Reading between the lines of the Russia-US statement on Syria in Vietnam

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

On November 11 US President Donald Trump and President of Russia Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the APEC conference in Danang, Vietnam. They issued a statement after that was provided to media. The statement is dated November 10th. CNN has termed this a “joint statement on fighting ISIS in Syria.” A US State Department official was quoted by CNN: “Russia got themselves involved back when it was a civil war. In some respects, the effort to defeat ISIS changed priorities for some,” the official said. “Certainly, for us, the priority was defeating ISIS. I think for Russia, it’s a question of how long do they want to continue to support conflict…What the joint statement indicates is a commitment to get this to a political reconciliation and peace process. That serves their interest, it serves our interest,” the official said.

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The situation in Syria on November 11, 2017 (ISIS live map)

The statement has now been overshadowed by other media reports related to accusations of “Russia meddling” in last year’s election. But it is worth looking at the statement in detail and what it might mean for the future of Syria. The idea that Trump and Putin have, as BBC terms it, “agreed to defeat ISIS in Syria” is belied by the fact that ISIS is basically defeated in Syria. The US currently lacks a post-ISIS strategy in Syria, as a recent piece at Foreign Policy pointed out.

Let’s look at key points in the statement.

  • Confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS in Syria.

“They expressed their satisfaction with successful US-Russia enhanced de-confliction efforts between US and Russian military professionals that have dramatically accelerated ISIS’s losses on the battlefield in recent months.”

This refers to the “de-confliction” that has been in place since at least December 2016. This was briefly suspended in April 2017 after US airstrikes against the Shayrat airfield. As US-backed SDF forces moved toward Deir Ez-Zor the need for this de-confliction was of paramount importance. At one point Russia and US forces were within kilometers of eachother, and Russian-backed regime forces and the SDF face eachother across the Euphrates river and at other points in Syria. The US has continually stated its sole goal is the defeat of ISIS and has no conflict with the Syrian regime. The SDF and its related groups, the YPG and PYD, will read this statement carefully and watch to see what guarantees the US is placing in eastern Syria and also whether they should be reaching out to the Russians more.

“The Presidents agreed to maintain open military channels of communication between military professionals to help ensure the safety of both US and Russian forces and de-confliction of partnered forces engaged in the fight against ISIS.”

This statement builds on the one above it, reiterating the importance of monitoring the battle space in eastern Syria as the last bits of ISIS are defeated near the Iraq-Syrian border, specifically in Albukamal where battles continued on November 11.

They confirmed these efforts will be continued until the final defeat of ISIS is achieved.”

This part is key because it indicates that the de-confliction may end when ISIS is defeated. When will that be “achieved.” It could be achieved in the coming weeks, or it could take months if both sides determine that merely defeating ISIS on the ground and rolling up the caliphate is not enough. Sputnik News in Russia has twice accused the US of evacuating or “transferring ISIS commanders,” most recently in al-Mayadeen.” This kind of rumor-mongering is intended to cast US actions in an ill-light. In addition Russia’s TASS news agency has been critical of the US role in Tanf (Tanf garrison) near the Jordanian border where the US and coalition had been training anti-ISIS fighters. According to the report Russia’s Center for Reconciliation of the Warring Parties in Syria claimed an October incident near al-Rukban camp could be a “war crime.” These kinds of reports indicate that when the Syrian regime has determined that ISIS is defeated there will be immediate pressure on the US, in Tanf and also in other areas as the regime seeks to re-assert its authority.

  • The Presidents agreed that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.

They confirmed that the ultimate political solution to the conflict must be forged through the Geneva process pursuant to UNSCR 2254.

This is a standard line but it also indicates that the chances of the regime seeking to attack US-backed SDF is slim, for the time being. The Russians and regime have forged decent relations with the YPG, which forms a major part of the SDF, in Aleppo and Afrin. The PYD was also invited to the recent Sochi summit.  The issue of having no military solution would also relate to US Secretary of State’s Rex Tillerson’s comments in October about Assad having no future role in Syria. In general Russia has accepted the concept of de-escalation zones and a kind of frozen conflict that is forming in parts of Syria.

