While the Obama administration and Russia are trying hard to salvage something of their wrecked joint initiative on Syria, there are signs that a secret deal between Washington and Moscow may have come close to total failure.
Implicitly admitting the failure of their deal, both sides have been trying to put the blame on the other side. The US Secretary of State John Kerry has blamed Russia for the air attack on an aid convoy, coming close to designating the incident as “a war crime.” The Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has accused Kerry of putting on “a bad political show”, and “telling tales.”
Cracks in the deal became apparent when Moscow started leaking selective parts of the supposedly confidential deals. “Russia needed to report some progress in finding a solution for Syria,” commented the influential Moscow daily Kommersant. “It was also important to show that Russia was working with the US, no longer isolated.”
The leaks from Moscow came on the eve of parliamentary elections which President Vladimir Putin’s supporters won, albeit with a low voter turnout. Russians are extra sensitive about being shut out of global politics instead of being respected as a credible power. The rumored deal on Syria enabled Putin to reassure his home base that Russian involvement in Syria was not an open-ended commitment and that a slow return to normality with the US and its allies was no longer impossible.
“The US and Russia made two mistakes,” says Alireza Hervai, an Iranian analyst. “The first was to sideline both Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his Iranian backers. The second was to spread rumors that they had a secret deal which could exclude everyone else, including both Assad and Tehran.”
To complicate matters further, some analysts have noted a growing rift within the Iranian leadership regarding Russia’s role in Syria. For the first time, voices are heard in Tehran questioning the cost of the Syrian adventure both in economic and human terms.
It was in response to such voices that President Hassan Rouhani, in New York for the United Nations’ General Assembly, tried to tone down Iranian involvement. In an interview with the NBC television channel, he said the only solution in Syria was political. More significantly, he did not repeat the so-called “red line” mantra of Tehran that Bashar Al-Assad must remain in power until the end of his term.
Initially, the daily Kayhan, reputed to reflect “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s views, had praised Russia’s intervention as a contribution to the Islamic Republic’s strategy of excluding the US from the Middle East. In a front page editorial by its leader writer Saadallah Zarei, the daily claimed that Russia was “clearly taking the side of forces fighting World Arrogance (i.e. the United States). However, that view changed when Russia, with support from the United States, negotiated a limited truce around Aleppo. It was during that truce that Iran suffered its heaviest loses when Syrian rebels attacked the Iranian position in Khan-Touman killing dozens of elite “Green Beret” paratroopers.
Kayhan came back to note that since Russia became involved in the Syrian imbroglio, Iran and its allies, including the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, and several units of Iraqi “ volunteers for martyrdom from the Fatihyn Brigade, not to mention the Fatimiyoun Division of Pakistani and Afghan Shiites, have sustained more losses in exchange for virtually no territorial gain. “With Russian involvement, Iran had a choice to either maintain its separate command and control or put all its forces under Russian command,” says Canadian military analyst Hamid Zomorrodi. “Tehran decided to maintain its separate command while giving Russian permission to sue Iranian bases for air attacks on Syrian targets.”
That choice, many analysts believe, was a bad one. It gave the Russian carte blanche in Syria which meant they could often ignore Iranian tactical concerns and strategic aims. To reinforce the sense of buyer’s remorse in Tehran regarding Russian intervention, Syrian dictator Assad started flirting a bit too closely with Moscow, at times even hinting that while Moscow was becoming “the favorite”’ Tehran was now only “a temporary wife”.
The point was hammered in Tuesday evening when Buthaina Shaaban, a close aide to President Assad, told the BBC that all those interested in Syria should now “listen to Russian Foreign Minister, (Seregi) Lavrov , listen to Moscow”, not to other people and capitals.
President Assad and his clan may be surprised to learn that the supposedly secret deal between Lavrov and Kerry included steps to escort Assad out of power within a maximum of 18 months. Russian officials are not prepared to be publicly quoted on this. Yet, they make it clear, albeit in a roundabout way, that the chief aim of their presence in Syria is not to prolong Assad’s hold on what is left of his presidential powers in Damascus. On a number of occasions, Putin himself has hammered the point in by admitting that there is no “military solution” to Syria, in contrast to Assad’s boast about “liberating every inch of lost territory” by war.
“Putin knows that Syria is like a tar baby,” says a Russian analyst on condition of anonymity. “Anyone embracing this broken and fuming carcass would be cursed. Putin does not want to inherit that alone.” US officials claim Russia may want to prolong the Syrian tragedy to keep the refugees flowing into Europe, thus destabilizing Western democracies by encouraging radical parties of the left and the right.
That, however, is too Machiavellian a scheme even for an arch-Machiavellian like Putin to adopt. Putin knows that even if he wins full control of Syria he would still have to find $1 trillion to start rebuilding the shattered country and prevent it from becoming a vast marshland of instability in which terrorists breed like deadly mosquitoes. If Russia is perceived as “the enemy”, at least some of those mosquitos may choose to fly there for a tour of jihad.
“Rebuilding Syria would require massive support from the West and the oil-rich Arab states,” says a former Russian official now based in London. “That support would not, could not, come as long as Assad is kept as a scarecrow.” Thus, Russia needs to keep channels open not only to the US but also to the European Union and the Arab states, and, more importantly, the Syrian forces opposing Assad.
As for the US, few analysts believe that President Barack Obama is really interested in a genuine settlement in Syria. All he is seeking is a “diplomatic fudge” to enable him to claim that he calmed things down, protected the Christian minority in Syria and established a working partnership with Russia, all without involving the US in “another Middle East war.” The American policy, if one could call it that, was undermined further on Wednesday when Kerry told a press conference in New York that the alternative to his efforts to do “something with our Russian partners” was to do nothing.
Russia and is Syrian protégés got the message and resumed bombing Aleppo with unprecedented intensity, confident that their actions would be cost free in terms of retaliation.Sources within the Obama administration tell us that the president has rejected suggestions by more than 50 officials working on Syria at the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA to make it clear to Assad that unless he stops bombing civilians he would face some kind of punishment. One suggestion was to retaliate by launching cruise missiles at Assad’s air bases after notifying him of the attack so as to minimize casualties. Obama rejected even that.Despite seemingly desperate diplomatic efforts, the Syrian tragedy seems likely to continue awhile.