Carrots and Sticks

Syria could face a renewed US-led assault after refusing to break with Iran

By Abdel Bari Atwan

There have been successive attempts by the US and Saudi Arabia recently to secretly offer the Syrian leadership a ‘tempting’ deal under which, essentially, it would break with the ‘resistance axis’ (specifically Iran and Hezbollah) in exchange for President Bashar al-Asad remaining in power .

At the same time, the US and its allies have been staging military build-ups that aim to signal that a military strike on Syria could be imminent, while also reviving threats to change the Syrian regime by force. This despite the fact that any renewed US-British-French attack could elicit a very different, and possibly shocking, response to the last one from Russia, which has ten navy vessels and two submarines deployed off the Syrian coast:

Damascus has been inundated with secret offers in recent weeks as part of a carrot-and-stick policy, two of which are particularly significant.

The first, reported on Tuesday by the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily al-Akhbar and the semi-official Iranian Fars news agency, was conveyed by a senior US military officer accompanied by representatives of various intelligence agencies. They flew to Damascus on a private UAE jet, and were met by the head of the National Security Bureau Gen. Ali Mamlouk,  intelligence chief Gen. Deeb Zaitoun, and deputy army chief-of-staff Gen. Muwaffaq Masoud. Their meeting lasted four hours. The Americans reportedly offered to withdraw all US forces from Syria in exchange for Damascus complying with three demands: to pull Iranian forces out of areas of southern Syria adjoining Israel; to guarantee US oil companies a share of Syria’s oil east of the Euphrates; and to hand over all information about terrorist groups and their members in Syria.

The second offer was revealed by Lebanese Hezbollah MP Nawwaf al-Mousawi in a discussion programme on the Lebanese TV channel al-Mayadeen, at which I was also a panellist. He said that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman sent an envoy to Asad offering to support him remaining president for life and provide generous Saudi support for Syria’s reconstruction in exchange for him severing ties with Iran and Hezbollah.

Both offers were categorically turned down by the Syrian leadership.

The American delegation was told that its troops in Syria were occupying forces which would be treated as such, that Syria could not abandon its strategic allies, and that issues such as US participation in the oil industry and exchanging intelligence could be discussed once political relations were re-established.

The Saudi offer – to keep Asad in power and aid in reconstruction – was not new. It was a repeat of an offer made by Bin-Salman in June 2015 when he met Mamlouk during a secret visit he paid to the kingdom arranged by the Russians. The same demand was made — to sever relations with Iran and Hezbollah — and the Saudi host was taken aback by the firm response: no way. This despite the fact that armed opposition groups backed by the US, Saudi Arabia and the West controlled some 80% of Syria’s territory at the time.

Now that the Syrian army has recovered 85% of the country’s territory, the Saudi offer seems strange and incomprehensible. Saudi ‘acceptance’ of Asad remaining in power has become an irrelevance. As for the countries that funded, trained and supported the armed groups in Syria with the aim of changing the regime, they could be obliged under international law to pay billions of dollars in reparations – not to assist in reconstruction, but to compensate the relatives of the victims who were killed due to that support.

It is Syria’s rejection of these offers, at a time when its army is preparing to retake the city of Idlib, which explains French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent declaration – in his annual address to ambassadors – that it would be a ‘grotesque mistake’ for Asad to remain in power while Syria returns to normalcy.

Another-US-Angle-French attack on Syria cannot be ruled out in these circumstances, and could be imminent. It would probably be carried out on the pretext of the regime having used chemical weapons, as was the case in last April’s tripartite assault.

This time, however, any attack – should a decision be taken to launch it – would likely be broader. It might extend to strategic targets, perhaps including the presidential palace in Damascus.

The second crucial difference is Russia. It has already warned of plans to fabricate a chemicals weapons pretext to justify an attack. It may not stand by with folded arms this time, but actively resist – given its tense relations with the US and its declared determination to see Idlib restored to Syrian sovereignty and ‘cleansed’ of terrorist groups. Russia is also reported to be supplying the Syrians with more sophisticated air defence missiles while deploying a frigate equipped with anti-missile and anti-aircraft missiles offshore.

Trump is looking for a small victory to offset mounting domestic pressure to get him ousted and ejected from the White House in shame and humiliation. He is unlikely to find such a victory by launching a renewed aggression against Syria. The rules of the game have changed, and changed greatly.