The ten days preceding President Putin and Trump’s historic meeting at the G20 Summit in Hamburg on 7 July stand to be the most important thus far in determining the contours of Syria’s so-called “political solution”. Both leaders see their upcoming meeting as the best chance to conclusively sort out their countries’ strategic differences in Syria and lay the groundwork for a so-called “New Détente”, however perceptively unbalanced it may appear to be (at least at this time).
Towards A “New Détente”
The world once more has its eyes laser-focused on Syria, watching with bated breath to see whether Trump will launch another cruise missile strike against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) after having threatened to do so for the second time in just three months over a supposed “chemical weapons attack”. This time, however, there hasn’t been any false flag, at least not yet, but the warning from Sean Spicer that the Syrian government is apparently planning to use non-existent chemical weapons in “bombing its own people” is enough to convey the hostile intent coming out of the White House. It doesn’t matter that most of the world knows that this is a false pretext – the point is that the US is once again putting supreme pressure on Syria by threatening it with another overt act of war, and it’s doing so precisely in the run-up to the historic Putin-Trump meeting at the end of next week in Germany.
Nobody knows for sure what the meeting’s format will be or even the agenda that will be discussed, but it’s a safe bet that their respective high-level “deep state” staffs, at the very least, will use the opportunity to meet and try to hash out a more formal “understanding” on Syria. Both the US and Russia want to wash their hands of the War on Syria – Washington wants the Kurds to proceed to their “next mission” in formalizing the de-facto statelet that they’ve carved out in northeastern Syria, whereas Moscow is anxious for all sides to agree to a “political solution” that it can trumpet as a major “diplomatic victory” justifying its decisive anti-terrorist intervention nearly two years ago. The two Great Powers also want to jointly take credit for defeating Daesh, which is on its deathbed as the “Race for Raqqa” draws to an end and its “capital” is on the verge of being captured by the Kurdish-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF).
Therefore, Presidents Putin and Trump see their upcoming meeting as the best chance to conclusively sort out their countries’ strategic differences in Syria and lay the groundwork for a so-called “New Détente”, however perceptively unbalanced it may appear to be (at least at this time).
Problems In “Paradise”
The US wants Russia and its Syrian ally to enact unilateral concessions as regards the envisioned “political settlement” that Washington expects Moscow to promote at the upcoming Astana talks on 10 July three days after the Putin-Trump meeting. To that end, it’s threatening the SAA with a preemptive strike due to the fake news about it supposedly preparing for a “chemical weapons attack”, or it might launch a retaliatory one in response to another false flag incident like last time. Russia, for its part, already officially declared in April following the first cruise missile strike against the SAA that “Russia has no intentions to use its Aerospace Forces against US missiles if Washington decides to carry out new strikes in Syria as it could lead to a large-scale war”, which all but gives the US a blank check to do as it pleases no matter how sharp of a rhetorical reply Russia will give to any future aggression.
At the end of the day, however, Russia is strictly adhering to its anti-terrorist military mandate in Syria and isn’t going to enter into a hot shooting war with the US if the Pentagon bombs the SAA once more. This is the same attitude that Russia has towards “Israel”, which has hit the SAA numerous times with impunity, and also unprecedentedly ratcheted up its attacks last week to launch two back-to-back airstrikes in just as many days. Quite clearly, the US and “Israel” are coordinating their aggression against the SAA to divide its strategic focus between the Kurdish-occupied northeast and the al Nusra-controlled southwest.
