Government Stand-off may end this week. Exploring US-Russian Interests in Syria – Possible Collaboration

Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The stalemate that has frozen cabinet meetings – and any movement on actions to proceed with the government’s legislative agenda – may end this week according to the Prime Minister’s office. The tension erupted when there was a shoot-off between rival Druze militias which resulted in two deaths and others wounded. The shooting involved the retinue of Minister Saleh al-Gharib, an ally of Druze politician Talal Arslan who is close to Damascus and enjoys the backing of the heavily armed Shiite Hezbollah. Arslan holds the party of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt responsible for the bloodshed. The holdup centers on which body will carry out the investigation and possible prosecution.

A senior official told Reuters the paralysis has held up discussions of the 2020 budget, a vital part of efforts to plug gaping holes in the public finances and convince investors the state is finally serious about long-delayed reforms. “Frankly, we can’t stay like this for much longer,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it was his personal assessment of a sensitive situation. The official said that two credit ratings agencies are due to issue reports on Lebanon in the coming weeks and while a prompt start to cabinet’s budget discussions could reflect positively, continued tension may have the opposite impact. So once again Lebanon finds itself captive of paralyzing sectarian divides.

An interesting article in Al-Monitor broached the possibility of common goals emerging between the US and Russia in Syria and if and how collaboration can move forward. The premise of the piece is that despite several significant differences, both countries have interests that may align as the civil war draws down and issues of reconstruction and the refugees top the agenda. While it doesn’t signal a change in the Russian objective to replace the US as the dominant regional influence, it reinforces the perspective that Russia and Iran are actually in competition in Syria, and elsewhere.

For example, the author, a well-known Russian analyst, posits that Russia shares US concerns with Iran’s plans to create an overland route to the Mediterranean and Hezbollah, via Iraq and Syria, and considers this as complicating Russia’s presence in the Syrian ports. He says that Russia is “Torpedoing Tehran’s attempts to develop economic projects, as well as to build or control the critical infrastructure in coastal Syria, allegedly with an eye on supporting Hezbollah, and under the de facto air cover of local Russian military facilities,” which benefits Iran but creates risk for Russian interests.

He says that Russia has been “confronting Tehran’s efforts to convert its military presence on the ground in central Syria, both directly or through loyal militias, into long-term economic dominance across the country, demanding exclusive conditions for Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-linked companies to participate in Syria’s economic reconstruction.” Since Russia sees reconstruction as its compensation for saving the Assad regime, it will not look favorably on Iran undercutting Russian influence on the reconstruction process.

Given Russia’s close contacts with Netanyahu’s Israel, it also is concerned that Iran’s aggressive military posture through Hezbollah and empowering local militias, will endanger Russian personnel and assets if “unanticipated” conflicts arise. In this regard, Russia is “Opposing Iran’s tactics to keep a military presence in southern Syria, adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.”

Finally, given Iran’s competing long-term political, security, and commercial interests in Syria, Russia does not want to give it a key role in its initiatives, such as the Nur Sultan meetings that will enable Iran to “influence the political process in Syria, especially the future constitutional reform under the UN umbrella, via egging on Damascus to stand still on possible concessions.”

While Moscow “views Iran as a strategic partner in Syria…it is anxious about Tehran’s unilateral attempts to cultivate proxies among the Syrian military and security services, as well as business and religious communities, that further fuel Russian-Iranian competition on the ground.” While this may be a marriage of convenience, greater stability in Syria may bring these conflicts and others involving Turkey into full bloom.

On a related issue, as recently as this week, Turkey reiterated its position that if it cannot agree with the US on a safe zone in Northeast Syria, it will move ahead on its own to set one up. There are several key points of disagreement including the future of Kurdish forces, the main ally of the US in the region considered a terrorist organization by Ankara. The Foreign Minister, after inconclusive talks with the US last week, and the Defense Minister on Monday, reiterated that Turkey will launch a military operation east of the Euphrates River, if there is no agreement, which would bring it in contact with US troops.