How a second Trump term could shift Russia’s stance on Syria

Bahrain, UAE peace deals compel Palestinian rethink on strategy.

al-monitor This combination of photos shows US President Donald Trump (L) delivering remarks at a Keep America Great rally in Phoenix, Arizona, on Feb. 19, 2020. At right, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony in Jerusalem on Jan. 23, 2020, commemorating the people of Leningrad during the Second World War Nazi siege on the city.  Photo by JIM WATSON, EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images.

Sep 11, 2020

"Cautious optimism" for Syria deal if Trump wins

Russian President Vladimir Putin has low expectations for US-Russia relations no matter who wins the US presidential election, according to Max Suchkov in a new Al-Monitor podcast.

There is a view, however, that a second term for US President Donald Trump could change US-Russia diplomacy. In the Middle East, that could leave open the possibility of a deal on a "soft phased transition" to a successor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (not unlike the scenario we wrote about here in 2012). 

Putin’s not going to walk away from Assad for nothing, of course. Assad may be an "uneasy partner," as Suchkov explains, but Putin has shown he sticks by his allies, whatever the "reputational risk," as long as Russia’s interests are served. 

Nonetheless, Putin has proposed a big deal on Syria before, at the Helsinki summit with Trump in 2018, as Suchkov reported here, and as recounted in John Bolton’s book, "The Room Where It Happened," so the prospect of such a diplomatic shift can’t be ruled out.

The "cautious optimism" in Russia surrounding a Trump win is mixed with a "blunt skepticism" if former Vice President and Sen. Joe Biden wins in November, according to Suchkov. Biden is considered more hawkish on Russia and Syria, and less likely to attempt a reset with Putin.

Suchkov also notes that Russia’s leverage with Iran is increasing because of US sanctions and the ending of the UN arms embargo next month. The United States failed to stave off the expiration of the embargo, whose expiration is outlined in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)  and UN Security Council Resolution 2231. Russia hopes to cash in by selling weapons to Iran, although there are reputational tradeoffs here too, as Anton Mardasov writes.  

As we explained in this column last week, a straightforward return to the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, by a Biden administration may not be so easy.  And Russia, a signatory to the JCPOA and member of the UN Security Council, will be instrumental in whether there is a new nuclear deal or not.

Putin and Erdogan share "language of power"

Another tricky relationship for both the United States and Russia is Turkey.  Trump’s personal connection with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be the relationship’s lifeline. Putin, too, has the personal touch with Erdogan; they speak the same "language of power," according to Suchkov. 

While the United States and Turkey may be NATO allies but not partners, given the divisions over the Kurds and Syria policy, Russia and Turkey are partners but not allies, according to Suchkov.  If Putin and Erdogan are in a marriage of convenience, it also hinges "on the kids," Suchkov adds, referring to joint Russian-Turkish energy and military projects.

Putin and Erdogan diverge at times in Syria, as we wrote here, but they also find value in a partnership that has so far, if uneasily, served both parties.  Suchkov also notes that Putin may not have given up on his goal to eventually broker a "border agreement" between Erdogan and Assad — an initiative that started in earnest in January, but flamed out as Syrian and Turkish troops clashed soon after in Idlib.

Russia’s tribal strategy

Sultan al-Kanj reports from Syria this week about recent killings of tribal leaders in eastern Syria, another sign that the region may be on the verge of boiling over, as we wrote here last month.

“Foreign actors have always sought the support of tribes throughout the history of Syria given their important role and weight,” writes Kanj.  

Kirill Semenov wrote here last month, “Russia's plans to consolidate its position in the northeast of Syria and create loyal formations there can be supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which themselves are actively working with the Arab tribes of the region. The deployment of pro-Russian military structures in northeastern Syria could lead to the creation of a 'buffer zone' there, free from the Iranian presence, which also meets the interests of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. This would serve as a guarantee that if American troops leave the region, their place would be taken not by pro-Iranian formations but rather ones created and controlled by Moscow.”

UAE, Bahrain peace deals and Palestinian identity

Israel and Bahrain announced today they will normalize relations, forcing the Palestinian leadership to scramble regarding next steps, and Palestinians and Arab citizens in Israel to address the consequences of what may be the signs of a trend.

With the announcement, the island kingdom’s foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani, will join his UAE counterpart Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a White House signing ceremony on Sept. 15, which had been set for the Abraham Accord signed last month between the UAE and Israel.

Earlier this week the Arab League rejected a Palestinian initiative to condemn the UAE-Israel deal.

Palestinian leaders consider the UAE-Israel accord a betrayal, even though the Emirates conditioned the agreement on Israel postponing plans to annex some Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Bahrain becomes the fourth Arab country to make peace with Israel after the UAE, Jordan in 1994 and Egypt in 1979. There is speculation that Oman or Sudan could follow suit.  

US President Donald Trump has been nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the Abraham Accord.

The weakening of the Arab consensus in support of the Palestinian Authority (PA) may have the effect of compelling its leadership to rethink direct talks with Israel, perhaps in the context of a regional conference linked to the Trump peace plan. Saudi Arabia has reiterated its commitment to a two-state solution, and Bahrain and the UAE are not bailing on the Palestinians either. Agreeing to direct talks, or a regional conference, could be the best step to reestablish an Arab consensus.

Afif Abu Much suggests that the peace agreements have also brought to light "conflicting identities among Israel’s Arab citizens. It is a conflict that originates with the dual identities that they have been living with for decades. On one hand, there are those who want to continue feeling Palestinian. They have a hard time imagining an agreement that does not include the establishment of a Palestinian state. On the other hand there are those who obviously support the creation of a Palestinian state but still prefer to see the glass as being half full. To them, this agreement affords them a chance to join the Arab world, which has denied them access until now, because of their complex identity and their Israeli citizenship.”

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