Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview that the United States is welcome to join the battle against «terrorists» in Syria — as long as it is in cooperation with his government and respects the country's sovereignty. He believes that President Donald Trump's commitment to fighting terrorism and the Islamic State (IS) is «promising». According to him, «It's still early to expect anything practical. It could be about the cooperation between the US and Russia, that we think is going to be positive for the rest of the world, including Syria». Assad also told Yahoo News that his country would welcome US «participation» in the fight against terrorism but it has to be in cooperation with the Syrian government. The remarks by Mr. Assad appeared to signal that he might be more amenable to dealing with the new US president.
It's not the first time the Syrian leader has praised Trump. Last November, Assad said that the US president would be a «natural ally» if he held fast to his hard line on terrorists. In an interview with a Portuguese state broadcaster, Assad said he didn't quite know what to expect from the Trump administration but hoped that it would aid Damascus and regional allies Russia and Iran in defeating the extremist enemy.
It’s relevant to note here that Bashar al-Assad had said before he was prepared to negotiate on «everything» as the Astana process develops. In his interview with French RTL, the president said «There's no limit to negotiations». Assad also said that he would be prepared to relinquish the presidency, should it become necessary.
The recent Assad’s statement is made before the peace talks sponsored by Russia and Turkey in the Kazakhstan capital Astana resume on February 15 and 16. The UN-brokered Geneva talks are scheduled to start on February 20.
Donald Trump has said he prefers Bashar al-Assad over any alternatives. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal he said that his administration’s top priority in Syria would be to defeat the Islamic State (IS) group, rather than ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Under Trump, the US has been encouraging the Astana talks as a step toward a broader political settlement that will require American participation. The US president has suggested withdrawing support for the Syrian rebels still fighting in east Aleppo, neigbouring Idlib province and the south of the country, which could prove to finally tilt the war in the Syrian government's favor.
Step by step, the US and Syria are moving away from the brink of confrontation to a kind of dialogue, which could be maintained with Russia’s help as a mediator. Even without a direct communication between the governments, America and Syria could make arrangements to define the zones of influence and mutual obligations. Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have clout among the groups, which have armed formations operating in the country. Russia cooperates with these actors as well as Syria’s government. The US has influence with some groups, especially the Syrian Kurds. Joining together, the parties could gradually move forward to facilitate the Astana process.
Russia and the US should learn to cooperate in finding solutions to the conflicts and not in Syria only. There is a big chance they will soon need this experience while addressing the situations in Libya, Algeria, and Afghanistan and, may be, Iraq and Yemen. The cooperation could spread to other areas as part of broader process.
Joining together could happen much earlier than expected. The US-led coalition has so far failed to liberate Raqqa, the Islamic State (IS) unofficial capital. Russia-supported Syrian government forces plan to launch an offensive to retake the city after defeating IS militants in al-Bab. It would be a logical step for the two coalitions to join together in the effort. The cooperation during the future battle for Raqqa could become a start of wider process with diplomacy given a chance.
After all, Turkish troops and Free Syrian Army units operating in the al-Bab area are supported by US and Russian aircraft. It means the process of coordinating military activities is already on – it has already happened. Syria’s government forces are advancing from the south while the Turkey-supported unites have approached al-Bab from the north. Coordinating activities between them in the coming days is also inevitable.
It should be noted that to some extent Russia and Syria are involved in the Mosul operation in Iraq. The Iraqi military asked Russia to share intelligence information on IS activities in combat area. Moscow has agreed to cooperate using the joint intelligence information exchange center established in Baghdad in 2015 to coordinate activities between Russia, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Turkey, America’s NATO ally and a key party to the Astana process, recognized the sovereignty of Damascus having signed the Moscow Declaration on December 30. Ankara has made statements about the prospects for normalizing relations with the current Syria government.
The day will come when the IS is driven from Syria. The question is what comes next? The Syrian government and the US will play active parts in any scenario. It’s very important the parties are gradually changing the stances and express willingness to communicate. Russia is a perfect intermediary to support the process. It is already acting as an intermediary between Syria and Turkey. If it succeeds, the terrorists will lose, if not – they will gain. The best deterrence to keep terrorists at bay is to make them know that influential actors can set difference aside and join efforts to defeat them.
Mr. Assad has not made the statement off the cuff. There is no doubt he had thought the words he was going to say over and weighed all the pros and cons. The event reflects the trend. Pertinent actors involved in the Syria’s conflict start to communicate. The contacts may be indirect with intermediaries used. But they are maintained. And that’s a significant change unimaginable just a few months ago.