On Nov.22, the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran held a hallmark summit to declare victory in Syria. In a joint statement, the three leaders called on the Syrian government and moderate opposition to "participate constructively" in the negotiation process. The Syrian government welcomed the final document.
“It’s become quite clear that the Assad-Putin-Iran gambit has almost completely won in Syria,” said Paul Salem, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute. The Russians “want to show their relevance and influence beyond the military phase” and broker a political settlement, he added.
True, the Islamic State (IS) is routed but the United States intends to maintain large military presence in Syria. According to the Washington Post, the US military will stay in the country after the IS is completely defeated. The American military will maintain a presence in northern Syria — where the Americans have trained and assisted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the IS and establish new local governance, apart from the Assad government, in those areas.
US-supported forces also hold territories east of the Euphrates River in Syria’s southeast, as well as along the borders of Israel and Jordan in the southwest. There is no reason to believe that the legitimate Syrian government could establish control over these areas as long as the US-led coalition is there.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis pledged last week that US forces would remain to prevent the emergence of “Daesh 2.0” and until the political process gets off the ground. His comments came as a new Defense Department report showed US troops in the Middle East have increased 33% in the last four months and currently stand at 1,723 in Syria - up from 1,251 in June.
The United States’ main goal is to counter Iran’s influence. “We need to cut off Iran's ability to build a crescent of influence,” said retired Air Force General Charles Wald. “We need to continue to build our coalition with countries of like mind.”
Rival Syrian forces are due to meet in Geneva on November 28 for the eighth round of UN-backed peace talks aimed at ending the six-year war in Syria. Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, met Russia's defence and foreign ministers on Nov.23 to discuss preparations for the upcoming Geneva event. Russia is to host the Syrian People’s Congress on Dec.2 in the resort city of Sochi.
Obviously, the US military presence in Syria is illegal. With Islamic State completely routed, the administration will need a lot of imagination to invent reasons justifying the operations on Syrian soil. The administration has never taken the pain to explain what its strategy is.
The al-Tanf military base in Syria’s southeastern desert has become a key front in the campaign to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East. The facility allows blocking a “land bridge” linking Iran to Lebanon via Syria and Iraq. It is also considered to be a useful leverage on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The Rukban refugee camp is located next to al-Tanf on the Syrian-Jordanian border and inside the US-policed “de-confliction” perimeter protecting the base. According to the UN, the conditions in Rukban are dire. It warned of another “humanitarian catastrophe in Syria,” while 50 thousand of displaced women and children in the camp are hungry.
The US-led coalition controls the area with the sky overhead patrolled and the area’s edges on the ground policed but the civilians are left on their own. Nobody has lent them a helping hand. Is it also a part of US strategy that so little has been publicly said about? Al-Tanf is more of an embarrassment to demonstrate the mess the US Syria policy is in. If Rukban is a Syrian problem on Syrian territory, then what the US-led coalition is doing there and why is it preventing the efforts to help the suffering people?
No, the goal is not to alleviate the plight of common people but to roll back Iran. This policy has nothing to do with the Memorandum of Principles concluded in Amman, Jordan, on November 8, 2017, between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America. Iran was not listed as a foreign force in Syria to be withdrawn to ensure peace. The statement was welcomed by the Joint Statement by the President of the United States and the President of the Russian Federation made on Nov.11 at the recent APEC summit. On Nov. 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov specifically emphasized that Iran’s presence in Syria was legitimate.
The US administration comes under heavy pressure to shift its policy from fighting Islamic State to countering Iran. For instance, a new report by former US generals and diplomats calls for an urgent push against Iran in Syria. Titled Countering Iranian Expansion in Syria, the paper was issued on Nov.20 by the Iran Task Force at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. It was co-authored by six former generals including James Conway, former commandant of the US Marine Corps, and a group of bipartisan former diplomats and state department officials. According to it, the US needs “a coherent US strategy and force presence that looks beyond the impending downfall of ISIL to deny Iran’s destabilizing objectives in Syria and restore leverage against Tehran.” The report warns that a “complete Assad victory facilitated by Russia and Iran would further undermine the credibility of US commitments to the region and consolidate Tehran’s position as the predominant power in the strategic crossroads of the Middle East.”
43 members of the US Congress have urged State Secretary Rex Tillerson to counter Iran in Syria. The letter, dated November 14 and signed by members of both main parties after their trip to Israel, called for “a strategy for Syria that includes how the United States plans to prevent Iran from gaining a permanent foothold on Israel and Jordan’s doorstep and to block Iranian arms exports to Hezbollah”. The lawmakers warned that "should Iran be allowed to maintain a permanent military presence in Syria, it would pose a significant threat to Israel, Jordan, and United States interests.” The paper mentioned the risk of an Iranian corridor from Tehran through Iraq to Syria and into Lebanon if the strategy is not changed. “any agreement or policy that allows Iran to station forces on or near Israel and Jordan's border does not serve US interests,” the letter said after just one week after the US agreed with Russia on a de-escalation deal in southern Syria.
The US believes that the Assad-led government in Syria means a heavy Iranian presence for the foreseeable future. That’s why it is reluctant to offer new initiatives to be added to the agenda of the Geneva peace talks. The influence of Iran? Is it a reason for a military standoff and prevention of peace efforts? The Nov. 11 statement stipulates "free and fair elections under UN supervision, held to the highest international standards of transparency, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate." The Syrian people will decide their fate, including what influence they want or not. What could be fairer?
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura has warned that time is running out to finally find a way to resolve the conflict. "I have asked for focus and realism because we need to get the parties into real negotiation over items where there is some prospect that they could begin to narrow the gaps,” he said in a late October briefing. US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated their governments' support for that peace process in a phone conversation on Nov.21. He told President Trump that the “Syrian leader confirmed adherence to the political process, to run a constitutional reform and president and parliament elections”.
The US is invited to become a party to the multinational negotiation effort but it links the military presence to a settlement process. With Islamic State gone, the war-torn country earning for peace faces the prospect of becoming a battlefield for war against Iran.