The conditions for a political settlement in Syria potentially changed when president Donald Trump launched the air strikes against Syria in April. The relationship between the US and Russia sharply deteriorated, and the likelihood of a military conflict between them in Syria came one step closer. The change of US policy resulted from the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, which has become a bone of contention between the two powers. How is the relationship between the US and Russia likely to develop on Syria, and what are the consequences for conflict resolution and the broader regional set-up? What role does the Middle East play in president Trump’s foreign policy, and what are the broader implications of Russian-American relations for the Middle East?
Teija Tiilikainen, Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Volker Perthes, Executive Chairman and Director, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
Mark N. Katz, Visiting Senior Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Wolfgang Mühlberger, Senior Research Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Summary of the seminar
The Syrian crisis has been ongoing for the past six years. Millions of people have been affected: either killed, living in besieged areas, or forced to seek refuge elsewhere. A third of schools, hospitals and other social infrastructure has been destroyed, seriously damaged or are used for other than their original purpose. Rebuilding needs are extensive. There is increasing fragmentation on both sides of the conflict. Opposition fighters are being attracted by extremist groups. Government forces are mostly formed from different militias. Even after events such as the chemical attack in early April neither party has given any signs other than to continue fighting. External assistance is very important to both the government as well as the opposition side. Both sides are over-stretched and could not survive without outside support. Both camps also struggle to hold on to the areas they have conquered or re-taken. Wins such as in Aleppo would not have been possible without foreign allies.
Syria is a place where all regional actors converge. The external parties wanting to get involved in the conflict settlement keep increasing, making it a challenge for the UN to include everyone at the negotiation table. In addition, as long as the human rights situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, the UN-led peace negotiations cannot proceed. Other attempts to end the conflict, such as the Astana process, have also struggled to develop proper mechanisms to supervise ceasefires. Both sides of the conflict have agreed to take part in the UN-facilitated process. However, there does not seem to be any agreement on what is going to be negotiated and what should be the end result of the negotiations. Should there be a power transition in Syria, transfer of power to the opposition side or perhaps a form of capitulation of armed groups to the government? The opposition forces are in a difficult position as the crisis lingers on. They have realised they cannot win the war but want to show that they are not defeated. As the conflict continues, they are also increasingly willing to approve of the current Asad’s government staying in power. However, as long as the current president Asad remains in power, no power sharing is possible.
For Iran, which has tied itself closely to the Asad regime, it is very important to keep Asad in power. The situation is different for Russia. Russia is in favour of changes to the Syrian regime but the removal of Asad would hurt its image as a defender of its allies. In addition, Russia’s leverage is much more limited than what has been expected. When it comes to the US, it has certain priorities in the crisis, such as fighting terrorism, but a more specific Syria policy still needs to be defined.
For the international community there are three options on how to deal with the Syrian crisis going forward. First, it can ”let history take its course” and let the different political, ethnic and religious communities in Syria form their own communities. However, this would make the country even more fragmented, with warlords fighting over territory. There would also be an increase in the number of refugees, as well as radicalisation. The second option is to ”let Asad win”. This would most likely lead to the government struggling to hold on to the different regions of the country and once again to increased fragmentation, radicalisation and possibly to a new uprising. The third option would be to carry on with the UN-facilitated Geneva process and try building some kind of international consensus regarding power sharing. Diplomatic patience and continued humanitarian assistance will be essential.
After the election of Donald Trump, there were hopes in both the US and Russia for broader cooperation between the two countries on a range of issues, Syria being one of them. It soon became clear that this change would not happen. Especially in questions such as nuclear arms control, Ukraine, NATO or sanctions, closer cooperation is unlikely. However, hope for cooperation regarding Syria remained. This however changed in early April after Asad used chemical weapons against his opponents and the US responded by launching an attack on the base of the chemical weapon launch. Russia retaliated by cancelling the deconfliction agreement and moving more air defence assets to or near Syria.
Initial hopes for US–Russia cooperation have not been met, and the possibility of a confrontation between the two has actually risen. A similar pattern of initial high hopes for cooperation can be seen also with previous administrations since the Cold War, but the current disappointment seems to have occurred much more quickly.
Yet there are multiple issues where the two countries agree on, or at least do not disagree on. For example, Trump is not pushing for democratisation of the Middle East like the previous Bush and Obama administrations have done. This is something Putin appreciates. Both Putin and Trump have good relations with most existing governments in the region (Gulf Arab states, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey). In Syria, common topics such as opposition to ISIS and support for the Syrian Kurds also exists. Even regarding Asad the disagreement is not total. Neither wants Asad to use chemical weapons. Although the US and Russia disagree on the fate of Asad, Trump is not pushing to remove Asad immediately.
