Russia is taking the lead on Syria, leaving the U.S. on the sidelines

Despite saying it would work with the United States, Russia is focusing on working Iran and Turkey on the future of Syria.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, center, and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani pose for the media members in Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 22. 2017. (CREDIT: Kayhan Ozer/AP Photo)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, center, and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani pose for the media members in Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 22. 2017. (CREDIT: Kayhan Ozer/AP Photo)

Russia has taken several high-profile meetings with Syria, Iran, and Turkey in the most visible signs that the United States has lost relevancy in the fight shape the future of Syria, if not the region.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi to discuss the “new stage” in achieving a political solution to the six-and-a-half year civil war there, Reuters reported.

Erdogan indicated that key decisions will be made in the meeting, while Rouhani specified that the only foreign forces allowed in Syria should be ones there at the invitation of the Syrian government. Given that Iran and Russia have been backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, there’s little ambiguity in who Rouhani feels should be involved in shaping Syria’s future.

Wednesday’s meeting follows another one on Monday, when Putin hosted Assad in a three-hour meeting in Moscow, and U.N. special envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura is also Moscow-bound this week, with a meeting planned on Thursday.

The United States, meanwhile, has taken a backseat. Working with the Syrian Kurds in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic States (ISIS), which is now on the backfoot in Syria, the United States has few allies in Syria and even fewer legitimate reasons to stay there (perhaps helping settle returning refugees or reconstruction of the shattered country’s infrastructure). Turkish involvement in Syria will be aimed at keeping the Kurds — among the few friends of the United States there — down. Turkey sees Kurds, an ethnic minority fighting for independence, with increasing violence, as a threat against national security.

Putin spoke to President Donald Trump on Tuesday in a call that covered a range of topics, according to the White House, including moving forward with a U.N.-guided effort to bring peace to Syria. But the U.S. version of what that looks like might be radically different that what Russia would like to see.

For starters, a key U.S. concern in Syria — and elsewhere in the region — is Iranian influence (hence the backing of Saudi Arabia, which has made several attempts to force a wedge between Iran and other countries, such as Qatar and Lebanon). In an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Sunday, Saudi Arabia tried to galvanize support of Sunni neighbors against Iran. According to the Associated Press, Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said the group would be briefing the U.N. Security Council on their concerns. “We are not declaring war on Iran at this stage,” he said.

Where the United States stands on this is clear: Trump’s cozy (and lucrativerelationship with Saudi Arabia is as open as his loathing of Iran. He’s been trying to undo the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement since taking office, has employed heated rhetoric against Iran, and has imposed new sanctions over the country’s ballistic missile program. It’s also worth nothing that the U.S. military presence in the Middle East has increased by 33 percent over the past four months, according to Department of Defense figures.

However, it’s becoming increasing clear that the party likely to be elbowed out of Syria will be the United States, not Iran. This is familiar territory for the United States (see: Iraq).

Iran — as with Russia — has had a consistent stance in Syria: It has been backing Assad all along. Regardless of what the U.N. or any rights group has to say about it, Iran has been fighting rebels and ISIS alike, with a consistency that the United States cannot claim. From the start, the U.S. policy on Syria has been a patchwork of confusion — to support Assad as a possible “reformer” or push for his removal; to intervene or stay out; to side with Russia or push back.

The incoherence reached fever pitch this year after Trump ordered a massive missile strike on an airbase in April thought to have been the source of a horrific chemical attack. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. lashed out at Russia less than a week later. Addressing the U.N. Security Council, Haley said: “To my colleagues from Russia — you are isolating yourselves from the international community every time one of Assad’s planes drop another barrel bomb on civilians and every time Assad tries to starve another community to death.”

But by July, everything changed. That’s when Trump decided to halt the CIA program that had been arming anti-Assad rebels since 2013. At the time, former CIA operative and CNN security analyst said the move was a “strategic mistake”:

“It looks like, to me, that he just gave that as a gift to Vladimir Putin for no quid pro quo and that’s not the way diplomacy works. We should’ve used this, we should’ve demanded, for example, safe zones so the Sunnis wouldn’t get hit from the air… so this is just inexplicable, why he would do this.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis said last week that the United States is “not just going to walk away [from Syria] right now,” but just what role the United States will have there remains a bit of a mystery.

In the same press gaggle, Mattis also admitted that the United States is relying on Russia to get Iran to leave certain areas of Syria — something Iran is unlikely to do if doing so opens the door for any U.S. influence or control there. When Mattis was asked what kind of leverage he thought Russia has over Iran, he replied, “We’ll have to see.”

He might be holding his breath for a very long time, because it’s unlikely that Syria will move forward with any peace plan that will include U.S. presence — even if that presence is strictly to keep the Iranians in check and support the Kurds.

A day after Mattis’ comments, a statement released by Syria’s Foreign Ministry last week said that the United States had no legal standing to remain in the country, saying the presence of any foreign military without the consent of the Syrian government constituted “an act of aggression” and “a gross violation of the charter and principles of the United Nations.” The statement called for “the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. forces from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic.”