Russia, Turkey and Iran have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the establishment of “De-escalation Zones” in Syria. Earlier in the week it was widely reported that U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on this very subject.
On Wednesday, Putin and Turkish President cum Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan met and held a press conference discussing this issue. All of this diplomacy is occurring against the backdrop of the fourth round of ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan in which a path to a political solution to the civil war in Syria is being mapped out.
Now speculation is running rampant as to what all of this means. Trump and Putin are likely going to meet face to face at July’s G-20 meeting. And that, at a minimum, is something worth celebrating.
Alexander Mercouris, as always, at The Duran has a detailed look at the potential scenarios that is worth your time. Mercouris spins out a myriad of scenarios, parsing the ‘diplo-speak’ like the pro that he is.
And I agree with him that little is known at this point and much has been left to the imagination as to what these ‘de-escalation zones’ will look like and what they will accomplish.
But, Putin is a deft diplomat and deal-maker. Of the many scenarios that Mercouris lays out in his article the most compelling to me is the following:
… raises another possibility, which is that like the Russian draft for a ‘Syrian constitution’ about which so much was heard a few weeks ago, but which has since vanished without trace, this Russian proposal to set up ‘de-escalation zones’ may not be intended seriously and may be nothing more than a diplomatic stratagem. [emphasis mine]
From the Russian point of view the priority in Syria at the moment must be to prevent the various parties – the Syrians, the Turks, the US and the Kurds – from getting drawn into an all-out war with each other. Donald Trump’s recent re-floating of the idea of ‘safe havens’ has however seriously increased that possibility. Proposing ‘de-escalation zones’ might be the Russians’ way of getting Trump off the hook – which may be why he has apparently welcomed this proposal so enthusiastically – whilst giving the parties a topic they can talk about and argue over instead of fight each other. Meanwhile the Syrian army would be left alone to carry on the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS unhindered.
The bolded parts are the most important. As I have stated repeatedly, Trump stepped in it with his ill-advised airstrike on the al-Shairat airbase in Idlib on April 6th. The results of the attack itself were irrelevant rather the fallout from it.
This was the main reason for my opposition to it. As a big opening gambit, the strike failed to impress either Putin or Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. In fact, it did quite the opposite, it alienated them, nee humiliated Xi during dinner, and now Trump has to walk it back in such a way as to lose even more bargaining position in Syria.
Since that attack, the U.S. has not made a move in Syria the Russians would not approve of. In order to get the ‘deconfliction hotline’ reinstated between U.S. and Russian military commanders, Trump had to apologize, stop flying sorties near Syrian Arab Army (SAA) positions and even drop troops on the Syrian/Turkish border in response to the Turkish Army attack on Kurdish YPG forces there.
Now, Trump is likely going to have to either go along with Putin’s conception of ‘safe zones’ for civilians, which would preclude them being used as staging areas for U.S.-backed rebels or give up on the idea all together.
Trumps “Wins” are Just Losses
It’s not winning when your opponent trades a pawn for a bishop or a rook and gains board state. It’s just losing.
And, most importantly, the idea that Trump did all this to achieve this outcome to undermine the Deep State actors in his National Security Council is, frankly, moronic and insulting to the intelligence of anyone with two working brain cells to rub together and make a spark.
He did it for the cynical reasons of shoring up his base and getting some political cache back home with his opposition. Trump is a smart guy, but he’s not the kind of deep thinker his most ardent advocates think he is. He’s fallible. The strike was a mistake and it has cost him more than he needed to wager.
And any political capital he gained back here, he lost with that horrendous spending bill to avoid a government shut down this week. Again, this isn’t winning, it’s losing.
Hopefully, he’s a quick study on the subtleties of foreign policy and can turn things around come the fall domestically on the budget and tax cuts.
Putin Saves Trump’s Bacon
Handing Trump a life-line like ‘safe zones,’ but on his terms, Putin has once again outplayed his U.S. counterpart in the same way that he did with Obama in 2013 over the sarin gas attack in Ghouta. This is why I think this is the most likely scenario that is playing out.
It fits not only Putin’s goals, but also his play-style.
Putin will never allow the U.S. and Turkey to set up ‘safe zones’ that their pet jihadists can use to harass the SAA in Homs, Damascus and Idlib. He knows this is a path to endless war and regime change.
Erdogan will continue to not be happy about the U.S. acting as a buffer force against his desire to wipe out the Kurds. But, even he is beginning to realize the situation in Syria. His goals of annexing large swaths of Syria and northern Iraq are pretty much over. He will continue moving Turkey towards Russia and away from NATO.
He and Putin took the stage mostly smiles, having buried the hatchet over Turkey’s shooting down that SU-24 in November 2015. Trade relations have been restored. The Turks are getting a new $22 billion Russian nuclear power plant and the Turkish Stream pipeline is moving forward.
Putin and Trump likely discussed the future role of Hezbollah in the pro-Assad coalition, something that Putin has always been willing to negotiate away. Between that and guaranteeing Iran’s Republican Guard leaving the country once ISIS has been defeated is a small price to pay for not having Syria devolve into a failed state.