, the US-European interaction with Russia regarding the Syrian file is conditioned to a set of unresolved files, not only Syria but also Ukraine and the Russian military moves in the Arctic in a way that threatens the Scandinavian countries, in addition to Russia’s support for North Korea.
Russia’s plans in Syria will face the obstacle of the US that has many tools to block any political solution it finds unsatisfactory f, especially if such a solution comes from Moscow. According to al-Alou, the American obstruction of Russian plans can be implemented at different levels. At the political level, the United States has an alliance with the institutions of the active opposition in a way that can disrupt any political solution without the presence of a partner, just like what is happening now with the Syrian opposition rejection to Sochi conference, in return for not recognizing any alternative opposition Moscow is trying to create.
On the military level, the American presence on Syrian territory through military forces and bases would create a balance of power with Russia in a way that prevents it from exploiting its military presence to impose a political solution. At the economic level, the United States of America is able to hinder the process of reconstruction through its allies (the European Union and the Gulf States) (China, Russia, Iran), for the regime allies are unable to carry out the operation on their own. In addition, the American military deployment zone in East Euphrates guarantees the US control over the basic resources of the Syrian economy, in a way that makes it impossible to apply any solution away from the American vision.
Speaking about the outlines of US policy in Syria, al-Alou stressed that the foreign policy of the new American administration is not clear at present. However, through the interpretation of the American military return to Iraq and Syria and the statements of the American president and his administration, the outline of this policy can be anticipated. In fact, this policy can be characterized by turning against the previous administration policy of the withdrawal from the Middle East and managing it from under the table, and the direct return of America to be the main agent of policy in the Middle East and the sole point of balance in it.
The American strategy will likewise affect Iranian influence, according to Al-Alou, who confirmed that the United States of America announced that its presence in Syria after the end of ISIS aims at containing Iranian expansion and that it sees the future of Syria without al-Assad, as announced by Foreign Minister Tillerson days ago. This means that if Iran is not a loser in Syria then it won’t be a winner, too. In addition, President Trump is determined to cancel the nuclear agreement with Iran and to pursue the economic sanctions because of the Iranian ballistic missile program, which means the continuation of the economic crisis in Iran and restricting its ability to support its branches in the arena. This will certainly affect their ability to support the Syrian regime on the long-term basis.
What also reinforces the premise of Iran’s lack of victory in Syria, is the presence of Moscow, which considers Syria as a vital region that cannot be shared with Tehran, as well as Israel’s pressure on Moscow to limit Iranian influence in Syria. All these factors are added, to the fact that the Iranian influence in Syria is only linked to the presence of its foreign militias which will find it impossible to continue being in Syria under any solution. As for Moscow, it has many Syrian allies at the level of the army, the Alawite community and all of the regime’s supporters, and has the ability to even seduce those who have been recently recruited in the Iranian army from the Syrian side.
Military bases run by the active States inside Syria
The active States in the Syrian matter manage military bases in different regions within the areas controlled by the conflicting parties. Below, Enab Baladi will mention the most prominent military bases which were established by the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran on the Syrian territories.
US military bases
In South-East Rmelan town in al-Hasakah, the US established its first air base inside Syria, in November 2015, after turning Abu Hajar agricultural airport into a military airport, and sending helicopters as a first step to coordinate its operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
According to observers, the United States has equipped the airport with technicians and has extended its stands to 2,500 meters.
The second base is located in the town of Kharab Ishk, near the town of Kobanî (Ayn al-Arab), 90 km away from northern Raqqa, which is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, and about 35 km away from the Turkish borders.
The base includes military aircrafts and a military logistics support center. In April 2017, Carlton Everhart, a US Air Force General said that the airport “will play an important role in the transportation of supplies, equipment, and personnel,” according to agencies.
According to observers, the United States manages three other military locations in Al-Hasakah Governorate, the first of which is in the town of Tell Beydar in the north of the governorate and includes officers of the US special forces, as well as another location in Al-Shaddadah in the south, to support the operations of the Syrian Democratic Forces, in addition to a location in the Tell Tamer agricultural area on the Syrian-Turkish borders, and bases in Sarrin, in western Kobanî.
The United States also operates military bases in both Raqqa and Manbij.
In May 2016, the US-led International Coalition established al-Tanf military base under a British-Jordanian supervision, on the Jordanian-Iraqi borders. This base was the point from which military operations against ISIS in the region were launched.
Military factions in the Free Syrian Army have been trained in this base which is considered as a joint operations room. The most prominent of these factions are: Revolutionary Commando Army, Lions of the East Army, New North Syrian Army. However, the management of this military base is nowadays limited to logistical matters after al-Assad’s forces and their supporting militias took control of their surrounding area, in June 2016, before moving forward towards Al-Bukamal.
Russia is keeping two bases
Russia has kept two military bases in Syria after the surprising visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Khmeimim Air Base on December 23, 2017. This air base is located 23 kilometers away from the south of Lattakia, around five kilometers away from the city of Jableh, and 14 kilometers away from Qardaha. It has become the Russian soldiers’ station, since September 2015, with the start of Russian intervention.
