US Sidelined as Russia Steers New Regional Course in Syria

WASHINGTON — The dominance of Russia and Iran in new efforts to end the Syrian conflict is exposing the lack of a comprehensive US strategy for the post-war order in the region.
As the Islamic State (ISIS) loses more ground in Syria, Russia and Iran, key supporters of President Bashar Assad and regional rivals of the United States, are seizing the initiative with a plan for a political process they presented at a trilateral summit with Turkey on November 22 in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. The plan, which calls for fresh talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups, is overshadowing the UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva that are to be continued on November 28.
The United States was not present at the table in Sochi. Instead, Russian leader Vladimir Putin informed US President Donald Trump by telephone about the talks.
So far, Trump has largely limited US involvement in Syria to the fight against ISIS but has not presented a plan of what he intends to do after the military defeat of the jihadist militia is completed. “Trump cedes Syrian postwar planning to Putin,” Politico, the Washington-based news magazine, said in a headline on November 22.
A report by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), a pro-Israel think-tank in Washington, said this month it was high time the US took action in Syria. The report called for a US strategy to prevent Iran and Russia from becoming “the uncontested arbiter of Syria’s political future” and to thwart ambitions by the two players aimed at “establishing a permanent military presence along the corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean — an unacceptable threat to key US allies, especially Israel and Jordan.”
Similarly, more than 40 members of Congress called for a US plan to check Iran’s influence in Syria. In a letter to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the lawmakers drew attention to reports that the Iranians were building arms factories in Syria.
The US government says it sticks to the UN-led Geneva process for Syria but has created the impression that it lets Russia take centre stage in diplomatic efforts. As Assad’s military and political partner, Putin “bears a certain responsibility for trying to help out Syria,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington on November 21.
But there is no indication of a comprehensive strategy. Announcing a telephone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on November 24, Trump complained on Twitter about “the mess that I inherited in the Middle East.” The US president insisted that he would solve conflicts in the region but gave no details. “I will get it all done, but what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6 trillion), to be there in the first place!,” he tweeted. It was not immediately clear what he meant with the sum of $6 trillion or with the reference of being “there.”
According to Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Trump told Erdogan in the telephone call that the US would stop sending weapons to a Kurdish militia fighting ISIS in northern Syria, fulfilling a long-standing Turkish demand. Washington previously said that arms shipments would stop with the military defeat of the jihadists.
But it remained unclear how the end of armed US support for Syrian Kurds would fit into the overall picture of America’s policy in Syria. Quoting US officials, the Washington Post reported on November 22 that the US intended to keep a military presence in Syria even after a defeat of ISIS in a bid to prevent Assad from reconquering all of Syria, which could benefit Iran. US troops in Syria are mainly deployed in Kurdish areas in the north of the country.
Thomas Seibert
is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
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