Season of US-Russia deals, from Syria to Ukraine

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

By : Raghida Dergham

The prospect for US-Russia understandings remains open, despite the decrease in momentum recently due to resurgent distrust. A survey of views encountered at the Valdai Club in Moscow this week suggest that trade-offs are still possible and that the desire for a “grand bargain” is still there, with the theaters of bargaining extending from Europe to the Middle East. Yet no one in Moscow is scrambling to make concessions.

Rather, the current phase is one of preparation and signaling, in relation to possible deals and compromises, but also in terms of setting expectations and red lines. Based on conversations with informed observers and sources close to decision-makers, one can make several deductions on what shape these will take and where they will come from.

China is extremely crucial vis-a-vis the US-Russia tug of war. Moscow will not be willing to begin parleying with Washington if it feels the US is bent on creating a rift in the strategic relationship between it and Beijing. But Washington does not seem to be planning to antagonize Moscow to the point of pushing it fully in the direction of Beijing, thereby reinforcing the China-Russia alliance against US interests.

The message the Russians are keen to deliver to the US is that China is not a bargaining chip. The Russians are saying they are not willing to reveal their cards in advance, or even hint that they are willing to make compromises. “We don’t want them to demand us to sacrifice Iran today, only to ask for us to relinquish China tomorrow,” they say, in reference to the US approach to negotiations. In other words, China is outside all trade-offs, real or imagined.

Europe is the focus of bargaining, especially regarding Ukraine and NATO. Moscow has drawn a red line around Crimea, and said there will be no reversal of its annexation — or reclamation, as Russia insists — under any circumstances. Meanwhile, Moscow insists that any deal with Washington must include lifting US sanctions on Russia imposed since the annexation of Crimea.

Where Russia is hinting there could be space for trade-offs is the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. There, Moscow can compromise on its deep influence, which has invited more sanctions against it due to its alleged military incursion into Ukrainian territory in the wake of its invasion and annexation of Crimea — a charge stressed by Western powers, especially those that wanted Ukraine to join NATO.

The Russian view, however, is that most sanctions were imposed due to Donbass, and should Moscow cede it, Washington must lift the sanctions. Moscow also wants guarantees that the countries that recently joined NATO must not be used to deploy strategic weapons systems near the border with Russia, in the Baltic countries or elsewhere. They want confirmation that Kiev will remain neutral and not a “den” for NATO.

Moscow is convinced that this deal, although appearing bad on the surface, would be acceptable to the US “because Ukraine is very expensive,” as one observer put it, in that the high cost of maintaining it is not worth it. But there are other factors Russia could use to sweeten the deal for the US, “taking” in Europe and “giving” in the Middle East, meaning Iran.

Russian leaders understand US President Donald Trump’s need to be firm with Tehran. For this reason, it has been accumulating cards to use against Iran, especially in Syria, while also claiming that Russian influence over Iran is limited.

Russian-Iranian relations are complex, with military, strategic and economic layers. Firstly, Russia believes that had it not been for its air cover in Syria for Iran-backed fighters, Tehran and its proxies would have lost the war in Syria at great cost. Russia thus feels militarily superior, and that it deserves credit for victories in Syria, led by the fateful battle for Aleppo.

It also feels that pulling Russian cover for Iranian militias in Syria would leave them exposed to a rout should the US decide to intervene against them. In short, Russia has sharp tools to use with Iran, should this be needed in bargaining with the US.

Russian leaders understand US President Donald Trump’s need to be firm with Tehran. For this reason, it has been accumulating cards to use against Iran, especially in Syria, while also claiming that Russian influence over Iran is limited.

Raghida Dergham

However, this does not mean Russia is ready to abandon the alliance with Iran or use its huge influence to effect radical change in Tehran’s regional project, spanning Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Hence talk that its influence is limited.

In Syria, there is a kind of Russian-Iranian rivalry and a bid to share the country, either as a whole or partitioned. Moscow will not forfeit its Middle East gains enabled by the war in Syria, and is proceeding to expand its military footholds in Tartus and Hmeimim. Moscow wants guarantees for a permanent and unconditional Russian presence in Syria, and a major share in investments and reconstruction contracts there.

However, Moscow also realizes that Iran has fought in Syria and lost senior military leaders, not just proxy fighters, so it will not accept leaving without a price. For the time being, Iran will remain in Syria with Russian consent.

