It has been agreed, at least between the US and Russia, that the roadmap for peace in Syria should begin first in establishing de-escalation zones that might eventually, with time, lead to a lasting settlement of the ugly war in this bleeding country. The US President, Donald Trump, had pledged, during the presidential campaign, to help the “suffering Syrian people” if he were to win the election. He clearly advocated for ending their immediate miseries by building what he described as “a big beautiful safe zone” in Syria. Trump has repeated his support for safe zones as recently as last May, in a telephone call with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
But the US Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, has surprisingly, contradicted his president when he cautiously expressed his reservation about the safe zone proposition, suggesting that such proposals are complicated and difficult to implement in the Syrian situation. When asked to explain the different views between the White House and the Pentagon, a highly placed former US diplomat, who preferred to remain anonymous, told this writer, “this reflects the fact that America does not consider Syria to be of a vital interest for the US”.
What Mattis really meant was not necessarily a mere open objection to the principle of safe zones, “but the consequences that follow such a decision”. For any safe zone initiative to succeed, “it requires deeply serious commitment in military terms to protect the people who live within these zones, and that’s what the Pentagon’s generals are against”, the diplomat said. In other word, the administration is keen to end the war in Syria but without any physical role that might involve deployment of forces on the ground.
However, what the Americans have eventually opted to do is to cooperate with the hugely dominant force in the country, Russia, to set up what the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, described as “de-escalation zones”. The Russians are perfectly happy with this approach as it strategically fits Moscow’s policy in the country, since it provides them with the opportunity to remain the main power that it would enjoy the authority of determining the future of Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus.
The unlikely alliance
The unlikely trio alliance between Russia, Iran and Turkey have mysteriously brought the three countries closer together over Syria’s crisis despite their contradictory and hugely different interests in the country. The have earlier signed a joint memorandum establishing four safe zones across the north, central and southern parts of Syria in Astana, Kazakhstan. Despite their obvious differences, Russia and Iran are the reluctant allies in supporting Al Assad, while Turkey is allied to some of the opposition groups fighting against the Damascus regime.
However, the latest US-Russian approach does not guarantee putting an end to the human tragedy continuously unfolding in Syria. This understanding, which comes after the Astana’s memorandum, seems to be essential for both powers for their own different reasons. The understanding somehow, provides Moscow with the much-needed support in its endeavour to shape up politics in the country. On the other hand, the Americans, unlike the Russians, are not in a rush to completely end the conflict in Syria. Their main purpose is currently to avoid armed conflicts near the country’ southern borders, namely Jordan and Israel.
On the other hand, the Saudi-led Arab coalition and the main backer of Syria’s opposition, is highly concerned about Iran’s policy in the country and beyond. The coalition fears mostly the advantages the tripartite agreement over Syria would provide Iran. Tehran’s expansionist policy in the region is a source of major concern for the coalition, not only in Syria, but as well as Lebanon and the Gulf.
The Saudi ministry of foreign affairs have recently issued a statement confirming the kingdom’s continuous support of the international agreement on the future of Syria. It clearly stated that Al Assad “should have no role in any transitional period to bring the war to an end”, a condition the Iranians have fully rejected. Iran is heavily and directly involved in Syria’s killing whether through its own ‘revolutionary guards’ or through the militia of Hezbollah. The statement reconfirms the Saudi position on the Syrian crisis based on Geneva 1 Communique and on UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which clearly stipulates the formation of a transitional body that will run the country. This will ensure that any future political development in Syria should not be influenced by Iran’s regional ambitious policy.
However, the US has failed to show its muscles and the only tangible action Washington has taken during the seven-year-long war in Syria so far, was last April. In response to the sarin gas attack by the Damascus regime on civilians in opposition areas, Trump launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase. Almost six months later, we are not closer to understanding what his administration genuinely intends to do or achieve in Syria.
The ugly war in Syria has seen more than 400,000 of its citizens killed and almost half of its population uprooted. This war has uniquely resulted in an unprecedented international refugee crisis that is causing various levels of dangerous instability and creating acute economic problems throughout the Middle east and Europe. Safe or de-escalation zones may contribute to bringing tranquillity into some pockets in Syria, but in no way, they would bring the country to its final salvation.
Mustapha Karkouti is a columnist and former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. You can follow him on Twitter at @mustaphatache