US and Russia must go beyond Syrian blame game

Salman Rafi October 4, 2016 11:01 AM (UTC+8)
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While the US and Russia are blaming each other for the failure of Syrian truce, any such agreement that fails to satisfy most of their respective interests is unlikely to succeed.

As such, a ceasefire that was meant to instill trust and bridge the gaps has ended increasing the trust deficit between the two countries, deepened suspicion on all sides and raised fears of more violence.

Other parties involved in the conflict too are to blame as they pursue divergent objectives. The apparent allies — US and Saudi Arabia or Russia and Iran — have, as the crisis evolved from an “uprising” to a “multistate war”, developed differences over what is achievable and where compromises can be made. The Middle East has indeed moved from an era when the US and Russia held sway over actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey seems to be playing Russia and the US against each other to project itself as a key stakeholder in Syria.

Iran sees in Syria as the only territory it can use to project its powers against its chief rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia. For Iran, President Bashar al-Assad has offered Syria as a crucial transit route to fund its Hezbollah proxies and as a bulwark against the sort of Sunni Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh has funded rebel groups and insists that Assad must step down for Sunni Islam to hold political sway over the whole region stretching from North Africa to Caucuses. This has been the objective since the beginning of this ‘terror-based’ phase of geopolitical tussles and it continues to be so even today (the US suspects Gulf States may arm ‘Syrian rebels’ with superior weapons once the ceasefire is dead) adding to the misery of innocent people.

Of all the players involved in Syria, the one that has sacrificed and will sacrifice the most are the Iranians. While Russia and the US may be able to work out some deal, they still have to deal with the Iranians and their rivals.

The ceasefire, which was supposed to pave way for intelligence sharing and US-Russia joint operations against Islamic State, failed because it lacked the support of all the parties.

The Pentagon itself appeared wary of the plan as it exposed a fundamental flaw: America’s promise of cooperation with Russia made US-backed opposition feel that Washington is no longer acting in its interests. They are now awaiting the emergence of Hillary Clinton as the new US president for the end of US-Russia military cooperation in Syria.

The ceasefire deal did not get much support within Syria and Iran as they saw in it the potential to ultimately lead to a regime change.

While Russia maintains that Assad is pivotal in the fight against terrorism, it remains flexible on his future in the post-conflict Syria.

For Iran, the question of Assad’s exit does not arise. On the eve of the ceasefire agreement, Iran’s ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Reza Raouf Sheibani, said Tehran’s position remains unchanged on Assad. Iran seeks a political solution to the Syrian crisis by making all parties involved in the conflict respect the national sovereignty of the country and allowing Syrians to determine its political future.

Meanwhile, Turkey, which has launched Operation Euphrates Shield, is controlling almost 900 sq km inside Syria and eyeing more territory to convert it into a safe zone.

The question of who should be included in negotiations and who should be considered a stakeholder has resurfaced in this context leaving Russia and the US confused.

The events in Syria over the past two weeks and the way different states have taken markedly different positions point to a dangerous development: no state has any decisive say, and no power including Assad, Russia, Islamic State, al-Nusra, Iran, America and Britain has the capacity to swing the war on the ground decisively in its favor. Any attempt to impose a unilateral decision would only deepen the conflict and pump more weapons and jihadists from all over the world into Syria.

Since the states involved in the Syrian conflict pursue diametrically opposite interests, their perceptions of “terrorists” and “rebels” involved in it vary. However, one thing is clear: no power or state can ‘win’ this war. Hence, Russia and the US should end it before things go out of control.

Salman Rafi
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com
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