Three Tracks and Two Poles: “Strategic Dialogue”, “Astana”, and “Behavior Change”!
Since the beginning of 2017 and until the Putin-Biden meeting on June 16, 2021, the image of the international and regional conflict in and around Syria appeared in the duality of “Astana” (Russia, Turkey, Iran) versus the Western “small group” (the US, Britain, France, Germany, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia).
Since its inception, the small group has been a counterpart to Astana, and it function to try blocking any step of this track. This was starting with the various obstructions of the de-escalation activities on the ground, working against the 2018 Sochi Conference through the stated positions and by pressuring parts of the opposition and through the Pompeo and Tillerson non-papers, complicating the formation of the Constitutional Committee, and finally continuing to work on whitewashing and “Syrianizing” al-Nusra.
Between the beginning of 2017 and mid-2019, that is, for two and a half years, Western efforts focused on trying to break up the Astana group by trying to win over Turkey and strain relations between it and Russia in particular. It became clear to the West and its small group after this time that the task was not achievable.
Since mid-2019, with the shift of the center of gravity of Western activity towards economic attrition, the only visible function remaining for the small group was the joint work to perpetuate that attrition, and using within that tools such as severing diplomatic ties and sanctions.
However, at the same time, it can be said that by the end of 2019 the Astana track had reached a ceiling that it had not seriously exceeded since. This is despite the great importance of what it had achieved in three years.
If we try to divide the stages that Syria has gone through since 2011 until now (which are overlapping stages and it is of course difficult to separate them with precise dates), it may be suitable to divide them as follows:
1- The first months after March 15, 2011: a mostly peaceful protest movement, in parallel with external intervention that was focused on the media side at the time, and confronting the movement with repression.
2- The end of 2011 until September 30, 2015: the continuation of repression and the rise of its level, the high level of armaments, and the transition to the stage of internal fighting and indirect foreign military interventions through financing and through terrorism, which became direct after 2014, in which the Western objective was to get Syria to the Iraqi / Libyan model, that is, to overthrowing the state as a whole and ending its existence, under the pretext of overthrowing the regime.
3- September 30, 2015 to October 30, 2019: With Russia coming in late 2015, and then the issuance of 2254, it became clear that ending Syria by a knockout blow was no longer possible. There was the Western transition to military attrition by extending the existing conflicts to the longest possible extent so that what was required to be accomplished by a knockout could be achieved piecemeal. In parallel, the West began transitioning from adopting the slogan “toppling the regime” to adopting the slogan “changing the regime’s behavior”. During this stage, the Astana tripartite emerged, starting at the end of 2016, began work on the de-escalation zones, and was able to reach an almost complete ceasefire in mid-2019. It was also able to push for the formation of the Constitutional Committee and the holding of its first meeting at the end of October 2019.
4- October 31, 2019 to June 16, 2021: After the first meeting of the Constitutional Committee was held at the end of October 2019, nearly two years ago, and with the immediate emergence of the disruptive and sabotaging behavior of the extremists on both sides, and in parallel with the Astana track reaching a ceasefire, which is the ceiling it has not seriously exceeded since, the center of gravity of Western work has shifted towards economic attrition as an essential tool in the process of “changing the regime’s behavior”. The “Caesar” Act was one of the main headings of this stage, and its results over two years were very clear, as the speed of the economic collapse during these two years was 34 times the average speed of collapse during the preceding eight years.
5- June 16, 2021 to the present: With the Putin-Biden meeting in Geneva, and the launch of the “strategic dialogue” between the two countries, with the Syria file being one of its items, and in parallel with starting to implement the large-scale American withdrawal and repositioning process, the country entered a crucial new phase, in which the economic attrition gets deeper, but intricate solutions of the "Arab" gas pipeline type, and intense regional and international political moves, are surfacing in the context of a frantic race over the final solution arrangements.
“The strategic dialogue”
There is no doubt that the list of dossiers on the Russian-American strategic dialogue table is long and includes a large number of topics and geographies. There is no question of the importance of a dialogue of this kind between two superpowers in a world that is heavily armed, reaching positive results.
Nevertheless, what should not be lost sight of within the strategic framework are the following two things:
First: It is no secret that one of the US’ goals in the dialogue with the Russians, in addition to managing the repositioning arrangements, is to try to delay the speed of the development of the Russian-Chinese alliance. This is because the scenario of singling out Russia or China, as happened in the twentieth century, has become impossible. In the same vein, among the US’ goals through arranging and dividing dossiers is delaying, obstructing, or weakening Russia’s ties with its regional partners, including Iran and Turkey.
Second: The existence of dialogue does not mean that the conflict has been temporarily frozen. Rather, what facts show across the entire global map is that the conflict is still ongoing, and even intensifying around certain dossiers, including the Syrian one, albeit this is not clear on the surface.
With the start of the “strategic dialogue”, it appeared on the surface that the relative importance of each of “Astana” and the “small group” had declined. The existence of a direct dialogue between the two larger forces within the two groups can suggest that this dialogue is also a dialogue between these two groups. However, the facts on the ground, especially during the past two months, point in a different direction.
