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Opposition to US plans for east Syria unites fragile Astana trio

No daylight among Iran, Turkey and Russia in opposing US policies in Syria; Can Iraq mediate between the United States and Iran?

Hagel: US Syria policy "complete folly"

Despite differences over Idlib, the otherwise shaky Astana alliance of Russia, Iran and Turkey has been strengthened by opposition to US policy in eastern Syria, which former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has labelled “complete folly.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last month said, “The main danger to Syria’s territorial integrity originates from the eastern bank of the Euphrates, where independent and autonomous structures are created under the direct control of the United States.” 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan similarly said, “The biggest threat to Syria's future lies in the nests of terror to the east of the Euphrates, naming the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), both US allies in the fight against the Islamic State, as terrorist groups that must be brought down.”

And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sept. 7, “We need to resolve the difficulty east of the Euphrates and force America out.”

Despite slamming the United States for backing “independent and autonomous structures” in eastern Syria, “Russia avoids reprimanding Turkey in this way, instead accepting the armed opposition’s control over Idlib as a compromise,” Marianna Belenkaya writes. “Moreover, Lavrov regularly emphasizes that the agreements on Idlib do not endanger the territorial integrity of Syria, contrary to the situation on the eastern bank of the Euphrates. This serves as a hint to Damascus that Moscow is still committed to the integrity of Syria and guarantees that Idlib will sooner or later return to the government. It is also a polite appeal to Ankara, meaning that allies are allowed more freedom in their actions.”

“Moscow has essentially disregarded the areas of northern Syria that Ankara occupied during its Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield operations,” Belenkaya continues. “Although, as recently as spring 2018, Lavrov has actively urged Ankara to return Afrin to the Syrian government. Russia has not given up this position, but its priorities have changed. The top priority is to preserve the Astana format as a whole, and the alliance with Turkey in particular, even if the allies’ objectives do not fully overlap — a fact that Moscow acknowledges, as Russia considers these relations obligatory for progress in the Syrian resolution.”

Iran, writes Hassan Ahmadian “is prioritizing pushback against the United States east of the Euphrates. Tehran’s objective is to restore the status quo in Idlib — under Turkey’s influence — as well as northeastern Syria, where US forces are based.”

“Against this backdrop,” Ahmadian continues, “a strategic overhaul of Iranian-Turkish cooperation in Syria is not unprecedented. In 2016, Turkey shifted from its initial position of insisting on regime change in Damascus to a pragmatic issue-based engagement with Iran. This in turn encouraged a shift in Tehran’s pushback against Ankara, leading to its engagement of Turkey in the Astana process. … Theoretically, Iran’s prioritization of the areas east of the Euphrates puts it on track to accommodate Turkey’s strategic concerns in SDF-held territory. While Turkey perceives the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as a terrorist organization, Tehran sees the PYD’s American patrons as the destabilizing actor. Generally, however, Iran and Turkey’s goals intersect as they both focus on SDF-held territory. Therefore, it is likely that the two will work on the common ground that exists in northern Syria. Turkey’s anti-PYD posture is useful for Iran to effectively push back against the United States. Likewise, to encounter the PYD, Turkey cannot shy away from confronting US policy in Syria — and for that, it needs Iran and the ‘Axis of Resistance,’ which can in effect ratchet up the pressure against the United States east of the Euphrates.”

“After all,” Ahmadian concludes, “Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have all endorsed the Sochi accord to give Turkey more time to resolve the standoff over Idlib peacefully. This, by no means, can be interpreted as their acceptance of a continued Turkish presence and opposition control of Idlib. To reiterate this point, Iran will keep reminding Ankara that the status quo in Idlib is unsustainable and that Turkish de-escalation outposts there are part of a consensual decision in the Astana process and, as such, will lose their basic value if Turkey reneges on its commitments. This can well evolve into a military confrontation to force out militant groups and Turkish outposts in and around Idlib — for which the Axis of Resistance is much more experienced. For now, however, Iran and the Axis of Resistance seem hopeful about joining hands with Turkey in northern Syria, provided that Turkey appreciates the linkage between Idlib and the fate of the territory east of the Euphrates.”

Another most vexing challenge for Moscow and its Astana partners will come from the recent US effort to re-engage on the UN political transition talks. 

“The UN-hosted negotiations in Geneva have carried on to no avail,” Belenkaya reports. “According to Al-Monitor’s sources close to the participants of the talks, the lack of progress is due to de Mistura’s attempts to find common ground between all sides of the conflict, who refuse to surrender their positions. On the other hand, the Astana process allows Moscow to virtually push through its decisions while finding compromises between Iran and Turkey, or the Syrian regime and the opposition. However, the moment of truth has already occurred. … Moreover, the 'small group' on Syria, which the West created as an alternative to the Astana process, requires de Mistura to provide it with a report on the committee formation by Oct. 31."

Lavrov has said this pressure on de Mistura will be a "grave mistake." Belenkaya concludes that “for Russia, this is a complex problem, as the political resolution may come to a dead end just like the Geneva talks. At the same time, the West is likely to run out of patience and increase its pressure on the regime in Damascus. The opposition, with even more support, may ignore Moscow’s requests altogether. In 2019, Russia will face the challenge of escaping this prospect.”

It is difficult to envision how the United States will be able to rally any type of effective regional diplomacy around Syria while supporting Kurdish-backed local forces and “local” structures, which seem to muddle the US commitment to Syria’s unity, also a pillar of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and give fuel to the Astana parties. Instead, the US approach has boxed the United States into an approach that limits Washington’s ability to divide the Astana group. Hagel told Defense One this week that the US approach to Syria is “complete folly,” adding that “the Iranians live there. … The U.S. doesn’t live in the Middle East. Unless you’re going to somehow eliminate the geopolitical realities of that — well, good luck Mr. Bolton. There is no other way around this, you’re going to have to find some resolution based on the common interests of those countries.”

Iraq offers to mediate

The next government of Iraq, like its predecessor, will have no interest in becoming a battleground between the United States and Iran.

“Concerned that tensions between Iran and the United States could blow back onto Iraq,” Laura Rozen reports, “Iraq would be willing to facilitate dialogue between the two nations.”

“Iraq does not want to see relations between Iran and the United States affect the relations between the United States and Iraq,” Ahmed Mahjoub, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Rozen and a small group of journalists in Washington. “We want independent relations between Iraq and the United States. And we do not prefer and we don’t like to see the problems between Iran and the United States shadow the relations between the United States and Iraq.”

In a response to a question about whether there are shared US and Iranian interests in Iraq, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Al-Monitor last month, “We coordinate with the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi government is free to coordinate with its other partners in Iraq. But our activities in Iraq during our combatting the terrorists was always coordinated with the government, and that proved to be an effective mechanism. … Again, the problem is intention, whether the United States’ intention is to help stabilize Iraq or try to undermine Iran in Iraq. These two policies will lead to totally different outcomes.”

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