A war of messages in Syria
When the United States bombs armed factions in Idlib, it is not really fighting terrorism as it claims but rather is sending a message to Russians and Turks there.
The message is that Washington's stick has a long reach -- as a matter of fact, all of Syria -- and that Washington knows what Russia and Turkey are up to and what they have planned for the area west of the Euphrates River. Consequently, any coordination between them in that area, or in northern Syria in general, can instantly be undone if Uncle Sam feels its forces and interests, including its Kurdish allies, are being threatened.
It was the Russians who started the war of messages in Syria. They are also the ones who transformed the dialogue between the various occupiers of Syria and the various Syrian parties from negotiating to exchanging indirect military and political messages.
It is true that messages of this type are sometimes more effective than negotiations but they do not carry solutions to the crisis in Syria and impose no humanitarian or legal obligations on either the senders or recipients. These messages consist of actions that may end up with different interpretations that can be contradictory.
The war of messages began when the first Russian fighter flew over Syria four years ago. At that time, the world interpreted Moscow's message that Russia was there to fight terrorism but, to this day, Russia's terrorist lists in Syria have not been closed.
Russia continued to pursue “terrorism” in Syria and Damascus's opponents continued to respond to the Russians' messages in a manner focused essentially on protecting their interests and not on helping the Syrian opposition or on finding a solution to a crisis that has arguably become the most complex in modern Middle East history.
Russian messages in Syria have been flowing since September 2015 and they have all affected the course of the crisis. They started with forming the opposition of Hmeimim and sending it to the Geneva talks. Then came negotiations at Astana and Sochi on the pretence that the Syrian dialogue is linked to an agenda and not to a place.
Then came the creation of de-escalation zones, followed by adjusting the composition of the opposition negotiating team at the Moscow and Cairo platforms, then reducing the Geneva negotiations to negotiations about the Constitutional Committee and finally recapturing areas under opposition control until we come to the events in Idlib.
The course of the Syrian crisis has also been affected by responses of the other occupiers -- the United States, Iran, Turkey and Israel -- to the Russian messages. These responses bear the same share of the political, moral and military responsibility as the Russian ones in the death, destruction and displacement that have befallen the Syrian population.
In their crisis, Syria's victims had no real support from Damascus's opponents or its allies. What would make any Western or Arab country genuinely support a corrupt gang that controls the Syrians at home or a bunch of greedy mercenaries speaking on their behalf abroad?
Going back to the American message in Idlib, it came in response to the truce that Russia gave Turkey for the latter to dismantle the militias of al-Nusra Front and dissolve it among the other factions that have not yet been included on the Russian terrorist lists.
Why was the United States so provoked by the Russian “message” of a truce in Idlib? Perhaps because this truce hides a Russian-Turkish understanding that extends over much of the territory west of the Euphrates, especially since the Kurds of the north are demanding that Moscow revive their negotiations with Damascus in the hope they will reach a solution that will protect them from the Turks and does not diminish the degree of autonomy that they are enjoying under the American occupation.
Moscow, of course, kicked up a storm after the American bombardment, which means that Washington's message clearly reached the Russians and Turks. The absence of US troops on any spot in Syria does not mean that this spot can be grabbed or shared without Washington's opinion in the matter.
The second paragraph of the US message says that any Russian-Turkish coordination west of the Euphrates will necessarily affect US-Turkish coordination to the east of it; so Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should not think that he can blackmail Washington with pictures of him eating ice cream with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Overall, the messages exchanged between the Russians, Turks and Americans in northern Syria, reflect some sort of understanding on a new demarcation of the Turkish-southern border within the framework of a well-defined deal dividing the northern regions of Syria between the three occupiers, whether in preparation for a long-term presence in Syria, or in preparation for resolving the country's crisis based on demographic considerations quite different from the ones we were familiar with before 2011. In both cases, once this agreement is reached, Russia will be able to devote more time and attention to other files in Syria.
Identifying the files that would require Russia’s attention far from the north will not be difficult if we follow the trail of its messages in Syria and not only those addressed to the other occupiers but also those addressed to the Syrian parties, especially the Syrian regime that Russia recently forced to seize the wealth of its men to pay the bill for its protection. Moscow also forced the regime to implement changes in its security and military agencies to ensure greater loyalty among the army and intelligence corps to the Russian occupier.
In the opposition camp, Moscow’s major message was the marginalisation of the negotiating body until completing the formation of the Constitutional Committee. Once the committee is formed, the opposition negotiating team will discover that it no longer represents anyone but itself and that the most it can dream of obtaining are foreign nationalities handed to its members to allow them to settle in the countries where they are now residing.
Then again, maybe Russia can negotiate for them a deal with Damascus that will allow them to return safely to the bosom of their “lionhearted” country.
Baha al-Awam is a Syrian writer.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.