Friday,28 April, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Friday,28 April, 2017
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Reverse-engineering Syria

Interpretations abound on the real meaning and significance of last week’s US air strikes in Syria, Al-Ahram Weekly considers the evidence

A Syrian army helicopter drops bombs on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa; Tomahawk missile; a helicopter hovering over Sharyat military airport (photos: AFP)

The US administration has sounded contrasting chords with regard to its plans for Syria. For example, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has stated that the Islamic State (IS) group is still the US’ strategic priority in Syria whereas US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has stated that removing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from power is a priority. Still, in the scale of “multiple priorities” in the corridors of power in Washington, eliminating IS remains a certain priority whereas ousting Al-Assad appears more in the nature of a wish. The US still adheres to its declared policy of non-intervention, so remarks such as Haley’s are tantamount to stating that Al-Assad’s fall is just a matter of time. The question remains when, precisely. Soon? During the interim period? Or to put it another way, will Washington include him in the framework of a political settlement or sideline him?

The debate of the divergence in opinions within the US administration over priorities in Syria is informed by another factor, namely uncertainty with regard to US positions on the various details of the Syrian question as a whole. The US bombardment of Shayrat airbase last week entirely altered the dynamics of the Syrian game, but the actual directions these dynamics will take remain unclear. Some analysts interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly believe that the strikes are part of the signals being dispatched between Washington and Moscow in the course of the US’ bid to reorder the situation at the political, military and geostrategic levels, after Russia, together with the Syrian regime, Iran and Hizbullah, had monopolised management of the situation, to the benefit of Al-Assad’s regime, during the period when the US was preoccupied with the US presidential elections. Russia, at the time, had also laid out a political track for opposition forces and their regional allies, such as Turkey, in Astana and Geneva.

Other analysts are of the opinion that Washington now has a new scale of priorities and that it starts with the regime, which had to grasp that the US sword is hanging over its head, no matter how much international and regional support it has. They also point to a second message addressed to Damascus’s allies, Iran and Hizbullah, telling them that they will never be able to establish a permanent foothold in Syria. The message probably contained an Israeli inspired footnote warning that Tel Aviv will not permit Tehran and Hizbullah to extend their land borders along the occupied Golan or towards the eastern Mediterranean. The third intended recipient of the message is, of course, Russia which has not succeeded in restraining the Syrian regime in accordance with the arrangements reached under the Russian-US understanding of 2014 regarding Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and drawing a red line against the use of such weapons after the attack against Al-Ghouta. Some analysts are of the opinion that the messages extend beyond the interplay over Syria, in particular to North Korea. The strike against the Syrian airbase was also a means to brandish the US stick in Pyongyang’s face.

In Italy, the G7 met, presumably to learn the nature of US intentions towards Syria. But Arab foreign ministers from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan were also on hand. The meeting took place on the eve of Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. Will Washington try to repair relations with Moscow in the framework of a new policy containment? If so, will it try to reach understandings over the coming phase and institute confidence building measures?

Mohamed Arslan, a Kurdish political analyst from Syria, maintains that the US strike against the military base in Syria was intended to convey political messages above all. “Certainly Russia, which has extended its influence over the part of the country referred to as ‘useful Syria’, wants a foothold in zones of US influence in the neighbouring sector in Raqqa and Deir Al-Zor. But no side should encroach on the area of influence of the other. When the Syrian army advanced in the direction of the Tabaqa corridor, the British and Americans immediately moved to halt that advance. At the level of operational coordination outside the areas of influence, it must certainly continue. It is impossible for it to remain frozen.”

Arslan, speaking to the Weekly, addressed the question of the war against IS in the context of recent developments. The war of Raqqa is ongoing and an important village — Al-Safsafa — has just been liberated from IS, he said. “But I do not think that the US want to eliminate the organisation (IS) at this stage. Rather, the current strategy is merely to weaken it so as to continue to use its presence for the purpose of strengthening US influence in eastern Syria as a means to counter the Russian presence on the other side.”

Soon after the US strike against the strategic Shayrat airbase in Syria, Russia struck Syrian Free Army positions near the border with Jordan. Immediately, concerns arose regarding the possibility that Russia-US tensions over Syria may lead to breaks in the understandings between them. However, just as divergent statements issued from Washington followed the US strike, so too did statements from Moscow. While the Russian foreign minister spoke of suspending communications with the US in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, two days later, indicated that it was impossible for communications to remain frozen, regardless of the circumstances.


A Syrian army helicopter drops bombs on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa; Tomahawk missile; a helicopter hovering over Sharyat military airport (photos: AFP)

In a New York Times op-ed column, Dennis Ross held that Trump had raised the stakes for Russia and Iran in Syria. “It is too soon to know whether any of these actors will test the administration. But the president and his administration should not be passive and wait to see what happens next. They should be conveying privately to the Russians, Iranians and Syrians not to test us, not to play with fire. With Russia, in particular, the message should be: The insurgency against Mr Assad is not going away, so if you don’t want to be stuck in Syria at a time when the price may go up, we are willing to work with you to implement the principles embodied in the Geneva peace process.”

As for the two most influential regional players in Syria, Iran and Turkey, the former is clear and unwavering in its stance: it still continues to support the Syrian regime and Al-Assad. Turkey, on the other hand, shifts back and forth, especially in its relationship with Moscow. It is still midway between mending fences with Moscow after their rift and between establishing a new mode of relations with the new Trump administration. One of the main factors that will determine which way Ankara ultimately swings is Moscow’s and Washington’s stance on the Kurds. Turkey is disturbed by the US’ continued support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but it is equally disturbed by Russia’s stance against the Free Syrian Army, which Ankara backs.


A Syrian army helicopter drops bombs on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa; Tomahawk missile; a helicopter hovering over Sharyat military airport (photos: AFP)

Nourhan Al-Sheikh, an expert in Russian affairs, told the Weekly that there could be another dimension to the messages delivered by the US strike. It is aimed domestically and pertains to a possible deal between the Trump administration and US intelligence agencies over suspicions concerning Trump’s relationship with Moscow. At another level, Al-Sheikh observes that the Russian-Tehran-Damascus alliance grew tighter in the aftermath of the strikes. However, she adds, much is contingent on how Turkey positions itself with respect to that alliance. “Will it remain an active member in it? The signs so far say yes, even if Ankara is trying to stick to a middle-of-the-road position.” She adds that Turkey is required for its political role as a keel in the diplomatic process. With the agreement between the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers over conducting an investigation into the Khan Sheikhoun incident, there may be greater prospects for bolstering the diplomatic track, especially in light of support for the position on prolonging the truce. Ankara would be able to remain a main player in the arena as a façade for Washington.

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