The Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Sunni Arab and even American straws are flying around everywhere, except in the hermetically sealed confines of cable news studios. Little yet that can be described as established fact, but plenty of tantalizing leads, suggest we may be witnessing significant shifts respecting the Syrian war and relations among many of the players. Indeed, enough has surfaced since the turn of the year to inspire substitution of some nourishment for the thin, repetitive gruel that passes for informed discussion on what President Trump has called “The Shows,” where it remains Same Themes– Different Blondes. Fair repetition and balanced superficiality are no doubt ideal for driving frustrated viewers to stream Netflix, but not so good for informing citizens. Now one observer, Roger Simon, has chastised the media for this Levantine myopia:
Iran must be reined in — and quickly. Winnowing Russia away from the Islamic Republic is a key part of the solution, though not simple. First the Revolutionary Guards have to be extricated from Syria. Putin is thought to be nervous about Iranian ambitions himself. There is opportunity here for Trump. Instead of blathering on endlessly about how he rates Putin on a scale of ten (Trump has already stated several times he doesn’t know if he can get along with him), the media should start investigating what’s really happening here geopolitically and not endlessly parse Trump’s language, looking for an opportunity to pounce. I can’t imagine anything more useless and self-destructive.
What follows are some hints gleaned from readily available sources to assist media types inclined to follow Mr. Simon’s advice.
The Administration is reportedly bulking up the NSC staff with Iran experts skeptical of Obama-era detente with Teheran and capable of adding good counsel to an alternative approach. A Wall Street Journal report (Feb. 5) does identify such an emerging alternative — “driving a wedge” between Russia and their Iranian allies. What might such a strategy entail? There are some indications these could include measures that would have the effect of limiting Iranian influence on the ground in Syria. If so, this would strike at the heart of what has for years been viewed as the emerging threat of a “Shiite Crescent” stretching from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon, with Iran and its Hezbollah proxies extending Iranian influence to include menacing Israel’s and Jordan’s northern borders, and extending to the Mediterranean. In Trumpian terms, a yuuuge deal.
How would such a curtailing of Iranian influence be accomplished? Enter DEBKA File, an Israeli-based foreign and defense policy website with seeming ties to the Israeli right and good intelligence agency sources. Regular uncritical readers of DEBKA come to believe every agent of Mossad has super powers. Regardless, DEBKA is making the, for now, audacious claim that Russia has determined to eject the Iranians and their proxy Shia militias from Syria and that this startling reversal is ancillary to a growing meeting of the minds with Washington:
Iran can no longer doubt that the two powers, America and Russia, have ganged up to push the Islamic Republic out of their way. Trepidation in Tehran was articulated on Monday, Jan. 30, at a convention staged in the Iranian capital to celebrate 515 years of Iranian-Russian relations, an anniversary that would not normally be marked by a special event.
In his opening remarks, Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif Javad said: that Iran and Russia “need to have far more extensive relations,” and “few countries in the world have relations as deep and historical as Iran and Russia.” This sounded like an appeal to Moscow for protection against the new US president. It most likely fell on deaf ears. Putin is fully engaged in promoting his new relations with Donald Trump.
For several days Debka tied this purported Russian shift to planned Russian moves in the just-concluded conference in Astana, Kyrgyzstan among Russia, Syria, Turkey and various other partners in the Syrian intervention. However, more conventional sources, like the Atlantic Council, have not characterized the meeting as producing anything beyond a confirmation of the Russian-Iranian dominance in Syria and just more evidence of diminished US influence in the area. Which is it, then? Is there an emerging US/Russian accommodation on Syria that may satisfy the American interest in curbing Iran’s influence in the area, or is it all just the man crush our media insist Trump harbors for Putin? We don’t know, but it would certainly be nice if someone showed some interest in finding out.
We could also use a fair and balanced appraisal of proposals for safe zones that would keep Syrian refugees closer to home. These, after all, are key components to both Mr. Trump’s security and immigration plans. Here again foreign sources, in this case, Sunni Arab ones, are doing a better job than all the blondes in America in covering the issue, and in doing so, adding some support to the claim of emerging US -Russian cooperation.
President Trump has declared he is for safe zones in Syria. Predictably, most media outlets have panned the idea. Yet according to Reuters on January 30th a White House statement following a phone call between the President and the King of Saudi Arabia, reported “The president requested, and the King agreed, to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts.”
If Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper published in Saudi Arabia, is to be believed the “safe” in safe zones is to be provided by none other than Russia:
“Trump “is serious about this proposal, as are senior members of his administration.”…Moscow’s role will be key to “apply pressure on the Assad government, and to work to reduce the influence of the Iranians and their proxy forces inside of Assad’s statelet, as part of a broader ‘Balkans’-like international stabilization mission for Syria.”
Russia’s improved relations with Turkey and their latest joint cooperation in Syria on the political and counterterrorism fronts make these safe zones “more realistic,” says Hassan Hassan [a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington]… These foreign spheres of influence in Syria “make it easy to reach a bargain to establish safe zones…” Hassan adds. “The fragmentation of Syria along various spheres of influence is an opportunity to create safe areas that allow displaced people, especially in neighboring countries, to go back to the country and unlike before, this does not need to be seen by Damascus and its allies as a threat.”
Maybe so. Maybe there are significant opportunities for the kind of decisive “action” President Trump aspires to, maybe not. No one should accept all, or even most of the preceding as correct, but neither should we accept the “Stupid S***,” in President Obama’s immortal phrase, we are being fed under the guise of reporting and analysis on the Middle East and on Russia.