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Raghida Dergham Headshot

Washington and Moscow Bargaining Over Syria's Ruins

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The Americans and the Russians have agreed to revive the Geneva agreement and work towards a second iteration, after modifications have been made to the military balance of power on the ground in Syria, and after Iran and Israel entered as direct players in the Syrian conflict. Terrorism using chemical weapons remains a part of American and Russia considerations, first out of fear that the lethal weapons might fall into the hands of the armed opposition, and that any use of these weapons by the regime might become a "game changer." The political solution has temporarily come ahead of the military one. Moscow has made sure to maintain a parallel between Russia's enthusiasm for reaching an understanding with the United States politically, and Russia's resolve to continue supporting the regime in Damascus militarily with advanced weaponry and airplanes aimed at changing the rules of the military game. Washington has returned to its old dance: one step forward, one step back, turning and twirling around Geneva 2 and how to leap over the Assad complex - in other words, how to deal with the Syrian President during the phase of negotiations over transferring his powers to a transitional government that would have full authority. Will Assad remain in power until the end of his term, two years after Geneva 1, as Moscow and Tehran wish? Will Assad step down as a result of an American-Russian understanding on the basis of which he would relinquish power, but leave behind him the regime in a new form? And what is Iran's place in this understanding over the day after in Syria - if it really is prepared to agree to the fall of the regime or Assad leaving? What is Israel's place in all of this? And who are the forces that will take over Syria on the day after? These are the questions that have started to be asked again after the agreement this week in Moscow between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to work towards reaching an understanding and holding an international conference on Syria that would precede the meeting between their two presidents on the 17th of next month.

Lavrov announcing that both sides, American and Russian, clinging to the integrity of Syria's territory was an attempt to drive away growing doubts about a "deal" to divide Syria. Indeed, there has been growing talk of the implicit approval of international players to divide Syria within the framework of dividing the Arab region along confessional and ethnic lines, a process that would follow the flaring up of the war between Sunnis and Shiites raging in Syria. Talk has also returned that had accompanied the war in Iraq, about Iran's decision to establish a "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. This is why the Iranian battle for Syria has come out in the open, and why Tehran has made the war in Syria its own. This coincides with statements made by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who considered the recent "Banias massacre" to represent the start of a process of "ethnic cleansing." It also coincides with unconfirmed yet recurring talk of the possibility that the recent military airstrikes against vital locations inside Syria may not have been exclusively Israeli, and that - as some have claimed - Turkey may have had a hand in them, and that one of their goals could have been to respond to the threats made by Iran through Hezbollah of not allowing the regime in Damascus to fall, in view of the central role played by this regime in Iran's strategies.

The most important element in the future of American-Russian understandings is Iran. Russia is part of the alliance of "defiance" that includes Iran and Hezbollah alongside the regime in Damascus, and also China to a lesser extent. And Russia continues to supply the regime with weapons, while Iran and Hezbollah have entered as parties in the battle, with weapons or training, or even fighters on the ground. Russia will not be able to have as much influence with Iran as it is trying to suggest to the United States. The margin of Russia's "influence" with Iran is linked to the extent of their alliance within the formula of clinging to keeping Bashar Al-Assad in power. They both cling to him now, yet his fate for them is contingent on what they would obtain within the framework of broader understandings or bargains with the United States. They both insist on thwarting the rise of Sunni Islamists to power in Damascus. They are both mobilizing, yet each for their own interest at the end of the day. Their interests can sometimes not be identical, and it would in fact be ignorant to assume that Iran would automatically agree to American-Russian understandings. Iran insists on holding the power to decide the future of Syria, but it may well get implicated in Syria to such a degree as to really turn Syria into Iran's Vietnam.

Indeed, the military equation is not an easy one. It is in fact very costly and Iran does not have the ability to foot the bill for the war in Syria without Russia. It is the latter that has the airplanes necessary to bomb the Syrian opposition and change the military balance of power on the ground. Thus, the interconnectedness of the roles played by Russia and Iran in Syria is both vital and complex. Tehran's influence with the regime in Damascus cannot be underestimated, and Iran in fact truly represents a major key for the future of Syria. These days, the recurrent theme for both regimes in Tehran and in Damascus is resistance in Syria. Assad said: we will turn into a nation of resistance. He has thus admitted that Syria had so far not been a nation of resistance, but had sufficed itself with using Lebanon as the sole front for resistance against Israel. Such a radical strategic change in the fate of the resistance will open up the Golan front for the first time since 1973, with resistance being initiated there by a decision from the two regimes in Iran and in Syria - that is if they are truly sincere in the pledge and serious about their threats. And that is unlikely - at least as of yet.

Today, there is a margin for the Americans and the Russians to meet, between Russia's "no" to Islamists in power and the United States' "no" to excluding moderate Islamists from power. The experience of Egypt has exposed the spontaneous despotism of Islamists in power and their insistence on monopolizing power. The experience of Libya has stripped bare the West's enthusiasm for change before thinking. The experience of Tunisia has focused the spotlight on the depth of the Muslim Brotherhood's thinking and its refusal to separate religion and state at the end of the day. Those experiences have done away with what was dreamt of as a "model" the West spoke so highly of, under the pretext of respecting the majority in the democratic process; this after it became clear that the Islamists in power would suffice themselves with only the electoral phase of the democratic process, and nothing more.

Russia is at ease with developments in the course of Islamist rule and with its impact on Western thinking. It sees there an opportunity to restore understanding with the United States and Europe, specifically by creating a different model in Syria. Those calling for a civil state, secularists and modernists in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya may benefit from reduced Western praise of Islamists and from Russia entering as a party in weakening the Islamists in power. Yet this does not spare Russia from being in turn held to account for its role in Syria and for its military, diplomatic and political support for the regime against the opposition. Indeed, Russia is not popular among Arabs because of its stances on Syria, and it (Russia) will not be regaining its influence with Arab peoples for a long time. Russia's leadership may be weighing the feelings of Arab people towards it against the hatred these people harbor for American policy in the region; which upholds the superiority of Israel and protects it from being held to account. For this reason, Russia's leadership will not pause long before this aspect, especially as it is in the midst of informing all those concerned of its return to holding influence in the Middle East through the gateway of Syria, whatever the cost.

The main features of the role played by Russia in the region is pride and blatant nationalism. Russia is determined to return to the region through large-scale weapons deals with Iraq, Yemen and Sudan, alongside its deals with Syria. It is returning through its fleets of ships in the region's waters and through naval bases it will never relinquish. It is returning through its alliance with Iran. It is returning through its absolute resolve to prevent Turkey and Qatar from undermining the strength and influence Russia holds in Europe through its natural gas position, which is unique in the world. Indeed, Qatar has the ability to influence global gas prices, in view of the massive reserves it currently holds. But if pipelines are built through the Syrian-Turkish link to Europe, then Russia's influence through natural gas will have less of a future, and that is a red line that explains the stark hatred by Russia's leadership of the leadership of Qatar.

Those then are Russia's Middle Eastern priorities at the threshold of bargains Putin seeks to strike with US President Barack Obama, who currently wishes to discuss "shared interests" with Russia starting from Syria.

It is the season of trade-offs that is starting once again, with the aim of striking international bargains that unfortunately come over the dead bodies of Syrians and an overwhelming humanitarian ordeal. It is the beginning of yet another step, not the birth of a breakthrough. Let us then pause before jumping to conclusions... as the military track and the political track are still moving in parallel in the international, regional and local race equally.

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