Page turned in the Middle East

Hussein Haridy
Wednesday 11 Jul 2018

The advances of the Syrian government, unopposed by Washington, in regaining control over Syrian territories signal a shift in international balances, with peace in Syria now a viable prospect

On 5 July, the United Nations warned that a humanitarian disaster is waiting to happen along the Syrian-Jordanian border, and the Syrian-Israeli border. More than 320,000 Syrians have just fled their homes around Daraa in southern Syria due to military operations between the Syrian army and armed rebels.

On 19 June, the Syrian army launched a major military attack to retake the city of Daraa and all the villages surrounding it from the rebels, and to reopen the Nassib Crossing, a major land crossing between Syria and Jordan.

By 6 July, government forces succeeded in their mission and the crossing was back under the control of the Syrian government, a first since 2015. Thus, a major trade route linking Syria to Arab countries was secured. It is no small feat.

The strategic significance should not be underestimated whether in terms of the growing capabilities of the Syrian army to liberate territories from the control of various rebel groups, or the regional and international ramifications of such a military victory.

A victory that comes a few days before the first summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, scheduled on 16 July in Helsinki.

While armed groups were retreating before the massive military onslaught, negotiations were being held, through the Jordanians and the Russians (and, supposedly, the American side was briefed), with the rebels to lay down their heavy weapons and either to accept government control or head for rebel-held areas in northern Syria.

From all indications, they have no other choice, or they would be wiped out. For the last eight years they benefited from all kinds of military, financial and political support from those powers that wanted to see President Bashar Al-Assad go.

But times have changed, and radically to the clear advantage of the Syrian government, aided and supported by Moscow.

While the UN Security Council met behind closed doors on 5 July, to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation in southwestern Syria and to call on all parties involved in the fierce fighting to exercise restraint, seemingly the United States and Russia have other plans.

The military advance by the Syrian army to seize Daraa and the southwest of Syria would not have taken place without a prior understanding between Washington and Moscow.

The two great powers have common interests in Syria that centre around two main questions.

The first is to assure the security of Israel by denying a military presence for Iranian “forces” or the presence of pro-Iranian militias near the Golan Heights.

The second is to make sure that, once utterly defeated, the so-called Islamic State organisation would not be able to regroup within Syria or inside Iraq.

The southwestern part of Syria, where Daraa is located, was one of four ceasefire zones based on agreements reached last year with American acceptance and the aim to de-escalate violence.

The fact that the Syrians decided to break this ceasefire agreement without fear of military retaliation by the Americans speaks volumes of the new power dynamics in Syria, and the possibility that the American-Russian summit in Helsinki would usher in a kind of entente cordiale between the United States and Russia in Syria, and as a corollary in the wider Middle East, that could also include Russian acceptance of the expected American plan for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the so-called Deal of the Century, according to unnamed American officials.

It is interesting to note that prior to the advance of the Syrian army towards Daraa and the south, the Syrian government made clear its intentions to retake the eastern part of the country that has been under the control of a coalition between Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs aided by the United States to root out members of the “Islamic State” organisation in this part of the country.

Damascus made it clear that it would mount a military attack in case this coalition would refuse to negotiate with the Syrian government for the return of territories under its control.

The coalition accepted the offer. It is difficult to imagine that Syria is willing to confront the United States militarily through attacking indigenous forces that operate under close American supervision, if not command. But this warning fits well with the scenario unfolding in southern Syria.

The slow but determined advances by the government in Damascus to exercise sovereignty all over the country enjoys political cover by the Russians and the Americans.

After eight years of upheavals and fast-changing developments and changes in international, regional and Arab alliances that had benefited political Islam and the terrorist organisations disseminating a destructive message across the Middle East, the odds are that the American-Russian summit would mark the end of this troubled period in Middle Eastern history and the beginning of a major stabilisation scheme that would serve the national security interests of the Americans, the Russians and the Israelis.

There is no doubt that the Iranian government would properly read the direction of the winds of change across the region despite the war rhetoric from its most hawkish forces, along with those in Israel as well.

In the new schemes of things, Russia would probably be the lead player, having successfully and intelligently maintained good relations with all parties vying for power and influence in the Middle East.

Ultimately, Moscow will negotiate the withdrawal of Turkish forces from northern Syria, so that Damascus re-exercises its unthreatened sovereignty all over Syrian territories.

In the context of Syria, the serious work to implement Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015, which launched the Geneva Process, could begin without obstacles from those countries that coalesced in the past to oust the Syrian president and his regime.

The battle would shift, in consequence, to who stands to benefit more from the reconstruction of Syria.

Experts estimate that reconstructing Syria will cost $300 billion. Peace could be a bonanza for the great powers, their allies and strategic partners in the Middle East.

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Page turned in the Middle East

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