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Posts Tagged ‘Bashar al-Assad’

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

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Iran’s Mehr News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Mehr:  After the coup, President Erdogan announced Turkey would change its foreign policy.  Do you believe that Turkey’s foreign policy will change?

Katz:  President Erdogan seemed to be in the process of changing Turkish foreign policy before the coup attempt anyway, but he has accelerated this change since then.  The main outlines of this policy seem to be a move away from America and Europe and toward Russia and, to a certain extent, Iran.  Although Erdogan is still calling for the departure of Bashar Assad from Damascus, he is clearly de-emphasizing this goal and prioritizing the weakening of the Syrian Kurds instead.  Still, a Turkish “move toward Russia” does not mean an alliance with Russia—with which Turkey has long had many differences, including over the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute.  These differences will not disappear.

Mehr:  Ben Ali Yildirim , the Turkish Prime Minister  said, Russia can if necessary, have the use of Incirlik base. Will these statements damage Turkey’s relations with NATO?

Katz:  Such statements will indeed damage Turkey’s relations with NATO.  I think that it would be very difficult for NATO and Russian forces to share the same air base.  This statement may be more intended to motivate America and Europe to adopt policies that please Ankara rather than to signal an actual invitation to Russia. Even if there is a wider breakdown in Turkey’s relations with the West and U.S. forces end up leaving Incirlik, it is not clear that Turkey would really want forces from Russia to replace them.

Mehr:  Now that relations between Tehran and Turkey have improved after the military coup [attempt], can it be helpful in solving the Syrian crisis?

Katz:  Turkish-Iranian relations have generally been good, except with regard to Syria.  To the extent that Erdogan is no longer actively seeking the departure of Assad from Syria, the prospects for Iranian-Turkish cooperation will increase.  They appear to have common interests with regard to the Kurds also.  And to the extent that Erdogan now realizes that Sunni jihadists such as ISIS are actually a threat to Turkey, this may provide an additional common interest for Turkey to cooperate with Iran as well as Russia on.  Yet even if Turkish policy on Syria is moving closer to Iran’s and Russia’s, it is not clear that this will help resolve the Syrian crisis.  There are, after all, real differences between the Assad regime and its domestic opponents.  Further, these opponents seem quite likely to continue fighting—especially since there are other countries that continue to support them.

Mehr:  Fethullah Gülen’s extradition—would the US now give him over to Turkey?  And if not, what will be the consequences for relations between Turkey and the US?

Katz:  It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will ever extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey.  Ankara does not seem to have the sort of hard evidence needed to convince the American courts that Gulen was behind the coup attempt.  I, for one, do not think he was, and that Ankara is merely using the coup attempt (which appears to have been based within the Turkish security services) to label all Erdogan’s opponents (real and imagined) as “Gulenists” in order to get rid of them.

And this could have serious consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations.  Erdogan has made clear that he really wants Gulen extradited.  The U.S. will not accede to this.  Erdogan may then decide to take drastic action, such as withdraw Turkey from NATO.  Perhaps Erdogan wants to do this anyway, and is merely using the Gulen case as a pretext for arousing popular indignation within Turkey against the U.S. (where there is widespread belief that America and Europe actually supported the coup attempt). 

The U.S. does not want to see Turkey leave NATO, but would be unable to stop it.  Russia, of course, would be quite happy to see any country withdraw from NATO.  Still, a Turkey led by Erdogan that is outside of NATO may not pursue a quiet foreign policy, but attempt to assert itself as a regional great power instead.  Turkey’s neighbors (including Iran) may find Ankara much more difficult to deal with if its policies are not constrained by being a member of NATO.

 

 

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Now here’s something odd.  Moscow has long claimed that its arms supply to the Assad regime in Damascus is occurring on the basis of contracts signed before the conflict in Syria erupted in 2011.

According to a Reuters report of March 30, 2015, though, Assad told the Russian newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta that Moscow is supplying arms to Syria both on the basis of contracts signed before the conflict began as well as of contracts signed afterward.  When asked about this, official Russian sources have either provided evasive answers that neither confirm nor deny what Assad has said, or they just have not responded at all.

The news that Russia and Syria have signed additional arms contracts since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 does not exactly come as a surprise.  What is surprising, though, is that Assad has contradicted Moscow about this.