• On the one hand, Astana has not yet surpassed the ceiling at which it stopped at the end of 2019, (although the results of the last Sochi summit between Putin and Erdogan have not yet been fully clarified, and there may be a break therein the translation of which has not yet appeared).
• On the other hand, the “small group” is working very actively on the Syrian issue, but without that activity having a blatant banner attached therewith, as its activity is now taking place under the “Arab work” banner, in front of which we see Jordan, then the UAE and Egypt.
Among the indicators of this intense activity, the following can be noted:
1- Jordan presented as a front to carry the “Arab gas pipeline” project, with the blessing of the US.
2- Coupling this step with certain exemptions from US and British sanctions.
3- The Emirati role, which has reached the point of Syria’s participation in the Dubai Expo 2020 (which started a few days ago), in which the “Zionist entity” also participates.
4- Attempting to intensify and consolidate a “modern Arab” discourse, which has nothing to do with the historical Arab nationalist discourse that emerged during the stage of national liberation. Rather, it is a discourse directed against “Turks” and “Persians”, not against the US or Britain, and even alliancing with them, and public alliancing of some of those adopting this discourse with the Zionist entity.
Within these coordinates, the strategic dialogue with regard to Syria specifically appears as an American activity within two scenarios:
A- A tactical distraction so that it is suggested that a full agreement can be reached, but without reaching it, in parallel with trying to change things on the ground so that Syria is uprooted from its international position towards the other side, and then an agreement becomes possible.
B- In the event that this American attempt does not succeed, the existence of a dialogue allows going back to it within a real desire for understanding, when it becomes apparent to Washington that a solution can be achieved without it.
What to do?
Preserving Syria’s role and position is not only a matter of slogans, but rather an issue related to its future as a unified state, and the West’s direction does not want it to be that in any way. What needs to be worked on more intensely are two things in parallel:
1- Intensifying the work of the patriotic forces and intensifying their rapprochement so that it constitutes a barrier to Western plans, including through a joint push towards a political solution and towards the full implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254.
2- The Astana track must transcend itself as soon as possible and move to active work by raising the level of mutual understandings. It should not succumb at all to Western economic extortion tools, primarily sanctions and reconstruction. It may be suitable in this context that China should enter as an active element in the economic aspect.
When will be the US withdrawal and how?
With regard to the various countries intervening in the Syrian issue, one of the main factors in reading the situation and its developments is the presence of US military on the ground and the possibility of its withdrawal, as well as the date of that withdrawal.
Undoubtedly, the US itself uses that presence as a bargaining chip and asks for something in return for parting with it. However, what should be clear in this context is the following:
1- Although the process of withdrawal and repositioning is part of a comprehensive strategy related to Washington’s main international conflict with Beijing, and it cannot be delayed for years to come, this does not in any way mean that the withdrawal will take place on its own. This is especially so since the US military presence in al-Tanf area in particular is a presence with relatively low in costs and risks. (This is different from the presence in the northeast, which facts indicate a steady rise in its costs, and consequently the possibility of withdrawing from it faster than withdrawing from al-Tanf).
2- Despite the clarity of the extent of US retreat on the global scene as a whole, its loss in Syria will mean a loss for it in the entire “Middle East” region, and a loss of this magnitude will not only herald further retreat, but will also be the end of the US’ status as a superpower, because a power that does not have serious influence in this region cannot be a superpower in any way.
3- Based on this, what Washington wants in return for its withdrawal, which these days uses the expression “change the regime’s behavior” as a code to express it, in essence means ensuring the security of the Zionist and ensuring its integration into the regional system from the position of an ally to the normalizers and those who are moving towards normalization. That would be in the face of the nascent regionalism of Astana system, which clearly belongs to the opposite bank in the larger international conflict.
4- The main tools that the US possesses in its quest for a rearrangement in this direction, includes, in addition to its direct military presence (which can be considered the least important tool in this context): sanctions, blockade, and the reconstruction financing dossier, in addition to the selfish and narrow interests of the extremists from the Syrian sides, whose only concern is their own interests, whatever the costs.
Impose your siege
In short, the tactical distraction by the US within the strategic dialogue appears now as a cover-up for a frantic race towards rearranging the region by imposing a fait accompli in which the Zionist is at its center. Any reality with the Zionist at its center will only be a continuation of subordination, backwardness, and crises, and even a key to fragmenting the region definitively, and keeping it as a Western reserve within the international conflict for decades to come.
Within these coordinates, the Astana track should immediately go towards is directly implementing the political solution in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2254, regardless of the Western position, which will have to join at such time, and the tactical distraction will turn into an actual strategic dialogue.
But are the tools available to do this?
As for the catastrophic economic conditions, the disruptive solutions offered by the West will be at best something like Lebanon’s Solidere. As for the alternative, it requires two factors:
• Opening the door for a serious change to the prevailing political and economic structure linked to the West, which is moving quickly towards declaring that link. This door’s key is UNSC Resolution 2254 itself.
• Developing the understandings among the tripartite and Syria so that the siege is broken across the Turkish and Iraqi borders, all the way to Russia and China. If this happens, the West will not have any serious tools to prevent Syria’s transition to complete independence, political and economic, for the first time, and all the West’s sanctions will be of no real value.