US and Russia to Discuss Iran’s Role in Syria, and Dispute over Deir Ezzour

Regarding the Syrian conflict, both the United States and Russia agree on fighting terrorism, but still differ on specific issues. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, during his first visit to Washington since Donald Trump assumed office, will discuss with Rex Tillerson Iran’s role in Syria. It will also focus on Moscow’s support for Tehran’s Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, as perceived by Washington and Gulf states. 

The new administration has established a strategy that consists of three phases: destroying ISIS, establishing de-escalation zones, and establishing peace.

Pierre Ghanem’s  article in Al Arabiya states that, “The US has tried cooperating with Russia regarding this strategy, but was faced by collusion between Damascus and Moscow when the Syrian regime bombed Khan Sheikhoun with chemical weapons last April, as the Russian military experts were in Al Shayrat airport when a plane caring the poisonous shipment took off.”

The bombing of Al Shayrat airport was meant to stop the Syrian regime from using weapons of mass destruction again, and the US believes Moscow’s guarantees that the Syrian regime won’t use chemical weapon again. They have agreed to work on a plan to destroy ISIS.

Ghana writes, “The United States believes that Russia, through the Astana talks held on May 4, has done a diplomatic maneuver as they succeeded in ‘stealing’ or ‘acquiring’ the American strategy and republished it with a Russian agenda.”

Washington is objecting that Iran’s original role is to support the Syrian regime, not as a leading nation for establishing a de-escalation zone at the Astana talks. The United States has reservations about changing the way Iran is viewed, and endorsing it as a nation that guarantees stability. 

Washington’s comments on the Astana talks include, “Iran’s activities in Syria have contributed to violence and not stopped it. Also Iran’s support for the Assad regime contributed to the Syrian people’s misery.”

“But what is worse was the draft put forward by the Russians to the Security Council in order to adopt the outcomes of the Astana talks, and trying to convince the international community to give Iran a cover regarding what it did in Syria directly or indirectly through Hezbollah,” writes Ghanem.

Ghanem believes that when they meet,  Tillerson will need to confront Iranian interference in the Middle East, while Lavrov will want to defend Iran’s role in Syria. He says, “The worst scenario for both diplomats is that the Trump administration sees that Russia cannot implement its strategy in Syria and keep the Bashar al- Assad regime in power without the help and support of Iran and the supporting Shiite militias.”

Both countries are under pressure as the Americans prepare for the last stage of the battle to retake Syria’s Raqqa, the de-facto ISIS “capital” with the help of Kurd and Arab forces. This fight will take a long time.

“The Americans want to support the same forces or other Arab forces in Deir Ezzor’s southern Bukamal so as to move fast on the northern areas and control International Highway that links Syria with Iraq and consequently controlling Deir Ezzor, as it will be the last city controlled by ISIS and in the middle of the road between Damascus and Baghdad.”  The aim of gaining this city by the United States is that it will stop Iran and its supporting militias from having control on this route which links Iran’s borders with three Arab capitals, according to Ghanem.

The Syrian regime, with the cooperation of Moscow and Tehran, wants to regain control of the Palmyra area and move on to Deir Ezzor and connect the International Highway between Syria and Iraq. Waleed al-Mouallem, the Syrian Foreign Minister, has confirmed this by saying that the Syrian regime’s “target is to reach Deir Ezzor.” 

This will be not be favorable for the United States, if this road is reclaimed with the support of Russia.

Washington’s attempts to reach an understanding with the Russians in recent months have reached a deadlock, says Ghanem. It is unclear to the Americans if Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to cooperate with the Trump administration.

Ghanem writes, “In recent months, Moscow has worked to deepen the American Turkish disputes regarding the Syrian conflict and gave Turkey a role in guaranteeing the outcomes of the Astana talks, while Washington could not reach any understanding with Ankara regarding Kurdish militias in Syria,” and adds, “While Turkey considers the Kurds terrorists, the United States considers them one of their few allies on Syrian territory and counts on them to reach Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.”

Washington and Moscow both look towards Syria not only as a way to destroy terrorism, but also as a way to establish influence in the Middle East.