Russia’s proposed “de-escalation zones” already include the latter and effectively make it a “buffer” between the “Israeli” and Syrian forces, but Damascus isn’t going to let this become a fait accompli without fighting, hence why the SAA moved against al Nusra’s fighters in this region and in turn prompted the “Israeli” retribution. As for the Kurds, they’re not formally included in the Russians’ designs, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t also be brought on board per a deal between Presidents Putin and Trump at next week’s Hamburg Summit. It’s possible that Russia could offer to make the US the official on-the-ground “administrator” of a forthcoming Kurdish “de-escalation” zone in the SDF-YPG’s occupied territory and essentially formalize the Pentagon’s presence there in exchange for Washington backing off from its obsession to immediately remove President Assad from office. As a further part of its bargain, Moscow might promise (key word) to help “persuade” Damascus to agree to the “decentralization” clauses in the Russian-written “draft constitution” and work towards initiating a “phased leadership transition” in the country.
Circumventing The Syrians
All of this might “sound good” on paper through the prism of the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard”, but the problem with this speculated but reasonably possible scenario is that Syria essentially loses its sovereign right to decide its own future, an understanding that Damascus may have already arrived at and which could be the reason why there have been so many international “incidents” in Syria lately. To explain, provided that the aforementioned version of events is accurate, then it makes perfect sense why the US and “Israel” bombed Syria several times over the past month, and it could be because the SAA violated a Russian-American agreement for dividing Syria into “spheres of influence” per a combination of “de-escalation zones” and constitutional “decentralization”. Whether or not Damascus was made aware of such a theorized agreement can never be known for certain, but it probably was informed to some capacity about what it “shouldn’t do” on its own territory if it wants to advance the “greater good” of reaching a “political solution” to end the War on Syria.
That would thus mean that the SAA’s several moves against al-Tanf and the more recent initiatives against the SDF-YPG in Tabqa and al Nusra near the Golan Heights were deliberately ordered with the intent of overstepping the “red lines” that were made without its agreement by Russia and the US. Syria might have wanted to “provoke” Russia’s “support” by placing it in a position where Moscow would feel compelled to come to Damascus’ aid in order to avoid the “humiliation” of its “ally” getting bombed by Russia’s perceived (key word) American and “Israeli” rivals with impunity. If that was the rationale behind the latest incidences, then they unfortunately failed to achieve their desired response from Russia, which might be furious with the “humiliation” that Syria brought to its soft power image (“bluff”) of supposedly opposing the US and “Israelis’” aggression in the country.
Of course, it was never technically the case that this is what Russia ever intended to do, because as was previously mentioned, Moscow is strictly abiding by its anti-terrorist military mandate in Syria and isn’t interested whatsoever in doing anything more than fighting Daesh, but it’s just that there was a prevailing unstated perception surrounding its commitments to the country that made many people believe that it was there to implicitly oppose all of the US and “Israel’s” geostrategic objectives. While there’s veritably an overlap between Russia’s mission in defeating Daesh and therefore destroying Washington and Tel Aviv’s initial plans in Syria, the fact that Moscow already achieved most of that original mission and its purported “adversaries” have since adapted their strategies in response to instead promote the “federalization” (internal partition) of the country as their “Plan B” shouldn’t be taken to mean that Russia will also expand its responsibilities in order to once again oppose those two actors.
In fact, if anything, Russia seems to have resigned itself to accepting what its leadership apparently believes to be the inevitability of the US-“Israeli” plot to impose de-facto “blood borders” in Syria, and that’s why it included specific clauses pertaining to “decentralization” in the Russian-written “draft constitution” that it unveiled in late January as a preemptive “compromise solution” to this challenge. The last thing that Moscow wants, especially this late in the “game” right when all sides are finally approaching the “finish line” in getting ready to agree to a “political solution”, is for Damascus to “screw it all up” by following through on President Assad’s promise to liberate “every square inch” of Syria. This, as has already been demonstrated several times across the past month, would thereby prompt high-profile “humiliations” in which Russia would have “no choice” but to “stand down” out of its own will and have the rest of the world watch its ally get bombed over and over again in order to save the speculated “gentleman’s agreement” with Washington. That, however, is Syria’s way of pressuring Russia to “do more” to assist its nationwide liberation campaign, though it appears to be a lost cause so far.
