Can the US and Russia find agreement on Syria after the nuclear deal?

Can the US and Russia find agreement on Syria after the nuclear deal?

Discussions between high level US and Russian diplomatic officials over Syria may be signaling the conflict is entering its end phase. With the Iranian nuclear agreement finalized, bilateral cooperation on Syria is possible, but will be difficult.

A meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin in May could soon see the two countries ready to work together on solving the Syrian crisis.

Diplomats met again at the end of June for further discussions on Syria’s civil war. Following the nuclear deal with Iran, the United States and Russia may seize an opportunity to try a new approach towards ending the conflict.

Economic ruin and the multifaceted nature of the conflict make it difficult for either the Syrian government or the many rebel factions to gain a clear advantage. Syria’s economy has contracted by 60 percent since the civil war broke out in 2011.

Russia fears for Syria’s collapse

The West is in a period of heightened tensions with Russia, but it is worth noting that Russia is not the same conventional military power it was during the years of the Soviet Union. The US has and will be able to find additional common ground with Russian for bilateral cooperation. A US-Russia accommodation on Syria does not have to include agreement on Ukraine within a grand bargain.

Officials from the Kremlin have begun expressing concern behind the scenes that the collapse of the Assad regime is becoming a distinct possibility. This may push Russia into adopting a shared interest with the US.

Russia’s security interests lie with the thousands of Muslims from the former Soviet Republics and the Russian Caucasus who have gone to Syria to join Islamic State (IS).

Meanwhile, IS has become more vocal about adding Russia’s southern territories to the self-declared Caliphate. The group has been actively calling for local militant groups in Russia’s North Caucasus republics to pledge allegiance to them. IS now has a Russian-language media channel for recruitment.

Israeli defense officials have voiced their opinion that Russia will continue to support the Assad regime to preserve Russian security and geo-strategic interests.

Syrian Ambassador to Russia Riad Haddad has confirmed that the Syrian government is still receiving Russian arms shipments and training from Russian advisors. However, Damascus has yet to receive the transfer of the Yak-130 trainers, which were due in 2014.

With the conclusion of the Iran deal, Russian advanced weapons, including the S-300 anti-air missile defense systems, are expected to continue to be restricted to Iran for at least five years.

Russia’s part in the P5+1 negotiations and shared security interests with the US could potentially set a new trend in the coming months for greater bilateral cooperation in the region’s problematic affairs.

The Iranian nuclear deal and Syria

With the eventual lifting of Iran’s sanctions, Assad expressed optimism that Syria would see an expansion of Iranian support in Syria. Iran and Syria just finalized a new $1 billion credit line for Damascus. Russia is also eager to recommence the shipment conventional weapons to Iran.

President Rouhani’s reformist camp (at least publicly) holds the same position on Syria as Iran’s conservative faction. Iranian flexibility looks unlikely but current battlefield developments are pressuring the regime’s forces, and could see Iran hesitate to further expand its role in Syria in the post-deal era.

Recent signs have shown the Iranians favor an “Iran Plan B” – that is, consolidating and holding the Syrian government’s positions.

Iran has also hinted at a desire to foster strategic ties with the US in the fight against IS. Iraq’s Prime Minister Al-Abadi expressed hope that this deal is a sign of greater Iran-US cooperation in this area. Paranoia is evident among some Assad loyalists who fear a hidden “Syria clause” within the nuclear deal that would mean Iran jettisoning support for their leader to build a potential new relationship with the US.

Still, Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp troops are continuing to reinforce the Syrian government’s positions in the coastal city of Latakia. As Iran bolsters its war chest (the Iranian defense budget is set to increase this year by 32.5 percent), it will be hard to see them taking a cooperative approach with the West on Syria.

Russia is expanding ties with Saudi Arabia and Egypt as the US influence in those countries declines. This may lessen Russia’s absolutist position on Syria as its influence grows with the other Arab states.

Could the US and Russia launch a diplomatic revival?

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, who made the latest rounds in Damascus, is prepared to present a new peace plan to the UNSG by the end of July.

Both President Putin and President Obama are seriously beginning to worry about the breakup of Syria. The realization by parties is that the conflict is possibly entering a new phase and geopolitical differences must be pushed aside in order to be prepared for the coming political vacuum. Russia’s efforts to bring the Syrian regime to take part in serious negotiations have faltered repeatedly.

The US has so far preferred to keep its distance from the war in Syria and concentrate on Iraq. Senator John McCain noted the dismal number of rebels trained – a mere 60 – at recent Senate hearings on the Obama Administration’s IS strategy.

It is not too late for the Obama Administration to acknowledge the realities on the ground and work closer through its regional allies and expand US influence over the rebel factions that oppose IS and Assad. Rebel factions in northern Syria are considering experimenting with the adoption of the Turkish lira in order to extend economic hardship on the regime.

Concern in Washington revolves around the fear of large Islamist rebel groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, which just reached out in a Washington Post op-ed to reassure the US of the group’s intentions.

Ahrar al-Sham could prove useful for providing “local balancing” and their association with Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) could help reign JN in later on. Other rebel factions have voiced cautious optimism for Ahrar al-Sham’s position.

Russia, for its part, should use its influence to force Assad into exile and pressure the Syrian army and the Syrian Baath Party into forming a new caretaker government. Russia and the United States could push their respective partners to form a new transitional government in order to take on IS and slowly reverse Syria’s journey towards becoming a long-term failed state.

About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the Washington DC Metro Area. He has presented at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIL. Chris’ writing has also appeared on NATO's Atlantic Treaty Association, Raddington Report, Small Wars Journal, and Syria Comment. He holds an MA in International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). You can follow Chris on Twitter @Solomon_Chris