Syria means challenges for US, allies in future

We do not know if President Trump gave any agreements to Putin vis-a-vis the Middle East during their Helsinki meeting. However, it is quite possible that he signaled to Putin a further green light for Russia’s partnership with the Assad regime and to Russia’s growing footprint in the region.

The writing on all walls has been blatantly clear for quite some time: Putin is and has been salivating to increase Russian influence in the Middle East, an influence which may now flow to Iran as well. Simply and bluntly, neither Russia nor Iran are interested in going home after Bashar is, again, in total control of Syria.

This likely prospect is a danger to both the U.S. and Israel. Israel, naturally, is not sitting idle just waiting to find out what and how will any of this will materialize. In fact, the highest stakes in this “game” might well be those for Israel.

What complicate matters much further, are the dynamics imposed by several players and developments. Just to name a few: ISIS is making a comeback in Iraq just months after Baghdad declared victory and basically all of its occupied territories in Syria have been liberated, the rocky relationship we now have with Turkey coupled with Turkey’s new coziness to Russia and drift from NATO, the Kurds’ continuous struggle to carve a place that they can call home, plus the uncertainty regarding what Iran might do about the Golan Heights.

Over the past four years, the U..S has enjoyed a luxury in Syria that will soon disappear. The top U.S. priority (defeating the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country) was compatible with the Syrian regime’s top priority (defeating insurgents in the western part of the country).

In practical terms, this meant that Damascus acquiesced to U.S. operations and de facto control in the east while Washington gave up on the opposition in the west. However, this unwritten arrangement is now coming undone as both sides shift their objectives.

Although U.S. leverage is much diminished by the Assad regime’s recent gains, there are still opportunities for Washington and Russia to achieve a settlement that preserves some U.S. interests. Putin does not want to continue the air campaign in Syria indefinitely in support of an outcome that mainly serves the interests of Assad and Iran. Russia could therefore be expected to support a political settlement that meets its bottom line: no regime changes in Damascus and no permanent U.S. military presence in Syria, both of which seem to be just fine with Trump.

Such an agreement between Trump and Putin would hardly be a major concession for either. This “deal” could also deliver on Washington’s bottom line — preventing the re-emergence of the Islamic State and denying Iran a free hand to expand its influence in the Middle East. Russia is also wary of allowing Iran to dominate Syria and has no interest in allowing the Islamic State to flourish. In addition, our closest front-line partners, Israel and Jordan, have very similar objectives. Naturally, they are deeply opposed to any Iranian-aligned forces operating in their vicinity.

This is fertile ground for a settlement, and it is good should the Trump administration seriously pursue it. But if we want to succeed, we should condition any future withdrawal from eastern Syria on Russian commitments to constrain Iranian influence in Syria. Sadly, both Iran and our current administration have started a lousy, childish counterproductive war of chest-pounding tweets instead.

But, let’s be realistic, neither Russia nor the U.S. could oust Iran from Syria. Tehran and Damascus have been allies since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and Iranian manpower has helped turn the tide of the Syria conflict. Of course, removing the threat of Iran opening a new front on the Israeli border (most particularly the Golan Heights) and preventing Iran from establishing bases in Syria would be a win not only for the U.S. but also for all Sunni Arabs.

Expelling Iran entirely from Syria is a fantasy, and so is the expectation that the relatively new proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia (plus its Sunni Gulf allies) is about to end. To dismiss this proxy war currently raging in Yemen would be beyond reckless.

Should the Houthis (once a group of Shiite student activists, now seriously trained and seasoned militia) gain the upper hand in that conflict, we should not be surprised if ISIS shows up there.

Editor’s note: Mohey Mowafy is a retired Northern Michigan University professor.