The Risk of the United States Handing Syria Over to Russia
Caroline Quinn, Analyst
More than two months after Russia, Iran, and Turkey introduced a plan to establish four de-escalation zones in Syria, the country is still stuck in violence and uncertainty.
In the fifth round of talks in Astana, held this week, the three guarantor states again failed to answer the two most crucial questions: 1. What are the boundaries of the de-escalation zones in Idlib, Homs, Eastern Ghouta, and Daraa, and 2. Who will monitor these zones?
Alongside delegations from the three mediating countries, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attended the dialogue in the Kazakhstani capital.
Bashar al-Ja’afari, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the U.N., led the regime’s delegation, while nine representatives of Syria’s armed opposition were present. This delegation did not include opposition leader Mohammed Alloush, who was lead negotiator at earlier rounds. Also not in attendance was the Southern Front coalition of the armed opposition, which boycotted the talks over Russia’s violation of a previous ceasefire.
The United States and Jordan were “observers” this round. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Stuart Jones was the U.S. delegation’s representative. Embarrassingly, Jones took his backstage role too far, and was caught napping between talks.
When talks concluded without any progress, accusations of “spoilers” were promptly hurled. The head of the Syrian regime delegation attributed the lackluster outcome to Turkey’s “negative attitude” toward the peace process, adding, “the Turkish delegation objected [to] the adoption of any documents” related to the implementation plan for the de-escalation zones.
The Syrian opposition called this an unfair characterization, instead shifting blame to Iran. The opposition rejects any Iranian participation, particularly in monitoring the de-escalation zones.
Ahmed Beri, FSA chief of staff, accused the United States and Jordan of banning the Southern Front factions from attending the talks in an attempt to threaten the unity of the opposition.
Alexander Lavrentyev, head of the Russian delegation, didn’t point fingers. Instead, he said no progress was made “due to the fact that everyone is waiting for the results of the meeting of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Hamburg.”
Lavrentyev wasn’t exaggerating. Following the pair’s meeting today, news broke that the United States and Russia, with participation from Israel and Jordan, reached a ceasefire agreement in southwestern Syria. Details about the agreement have not been announced, but this clearly signals a new level of U.S. engagement in resolving the Syrian conflict.
The United States wants Russia to take the lead in this process. Yesterday, The Daily Beast published an exclusive article detailing the Trump administration’s new Syria “strategy”: leave the regime in power, accept Astana safe zones, and allow Russian troops to police areas, much to Israel’s displeasure. In short, the U.S. policy is to let Russia handle Syria, leaving the United States free to focus on defeating ISIL.
While Washington retreats, Iran forges ahead, with Russian acquiescence, with its vision for Syria. Unlike the United States, Russia and Iran have unchanging policies — support Assad and ensure he regains all of Syria, respectively. As things currently stand, the conflict is frozen; Syria is de-facto partitioned. Tehran — which can only be hedged with Moscow’s pressure — is the benefactor of this situation.
By giving the Syria file to Russia, the United States emboldens Iran. It’s true that Russia and Iran have different endgames in Syria, but these variances do not mean that Russia will wean itself from Iran, as some in Washington believe. Russia has no immediate intention to abandon its ally, and will turn a blind eye as Iran cements regional hegemony. Already, Iran says it will lead Syria’s reconstruction process, using IRGC-backed companies to spread Iranian soft power.
Moving forward, there are burning questions ignored by the Astana talks and the Trump team:
1. The battle against ISIL isn’t over. In Raqqa alone, as many as 100,000 civilians are trapped. They face food and water shortages, as well as the potential to be used as human shields.
2. Even after military defeat of ISIL, militants will remain. Where will they go? Many analysts say to northwest Syria, which is already the site of a competition between the al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham. Both groups, which are unsavory by U.S. vetting standards, are trying to increase their influence in and around Idlib.
3. The preceding problem is worsened by ongoing Turkish-Kurdish tensions. On Wednesday, the head of the Syrian Kurdish YPG said that Turkish military deployments near Kurdish-held areas of northwestern Syria amounted to a “declaration of war” which could quickly lead to clashes.
The seventh round of Geneva talks, an initiative separate from the Astana talks, will take place next week. At the very least, these pressing issues — and a slew of others — must be put on the table. The excuse that there isn’t “time to go deeply” into such complicated problems is intolerable, and will only perpetuate the chaos unfolding on the ground in Syria.
Tom Dine, Senior Adviser
International diplomacy received a shot in the arm with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-day visit to Jerusalem and other parts of Israel this week.
This was the first-ever visit of an Indian prime minister to Israel; the Indo-Israeli relationship was broadened and deepened in a variety of categories and personalities. The bridge from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean took on a new, strong expanse.
The two countries gained independence from Britain’s imperial grip in the 1947-1948 post-World War II era. Both became vigorous democracies. Delhi and Jerusalem, however, kept their distance from each other. Indeed, they were estranged — India a part of the Non-Aligned Movement and catering to the Arab-speaking region, Israel a part of the West and with evolving good relations with China.
Following the break up of the Soviet Union, India and Israel established the basics of diplomatic relations in 1992. Official interactions were set in motion, helped along by the good atmospherics emanating from the signing of the Oslo Accords by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization a year later. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited India in 2003, welcomed at the time by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governmental headed by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Modi walks the Hindu right wing path carved out by Vajpayee, breaking away from socialist traditions of the Nehrus and befriending Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu as his guest for three days in the land of Zionism.
An emphatic impact of this week is that Israel’s relations with India became a multi-dimensional partnership, enriching each country and helping to reshape the region.
In looking at a listing of what Modi’s fast-paced, very substantive visit to Israel produced this week, note the repetition of the words “technology” and “innovation.”
Defense cooperation had already been the focal point of Indo-Israeli relations. Prior to the Modi visit, India had been importing $1 billion a year worth of Israeli military hardware. Then, in recent days, two arms deals were signed with Israel worth $2.6 billion for Israeli missile defense systems.
Space science and technology. India wants to develop satellite technology further in order to advance its missile defense systems. Modi agreed to raise the level of the partnership between India’s space agency (ISRC) and Israel’s Aerospace Industries (IAI) to new heights., benefitting both countries’ security.
India will receive cutting-edge water technology to control pollution of its rivers. This means water management, recycling, desalination, and the ability to begin cleaning India’s polluted internal waterways.
Agricultural cooperation was expanded this week. Israel will supply irrigation and related technology; this has the potential of boosting farm sector efficiency, reclaiming arid lands, and improving crop quality and quantity.
India’s cyber security policy will be receiving a major overhaul and modernization from Israel’s scientists and computer programmers. Catching up to contemporary times is a long way away, but Prime Minister Modi expressed the urgent need to start now with new technology, building innovative firewalls for the future.
During Modi’s visit, private sector science and technology deals were consummated. For instance, Zebra Medical Vision, a company from a kibbutz near Tel Aviv, and Bangalore-based Teleradiology Solutions signed a partnership to use analytics in 150 healthcare centers.
Israel has been called the “country of start-ups.” This knowledge of starting small businesses is overdue for India’s vast youthful entrepreneurial population to absorb.
Educational and people-to-people exchanges will be enhanced. Both societies have remarkable research campuses of higher education. Scholarly opportunities will be opened at both ends. It was agreed that India will set up a cultural center in Israel. Both governments will push tourism to the other, showcasing culture and creating connectivity.