Niknam Babri

A New Chapter of Cooperation between Russia and the US in the Syrian Crisis

23 Dec 2016 16:19

Changes occur in the world of politics. No political issue does last forever. Political phenomena are affected by the conditions of time and space. So in a globalized world, we rarely see a particular country to pursue a continued policy. At times, some approaches do not even last for the given four-year and eight-year periods. Rapid developments, on the one hand, and political leaders’ different attitudes, on the other hand, do not allow for following a defined policy for a specific topic. Therefore, it is no wonder that when a new political leader comes to power, the foreign strategy of the government undergoes a significant change. Some analysts believe that when Donald Trump takes office at the White House, the US current regional and global approach will completely change. Trump, during his election campaign, repeatedly criticized the US approach to the world, and announced that some serious change in the US foreign policy would occur. Now with Trump’s victory and his coming presidency, many people inside and outside of the US are looking forward to his new policies.
It seems that Trump’s priorities include détente with Russia and the fight against the ISIS. For Trump, the US current approach to Syria is very vague, and lacks clear and consistent goals. This approach, based on fighting against both the ISIS and the Syrian government, has just led to more extremism and chaos. More than seventy percent of the Syrian territory is in the hands of the ISIS and the Syrian government. The Syrian government controls the central parts facing Mediterranean coast where the majority of the Syrian population is settled, and the ISIS controls the eastern parts. In these circumstances, fighting against both the Assad government and the ISIS will exacerbate instability in Syria. This will pave the way for the rise of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra - present in the cities of Aleppo and Homs.
Another important issue for Trump is the so-called moderate groups. In his view, the US government has always talked about strengthening and equipping these groups in the last five years, and these groups are a good option for getting out of this impasse. However, their location in Syria is not clear. Most members of these groups have joined al-Nusra Front and the ISIS. So in Trump’s view, these groups should be ignored, and the threat of extremism should be directly fought against in Syria. Therefore, asking for Russian and then Iranian cooperation seems very necessary. Unlike Obama, Trump has given a special place to the Russian cooperation in the Syrian crisis. For Trump, the military intervention in Syria means declaring war on Russia and Iran, and this will create severe challenges to the US interests in the region. Therefore, the US should cooperate with Russia to fight against the threat of terrorism instead of using a challenging approach to Syria. So it seems that in the not too distant future, Trump’s pragmatism will replace Obama’s idealistic approach. In Trump’s approach, the Assad government is not considered as an absolute evil, and its capacities can be used to counter the threat of the ISIS. The US will fight the ISIS, and the Syrian government will also fight it and its related branches; thus, the US and Syria have common threat and interests, and they can fight against their common threat by strengthening their military and intelligence cooperation.
In the meantime, the US new government should persuade its regional supporters in the Middle East. The Turkish-Arab axis is trying hard to take advantage of the Syrian crisis, and it has used any possible means to undermine the Assad government against a variety of opponents in the last five years. It can be certainly said that the performance of the Arab-Turkish axis has led to the escalation of violence, extremism and the increased power of the ISIS and al-Nusra. Their supporting groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and supreme council of opponents have no special place among the Syrian people, and have no considerable ability in fighting against Takfiri terrorists. The emergence of such a situation made Ankara-Riyadh axis passive. These countries not only observe the increasing power of the Assad government, but also witness the show of power of terrorist groups of the ISIS and al-Nusra. The empowerment of takfiri movements is in direct contrast with demands of the countries in the region. These groups are not compatible with any country, due to their highly ideological basis, and they are trying to bring more chaos to the region. Turkey, due to her geographical proximity, and Saudi Arabia, due to her prone religious background, are more concerned than other states.
Under terrorist groups’ activities, the Kurdish cities in Turkey are under terrorist attacks. Even large cities such as Istanbul and Ankara are not immune to the explosions. Increased terrorist activities are not desirable for a country like Turkey wishing to join the European club. The Saudi are not less concerned. The Saudi rulers’ dependence on the US and the Saudi religious society will provide the opportunity for groups like the ISIS to easily network within the Saudi society. So, the two powers - Turkey and Saudi Arabia - are in a lose-lose situation. Not only have they lost the opportunity to remove Assad, but also they have noticed that the continued crisis will lead to intensified terrorist movements within their own borders.
Now it seems that for the first time the new US government has separated its interests from those of its regional supporters, and has intended to take the initiative with the Russian and the Syrian government cooperation. Trump is completely aware that the continued cooperation with the regional partners leads to more chaos. The capacity and scope of activities of Turkey and Saudi Arabia are known in the Syrian crisis. Their maximum power and influence are more seen in the transfer of equipment. These powers cannot bargain with and persuade the major players involved in the Syrian crisis, while Russia and Iran have unique capabilities in the Syrian crisis.
The Islamic Republic of Iran not only has a constructive engagement with the Assad government, but also enjoys a high influence within popular resistance forces. These forces have played an important role in preventing the collapse of Damascus and the Syrian army advancement on the cities of Aleppo and Homs. Russia, the most important international supporter of the Syrian government, enjoys a historical influence in Syria. Sending her combat aircrafts to the region, Russia has a strong and direct presence in the Syrian battlefield. We should just wait and see Trump’s practical measures, and that how much he is willing to cooperate with the Russian government in the fight against the ISIS. Russia is now more hopeful that the US under Trump is more willing to suppress the ISIS than the US under Obama. So if the US and Russia start cooperating with each other, a new (positive) change will hopefully occur in Syria.

Niknam Babri, a PhD candidate in International Relations at University of Isfahan, is the guest contributor to IRAS.

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