There have now been 10 years of chaos in Syria, with many guilty actors. But efforts to reverse the course in the country are gaining steam. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to the Gulf last week featured many prominent themes, but Syria really stood out. His trips to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar revealed significant forward movement in Moscow’s interests in the Middle East.
These meetings discussed the next regional steps, signifying Russia’s policy direction since Vladimir Putin’s first visit in 2007. Since then, Russia has achieved much in terms of its strategic desires. Syria is just one place that now comes into sharp focus. One may be able to go so far as to argue that the success of Lavrov’s visit comes at the direct expense of the US, as Moscow is taking advantage of Washington’s focus on ending its so-called forever wars and its moving of the center of its strategic gravity to the Indo-Pacific region.
Given this gap, Russia and the Gulf states are seeking to pressure the US to loosen its Caesar Act sanctions. They, along with Turkey, are intent on reshaping Syria’s political future. Bringing Damascus back to the Arab League and helping it achieve a strategic transformation — but not on Western terms — seems to be the flavor of the day. Unfortunately, the perceptions are that the current US administration is weak and is going to falter on Iran. Thus, the Russia-Gulf nexus is seeking a multitude of paths before Syria and the Levant. The idea is to keep Iran out by cutting off the oxygen to Tehran’s interests on the ground. Moscow’s relationship with Tehran comes into play here as it can act as a channel for communication.
Iran is buried deep in Syria in terms of its relationships with institutions and its on-the-ground interests. Tehran’s ability to run different types of networks, both legal and illegal, is detrimental to Syria’s future. This is not seamless and is subject to many pressures, and the tendency to try to push back against Iran is clear. Moscow is in the comfortable position of talking to Iran while pursuing this policy in Syria because of its long-standing ability to get Tehran to back away. It is a balancing act that is still not well understood in the West.
This questioning of the Caesar Act creates a very toxic environment for policymakers in the West. There is, in particular, a real race against time in terms of Syria’s humanitarian situation. The unfolding economic and social landscape is being wrecked by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and strife of all stripes. Summertime will not make anything better. The talks that Lavrov held in the Gulf last week involved many different aspects of the Syrian question. While Idlib may have been the focus of one discussion, how to deliver aid to other parts of the country was the subject of another. Reconstruction was part of a third set of discussions. There are a number of inter-state working groups discussing Syria’s ability to reboot itself with this type of immediate outside help. Jordan may be in a key position to act as a moderator between Washington and others.
Much of Syria has been destroyed by the last decade of civil war. Food prices are out of control, electricity provision is sporadic, and the currency is in decline. President Bashar Assad is yet to gain control of large parts of the country and there are no resources to address reconstruction, which is why Lavrov’s trip to the Gulf could be so important. The thinking goes that Russia, along with the Gulf states, might be about to use the Astana process to settle several layers of Syrian society and Damascene politics. Assad’s future is not guaranteed. Some of what is being done now has been proposed before, but the alignment of players is more conducive to success this time. Turkey plays a role in the “distribution of labor” over fixing Syria, as Lavrov discussed in the three Gulf capitals. In other words, the immediate future is dominated by a different set of players because of the timing of the US transition. The American policy process should catch up, but the first shot has been fired against the Caesar Act.
The coming months of diplomatic meetings on Syrian-related issues will be contentious as they go up in front of the UN. Ten years of UN attempts to fix Syria now face a different landscape, while screaming for help. There appears to be a building challenge to US policy, but the flip side is that it pressures Iran and meets a requirement framed within a new humanitarian aid and reconstruction context exacerbated by COVID-19 economics. How Europe reacts, or even takes the lead, remains to be seen.