China is extremely crucial when it comes to the American-Russian tug of war. Moscow will not be willing to begin parleying with Washington, if it feels the United States is bent on creating a rift in the strategic relationship between it and Beijing. But Washington does not seem to be planning to antagonize Moscow to the point of pushing it fully in the direction of Beijing, thereby reinforcing the Chinese-Russian alliance against US interests. The message the Russians are keen to deliver to the Americans, is that China is not a bargaining chip. The Russians are saying they are not willing to reveal their cards in advance, or even hint that they are willing to make compromises. “We don’t want them to demand us to sacrifice Iran today only to ask for us to relinquish China tomorrow,” they say, in reference to the US approach to negotiations; in other words, China is outside all trade-offs, real or imagined.
Europe is the focus of bargaining especially in relation to Ukraine and NATO. The Russian leadership has drawn a red line around Crimea, and has instructed all levels that there will be no reversal of its annexation – or reclamation as the Russians insist – under any circumstances, no matter the price or reward. At the same time, Moscow insists that any deal with Washington must include lifting US sanctions on Russia imposed since the annexation of Crimea.
What the Russians are hinting could be a space for tradeoffs is the Donbass in eastern Ukraine. There, Moscow can compromise on its deep influence, which has invited more sanctions against it on account of its alleged military incursion into Ukrainian territory in the wake of its invasion and annexation of Crimea – a charge stressed by Western powers especially those that wanted Ukraine to join NATO.
The Russian view, however, is that the majority of sanctions were imposed because of the Donbass, and that should Moscow cede the eastern Ukrainian region, Washington must lift the sanctions. The Russians also want guarantees that the countries that recently joined NATO must not be used to deploy strategic weapons systems near the border with Russia, in the Baltic countries or elsewhere. They want confirmation that Kiev will remain neutral and not a ‘den’ for NATO.
The Russians are convinced that this deal, although appearing on the surface to be a bad one, would be acceptable to the United States “because Ukraine is very expensive,” as one observer put it, in that the high cost of maintaining it is not worth it, in the Russian thinking. But there are other factors that the Russians could use to sweeten the deal for Washington, “taking” in Europe and “giving” in the Middle East, meaning Iran.
Russia’s leaders understand US President Donald Trump’s need to be firm and tough with the Islamic Republic of Iran. For this reason, it has been accumulating cards to use with Iran, especially in Syria, while also claiming that Russian influence over Iran is limited.
Russian-Iranian relations are complex, with military, strategic, and economic layers. First of all, the Russians believe that had it not been for Russian air cover in Syria for Iranian-backed fighters, Iran and her proxies would have lost the war in Syria at great cost. The Russians therefore feel militarily superior and that they deserve credit for victories in Syria, led by the fateful battle for Aleppo. They also feel that pulling Russian cover for Iranian militias in Syria would leave them exposed to a rout, should the United States decide to intervene against them. In short, Russia has sharp tools to use with Iran, should this be needed in the context of bargaining with the United States.
However, this does not mean that Russia is ready to abandon the alliance with Iran or use its huge influence to effect a radical change in Tehran’s regional project, spanning Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Hence the talk that its influence is “limited”.
In Syria, there is a kind of Russian-Iranian rivalry, and a bid to share Syria, either as a whole, or as a partitioned country. Moscow will not forfeit its Middle Eastern gains enabled by the war in Syria, and is proceeding to expand its military footholds in Tartus and Hmeimim. Moscow wants guarantees for a permanent and unconditional Russian presence in Syria, and a major share in investments and reconstruction contracts there. However, Moscow also realizes that Iran has fought in Syria, and lost there senior military leaders and not just proxy fighters, and therefore, it will not accept leaving Syria without a price. For the time being, Iran will remain in Syria, with Russian consent.
According to reports, agreements between Iran and the government of Bashar al-Assad signed earlier this year were not limited to the economic sphere, but also included so-called ‘agricultural exploitation’ in the suburbs of Damascus. The subtitle of this is demographic change and partition with an agricultural front, involving 50 million square meters in areas close to the Syrian capital. This is in addition to another 50 million square meters for an oil terminal along the Syrian coast, and Iranian acquisitions in telecoms and phosphate companies in Palmyra.
