US Tradeoff for Russia: Take NE Syria – But Degrade Iranian Presence

US President Donald Trump told his cabinet on Wednesday, Jan. 2, that the drawdown of US troops from Syria would happen “over a period of time.” He did not elaborate since his administration is in the middle of secret negotiations for determining what happens to Syria after that drawdown. US Arab Sunni Gulf partners are already beginning to remold Syria’s post-US pullback. And if ongoing feelers and discussions pan out and ripen into understandings, a US-Russian deal may emerge.

It is projected to settle on the following lines: The Americans will mobilize a Sunni Arab military, political and economic presence for Syria opposite Iranian influence, while the Russians force Iran to pare down its military profile in the country and ultimately remove itself.

The prime mover pushing the pieces back and forth between Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin is US National Security Adviser John Bolton. He is the highest-ranking American visitor to be seen in Moscow these days.

According to some authoritative Washington sources, Trump has assigned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with another mission: As former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (January 2017 to April 2018), he advised Trump to employ him as point man with the US intelligence community, in which prominent voices continue to accuse Moscow of helping Trump’s 2016 election victory. Pompeo has undertaken the delicate task of keeping relations between the intelligence community and the White House on an even keel. Interaction with Moscow was assigned to Bolton.

This setup drew a puzzled comment from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Dec. 24: “I haven’t spoke to him [Pompeo] in a long time,” he said in a TV interview. “I have the impression that he doesn’t even handle foreign policy towards Russia any more. If it would be different, he’d know that we need to meet and talk. Dealing with the Russians has obviously been delegated to John Bolton.”

Lavrov appeared to be fishing for confirmation that Bolton was Trump’s credible emissary and wondering what Moscow could expect from Pompeo and the CIA. This information is vitally important as the Kremlin and the White House feel their way toward an understanding on Syria. While most Washington and the Middle East were taken aback by the Trump announcement of his decision to pull US forces out of Syria, the more knowledgeable Kremlin took it in its stride. The next day, Putin commented that Trump had got it right when he said that ISIS had been defeated and withdrawal was the right thing to do. He also stressed that meanwhile not a single American soldier had left the country. Putin evidently knew from the start that the US pullout would stretch over months and advance in stages.

Indeed, careful choreography guides those stages, DEBKA Weekly’s sources report. The first centers on the northern Syrian town of Manbij. Whomsoever controls this town, will be able to cross the Euphrates 30km away and take control of the eastern bank. This week, Syrian government forces and a sprinkling of Russian Spetsnaz (special forces) officers moved into position on the southern outskirts of Manbij to await developments, while large-scale Turkish forces stood on the border not far from Manbij, ready for orders from Ankara to march on the city. Their allies, Turkish-backed Syrian Turkoman militia fighters are ready to move in from the town of Arima, 30km from Manbij. The town itself is occupied by US Marine units and Kurdish YPG militia forces.

Ankara failed to obtain approval to move forward from either Washington or Moscow.

Manbij is therefore hemmed in by conflicting armies. An incautious step by any of them could spark a bloody showdown. They are all on tenterhooks while Trump and Putin negotiate terms for a deal which would allow the Syrian-Russian force to go forward. That deal would determine the distance the combined Syrian-Russian force crossing the river would be allowed to cover and on what terms.

DEBKA Weekly sources report that Donald Trump is playing Manbij as his ace in the hole for extracting a promise from Putin to act with the same resolve as Washington for cutting short Iran’s presence in Syria.

The Americans are meanwhile moving forward apace with their post-withdrawal plans.

In the last few days, Egyptian and UAE military officers visited Manbij and checked out the US and Kurdish YPG militia positions ahead of positioning their own troops instead. In ongoing talks with the UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammed Bin Ziyad (MbZ) and Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi, Trump is offering a deal: They will take over US positions in Manbij, where the Kurds have sought protection against a Turkish invasion, and the US will provide air cover against attack.

Bashar Assad is expected to welcome the arrival of his former Arab enemies – not least because the UAE can well afford generous funding for the colossal task of rebuilding his war-ravaged country. The White House hopes more Sunni Arab forces will deploy to Syria and take up positions for pushing the Iranians out of key areas of Syria.

On the diplomatic front, the US President and Bolton have given the green light for the Sunni oil emirates to flock back to their long-shuttered embassies in Damascus with open checkbooks. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Algeria are expected to follow the UAE, which this week reopened its embassy. A move is also afoot for them to invite Assad to return to his seat at the Arab League table at the March summit, after years of being ostracized and barred from inter-Arab events.

The returning ambassadors will inform the Syrian president that cash for reconstruction will be available only after the Iranians are gone.

The Trump administration is by and large leaving Israel and Turkey to get along with Russia in the Syrian arena, although Secretary Pompeo again confirmed the promise of US air support for Israel’s air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria when he met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, Jan. 2 in Brazil.

This pledge, to be integrated in any Trump-Putin deal for Syria, has substantially strengthened Israel’s hand in its dealings with the Kremlin.

Therefore, when Moscow protested against the large-scale missile attack that Israel staged on Dec. 25 against Iranian facilities embedded in Syrian military compounds, an IDF spokesman shot back with a counter-complaint. Moscow was accused of reneging on its guarantee of last June to keep Iranian forces 80 km back from Israel’s border.

The US State Department then stepped up to say: “Iranian support of and supply to terrorist groups in Syr8a and across the region that have the clear intent and capability to strike Israel are unacceptable. The United States fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself against the Iranian regime’s aggressive adventurism and we will continue to ensure that Israel has the military capacity to do so decisively.”

This message was in fact addressed to Moscow. So long as Russia does not deliver the goods on holding Iranian forces 80km back from the Israeli border, neither Syrian nor Russian forces will be allowed to cross the Euphrates into the eastern Syria.

Bolton is expected to tie up the ends of Israel’s role in post-US pullback when he visits Jerusalem as well as Ankara in the first half of January. The Trump message gained military teeth with the arrival in the Persian Gulf of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group. The group has come with a variety of missions – not just to curb Iranian expansion, but also to draw a line against Chinese encroachments and more (as DEBKA Weekly reveals in its next article.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email