Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have agreed that there is no military solution for the Syrian crisis.
America is adopting the disengagement policy of former president Barack Obama and abandoning the Middle East to Russia and to Iran.
This unlikely strategic coordination between the two great powers is the death knell of the revival of the grand anti-Iranian front of pragmatic Sunni states – Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt – which the American leader had so proudly announced during his visit to Riyadh last May. That front had never gotten off the ground, partly because of the break-up with Qatar and partly because of Egypt’s ambivalent attitude towards Iran now that Cairo has strengthened its ties with Moscow and is aligning its position on Syria with its new ally.
Saudi Arabia, understanding that no American intervention was forthcoming and finding itself very much alone, was instrumental in getting the Lebanese prime minister to resign, thus triggering a crisis in Lebanon as a wake-up call to get the media and world public opinion to recognize at last that Iranian terrorism is about to engulf Lebanon and is threatening not only the Gulf area but the whole Middle East.
The aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring had dashed hopes of greater democracy and ushered an outpouring of Sunni radical Islam, which brought down nation states such as Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen and is blocking a return to regional stability. In Syria, world powers and Arab states are playing a dangerous game.
The long-drawn civil war has brought nothing but suffering to the Syrian people.
The overall situation – humanitarian, social, political, and economic – is so dire that it will take years for the country to recover if this can ever happen. The Sunni majority will not readily accept to live again under an Alawi dictatorial regime; the Kurds will refuse to see the dismantlement of the de facto autonomy they have achieved by fighting Daesh in Northern Syria.
On the other hand, neither Assad nor Iran nor Russia want elections held under international supervision, which would hand over the country to the Sunni majority. This would lose no time in bringing to justice Assad and his allies for their war crimes and would speedily expel Iran, its Hezbollah proxies and the so-called popular Shia militias, which are in fact Iranian terrorist organizations.
Furthermore, the agreements allowing Russia to maintain a military presence in the Mediterranean could well be rescinded.
Taking these factors into account, there can be no overall settlement of the Syrian crisis, only limited interim agreements.
There are understandings regarding so-called de-escalation or safe zones where fighting would end and displaced civilians could return. They would be enforced by cooperation among Russia, Iran and Turkey, with the tacit agreement of the United States and the support of Egypt. Iran’s presence in Syria would thus be officially recognized.
Four zones have been agreed upon, but it has not stopped Assad’s army, assisted by Iran and Russia, from taking advantage of the weakness of rebel forces to encroach upon them. Their fate is unclear.
Iran is the undisputed winner of the situation. It is now solidly entrenched in the country and it’s hard to see who could dislodge it. It has significantly furthered its goal of advancing to the heart of the Middle East, with Russia and America looking on and doing nothing.
Its presence is making itself powerfully felt in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. It can move its loyal Shia militias through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon while providing the Houthi rebels in Yemen with sophisticated military equipment.
Saudi Arabia is increasingly uneasy at being surrounded from all sides, while Iran openly plots its downfall and that of its Emirates allies with the help of Shia minorities in the Gulf. Khomeini saw in the Saudi kingdom the main stumbling block to his aspirations to impose a Shia regime in the region, but was thwarted by the unified Sunni front then led by Egypt.
Khamenei, his successor, is still vigorously pursuing his objective with significant successes. By signing a nuclear deal behind the back of his most faithful allies, Obama effectively left the front in disarray while giving a free rein to Tehran.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, ostracized by the American president, turned to Russia and developed close military, political and economic links with Moscow, ultimately going along with its position regarding leaving Assad in place in Syria.
This led to a rift with Saudi Arabia, which is hurting the Egyptian economy.
Sisi hosted several meetings with Sunni rebels and urged them to participate in the summit in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, where Russia, Turkey and Iran are drawing the future map of Syria.
Saudi Arabia had hoped in vain that Trump would revive the old Sunni front and even use force against Iran, as he had done in Afghanistan against Daesh and in Syria, when he ordered strikes against the Shayrat airfield used by the Syrian Army to launch chemical attacks on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Now America is going along with Russia and recognizes an Iranian presence in Syria, thus demonstrating once again that the lack of American resolve to be once again a significant factor in the region that could prevent a takeover by Iran and its allies.
It has also abandoned the Kurds, another faithful ally. Not only did it oppose the referendum for independence of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan established with its protection, it did not try to stop the Iraqi Army it had trained and equipped from attacking it with the help of Shia militias.
Thus, Iraq and the Kurds, two American allies it had equipped and trained who had fought together against Daesh, are now fighting each other, while Washington remains neutral and does not even try to conciliate them.
Riyadh knows only too well that it cannot confront Iran militarily, as its poor showing in Yemen has made clear. Yet it probably believes that, due to its strategic position in the heart of the Middle East and its prominent influence on fixing the price of oil in the world, it can bring the West to reevaluate its stand on Iran.
Didn’t the French president, on a tour of the Emirates, rush to see the crown prince to get a firsthand account of the resignation of Saad Hariri, which could have dangerous repercussions on the Middle East and even on Europe, heavily invested in the Gulf states? Then there is the risk of a new wave of refugees. The West, which has long refused to see the Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon and Iran’s intention to set up not only military outposts in the country but perhaps missile factories, can no longer ignore what is going on. There are reports of Shia militias already training in Hezbollah camps in the Beqaa Valley.
Israel is closely monitoring Iran’s activities in Syria and has repeatedly stated that it would not let a new terrorist front develop.
It has thwarted Hezbollah’s efforts at setting up a basis near the Golan Heights.
Following intense lobbying in Moscow and Washington, a memorandum has been signed by the two powers and Jordan to push back non-Syrian forces (Hezbollah, Iranians, Shia militias and Sunni rebels such a Fatah Elshams) 20 kilometers from southwest Syria, along the borders with Jordan and the Golan.
This is still too close for Israel’s safety.
Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two main targets of Iran, will go on fighting Iran’s aggression, each on its own way, hoping against hope that America will at last fulfill its obligations to its allies, before it is too late and a new cycle of violence begins. The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.
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