On the surface, the issue of withdrawing Iranian-backed militias from Syria when an agreement is reached to withdraw foreign forces remains an issue of contention between Moscow and Tehran. Practically, Iranian-sponsored demographic engineering simplifies the withdrawal of military forces led by Iran, when the Iranian share in a unified or partitioned Syria is guaranteed. Where will the real compromises happen then? Most likely, they will unfold in the post-war arrangements and stabilization efforts based on sharing the Syrian pie among Russia, Iran, and Turkey. But what will the United States gain, in the Russian view? The answer is eliminating ISIS and (Sunni) radical Islamism, first of all; and second, containing Iran in Syria in a way that keeps it from expanding towards the border with Israel. Thirdly, consecrating Russia as the strongest guarantor and partner of the United States in Syria, instead of leaving the country between the claws of Iran and her militias. And finally, if the United States and the Europeans want to benefit from reconstruction projects in Syria, there is enough for everyone, and Russia is ready to open the door.
The Kurdish element in the Syrian arena remains the focal point of intense bargaining with Turkey and the United States. The clear Turkish priority is to establish a buffer with the Kurdish forces along its border and prevent at all costs the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Syria, especially when a Kurdish state in Iraq is now a forgone conclusion. Here, Turkey’s rejection of the partition of Syria – lest this lead to Kurdish statehood there – are in line with Russia’s claims that it is also against partition. However, reality on the ground is different. Iran may be the guarantor against the emergence of a Kurdish state in Syria. In the end, one of the things these players are using as a bargaining chip is the prevention of Kurdish statehood outside Iraq, that is, in Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
The Kurds are reminding everyone that they have been at the forward lines in the war with ISIS and have led many victories against the terror group. They are the ‘boots on the ground’, who have paid the price and who deserve the reward. By contrast, the Arab countries, especially the Gulf countries, have not sent any forces to be those boots on the ground, whether in Iraq or in Syria. They have thus lost the initiative and found themselves lagging behind when it comes to bargains, deals, influence, and sharing of the ‘spoils’. The Gulf is now returning to Iraq, as someone with influence with the Sunnis there, in support of the American quest to prevent the areas liberated from ISIS from falling into the Iranian sphere, the Popular Mobilization, and the Qods Force led by Qassem Suleimani – from Mosul to Raqqa across the border.
Regarding the fate of Bashar al-Assad in the balance of trade-offs: some say he will not be around for long. Others speak of arrangements that have already begun for his ‘retirement’. There is talk of other names and posts, and accords ready to be made when deals are cut. But some say all talk about the fate of Bashar al-Assad is delusional because the grand bargain remains far off, because there is no pressure on Russia to abandon Assad before the deals necessitate it. In the meantime, there are no indications that the United States is in a rush to get rid of Assad, rather, there seems to be a willingness to accept him as a de facto president, while taking measures to further isolate him.
The party absent from the deal-making is Israel, with both the US and Russia apparently keen to keep Tel Aviv away from the bargaining. Palestine is a low priority these days for many Arabs, especially after Iran rose to the top of the list for Gulf countries, along with the Yemeni conflict.
Russia is not prepared to pressure Iran into curbing its intervention in Yemen, along the border with Saudi Arabia, because this is not a Russian priority. Perhaps this issue will later enter into the balances of the grand bargain whose time has yet to come. There is still a possibility for a souring of American-Russian relations and the emergence of rival blocs. If Russia will be in a bloc with Iran pitted against a bloc comprising the United States and Saudi Arabia, Moscow will not be in a rush to defuse the important Iranian card in Yemen. For now, the Gulf countries are appreciative that Russia has not obstructed their mission in Yemen or protested the actions of the Arab coalition there.
The Valdai Club held a vital conference titled The Middle East: When Will Tomorrow Come? It is clear that Russia is rushing to occupy a position in that tomorrow, developing practical strategies for any scenario, whether in the framework of Russian-American accord, or clash. What the survey of the climate there did not reveal, however, were those hidden cards ready to be traded on the eve of the grand bargain. The time remains early for that.