The question of Iran on the other hand is something that is causing a bigger disagreement between the US and Russia. Many in the Trump administration resented the nuclear accord of the Obama administration. Trump is seeking cooperation with Russia in the Middle East but not with Iran, which makes things difficult since Russia and Iran are cooperating in Syria. Trump is trying to solve this dilemma by attempting to get Russia to move away from Iran. This has not worked, and it is very likely not going to work. Putin does not want to be seen as abandoning an ally on Washington’s demand. This would make Putin look weak. In addition, Russia may not gain anything from this move. Iran has much larger presence in Syria, and it will not abandon Asad for Russia.
Even on Iran President Putin and President Trump do not seem to be completely at odds. Despite earlier statements, Trump has not got rid of the Iranian nuclear accord. Doing so would damage US relations with many of its allies and might trigger Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, the situation obviously remains very fragile. If there would be some sort of a confrontation between the US and Iran, this would put Russia into a difficult position. Russia could help Iran and lose influence with the Gulf Arabs and Israel for being a ”Shi’a ally”. It can also do nothing and risk looking irrelevant. Trump and Iran do not seem to want to improve their relationship and this might not be in the interest of Russia even if they did. Nevertheless, in the end the situation is not as bad as might be assumed. Trump and Putin can tolerate multiple different issues – except Iran.
How urgent is it for Russia to find a solution and a way out of the Syrian conflict? How much of an impediment is Syria’s own behaviour or that of Iran? Both Syria and Iran have seen the conflict as a zero sum game. Yet, at some point Russia will need to consider an exit strategy. According to the 2016 foreign policy strategy of Russia, the goal in Syria is a ”secular, democratic, pluralistic state”. With Iran it seeks a ”comprehensive cooperation”, which, from Moscow’s perspective includes a non-nuclear Iran for geopolitical reasons. Also, after the Arab Spring there remains a conservative, non-democratic mood among the elites in the region that considers Russia increasingly an alternative to Washington. This could be an entry point for Trump as well, as he favours the status-quo oriented authoritarian regimes.
The Great Power rivalry in the Middle East seems to have moved to a new level. Syria is an example of this, as Russia entered the fray pro-actively. In this context, it is also good to remember that a number of pivotal Arab states used to belong to the Soviet camp. Looking back just a decade, it was Putin’s visit to Tehran in 2007 that started to reshuffle the cards. Just eight years later, Russia started what it called a counter-terrorism operation in Syria to prop up the fledgling Damascus regime. The cost of Russian interference in Syria has most likely not been too high in financial terms. Whereas for Hezbollah, in terms of political cost, the fact of taking sides was linked to losing credit in Arab countries. Iran, Syria’s closest and most involved strategic ally, will eventually be the most central element for any hope of Russia to extricate itself from the conflict.
During the Q&A section a request from the audience was made to elaborate on the role of the European Union in the crisis. The Union is not considered to play a major part in the conflict. It is not a military power. Accordingly, the main instruments it has to offer are useful once a situation has been reached where reconstruction makes sense. The EU is good at helping countries to reform and transition when there is participation from the local parties as well. The EU is not good at intervening to end conflicts.
Comments were made regarding the Syrian Kurds. The situation on the ground is very complicated. The US tends to see the Syrian Kurds as good partners to fight ISIS on the ground, and Russians are also quite supportive of Syrian Kurds. The question was raised how the panel sees the situation evolving. It was noted that generalisations couldn’t be made regarding the Kurds. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), even though a player in Syria, is not part of the Geneva talks. However, their participation is essential for a future peace building process. Kurds are one of the key elements in the Russia–US cooperation.
President Trump’s changing statements on Russia as well as the policy on possible future missile strikes also raised interest in the audience. Regarding Trump’s varying positions, it was noted that a learning curve has taken place. Trump’s knowledge on foreign policy in the beginning was minimal, and his initial statements for example on Russia reflected this evolving process. In addition, many conservatives do see Russia as a lesser threat than terrorism. However, Trump appointed many who are sceptical about Russia, which has probably affected Trump’s later positions. His comments during the election benefited him at the time and could have just been made with that in mind. Trump’s missile strike to Syria was a one-off and not part of a larger political strategy. Of course, the missile strike could also be used to show that Trump is unpredictable.
On how the Syrian crisis has affected the Palestinian question, it was said that it has changed the Palestine–Israel conflict into a local conflict for the first time. Whether this is a positive or a negative change can be debated. Another effect the Syrian war has had in the region is that it has eased the situation of contested governments in the area.
On the topic of the Iranian nuclear accord and whether or not the Syrian crisis would affect the agreement, the panellists noted that Iran’s role in Syria would not influence the way its actions regarding the nuclear accord are seen. The Trump administration does not look likely to pull out from the agreement. The US is not able to unilaterally get rid of the accord, at least not without consequences. However, the agreement would most likely not materialise today considering Iran’s current actions.