The two Presidents affirmed that these steps must include full implementation of UNSCR 2254, including constitutional reform and free and fair elections under UN supervision, held to the highest international standards of transparency, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.

The lengthy statements about the Geneva process and UNSCR 2254 are part of the pattern of Russian statements on this matter. The question is how exactly the Syrian conflict and de-escalation zones and divided society get to the point. US Secretary of State John Kerry invested in the Geneva process and didn’t find that much came out of it. It’s not clear what Turkey and Iran and other actors think about this process. We’ve seen this language before in 2012 and 2015.

President Trump and President Putin confirmed the importance of de-escalation areas as an interim step to reduce violence in Syria, enforce ceasefire agreements, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access, and set the conditions for the ultimate political solution to the conflict.

This is a key statement because it shows that there is an expectation that the US will play a continuing role in Syria. This is obvious in eastern Syria, but given the US inability to articulate a clear policy on Syria, these signposts are important.

  • They reviewed progress on the ceasefire in southwest Syria that was finalized the last time the two Presidents met in Hamburg, Germany on July 7, 2017.

The two presidents, today, welcomed the Memorandum of Principles concluded in Amman, Jordan, on November 8, 2017, between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America.

When the south Syria ceasefire was signed in July it seemingly came out of nowhere. However the background of it was interesting because Benjamin Netanyahu had opposed elements of the ceasefire. Soon after, in mid-July, Netanyahu warned about Iranian bases in Syria. We now know that Russia allegedly rejected Israel please to keep Iranian facilities more than 60km from the Golan border. At the time of the ceasefire I composed a timeline of events leading up to it. People wondered at the time if the ceasefire would last, and it has. Of interest in this statement is mention of a Memorandum of Principles concluded in Amman on November 8th. That has not been reported in the media, and it is not fully clear what it means. Obviously it is one indication that the importance of the southern Syria ceasefire near the Golan has not been overlooked and Russia and the US, and Jordan, take a keen behind-the-scenes interest in it. One wonders though if the recent tensions on the Golan, including fighting on November 3rd near the border with a Druze village, a Patriot missile that shot down a drone coming from Syria on November 11, and revelations of a new alleged Iranian base at Kiswah south of Damascus on November 10.

This Memorandum reinforces the success of the ceasefire initiative, to include the reduction, and ultimate elimination of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area to ensure a more sustainable peace.

This statement is interesting because it relates to the south Syria ceasefire, but in theory relates to all of Syria. Foreign forces and fighters is a broad category and would likely relate to the US, Turkey, as well as Iran and Hezbollah. If it relates only to the south Syria area then it isn’t clear what it means because there are no major groups of foreign forces there, except the alleged Iranian presence, some Hezbollah and the US and coalition presence at Tanf. Is this a quiet nudge relating to Iran’s presence in souther Syria?

Monitoring this ceasefire arrangement will continue to take place through the Amman Monitoring Center, with participation by expert teams from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Russian Federation, and the United States.

The Amman Monitoring Center was set up in July and August in the wake of the ceasefire. It is supposed to deal with the Deraa and Quneitra Governorates. It is supposed to exist for 6 months and then be renewed by agreement.

The statement thus leaves important questions about what will happen when defeat of ISIS is “achieved” and when we will know that has happened. It also leaves open questions about what is meant by removing “foreign forces” from Syria. Lastly it places great importance on south Syria and maintaining the ceasefire near the Israel and Jordan borders. It leaves the Trump administration with much to consider about eastern Syria and its post-ISIS strategy. It also shows the continuing Russian commitment to working with the US on de-confliction and de-escalation, with Russia hoping the US can play a positive role. Given the complexities of the Syrian conflict and with the main enemy of all the forces, ISIS, finally being defeated, many questions remain about the next phase.

 

 

 

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