Geopolitical impact of the US exit from Afghanistan on the conflict in Syria and in the Middle East
The US final exit from Afghanistan and the trouble it created among allies, mainly because of the conditions under which it happened, continue to impact the strategic agenda of stakeholders in Syria and in the region. Another sign of the US ‘pivot’ came with the announcement of the partnership with the UK and Australia (AUKUS) to sell nuclear powered submarines to the latter. The recent meeting of the ‘QUAD’ (US, India, Japan, Australia) at the White House was the latest confirmation of the focus of the Biden administration on the Indo-Pacific and the rivalry with China. An ironic state of affairs as the EU is preparing its own Indo-Pacific strategy. Transatlantic tensions are far from decreasing as a result. SOS Blinken visited Paris early October and US President Biden talked to his French counterpart in a clear effort to release tensions between Paris and Washington. No visible results so far.
The consultations of the ESNU Pedersen have enabled an agreement in principle of the parties for the resumption of talks on the Constitutional Committee in Geneva on 18 October (cf. declaration to the UNSC on 28 September). This outcome follows his visit to Damascus, where he met with the FM Mekdad and the head of delegation of the regime to the Geneva talks, to Istanbul where he met with opposition representatives led by Anas Al Abde and Turkish officials. The latter stressed the importance of the Astana process and the partnership with Qatar. The agreement is also the result of his consultations with the Americans and the Russians.
He remains cautious about the chances of success. Admittedly, the method accepted by the parties brings a new dynamism, ie more ‘result-oriented’ talks, and prospects of timing to achieve a final result of installation of a concrete constitutional reform. But Damascus’ response remained clearly cautious, following the tone of Assad’s provocative inauguration speech last July. On the other hand, the Russian-American dialogue doesn’t seem very dense yet, especially on the ‘step-for step’, which would have to take a place in the negotiations in Geneva. The fact remains that time is running out and one cannot afford to return to the slow and sometimes regressive tempo of recent months. A stronger American commitment, including the appointment of a new special envoy is needed. No visible European role as of now. The Syrian opposition criticizes the International Community for its lack of engagement behind the peace process.
This situation brings Arab countries (including Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, if not Saudi Arabia) to explore further the notion of normalisation with the regime in Damascus. They share with Israel worries to see Iran making more aggressive moves in Syria. Jordan and Israel in particular refuse to see Iranian-backed militia strengthening their presence closer to their borders. This was made plain by Israeli FM Lapid during a visit to Moscow( while Lavrov expressed Russian impatience with repeated Israeli strikes against Syrian territory). Jordan made the same point in Moscow, including during a meeting of King Abdallah with Poutine last August. At the same time, Amman wants to see trade with Syria resume for economic reasons.
The delivery of Iranian hydrocarbons to Lebanon via Syrian ports led to a meeting of Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese energy ministers in Amman on September 8. They agreed on a roadmap to supply Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria as soon as Syria repairs the section of the pipeline on its territory. They also approved plans to supply Lebanon with electricity from Jordan through Syrian territory. The Syrian Minister of Electricity mentioned a cost of $3.5 million for the rehabilitation of the electricity grid in southern Syria. The Lebanese energy minister said his country was in contact with the World Bank for the financing of Egyptian gas supplies. On the same day of this ministerial meeting, the Syrian armed forces entered the old city of Daraa following weeks of siege and after a Russian-brokered agreement with the province’s rebels. An essential conquest to make it possible to put the agreement of supply of gas and electricity into place.
Furthermore, Syrian Defense Minister and Chief of Staff General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub visited Amman on September 19 where he met with his Jordanian counterpart Chief of Staff General Yousef Hunaiti to discuss border security following the regime’s takeover of Daraa and the Nassib border crossing. This confirms the Jordanian approach (security and economic interests, including trade to Europe) as well as the pragmatic attitude of Damascus. To top it all, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and king Abdallah of Jordan spoke on the phone October 3 , the first publicly known conversation between the two leaders since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. The two leaders “discussed relations between the two brotherly countries and ways of enhancing cooperation” according to a statement of the Jordanian royal palace. Abdallah said his government supports Syria’s territorial integrity, stability and sovereignty – a nod to Assad’s stance that all of war-torn Syria has to return to Damascus’ control and a long way from Jordan’s initial support to rebel groups in Syria.
