Smoke rises as seen from a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail
Smoke rises as seen from a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

The fall of Aleppo to Syrian government forces was expected to produce a barrage of western condemnation of Russia and Iran. In a proxy war, defeat is seldom accepted stoically. The western intelligence suffered a comprehensive rout in Aleppo.

The Iraq war was also a defeat – moral and political – and Libya remains a permanent scar on the West’s conscience, but Syria is also a geopolitical defeat, given the nature of the proxy war.

Syria was where President Barack Obama had openly expressed the certainty to create a quagmire for his Russian adversary Vladimir Putin.

The calculation of the Obama administration was that the quagmire in Syria would mean a devastating setback for Putin, which in turn, would erode his grip on power and mark the unraveling of the Russian political system itself. The timeline for the ‘bear trap’ factored in the presidential election in Russia in early 2018.

The Obama administration pursued a multi-dimensional approach – engaging Russia on the diplomatic track to buy time for extremist groups in Aleppo to regroup and try to break the siege; taking control of Raqqa on the supply route to Aleppo; keeping up a sustained propaganda barrage on ‘humanitarian grounds’ to disorient the Russian military track – all predicated on the hope of Hillary Clinton becoming the next US president.

On the other hand, the Russian strategy strove to get Aleppo out of the way as quickly as possible and to open a peace track, exploiting the window of opportunity of Obama’s lame duck period, so that new beginning is possible with the next American president.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s victory in the November election galvanized Moscow to aim at a decisive shift in the overall balance of forces in Syria.

The Obama administration’s ploy to create cracks in the politico-military axis between Moscow, Tehran and Damascus failed to work. Moscow remained engaged with the US on the diplomatic track, but never really took the eye off the Aleppo offensive, either.

The vituperative speech on Tuesday by the US Ambassador Samantha Power in the UN Security Council condemning Russia and Iran testifies to the anger and frustration in Washington that Moscow comprehensively outwitted the Obama administration.

Power is unbeatable in theatrics and the demonizing of Putin has been taken to a crescendo. Perhaps, this attempt also aims at making it a bit more difficult for Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson to apply fresh thinking on forging partnership with Russia to speedily end the conflict in Syria.

Trump has hinted that he will wage a no-holds-barred war against terrorism and will not hesitate to tie up with Russia and the Syrian government, and that he has no interest in continuing with the US’ dalliance with ‘moderate’ extremist groups.

How far will the Obama administration succeed in forestalling Trump’s approach? Not very far.

Major realignments in regional politics can be expected in the post-Aleppo period. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu disclosed on Wednesday:

“We are striving to secure a ceasefire throughout the country (Syria) and for negotiations for a political solution to start…For this reason, at the end of the month, on December 27 in Moscow, we will hold a tripartite meeting with Turkey, Russia and Iran.”

The exclusive ‘trilateral’ summit signals the potential for strategic convergence among the three most important countries involved in the Syrian conflict.

Interestingly, the Moscow summit is taking place without any prior consultation with Washington or its two key ‘extra-regional’ partners (whose intelligence agencies too were hyperactive in Aleppo) – France and Germany.

In this process, Russia is assuming the role of moderator between Turkey and Iran. Turkey and Iran between themselves tried to forge common ground on Syria by the efforts didn’t succeed.

On Tuesday, the International Crisis Group brought out an insightful report on the Turkish-Iranian dialogue and its highly suggestive title speaks for itself – Turkey and Iran: Bitter Friends, Bosom Rivals.

The ICG report estimates that the Turkish-Iranian dialogue ended in a deadlock over the ‘Assad question’. This is how Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif accounted for the failure of the behind-the-scenes Iran-Turkey negotiations despite the shared interests and common concerns over Syria’s future:

“We agreed on every detail, except a clause in the final phase of the plan which called for UN-monitored elections. Turkish leaders wanted [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad barred …. I noted that this should not be a concern in an internationally monitored election, particularly if, as Turkey holds, Assad has a dreadful record and a minority constituency. But [then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu refused … and our efforts came to naught.”

The ICG also quotes the then Turkish President Abdullah Gul admitting later that “our (Turkish) government did not pursue an agreement with Iran because it thought Assad would be toppled in a few months.”

However, all that happened three years ago, in 2013. Much water has flown through the Euphrates since then. Turkey is in a chastened mood today. The battle lines have been drawn between Ankara and the ISIS.

The failed coup attempt in Turkey in July, which Turks believe to have been US-sponsored, led to a profound trust deficit in Turkey’s relations with the US (and its EU allies), which is proving difficult to overcome.

Turkey harbors serious misgivings about the US’s intentions in forging alliance with Syrian Kurds.

On the other hand, Turkish-Russian rapprochement encourages the two countries to explore congruent interests over Syria.

Amidst all this, Aleppo’s capture creates new facts on the ground, which vastly strengthen the standing of the Assad government.

Meanwhile, Russian diplomacy also kept chipping away at the regional states, anticipating the inevitability of a realignment in regional politics in the post-Obama period.

Moscow is uniquely placed today to cogitate with Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc., – and even Israel – at the same time. No mean achievement.

The Russian approach, taken to its logical conclusion of building a regional consensus, can give the much-needed underpinning for any coordinated efforts on the anvil between Russia and the US (under Trump’s leadership, of course) to negotiate a durable Syrian settlement. Of course, the situation is fraught with all sorts of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts.’

That is why it is important not to overlook the geopolitical import of the recent accord on oil prices. Do not rule out that at some point the nascent Saudi-Iranian rapport at the OPEC summit in Vienna (under Putin’s personal intervention) might impact positively the Syrian situation.

The salience is that Obama administration’s credibility happens to be very low in the Middle East. Obama resorted to an interventionist policy in Syria five years ago, riding on the wings of the Arab Spring, but neither had the willpower nor the wherewithal to follow through.

Obama’s muddled thinking has created a bitter legacy for the US in the Middle East, which Trump would have no option but to dump. Therein, ironically, lies the best hope for a serious Syrian peace process to take off in the downstream of the defeat of the terrorist groups in Aleppo.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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