Some of the confusion as to who sets the US policies on Syria may be clearing up. It seems Trump plays an influential role.
This first became discernible when despite the shenanigans of state department functionaries to scuttle a meeting between him and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Danang on November 10 (pleading ‘scheduling difficulty’), the two veterans snatched a few minutes together the next day to be able to sign up on a US-Russian joint statement on Syria stressing an inclusive political solution through free and fair elections under a new constitution.
The very next day, however, senior state department officials began fudging the statement by injecting a dose of poison into it – by hinting at a continued US military presence in Syria (echoing an earlier remark by US Defence Secretary James Mattis) and reiterating the archaic demand that President Bashar Al-Assad just cannot be part of even the transition.
Moscow objected promptly to point out that the Trump-Putin statement did not require any annotation. At any rate, Putin touched base with Trump personally exactly 10 days later on November 21 (on the eve of the famous ‘trilateral summit’ in Sochi) where they simply picked up the threads of discussion in Danang.
Once again, they had an amiable conversation. (Kremlin released an unusually detailed press release, here) Once again, Trump appeared to be clear-headed and purposive about working with Putin to bring the war to an end and to negotiate an inclusive settlement that brought enduring peace. Possibly, Trump senses that there are pockets of resistance within the administration to his line on Syria.
Indeed, on Sunday, the State Department came out with a statement on the upcoming intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. It made no ‘pre-condition’ on Assad and instead acknowledged that the elections under a new constitution “should include the broadest spectrum of Syrian citizens, including all groups with representation and influence on the ground.” Bravo!
Interestingly, it also urged Assad’s government pointedly “to enter into substantive negotiations.” (The Trump-Putin statement in Danang had mentioned Assad by name.) There was absolutely no trace of polemics, rancor or sophistry.
Now the ‘residual’ ambiguity is limited to the US presence in Syria. But here again, a backtracking seems to be under way. The official US position was that 500 American personnel were deployed to Syria to help the Syrian Democratic Forces (read Kurdish militia) to fight the ISIS. But Pentagon is considering how to acknowledge that the actual number could be 2000! (Reuters)
However, the good thing is, again, that Trump in a phone call to Turkish President Recep Erdogan on November 24 pledged to “ensure the stability of a unified Syria” and, more importantly, held out the commitment that US will no longer supply arms to the Syrian Kurdish militia whom Turks regard as terrorists. Prior to that, Trump had tweeted:
Will be speaking to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey this morning about bringing peace to the mess that I inherited in the Middle East. I will get it all done, but what a mistake, in lives and dollars (6 trillion), to be there in the first place!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 24, 2017
Of course, Turkey has now demanded that it expects the US to altogether end its partnership with Syrian Kurds. (Xinhua) To be sure, the US presence in Syria will be wound up, no matter Mattis’ swagger. A commentary today in Jerusalem Post argues persuasively that continued US military presence in Syria really doesn’t make sense – not even for ‘containing’ Iran. (Jerusalem Post)
The point is, unless Turkey, Syria and Iraq allowed the US supply lines to the remote northeastern region of Syria, a presence there is impossible to maintain – and all these three countries (plus of course, Iran and Russia) want the US troops to vacate.
The sobriety of the latest US state department statement is also to be attributed to the dramatic shift in the Saudi stance. The Russian presidential envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev was present in Riyadh last week (and was received by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) even as Syrian opposition groups congregated there to pick a negotiating team for the Geneva talks. Their new leader Nasr al-Hariri, is a cardiologist by profession. He is a Syrian dissident but not an embittered defector like his predecessor Riyad Hijab, who used to the Syrian prime minister.
Source: Indian Punchline