Syria: All Quiet on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Or Deadlock?

The Trump administration has built a “wall” along the 1,320 km long Syrian borders with Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. Around 2,500 US Marines are strung out along a line that stretches north from the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border intersection along the Iraqi border in the east (1,000km) and turns north to Hasaka and Manbij to run parallel to northern Syria’s border with Turkey (320km).

At the end of January, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, with the blessing of the White House, issued strict instructions to the head of the US Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, and commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, Gen. Stephen Townsend, for US units in Syria and Iraq not to budge an inch from this line.

This line not only gives Washington control of the Syrian-Iraqi border and a large segment of the frontier with Turkey, but most painfully for Moscow and the Assad regime, control of Syria’s most important oil and gas fields.

Mattis’ directive included an off-limits order against any military force other than US personnel, including Russians. The Trump “wall” in Syria, although held by a relatively small force, is the most powerful lever in US Middle East strategic toolbox and a tough impediment for stalling Moscow’s – as well as Iran’s – foreign and security agendas in the region.

For the first time since Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015, Putin was stumped for ideas on his next step, especially when he saw that the Americans were ready to go into battle to defend their line. On Feb. 7-8, US air force reinforcements were called up from Iraq and Gulf bases to hammer Russian, Syrian and Iranian units to stall their advance from Deir ez-Zour on their way to breach the US line.

It was in this encounter that the Russians lost dozens of servicemen, some of them mercenaries, which Moscow has been loath to acknowledge. But it also triggered Putin’s decision to send his biggest guns to the Syrian arena this week for an ominous show of cold war muscle against the Trump administration’s activism in Syria. (See the lead article in this issue.)

The Russian president’s frustration over the US line is shared by his fellow players in the Syrian conflict, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, and Syrian ruler Bashar Assad. It also widened the gaps between them. To talk his way out of the impasse, Putin announced on Monday, Feb. 19, that a meeting would take place in two weeks of Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers in the Kazakh capital of Astana, to seek ways of “reducing the level of tension in Syria and pave the way for a leaders’ summit in Istanbul next month of the three guarantor countries (of the de-escalation zones in Syria)” – in a word to hammer out a measure of unity.

DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the de-escalation zones have melted away and exist only on Russian maps. But the Russian leader used them to cover up the friction between the three allies and his attempt to play for tiime in the hope of pulling them together against the common foe, who had tied a military encumbrance to their tails. But then, seeing his options narrowing, Putin decided not to wait for the Astana meeting before placing his highest card on the table:

  1. During 2017, Putin and Trump reached informal understandings three times on Syria’s transition from war to a political formula – all at high points of the storm in Washington over allegations of Russian espionage and meddling in the US presidential election. April saw their first deal to work together towards this shared goal. In July, they met briefly on the sidelines of the G-20 in Hamburg – but long enough to agree on the creation of three de-escalation or deconfliction zones in Syria. In August, during a diplomatic hullabaloo – after Moscow expelled US diplomats and the US countered by closing Russian consulates – the two presidents kept their heads down and agreed to expand those de-escalation zones in extent and number.

Can Trump and Putin pull off a fourth understanding in Syria in 2018 or has Putin’s military escalation put paid to any opening?

The Mueller indictments against Putin’s associates for trying to tilt the presidential election by “information war” will make it harder than ever for Trump to reach any kind of détente with Moscow, although he carefully avoided loud condemnation of Russia’s actions, as Putin will certainly have noticed.

  1. The Trump administration’s tough adherence to its military line in Syria, as seen from Moscow, ramps up the threat of a US-Russian clash of arms and its spillover into direct warfare between Iran and Israel. But Putin can’t afford an outbreak of Syrian violence ahead of his bid for re-election as president next month, because this would rob him of what he had envisioned as his crowning achievement of ending the Syrian war. With slim hopes of another understanding with Trump to smooth things over, Putin may have decided to ratchet up the confrontation, as he did when he annexed Crimea in the thick of the Ukraine conflict with the West.
  2. Putin appreciates that the Trump administration has an overarching interest in Iraq, more so than in Syria. With a general election due in Iraq on May 12, Washington is determined to cut down on Iran’s hegemonic expansion into Baghdad, come what may. The new defense line in Syria was drawn less against Moscow and primarily in pursuance of those two objectives –unless Russian forces supported Iran’s interests. The defeat of Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and a parliamentary majority win for pro-Iranian factions would negate US objectives and represent a major defeat for the Trump administration’s drive against Iran.
    On this point, Washington and Moscow are diametrically at loggerheads. Since the Americans removed their gloves in Syria – and the Russians have responded in kind – Putin decided that he cannot afford to dispense with his senior ally, Iran.
  1. Although the disparities between Moscow and its allies in Tehran and Ankara keep on widening, since both oppose Putin’s policies, the Russian leader, at this juncture, will line up with their interests for the sake of closing ranks against a common foe, the United States.
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