Russia Set to Break the Grisly Stalemate in Syria

Election of Donald Trumo ties Obama's hands

Wed, Nov 23, 2016
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There are distinct signs that the discussion regarding the Syrian conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the US President-elect Donald Trump last Monday has been a defining moment. At the very least, it creates a firewall against the present US administration of President Barack Obama creating new facts on the ground that vitiates the climate for US-Russian cooperation in Syria after Trump takes over.

The US Defence Secretary Ashton carter had openly stated a week ago that he’d advise the president-elect firmly against taking any cooperation from Russia in addressing the Syrian situation. On the contrary, the remarks in Beirut on Thursday by the Russian presidential envoy on the Middle East and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov suggest that there are contacts below the radar with Trump’s transition team. Bogdanov said:

We are at an important turning point; a new team is coming in with president-elect Donald Trump. We are now already beginning contact with people who will likely assist the new president. We hope the outgoing and incoming administration will accept that without Russia it is impossible to solve the Syrian issue, we are ready for open dialogue.

It is highly significant that soon after Monday’s phone conversation, Russian jets have resumed bombing missions in Syria. Jets from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and ship-launched cruise missiles joined attacks on Idlib and Homs. On Thursday, long-range strategic bombers flew an 11,000 kilometre mission from bases in Russia to fire missiles at targets in Syria. Syrian jets have also operations against rebel targets in Aleppo.

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Even as the Obama administration is reduced to a mute witness, a dramatic change in the US policy in Syria seems to be unfolding. To quote Prof Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of Britain’s respected think tank, Royal United Services Institute, Trump’s “evident sympathy” for Vladimir Putin and his scepticism for America’s military alliances “cannot be assumed to be passing fancies”. (See a sensational report in Telegraph newspaper titled Downing Street warned to prepare for Donald Trump reversal on Syria and military support for the UK.)

Something of all this is most certainly emboldening Turkey to make a grab for the strategic northern Syrian city of Al-Bab, which aims at pre-empting any Kurdish enclave forming along Syria’s border with Turkey. The Syrian Kurds will be furious at the Turkish move, and they have been the US’ best allies so far in Syria. (Reuters)

Turkey’s intention is to break the backbone of the US-Kurdish alliance in northern Syria and pick up the pieces to put together a new Turkish-American paradigm by the time Trump takes office. By the way, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a contender to be Trump’s national security advisor, has been a staunch backer of Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s government.

The Turkish offensive on Al-Bab cannot happen without tacit Russian nod. Obviously, Turkey has reached out to Turkey and Moscow is not standing in Erdogan’s way. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is due to travel to Moscow for talks about Syria and deepening bilateral relations. A Voice of America commentary said on a sombre note:

“Deepening ties with Moscow is leading to some of Turkey’s NATO allies starting to question where Ankara’s loyalties lie… Ankara’s diversifying of its relations coincides with severe, if not unprecedented, strains with its Western allies.”

“Ankara remains at loggerheads with Washington over the latter’s support of Syrian Kurdish forces and Turkey’s demand for the extradition of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen… Those ties could be further strained over rising speculation that Gulen could be allowed to leave the United States for a third country.”

“Another key anchor with the West, Turkey’s decades-long bid to join the European Union, is on the verge of being severed, with its effort facing collapse, amid mutual recriminations.”

Similarly, the Iraqi Shi’ite militia supported by Iran is making a bid to capture Tal Afar, some 60 kilometres to the west of Syria. Control of Tal Afar will facilitate a direct land route for Iran to Syria and to Lebanon. The capture of Tal Afar by the pro-Iranian militia will be a serious blow to Israel.

Where does Trump stand on Syria? Actually, there is remarkable consistency in Trump’s pronouncements on Syrian conflict over a considerable period of time. Deutsche Welle put together ‘fragments of a blueprint’ for Trump’s ‘vision’ of the conflict. Read the revealing ‘fragments’ here.

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