According to reports, agreements between Tehran and Damascus signed earlier this year were not limited to the economic sphere, but also included “agricultural exploitation” in the suburbs of Damascus.

The subtitle of this is demographic change and partition with an agricultural front, involving 50 million square meters in areas close to the Syrian capital. This is in addition to another 50 million square meters for an oil terminal along the Syrian coast, and Iranian acquisitions in telecoms and phosphate companies in Palmyra.

On the surface, the issue of withdrawing Iran-backed militias from Syria when a deal is reached to withdraw foreign forces remains an issue of contention between Moscow and Tehran. Practically, Tehran-sponsored demographic engineering simplifies the withdrawal of military forces led by Iran when its share in a unified or partitioned Syria is guaranteed.

Where will the real compromises happen then? Most likely, they will unfold in the post-war arrangements and stabilization efforts based on sharing the Syrian pie among Russia, Iran and Turkey. But what will the US gain in the Russian view?

The answer is eliminating Daesh and Sunni radical Islamism; containing Iran in Syria in a way that stops it expanding toward the border with Israel; and consecrating Russia as the strongest guarantor and partner of the US in Syria, instead of leaving the country in the claws of Iran and its militias. If the US and the Europeans want to benefit from reconstruction projects in Syria, there is enough for everyone, and Russia is ready to open the door.

The Kurdish element in the Syrian arena remains the focal point of intense bargaining between Turkey and the US. The clear Turkish priority is to establish a buffer with Kurdish forces along its border, and prevent at all costs the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Syria, especially when a Kurdish state in Iraq is now a forgone conclusion.

Turkey’s rejection of the partition of Syria, lest this lead to Kurdish statehood there, is in line with Russia’s claims that it is also against partition. However, the reality on the ground is different. Iran may be the guarantor against the emergence of a Kurdish state in Syria. In the end, one of the things these players are using as a bargaining chip is the prevention of Kurdish statehood outside Iraq, that is, in Syria, Turkey and Iran.

The Kurds are reminding everyone that they have been at the frontlines in the war against Daesh, and have led many victories against the terror group. They are the boots on the ground who have paid the price and deserve the reward.

By contrast, Arab countries have not sent any boots on the ground, whether in Iraq or Syria. They have thus lost the initiative, and found themselves lagging when it comes to bargains, deals, influence and sharing the “spoils.”

The Gulf is now returning to Iraq, as a party with influence over Sunnis there, in support of the US quest to prevent the areas liberated from Daesh from falling into the Iranian sphere — the Popular Mobilization Units or the Quds Force — from Mosul to Raqqa across the border.

Regarding the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the balance of trade-offs, some say he will not be around for long. Others speak of arrangements that have already begun for his “retirement.” There is talk of other names and posts, and accords ready to be made when deals are cut. But some say all talk about his fate is delusional because the grand bargain remains far off as there is no pressure on Russia to abandon him before the deals necessitate it.

Meanwhile, there is no indication that the US is in a rush to get rid of Assad. Rather, there seems to be a willingness to accept him as de-facto president while taking measures to further isolate him. The party absent from deal-making is Israel, with the US and Russia apparently keen to keep it away. Palestine is a low priority these days for many Arabs, especially after Iran rose to the top of the list for Gulf countries, along with the Yemen conflict.

Moscow is not prepared to pressure Iran into curbing its intervention in Yemen, along the Saudi border, because this is not a Russian priority. Perhaps this issue will later enter into the grand bargain, whose time has yet to come. There is still a possibility for a souring of US-Russia relations and the emergence of rival blocs.

If Russia will be in a bloc with Iran pitted against a bloc comprising the US and Saudi Arabia, Moscow will not be in a rush to defuse the important Iranian card in Yemen. For now, the Gulf countries are appreciative that Moscow has not obstructed their mission in Yemen or protested the actions of the Arab coalition there.

The Valdai Club held a vital conference titled “The Middle East: When Will Tomorrow Come?” Moscow is clearly rushing to occupy a position in that tomorrow, developing practical strategies for any scenario, whether in the framework of a US-Russia accord or clash. What the survey of the climate there did not reveal, however, were those hidden cards ready to be traded on the eve of the grand bargain. The time remains early for that.

Raghida Dergham is columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP — the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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