This is undoubtedly a victory for the regime.
It is also a success of the Russian-American dialogue initiated with the Putin-Biden summit meeting in Geneva and which continues at the level of experts from both nations. This ‘step by step’ approach has also seen the United States commit not to subject the electric infrastructure rehabilitation work in south Syria to Caesar Act sanctions.
Turkey, for its part, must stray between its priorities: support for the opposition in the northwest and face a new regime offensive in Idlib, fight Kurdish militias, contain the influx of refugees and manage its relations with Western allies. The Damascus offensive with Russian support in Idlib is producing tensions with Moscow. Turkish soldiers were killed recently in an attack by rebel groups. Rivalries between jihadist groups, poor governance and their abuses against the local population (especially the media) complicate its task. It is rumoured that the heads of Turkish and Syrian intelligence have met in Baghdad.
Russia is more than ever in control of the game, on the ground as we have seen in Dara and Idlib recently, as well as on the diplomatic level. In addition to continuing discreet exchanges with the Americans, she has multiplied meetings with representatives of the countries of the region. Assad met with Poutine on September 13 in Moscow for the first time since 2018. The discussion revolved around the situation in the north west and the fate of the cease-fire agreements.
Representatives of the Kurdish factions in eastern Syria including the AANES (Autonomous Administration in North East Syria) also visited Moscow. AANES is trying to secure Moscow’s guarantees to protect the Syrian northeast from invasion by the SNA (Syria National Army) and Turkey, and to be able to bargain with Damascus for special conditions for the Kurdish-dominated region. Such requests are viewed with scepticism by Moscow as long as the SDF (Syria Democratic Forces) is a military ally of the United States. But the Kurds are no doubt planning backup options in case the Americans leave.
And of course Russia also benefits from the transatlantic tensions mentioned above. The meeting between Putin and Erdogan in Sochi on September 29 seems to have given precedence to style over substance, with each leader seeming to gauge the power of the other to impose his priorities and status on the domestic scene in his country, while stressing the importance of the relationship between their two countries, both strategically and economically. Neither the Turkish foreign minister nor the Turkish defense minister were part of Erdogan’s delegation. No joint press conference after the meeting. In addition to Afghanistan, Libya and the Caucasus, Syria was on the agenda, especially the situation in Idlib where the stabilization agreement between Moscow and Ankara remains fragile. As if to reaffirm the balance of power, the Russian army carried out strikes against the enclave in HTS-controlled areas and in Afrin against ANS positions on September 26. Turkish media also report discontent within the Turkish army over operations in north western Syria. Ankara is also not particularly comfortable with the invitation to the Kurdish-dominated AANES of the YPG, for contacts in Moscow on September 16, just after Assad’s visit on September 13.
As for the EU and the Europeans, they are struggling to finally find a strategic role worthy of the compass of the same name. The consensus seems to be crumbling, including on the issue of normalization with the regime.
However, they cannot sit idly by in the face of the growing scepticism about the chances of success of the political process. Meanwhile, the dire humanitarian situation in Syria and the cruel and degrading treatment of returning refugees highlighted in Amnesty International’s latest report last month do not allow us to sit idly by. Similarly following the report of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) which states that 94 civilians were killed in extrajudicial executions in Syria last August, including 32 children, 10 women and others. The report notes that it is in the governorate of Daraa that most civilian casualties have been seen at the hands of the regime.
This destruction of civil society in addition to infrastructure risks leading to a failed state that makes any reconstruction problematic even if the political conditions we set are more or less met. A reflection is needed on the levers we have at our disposal to influence this disastrous course, in coordination and dialogue with the other actors who share all or part of these concerns, including Arab countries.