The entire Middle East policy of US President Donald Trump is up in the air, as he grapples with domestic foes. As a result, the much talked-of US coalition with its regional allies, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, has been put on hold.
Constantly bombarded by allegations that his campaign associated with Russian intelligence, Trump has held back from going through with his original plan for teaming up with Moscow in Syria. Strategies the two countries were developing to wipe out Islamic State (ISIS) and to loosen Iran's iron grip on Syria have stagnated.
Unwilling to wait for Trump to settle the uproar, Moscow has scoffed and quickly moved to re-align with Iran in Syria. As a result, and to Israel's consternation, Tehran's military presence is solidifying across Israel's northern borders, both in Syria and, via its Hezbollah proxy, in Lebanon.
Amid the uncertainty about the Trump administration’s future steps, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is unlikely to make much headway in his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this coming Thursday, 9 March.
Intelligence and military sources report that, even if Trump does persuade Putin to stick to his promise to prevent Iran and Hizballah from deploying troops on the Syrian-Israeli border opposite the Golan, he won’t get far in his bid to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military and naval presence in Syria.
This is the situation stacking up against Netanyahu as he goes to Moscow this week:
1. The Trump administration has decided not to decide on Middle East policy - regarding Syria, in particular – while engaged in dodging its domestic enemies’ Russuphobic arrows.
2. Some of the president’s advisers maintain that the state of indecision in Washington may turn out into an advantage. It might not be a bad thing, they argue, for Moscow to carry the heavy lifting of tackling ISIS, Iran and Hizballah, rather than putting US troops in harm’s way.
3. In any case, Putin is not waiting for Trump and is already on the move.
Last Friday, 3 March, Russian special operations units recovered the Syrian town of Palmyra from the Islamic State.
That same day, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed predominantly of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and Arab tribesmen from the north, agreed to hand over their positions in the strategic town of Manjib to the Russians and the Syrian army.
Notably, the SDF was created, trained, armed and funded by the United States as the potential spearhead force for an offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS). In fact, last year the SDF was able to capture the small northern town of Manjib, 30 kilometers (~19 miles) west of the Euphrates. Even this modest victory, however, was thanks only to US aerial bombardments of ISIS positions and military counsel from American advisers.
How is it that this important US ally - the SDF - suddenly surrendered its positions to the Russians and Assad’s army?
There is more than one reason.
First of all, the SDF’s Kurdish and Arab commanders apparently decided to give up on waiting for Washington to come around, especially since the only weapons they had received from the Obama administration for fighting ISIS were Kalashnikov AK-74 rifles.
Secondly, the Kurds’ most implacable arch enemy is breathing down their necks.
On 1 March, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to order his army, which has occupied northern Syria since last year, to seize Manjib. He said: “Manjib is a city that belongs to the Arabs and the SDF must not be in Raqqa either.”
The Kurdish-Arab SDF decided to take the Turkish leader at his word. Believing him to be close to Trump, its leaders decided their services were being dismissed. They saw no point therefore in wasting and risking their troops in battles in the US interest. In this situation, Moscow looked like a better bet.
Military sources stress that, when the Russians say they are working with the Syrian army, they really mean the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the pro-Iranian Shiite militias, and Hezbollah.
Why this conclusion? Because most Syrian army’s units were decimated by nearly six years of civil war, or exist only on paper.
Accordingly, even if Putin does promise Netanyahu to distance Iranian and pro-Iranian troops from the Syrian-Israeli border, he may not be in a position to honor his pledge.
With the Americans far away, Iran and its proxy forces are Russia’s main partners on the ground for achieving Putin's goals in Syria.