Concluding Thoughts
To reiterate everything that’s been expressed in this article thus far, there is no evidence proving that Russia has in fact agreed to anything with the US regarding Syria, let alone “behind Damascus’ back”, but putting two and two together in observing how Russia has “stood down” on a handful of occasions across the past 45 or so days in allowing the US and “Israel” to bomb the SAA after it made advances in certain strategic regions, it’s not implausible to suggest that this could in fact have something to do with the scenario elaborated on in this analysis. In that case, the Trump Administration’s threats to preemptively bomb Syria on the false pretext that Damascus is getting ready to use “chemical weapons” against civilians presents itself in a new light, and can be interpreted as a major signal from the US to Russia that it had better gets its Syrian ally “in line” if it wants the upcoming Putin-Trump meeting to be a success and serve as the first step in the hoped-for “New Détente”.
Everything now hinges on whether President Assad and the SAA will adhere to the “gentleman’s agreement” that Russia might have already approved of with the US or if they’ll continue “violating” it in seeking to liberate the strategic territory around Tabqa, al-Tanf, and the Golan Heights. Syria knows that these next 10 days are crucial to its survival, as the failure to “convince” Russia to “support” it in the desired manner could lead to Moscow and Washington consecrating their “New Détente” at what Damascus perceives to be its “own expense”, especially considering that it could probably result in heavy pressure from all sides to agree to “decentralization” and the de-facto recognition of a Kurdish statelet in northeastern Syria. There are other “wildcards” at play too, namely Turkey and Iran, but neither of them have the potential for “humiliating” Russia as much as Syria does if it “steps out of line” and “provokes” an American-“Israeli” military response which “breaches” Russia’s publicly declared “red line” about no aircraft flying west of the Euphrates.
There’s no doubt that it’s Syria’s sovereign right to move its military forces anywhere throughout its territory in seeking to liberate its citizens from terrorists (Al Nusra, Daesh) and separatists (YPG Kurds), but at the same time, for “better” or for “worse”, there’s no ignoring that Great Powers such as Russia and the US oftentimes makes “deals” with one another over middle- and smaller-sized countries in order to advance their subjectively defined  interests in the name of the “greater good”. This, in a nutshell, is the “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard” model of International Relations which has once more returned to the forefront of global politics in the opening stages of the emerging Multipolar World Order. The author had no intention of arguing (whether directly or by inference) who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” based on how they respond under these dynamics, nor to make any subjective “value” judgement about any of the actors involved, but rather to syncretize many separate observations into a cohesive – though admittedly speculative – model in trying to make sense of everything that’s going on nowadays.
The US’ threat to once again bomb the SAA seems to have come out of nowhere, but in reality and per the explanation offered in this article, it’s actually meant to pressure Russia to “rein in” Syria before the upcoming Putin-Trump summit at the end of next week in order for both sides to have the “plausible” reason to cut some sort of “New Détente” deal over Syria, whether openly or clandestinely. If “successful”, then this could potentially see Russia accept the de-facto imposition of an American-led “de-escalation” zone in the Kurdish-occupied northeastern areas of the country that the Pentagon is already deployed in, thus setting all parties on the path to reaching a compromise “political solution” to the war. However, there’s no telling whether Syria will “listen” to Russia and “restrain itself/back down” or be “encouraged” by its Iranian ally to continue going forward with its nationwide liberation operations during the next 10 days, so the hypothesized “win-win” arrangement between Russia and the US is now thrown in jeopardy.
All eyes across the world are therefore locked onto the Arab Republic to see what its democratically elected and legitimate President will do next, as his decisions across the coming week and a half will have profoundly global implications in determining if Russia’s long-awaited and much-hoped-for “New Détente” with the US can be sealed in Hamburg, or if its leader will end up walking away in disappointment without a deal.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.
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Andrew Korybko is Moscow-based political analyst, journalist and a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. His other areas of focus include tactics of regime change, color revolutions and unconventional warfare used across the world.