Vladimir Putin was outstandingly smart when he managed to turn the Syrian crisis into a Russian opportunity by acting like a skilled hunter. You might miss if you try to aim too soon or too late. One must aim at the right moment.
We can also say that FM Sergei Lavrov cleverly interpreted the options of Kremlin’s master. Let’s not discuss the hundreds of thousands of dead civilians and millions of refugees and displaced. Policymakers do not shed tears and are not armed with napkins.
Using the Syrian fire, Putin prepped his battle of regaining dignity. He used all weapons without exceptions. He stated, suggested and hinted. He even used the strategy of advancing and retreating, which is not strange given that delusion is part of such complicated confrontations.
Using the Syrian battleground, Putin stated his objection to the superpowers. He then tried to convert his protest to a coup. He fully invested the presence of a US president who would retreat under the pressure of “Iraq’s complex.” He waited until the regime was close on falling to save it through direct military intervention, and since then, no solution can be achieved without having Putin’s fingerprints on it.
What was possible during Barack Obama’s presidency is no longer applicable under Donald Trump, or at least for now.
So, Putin seized the opportunity and searched for an issue that would attract the administration of Trump, neighboring states, regional players, and the international community. His choice landed on the “safe zones” or de-escalation zones, as the name suggested during the Astana talks.
The establishment of safe zones is requested by most concerned parties, even if they differ on their borders, their nature, and what should come after such a process.
Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon will benefit from the establishment of such zones, which would pave way for the return of Syrian refugees to their homes, or what was left of them. These countries will feel that Syrian refugees are not a permanent burden.
The Trump Administration has also discussed the importance of having such safe zones to alleviate people’s suffering and enable the international coalition to escalate its war on terrorism. In addition, the administration hinted to its willingness to accept the Russian vision on Syria if it would gradually come at the expense of Iran’s plan in the war-torn country.
The UN also welcomed the establishment of these areas to reduce the refugee crisis and enable humanitarian relief, especially in besieged areas.
The opposition too wants safe zones, seen as an opportunity to catch its breath following the series of tough strikes it received from the regime and its allies. It is natural for the opposition to raise the issue of Iran’s ability on being simultaneously the guarantor and the fighter, and the link between safe zones and a political solution based on UN resolutions.
It is worth mentioning that the general acceptance of safe zones does not resolve differences on how their borders will be set and what role observers will play, in addition to the comprehensive solution.
Turkey, for instance, wants safe zones without armed Kurds and the Kurds want these areas to be free of Turkish bombardment.
Most likely Iran would rather plan more arrangements around Damascus and al-Ghouta prior to the establishment of the areas in question. But, being the guarantor probably compelled Tehran to accept the plan.
As for the regime, it preferred to achieve a comprehensive victory because it is aware that an incomplete triumph would have repercussions on the Geneva talks.
The idea of safe zones can be interpreted differently and it reflects Lavrov’s wittiness. The organization for the establishment of such areas will put the issue of Bashar al-Assad’s fate on the back burner after it had been upfront for weeks.
The truth is Russia hasn’t changed its position on the issue. Moscow had always said that those who want to combat terrorism, allow Iranian militias to retreat from Syria, and request a secure Golan Heights should request so from the party capable of doing that, which in this case is the Syrian Army given that it is granted the needed support.
The Syrian Army referred to by Russia is the army with Assad in the picture whom the Trump Administration conditions his presence for a transitional phase.
A new reality prevails which is that the Trump administration hinted during its first 100 days in office on reestablishing old alliances in the region following a shaky situation caused by Barack Obama’s “academic policies.”
We are faced with a new US reading of the importance of the alliance with Riyadh. This was confirmed with a decision by Trump to begin his first foreign tour from Saudi Arabia.
There is also the US reading of the role of Egypt in the region, in addition to the alliance with Israel.
Putin had to anticipate this whole scenario by presenting himself as the person capable of establishing a temporary solution in Syria by setting the safe zones and deciding on their guarantors.
Putin’s success in making the safe zones the center of attention of all concerned parties and fortifying them by relaunching the Geneva initiative means that the Russian hunter is still capable of shooting the target at the right moment.
Of course, we must keep in mind that rules of dealing with Trump are different than that of his predecessor, which makes excessive cleverness as dangerous as lack of it.