• Jean AbiNader

Disagreements Building over US-Russia Agreements on Syria – Who’s in Charge?

Once again, Lebanon has become an arena for the US-Russia rivalry. It was 70 years ago that US Marines landed on Lebanon’s beaches to be greeted by kids selling Chiclets and Coke, which ended with a change in government and US dominance of Lebanon’s foreign policy. Now that world has been turned on its head. Russia has become the dominant policy shaper in the region, and it is now saddled with satisfying its client Syria amid tug-of-wars with Iran, Turkey, and Israel over whose interests will drive the agenda.


How this happened has been the subject of much analysis, particularly since President Trump announced his “understandings” with President Putin following their off-the-record discussions in Helsinki, which, of course, are not the same as those detailed by the Russians. But one thing stands out, as foreignpolicy.com put it, “The era when the United States determined the rules of the game in the Middle East and maintained a regional order that made it relatively easier and less expensive to exercise US power lasted 25 years. It is now over.”


Putting Syria at the center of Russia’s strategy to impose itself as the new poohbah in the Middle East has implications throughout the region, which is witnessing a decided US retreat even from Egypt. “The situation in Syria reveals the profound ambivalence of Americans toward the Middle East and the declining importance of what US officials have long considered Washington’s interests there: oil, Israel, and US dominance of the area to ensure the other two.”


This logic can be seen behind Jared Kushner’s drive to strip Palestinians of their refugee status, the US withdrawal of funds from UNWRA, the sale of arms at arms-length to the GCC so the members can go it alone, and the constant efforts of OMB to whittle down funding for foreign and military assistance programs, among other Administration measures.


Even the debate over refugee resettlement is affected by the Russian diktat. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have all paid numerous visits to Moscow, hosted Russian officials, and made appropriate noises indicating recognition of Russian’s dominance on the topic. For example, an Al-Monitor story noted that “[Hariri’s] office welcomed the Russian Defense Ministry’s announcement on the establishment of a joint center to coordinate the return of the refugees to Syria. Hariri had dispatched his adviser for Russian affairs George Shaaban to Moscow where he told Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on the same day that Hariri counts on the Russian move, which would lay the foundations for a resolution of the Syrian displacement crisis.”


The Russians have upped the ante in diminishing US influence in the region by insisting on a “my way or the highway” approach. Soon after the Helsinki summit, “Russia called on the US military to respect President Donald Trump's willingness to work with his Russian counterpart in organizing humanitarian relief to the war-torn country or exit the country altogether as it had no ‘legal basis’ to operate there,” according to a Newsweek post. Despite the public reluctance of General Joseph Votel, US Central Command chief, to readily accept the Russian lead on refugee affairs, the Administration has not clarified what role the US will play since it is clear that Russia wants the US out of eastern Syria as part of any deal.


Russia is quickly learning the limitations of its new leadership role as it moves from enabler to “what’s next?” Not known for its nation-building prowess, it is focusing instead on how it can use Syria as a source of much needed income garnered through profiting from the country’s reconstruction. And here’s where it definitely needs US assistance.


According to a US memo in response to the Russian linking of reconstruction and refugee resettlement, US policy is “To support such efforts if there were a political solution to end Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, including steps like UN-supervised elections.” Policy-formulators in the State Department understand that aiding Syrian reconstruction will only further Assad’s hold on power. “The United States has drawn a line on reconstruction assistance, saying it should be tied to a process that includes UN-supervised elections and a political transition in Syria. It blames Assad for Syria’s devastation,” the article notes.


The UN estimates that Syrian reconstruction will cost at least $250 billion. Given Russia’s weak economy, it must depend on the international community to underwrite efforts to rebuild Syria, not likely to be forthcoming without strong conditions related to political and economic reforms.


The US memo takes issue with the Russian characterization that its proposals are an outcome of the Helsinki summit. The memo argues that “Russian diplomats and other officials have also been engaging in an aggressive campaign to describe the initiative in other capitals and to insinuate that it is an outcome of the US-Russia meeting in Helsinki, which it is not, repeat not.”


How this plays out in the next six months, given the pending US announcement of the Trump Administration’s latest rollout of a Middle East peace plan as well as an Arab NATO, will cement US policy until the next presidential election. Whether or not Russia finds itself, like the US, weary of investing its political, military, intelligence, and security assets in the region will very much shape the dynamics of the Middle East and beyond for some time.


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