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The Afghan Elephant in the Syrian Room

The Afghan Elephant in the Syrian Room

Saturday, 18 September, 2021 - 05:45
A Russian-Turkish patrol in northeastern Syria on Friday. (AFP)

Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon are awaiting a written waiver from the Joe Biden administration exempting the passage of “Arab gas” through Syrian territories from the Caesar Act sanctions.

These countries wanted written pledges, rather than oral ones, in wake of the fallout of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. American officials have stated that as long as Damascus was going to take a share of the gas and electricity, not funds, from the Arabs, then no sanctions should be imposed.

This is how Washington’s allies will approach the US in wake of the developments in Afghanistan, which was the elephant in the room during talks between the US National Security Council’s coordinator for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, Russian deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin and Russian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev. The images of the Taliban fighters flooding the streets of Kabul and the ensuing chaotic American withdrawal weighed heavily on the American-Russian negotiations.

The Russian delegation believes that the West now needs to stop giving lectures on “nation-building” because all of its experiences to that end, starting from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, have been failures. In other words, it believes that Russia is more capable of understanding nations and building them. It will not accept another “western failure”, this time in Syria. Russia, therefore, believes the West needs to strengthen Syrian institutions, including the presidency, and restore all the country’s sovereignty because the alternative may be the “Syrian Taliban’s takeover of Syria”.

Russia made out these demands clearly during the visit earlier this week by Syrian President Bashar Assad to the Kremlin for talks with President Vladimir Putin. Putin used the occasion to congratulate Assad on winning more than 95% of the vote in the presidential elections and to express his support to the government for controlling 90% of Syrian territory.

“The only obstacle to reconstruction is the presence of foreign forces” and some “terrorist pockets” in Syria, he claimed. These stances reflect Moscow’s support to government efforts to expand the “settlements” in southern Syria and pressure the Kurds and Damascus to kick off political dialogue aimed at restoring sovereignty while acknowledging the Kurds’ diversity. Russia will pressure the Kurds to hold this dialogue when deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov meets with President of the Executive Committee of Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), Elham Ahmad. On the military level, it will implement its efforts by encouraging or preventing Turkey and its allied factions from attacking America’s allies in the region east of the Euphrates. These allies are seen as an obstacle to restoring sovereignty.

This approach also encourages Arab countries to normalize relations with Damascus on the economic, political and security levels. On the internal Syrian political level, the cards of the opposition no longer figure in Moscow as a “legitimate opposition” no longer stands. It does, however, approve of the Constitutional Committee, with its opposition and government delegations, holding a ninth round of talks in Geneva next month.

Russia will firmly reject being held responsible for failure in Syria and it is banking on the US turning a new leaf there. The evidence is there: In spite of all the American pledges to their Kurdish allies east of the Euphrates, experience has shown that a radical change in policy is possible, even with Biden in office. His allies sensed that with the pullout from Afghanistan and the signing of the tripartite agreement with Britain and Australia behind the European ally’s back.

The Afghan experience has weighed heavily on American thinking in Geneva and has bolstered the idea of steering clear of playing a “leading role” in the Syrian file or of “washing hands clean” of it. The US suddenly shifted from the “maximum pressure” policy of the Trump era to the policy of neglecting Syria. It has been suggested that the ten years spent over the conflict has bolstered the new-old American team’s conviction that the Russians don’t want or cannot force Damascus to change its behavior. In either case, the US finds itself without any cards or incapable of or unwilling to use its existing methods, such as sanctions, military deployment or isolation.

As a result, a feeling has persisted that the Americans do not want to introduce radical change in either direction, meaning they do not want complete normalization and they are not seeking maximum pressure. The situation will therefore, remain as it is until the next surprise is sprung by the American player or is allies and foes. The surprise will most likely emerge from the east, where the military forces are deployed.

Amid this American-Russian stalemate, it appears the only agenda Washington and Moscow can agree on is humanitarian aid, whether it is cross-border or through pipelines, with focus on “early recovery” and “Arab gas”, arrangements between Damascus and the Kurds, and with some minor attention shown to the Constitutional Committee - for the sake of keeping the political process and UN Security Council resolution 2254 alive.

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