State Department spokesman Mark Toner is finding it increasingly difficult to comment on US policy toward Syria. After four and a half years of bloodshed, Washington is still deluding itself about Bashar al-Assad’s imminent overthrow. The State Department has begun singing a new tune about the settlement of the conflict, claiming to be in the «process to start the process», as the Americans themselves mockingly refer to this initiative. Toner says that Assad cannot remain in power, but that he does not have to quit his post immediately. The Americans now need the Syrian leader to play a role in the «transition process» that will result in his own ouster.
Washington does not explain what, exactly, the White House is preparing to transition to in Syria, and it cannot say anything about the proposed time frame for this so-called transition process. Toner added that the US is searching for «a political resolution to the conflict», but there is serious doubt that this is truly the case. The fact is that the United States is now part of the problem in Syria, not the solution.
Let’s start with the fact that in this briefing, Toner was commenting on the Oct. 23 meeting on Syria that was held at the Americans’ initiative in Vienna. Those four-party talks were attended by the foreign ministers of the Russian Federation, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The Russian Foreign Ministry agreed to the chosen format for the consultations. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is not afraid to sit face-to-face at the same negotiating table with his opponents. After all, it is no secret that Russia proposed a broader format for the negotiations – bringing in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, and Staffan de Mistura, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria.
It was particularly surprising that Tehran’s representatives were absent from the Vienna meeting. Toner had to specifically explain the State Department’s reluctance to see Iran play a major role in any political settlement in Syria. The State Dept. spokesman told journalists, «We could eventually see and think that Iran does have to be a part of any political resolution [about Syria]. I don’t think we’re there yet». The Americans believe that «Iran at some point needs to be part of the process». When this might happen and in what connection has not yet been explained. Such rambling statements from American diplomats might at first be mistaken for mere confusion. But in fact this is a firm, inalterable stance, taken by Washington with the intention of forcing Russia’s allies – or even mere supporters of Russia’s actions to end the war in Syria – out of the negotiations. However, this is an area where Washington is clearly losing to Moscow.
Even the West is starting to call Russia’s policy on the Syrian crisis «irreproachable», from the standpoint of international law. The Kremlin has confidently defended the fundamental principles of its political stance. Unlike Washington, Moscow has not been reduced to blackmailing countries that hold a different position on Syria. Specifically, Russia has not allowed itself to issue ultimatums to the leaders of these states, as American generals do when dealing with the Iraqi government.
While visiting Baghdad last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the commandant of the Marine Corps, demanded to end Iraq’s rapprochement with Russia. The White House is irritated that Iraq’s leaders have decided to work with Moscow and Tehran in order to further their common struggle against terrorism, and that annoyance began to increase in late September, when Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria created an information center in Baghdad to help coordinate their efforts to crush the Islamic State (IS). If the Pentagon was truly interested in battling IS, then it would be logical to expect them to join the work of that center, which collects and analyzes information on the state of affairs in the Middle East for the purpose of countering terrorism.
Why is Washington so upset that it is now twisting the arm of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, demanding that he refuse to cooperate with Moscow?
President Vladimir Putin offered an explanation. «It’s always hard to play a double game – to declare a fight against terrorists but at the same time try to use some of them to move the pieces on the Middle Eastern chessboard in your own favor», stated Putin at a meeting of the Valdai Club, an international discussion group. He added, «It’s not possible to win the fight against terror if you are using some of those terrorists as a battering ram to take down inconvenient regimes».
The State Department will not comment on the generals’ actions or their demands that Iraq not cooperate with Russia. John Allen, who is preparing to step down as the American Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, has also tried to persuade Prime Minister Abadi to refuse to work with Russia to fight terrorists. At that time a State Dept. spokesman responded to a request to explain Allen’s actions by stating, «I’m not going to talk about diplomatic conversations».
Of course those American generals could not take on a diplomatic role without the approval of the occupant of the White House, just as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could not simply move on his own to assume the authority to openly infringe on Iraq’s sovereignty. Members of several parties within the ruling coalition urged the government of Prime Minister Abadi to seek help from Russia, as did the commanders of the Shiite militia, which plays a key role in the war against IS and also controls large parts of Iraq. A significant segment of Iraq’s political and military elite no longer views the US as a strategic partner. Their future lies in Baghdad’s improved relations with Moscow and the further expansion of Iraq’s cooperation with its neighbor Iran. Official policies in Iran, as in Syria, are moving away from the American approach.
American diplomats could not manage to trade a thumbs-up on Iran’s nuclear dossier in exchange for the loyalty of Tehran in international affairs. Secretary of State Kerry hoped to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for the success of those talks, but it turned out that in the eyes of Iranians, the US signature on the agreement changes nothing about America’s steadfast pursuit of hegemony in the Middle East. After the Valdai Club meeting, President Vladimir Putin had a chat with the speaker of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly, Ali Larijani. The chairman of the Iranian parliament is one of the most influential politicians in Iran, enjoying the trust of the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and wielding enormous influence over Iran’s foreign policy. That man described Russia’s role in the Middle East as «very responsible and effective». Larijani emphasized that they «support the idea of Russia playing a more active role in the region and doing more to enhance stability and security».
Russian-Iranian cooperation in Syria, which enjoys the support of the Iraqi leadership, is emerging as an important factor in the attempts to stabilize the situation throughout the Middle East. Egypt is also openly expressing a wish to join the anti-terror coalition. And Jordan has begun to reorient its diplomatic efforts toward this goal. The survival of many Arab states is now more dependent on Russia than the US, which remains immersed in the illusions of its own exceptionalism.