Cautious Optimism At The G20: Possible Russian-American Détente And Cooperation In Syria

The long awaited meeting between the leaders of the world’s two preeminent nuclear-armed superpowers, Russia and the United States of America, has finally happened after a painstaking few months of collective western hysteria and fear at the mere possibility of it happening. By all accounts the G20 meeting on the sidelines between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, which was supposed to last 30 minutes but ended up being 2 and a half hours, was a positive success and yielded fruitful constructive dialogue according to both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Tillerson who concurred that the private meeting was a step in the right direction in order to mend US-Russia ties, which currently stand at the ‘zero mark’. Both presidents discussed intractable international issues such as Syria, Ukraine, tensions on the Korean peninsula, counter-terrorism efforts and even cyber security. Wisely, diplomatic talks between the two leaders proceeded from the humble understanding that while the current state of relations are abysmal with many grievances impeding progress, in addition to the toxic Russophobia and bipartisan delegitimization of Trump permeating the mainstream media and US establishment, the prudent path to normalising bilateral ties and improving global security is through focusing on mutual common interests, instead of descending into bombastic posturing and recriminations.

Interestingly, a desire to reaffirm principles of mutual respect for sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of their respective states and the establishment of international norms on cyber security were also touched upon as a mechanism for increasing cooperation and trust between the two states. Of course this cannot just be reduced to an American demand for the alleged ‘Russian interference ‘ or ‘collusion’ in the 2016 presidential election or the dissemination of information of two Russian channels (RT, Sputnik) as Russia could easily cite the blatant American interference of a vast network of State Department funded ‘NGOs’ in their internal affairs and electoral processes (sometimes even diplomatic) in the 1996 and 2012 election cycles. Equally important, the issue of Congress’ ironclad sanctions on Russia and the return of diplomatic compounds seized by the Obama administration have, for the time being, been curtailed in favour of more tangible cooperation where possible on the international arena.

The bulk of the 2 hour long conversations was devoted to the resolution of the Syrian conflict, which has been significantly expedited by the stunning territorial losses of ISIS in Raqqa, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, particularly to the Syrian Arab Army and its allies. Within hours of the monumental G20 meeting ending, it was announced by Russian and American officials that the presidents had reached an agreement on enforcing a localised ceasefire over southwest Syria, meaning the contested governorates of Daraa, Quneitra and As-Suwayda where the Syrian Army is fending of US-Gulf backed Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, who have relied heavily on the Israeli Air Force strikes on Syrian army positions from the occupied Golan Heights before mounting offensives. Under this new arrangement, Russia and the US have agreed to be signatories and ostensibly guarantors of a ceasefire agreement for the south-west provinces, which should complement the Russian-Turkish-Iranian Astana format of already agreed upon de-escalation zones. The ceasefire is set to come into effect on July 9th  and will be monitored jointly by Russia, the US, and Jordan and will include the deployment of Russian military police to certain de-escalation zones.

How the parameters of this de-escalation zone are to be established and enforced remains to be seen, but the crucial point of contention, which ought to considered with scepticism by the Russian leadership and its allies, is how the US can influence its sectarian jihadi proxies who fall under the umbrella of Al-Qaeda leadership to stand down and accept a negotiated political settlement with the Syrian government. Israel also lurks across the border, determined to undermine any peace process that would see the legitimate Syrian government restore control over its sovereign territory. Ever since the Russian intervention in 2015, this US policy has been perhaps the prickliest thorn in the Syrian conflict as voiced by Sergey Lavrov who has consistently pointed to the US sheltering of Al Nusra Front (Syrian Al-Qaeda) as a major obstacle to peace in Syria. The bungling mainstream myth of ‘moderate rebels’ was exposed as an insidious lie in the fall of 2016 through disingenuous ceasefires that promised the US would separate the ‘moderate opposition’ from the terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, as Russian exasperation for the failure of the US to carry out its stated  purpose grew, John Kerry and other US officials complained that they couldn’t do so because their ‘freedom fighters’ like the FSA are intermingled with Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in anti-government battlefield alliances of which Al-Qaeda forms the most influential military and ideological component, which destroys the narrative of ‘moderate rebels’. These Al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as the FSA, Faylaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, supplied handsomely by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have also proven their ability to store and produce chemical weapons, which have been used to stage false flag chemical attacks as an incentive for the US to intervene on their behalf against the Damascus government. The two chemical incidents that occurred in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 and in Idlib of this year were accepted unequivocally by the US without an independent international investigation as the fault of the Syrian government, despite the fact that the locations where the supposed attacks happened were under the control of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and their motley group of jihadi activists and public relations personnel (the White Helmets). Fortunately, for now, renewed pleas through faux chemical attacks by these beleaguered jihadist groups in Eastern Ghouta for US salvation haven’t incited a foolhardy response from the Trump administration as it did with his ‘triumphalist’ April Tomahawk missile strike on the Shayrat airbase.

In Syria, the US is for all intents and purposes and through its belligerent deeds an invader, with no UN Security Council mandate or permission from the legitimate Syrian government to operate on its territory and its belated rhetorical support for preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria when for six years it has been doing the opposite, should be taken with a grain of sobering salt by Syria and its allies. It’s coddling of Kurdish separatists in the north of the country, support in tandem with the GCC and NATO of Wahhabi terrorist groups, illegal construction of military bases in al-Tanf, Kobani, Hasakah and Tabqa as well as its half-hearted war and sometimes collusion with ISIS against the Syrian government all threaten to tear apart the unity of the Syrian state.

All these hostile actions are committed despite the fact that according to a 2017 report by IHS Markit, the leading UK security and defence information provider, the Islamic State fought Syrian government forces more than any other opponent over the past 12 months, with 43 percent of its fighting in Syria directed against the Syrian Army, 17 against the US-backed SDF and the remaining 40 percent against other rival jihadist groups. In the words of Middle East analyst Columb Strack “The Syrian government is essentially the anvil to the US-led Coalition’s hammer”. However, even in view of these dire realities there are positive developments on the humanitarian front in Syria that have accompanied the Syrian army’s relentless advances against ISIS and Al-Qaeda and led to improved security, demining, reconstruction efforts, reconciliation through government amnesty and some normalcy in main population centres–Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus.

This has prompted the UN Refugee Agency and other aid agencies to issue a report on June 30th  this year recognising that so far this year the somewhat improved security conditions in liberated regions have led to the return of nearly half a million internally displaced Syrians to their homes. In parallel, UNHCR has monitored over 31,000 Syrian refugees returning from neighbouring countries so far in 2017. Ultimately though, the importance of the Trump-Putin G20 summit was first and foremost about reversing the deteriorating trend in relations and beginning a thawing of Russia-US relations where the superpowers might actually cooperate on serious global issues. This new ceasefire will demonstrate how much control the Deep state and US bureaucracy still have over Trump and whether he can successfully coordinate his foreign policy with the Pentagon, State Department, and intelligence agencies who scuttled a previous ceasefire deal in 2016. As former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern, told RT “This will be a matter of trust.” “It’s going to be pretty soon when we find out whether Putin can trust that Trump has enough power not to be subverted.”