Analysis

In Meeting With Trump, Russian FM Seeks to Get U.S. on Board on Syria Solution

Safe zones could also work in Israel's favor; if the move is even somewhat successful, it could give Russia the momentum to promote a divvying up of Syria

Trump and Lavrov
STAFF/REUTERS

The announcement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Washington could be a sign of new developments in the efforts to reach a cease-fire in Syrian civil war. Lavrov is scheduled to meet U.S. President Donald Trump and his American counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Russia, meanwhile, is pushing two moves at the same time: The initiative to declare safe zones, or “de-escalation zones,” in a number of places in Syria; and an attempt to restart negotiations for a broader agreement to divvy up power in the country. In the optimistic scenario, the latter could lead to an end to fighting in the future.

Smoke rises behind a man herding sheep after an airstrike on rebel-held Daraa in southern Syria, April 7, 2017.
ALAA AL-FAQIR/REUTERS

Lavrov’s visit on Wednesday, which the Russians announced only on Monday, was preceded by telephone calls: one between Tillerson and Lavrov and the other between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's hard to believe that Lavrov would take all the trouble to go to Washington only so he could talk about the locations of safe zones, areas that Russian and Syrian air forces would make a commitment not to attack. It seems that this step could be agreed upon on a professional military level, and the U.S. administration, at least outwardly, has avoided intervening in Syria. Now it appears that the Russians want to bring in the Americans, at least with a silent agreement, to renew the attempts to reach an overall solution.

In official announcements and during the recent visits made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman made to the United States and Russia, respectively, the Israeli leadership laid out two areas that interested it concerning Syria: Continued efforts to prevent Hezbollah from arming itself with advanced weapons (even if this requires Israeli aerial attacks in Syria, which is reported mostly in the Arab media), and the demand that Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are kept from nearing the Israeli border with Syrian in the Golan Heights.

As for safe zones, it seems Israel has two clear interests. First, that any such agreement exclude Israel, thereby allowing it to attack from the air in case of an urgent security need. Second, that the safe zones include the border region in the Golan – which would mean no more Syrian air attacks near Israel's border. In talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana, when the issue of safe zones was brought up, discussion included drawing one around Daraa, a city in Syria's south near the Jordanian border which is located only 40 kilometers east of the Golan.

The safe zones initiative was endorsed last week in Astana by representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran. A number of Syrian rebel organizations who participated in the talks refused to sign the agreement. More radical groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida and the Islamic State, were not included in the negotiations at all.

Alongside the safe zones, it seems Moscow once again has greater aspirations. The Russians think that if their safe zones proposal is even somewhat successful, it will be possible to exploit this momentum to once again promote a solution, in which fighting will gradually end and Syria will be rebuilt as a loose federation of control centers, most of which will be divided up on an ethnic basis. Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad oppose such an arrangement, partly because they fear that under such circumstances, Russia will agree to Assad giving up the presidency as long as the Alawite community is guaranteed protection and Russia’s military and economic interests in Syria are preserved.

Syrians rides a motorbike past destroyed buildings in a rebel-held area in the southern city of Daraa, May 9, 2017.
MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP

The developments in Syria have taken a central role in the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford's visit to Israel on Tuesday. Dunford met with Netanyahu, Lieberman, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and other senior Israel Defense Forces officers. In addition to the Russian moves in Syria, they discussed the campaign the United States is leading against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, an effort which Israel is participating in mostly by supplying intelligence information. This is Dunford’s third visit to the country since he took office in September 2015.

Dunford's visit coincides with a large-scale military exercise in Jordan, in which American forces are also participating. The annual exercise, led by the United States and Jordan, includes some 7,400 soldiers from 20 countries. The exercise focuses on protecting the border, command and control of the units and defense against cyberattacks. The Syrian regime responded nervously to the joint exercise and accused Jordan of being a partner in an “American-Israeli conspiracy” whose goal is to grab a portion of Syrian land around Daraa.

For a long time, Jordan has been worried about fighting between the rebels and the Syrian army in the Daraa region, close to its border. After its victory against the rebels in Aleppo in northern Syria in December, Assad has turned his efforts to other fronts, including the south. The Russian air force has been operating in the area, and there have also been reports of Hezbollah forces and Iranian instructors in the region. A local ISIS affiliate controls a small enclave near the border, too. Over the last few years, the Jordanian media has been reporting that the country's military commanders have said they will “defend in depth” against the threats from Syria.