The air base includes Russian air defense systems, helicopters and fighter aircrafts mainly used in recent military operations in support of al-Assad’s forces, and recently announced to be withdrawn of to Russia, following Putin’s visit.
The military base of Tartus, which Russia established in 1971, has remained as a naval base which is limited to logistic support and the supply of ships. After 2011, it has witnessed a noticeable activity which has later increased in conjunction with Moscow’s announcement of military intervention in favor of al-Assad’s regime.
Russia has hinted at the possibility of the arrival of nuclear cruisers to the base, under the ratification decision by the Russian Federation Council (Duma) on the decision to expand the military base of Tartus on December 2017.
Turkish military bases in Aleppo
After its military intervention in Syria through the “Euphrates Shield” Operation in August 2016, Turkey has established military bases in the northern and eastern countrysides of Aleppo, but has not officially declared them.
The first military base is located in the town of Dabiq in northern Syria. It was allocated to individuals only, without any heavy military equipment. The second base is located in the town of Akhtarin. It includes heavy artillery and military equipment, and it is the base from which Ankara targets the Syrian Democratic Forces’ locations in Tell Rifaat, Menagh, and the surrounding villages.
The Turkish forces also established a military base in Jabal al-Sheikh Aqeel, overlooking the city of al-Bab after the opposition factions took control over it, in early 2017, and it contains heavy artillery and military equipment, according to Enab Baladi’s sources.
Over the past months, Turkey has deployed monitoring points under the “de-escalation” agreement, which includes the deployment of Turkish military vehicles and Turkish troops.
In early January, the Turkish army deployed an air defense missile system in the town of Darat Izza in the western countryside of Aleppo, which is located near the city of Afrin, that is under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, as part of preparations for an expected attack which might occur in the city.
Iranian spread points
Tehran has established a permanent military base outside Al-Kiswah area in the south of the Syrian capital (Damascus), according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which quoted a source in the Western Intelligence Services, on November 2017, that Iran has set up a military conglomerate in a location of al-Assad’s forces outside Al-Kiswah area, about 50 kilometers away from the Golan Heights.
Iran is running a headquarter near Damascus International Airport, known as the “Glass House.” It is a fortified building with anti-explosion walls, five floors and 180 rooms, and is guarded by about 1,000 armed soldiers, according to Western reports.
According to Israeli reports, Iran has rented an airport from the regime in the Syrian territories in July 2017. The reports referred to negotiations to establish a ground air base where combatants of Iran’s militias would be stationed in central Syria as well as military bases in different areas of the country.
Tehran has also stepped up its expansion in the town of Al-Bukamal, in the east of Deir ez-Zor, which it seized with al-Assad’s forces in November, 2017. This town is considered as a strategic location for Iran as it is the gateway to the Syrian-Iraqi borders and a land route which Iran aims to open from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Different Syrian points of view regarding Washington’s position towards the Russian hegemony
Speaking of the Russian hegemony over the Syrian political matters, Enab Baladi has conducted an opinion poll on its website to reveal a sample opinion of the Syrian people about whether the other pole of the world, the United States, would allow Moscow to do so.
Nearly one thousand people took part in the poll, which asked the question: In your opinion, will the US allow Russia to be the only side which would take part of the resolution in Syria?
The majority of the respondents (52%) believed that Washington would not allow Russia to manage the political and even military resolution in Syria, either through supporting al-Assad’s forces on the ground and increasing their controlled areas, or even through conferences and political discussions called by Russian President Vladimir Putin, mainly the “Sochi conference,” to which Washington was invited as a “guest of honor”.
Ahmed Taleb considered Russia as the “personal guardian” of the United States in Syria. He commented by saying “Russia takes orders from the USA and does what is dictated to it, but secretly.”
Mohammed al-Khani had a similar point of view when he commented: “Russia is no more than an executor of the US orders.”
The remaining participants in the poll, who represent 24% of the total respondents, considered that the era of the United States has come to an end and that Russia has become the main and the first pole in the Syrian situation, and the only issuer of orders on the ground.
“Do you know that the USA is out of the Syrian matters and is playing its last minutes,” said Mohammed Abdi, commenting on the poll. Abu Deeb Maghlaj said: “In one move, Russia can solve the problem in Syria, but when it wants so.”
As it is a complicated matter involving several parties, the poll showed that 24% of the respondents are worried about the US attitude toward Russia. The participants expressed dissatisfaction with the current situation in Syria, and talked about a possible division.
Mamoun Budaqqa said: “Oh lord, we are being like puppets while others are pulling the strings.” He continued: “They are still preparing for something greater at a low pace.”
Khaled Al-Bouker said: “They will divide Syria. The USA will take eastern Syria, Russia will take the west, Tukey will take north, and Iran will take the passageways to the four countries,” referring to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon within the so-called “Shia Crescent.”