Quite unintentially, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin find themselves landed with competing areas of influence in Syria, the outcome of their increasingly polarized policies. Not only is Syria heading for balkanization for lack of coherent international strategy for halting the bloodshed, but, to their dismay, both rival powers are being sucked ever deeper into the bottomless mire of Syrian civil strife (see attached map).
As Moscow veered closer to Tehran, Washington marshaled its European and Arab allies.
This week, the temperature of US-Russian exchanges dropped to freezing.
From Tehran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Wednesday, June 13, accused the US of supplying weapons to Syria’s rebels and so worsening the conflict. He was snapping back at US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who a day earlier charged Moscow with sending attack helicopters to Syria for the Assad army to attack civilians. She said Moscow’s claim that its arms shipments to Syria were not connected with internal events was “simply not true.”
Russia, Lavrov retorted, was supplying conventional “anti-air defense systems” to Damascus in a deal that “in no way violates international laws. That contrasts with what the United States is doing,” he said, “which is providing arms to the Syrian opposition which are being used against the Syrian government.”
Rhetoric cooled as the powers split up Syria between them
Both were later reined in by their own governments. (See separate item on the British-German mediation bid.)
Before the two officials began flying off the handle, influential circles in Washington and Moscow quietly confirmed that Syria was becoming partitioned as a result of cautious and measured Middle East policy moves conducted by presidents Obama and Putin.
Each member of this precarious partnership recognized the limits of his strength, they said, and took care not to tread on his opposite number’s weak points so as to avoid exacerbating already tense relations.
Obama still firmly trusted he could rope in the Russian president on the Iranian nuclear issue by giving ground on Syria, whereas Putin’s interest was to avoid standing alone with Chinese President Hu Jintao once again, although the two had further deepened their understanding on Syria and Iran during the Russian president’s three-day (June 5-7) visit to Beijing.
This was confirmed in the official communiqué, “China and Russia have reinforced their opposition to foreign intervention in Syria” – while a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, “Both countries remain opposed to any forced regime change.”
Russia’s contact group overwrites US-sponsored Friends of Syria
But then, the fragile partnership began falling apart.
Thursday, June 7, before Putin’s return home from Beijing, US Department of State Syria coordinator Fred Hoff arrived in Moscow and, along with US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, went straight into conference on Syria with the Kremlin’s Middle East envoy Mikhail Bogdanov and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov. Nothing was achieved.
In Istanbul, meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a tough statement telling Iran to come to the next round of nuclear negotiations in Moscow on June 13 armed with “concrete steps” for curbing uranium enrichment up to 20 percent purity. Her words were addressed to Moscow to underscore Washington’s red lines for Iran – notwithstanding its willingness to work with Russia on Syria. Tehran responded by threatening not to come to the Moscow talks with the six powers.
By then, Obama administration strategists began to realize that the partnership arrangements with Moscow were going off the rails. This was further confirmed, by subsequent events. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington, Moscow had meanwhile forged ahead with its own diplomatic initiative.
The Kremlin demanded the dismantling of the US-sponsored "Friends of Syria," which brought 70 nations together for two meetings, including Arab and Muslim powers, and its replacement with a UN Security Council-sponsored contact group, which must not exceed 10 nations: the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Rebels threaten lines between Russia’s Tartus and Latakia bases
This contact group was designed to eclipse US and allied West European and Arab dominance over international diplomacy for Syria and its transfer to the triumvirate of Moscow, Beijing and Tehran, who would also henceforth take the lead on Middle East issues at large.
Lavrov’s mission to Tehran this week was to present the new Syria “contact group’s” terms of reference as articulated in a special statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry June 11.
"We proceed from the fact that Iran should be among its participants, along with countries neighboring with Syria and other states that have influence on Syrian sides. Without Iran's participation, the possibilities of constructive international influence on Syria will not be used in full."
Moscow’s message for Washington was that full and equal Iranian participation in international steps for Syria was its sine qua non for continued understanding with the Obama administration.
Our sources in Moscow report that it's hard to know exactly what caused this hardening of the Russian position on Assad.
At one level, Putin is seething over US support for the demonstrations against his presidency at home. However, in the Syrian arena, it may be attributed to the way the conflict had begun careening out of control. In particular, government forces had to be rushed to the coastal town of Latakia and the Alawite mountain-top town of al-Haffeh overlooking the coast to curb a rebel offensive. The rebels were threatening to cut the lines between Russia’s Mediterranean naval and marine bases in Tartus and Latakia and moved perilously close to the Syrian ruler’s mountain retreat under construction in the Alawite Mountains.
Moscow suspects US hand in the rebels’ Damascus attacks
Furthermore, last weekend (8-9 June), some 600 Free Syrian Army-FSA rebels struck three Damascus districts near the city center – one hitting a bus transporting Russian experts.
Assad sent in tanks to fight off the assault before it spread through the capital.
Tacticians in Moscow and Damascus calculated that since the FSA lacked the logistical and command ability to mount this sort of operation, Western or Arab intelligence – or both – must have set it up and taken part in its execution.
Russian intelligence suspected America was involved in the Damascus offensive with a view to its expansion until the violence forced Bashar Assad and his regime to flee the city for safer locations, such as the retreat he is finishing building in the Alawite Mountains. It is to be a fortress-city with many buildings and protected underground quarters to house government and military command centers.
While talk in the West focuses increasingly on Assad’s possible exile from Syria, Moscow appears to be coming around to accepting his eventual removal from Damascus – but only a far as his mountain retreat – not abroad.
This line of thinking is gaining impetus in Kremlin circles, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and military sources report – both from the declining situation in Damascus and the realization in top Russian military and intelligence quarters that Assad is coming to the end of his line. At some point, he will have to gather in his family, regime heads and loyal military units and officers – still a majority of the Syrian army – and quit Damascus.
Leaving Assad to rule an Alawite coastal enclave linked to Lebanon
In so doing, he would abandon the restive south and the central region of northern Syria and move his army to the Mediterranean coastal strip. There he would consolidate his control while his army would also secure the Russian military facilities entrenched there.
According to those sources, this move would herald the establishment of an Alawite Syrian statelet or enclave along its Mediterranean coastal regions (see attached map).
This enclave would eventually link up with another Iranian ally, the Shiite Hizballah, which controls large tracts of Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast, to form a new Alawite-Shiite entity under joint Russian-Iranian protection encompassing the eastern Mediterranean coastal regions of both countries.
To promote this master plan, Assad’s army is now concentrating on the purging of rebel forces in the opposition-led towns of Hafa and Latakia which control those coastal and mountain areas.
This eventuality, which appears to be evolving into a Russian strategic goal, would drive the Syrian rebels and their US, Turkish, Saudi and Qatari sponsors into the thick of the sectarian violence spiraling in the northern, eastern and southern areas of Syria.
In the short term, the rebels are expected to redouble their assaults on the Alawite enclave in order to drive government forces into the sea. Assad’s Alawite adherents, helped by the Russians, will try to expand their enclave, provide it with strategic depth and cut the rebels off from access to the sea.
The sum total of these moves would be the balkanization of Syria, an objective which neither of the world powers contemplated when first setting out their policies.