Why would he do this?  He certainly has not pleased Moscow by contradicting it.  It is possible, then, that not everything is smooth in the Russian-Syrian relationship.

Perhaps Assad is fearful that the Russian government might intimate to the “moderate Syrian opposition” representatives due to meet Syrian government envoys in Moscow April 6-9 that the Kremlin is willing to push Assad harder to make concessions to them.  If so, revealing that Moscow has continued to sign arms agreements with Moscow might be Assad’s way of signaling to all he deems in need of receiving the message that Russia continues to stand firmly behind him.  Perhaps Assad hopes that after learning this, some of the Syrian opposition figures who agreed to go to Moscow in April will decide not to attend.  (Several Syrian opposition figures refused to attend a similar meeting Moscow hosted this past January because it would not lead to Assad’s removal from power.)  Assad, after all, does not want to make concessions to any of his opponents, moderate or otherwise.

Of course, it is also possible that Assad was not thinking in these terms when he revealed that there have been new arms contracts between Russia and Syria.  Perhaps he was just being indiscreet.

Either way, he has not endeared himself to Moscow.  But Moscow is not likely to stop shipping arms to Damascus just because of what Assad said..  Moscow does not get embarrassed that easily.

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While still firmly opposed to any form of Western military intervention in Syria, there have recently been signs that Moscow is trying to dissociate itself from the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Although Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated on November 6 in Amman, Jordan that, “we have no plans to change” Russian foreign policy toward Syria, three days later an unnamed “high-level” Russian diplomatic source told the Russian daily newspaper Izvestia that “Assad’s departure” was one possible outcome of the ongoing conflict.

During Lavrov’s visit to Saudi Arabia on November 15, he insisted that, “Russia does not defend Assad.”  He also stated that the Syrian internal opposition should be involved in the settlement process in Syria.  In his press conference in Riyadh, he noted that, “We…advocate the unification of the Syrian opposition and we are meeting with all its representatives—of the internal and external opposition.”

Lavrov further stated on November 28 in Moscow that, “Russia’s involvement in the armed conflict is just out of the question.”

It has not just been the Russian foreign minister who has made statements such as these.  In his December 3 visit to Turkey, President Vladimir Putin noted that Russia and Turkey have differences over Syria, but insisted that, “We [the Russians] are not attorneys of Syria’s current government.”

Statements such as these from Russia’s top leadership can hardly be welcome to the Assad regime and its supporters in Syria.  Even less so was the statement reported by The Moscow Times by Russian Middle East expert Alexander Shumilin that, “Putin likely traveled to Istanbul with a serious proposal, possibly including the evacuation of Syrian President Bashar Assad to Russia.”

What explains this increasing Russian diffidence toward the Assad regime?  There are several possible factors.  One is an increasing sense in Moscow that the Assad regime is going to collapse at some point in the near future.  While Moscow may not welcome this, it will want to try to establish good working relations with a new Syrian government in order to retain Russia’s naval facilities at Tartus, arms contracts, petroleum investments and other interests in Syria.

Another factor is that the Obama Administration (I was told by a senior Defense Department official) has launched a quiet diplomatic campaign to persuade Moscow that Washington is willing to allow Russia to retain its military and economic interests in Syria after the downfall of Assad.  While such assurances are not binding on a new Syrian government, Moscow does not have to fear that the U.S. will actively attempt to exploit the downfall of Assad to expel Russia from Syria.

In addition, Moscow has grown increasingly concerned (as Russian observers have noted) about the highly negative impact that the Kremlin’s support for Assad has had on Russia’s image in Arab and other Muslim countries.  Lavrov’s November visits to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in particular appear aimed at restoring the cooperative relations that Moscow had built up with these two governments before the Syrian uprising.  Similarly, the hope expressed by Putin and Turkish President Erdogan that Russian-Turkish bilateral trade would grow from an already large $32 billion last year to an ambitious “$100 billion in a year” is an indication that they have no intention of allowing differences over Syria to undermine this profitable prospect.

These changes in the Russian approach toward Syria do not mean that Moscow is about to repudiate Assad and join with America and others in actively seeking his ouster.  What they do suggest, though, is that Moscow is now more realistically assessing the prospects for the survival of the Assad regime, and is more pragmatically preparing to pursue Russian interests in both in Syria and the broader region in the increasingly likely event that Assad does fall.

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