One year ago, the U.S. and 5 world powers signed a nuclear deal with Iran, in hopes of strengthening moderates in Tehran
Frida Ghitis: But the U.S. is now caving into Iranian interests by aligning with the Russians in military operations in Syria
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Who would have guessed it! One year after the United States and five other world powers signed a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States is bringing its policies into closer alignment with Iran’s – rather than vice versa.
Ahead of the deal, President Barack Obama had mused that perhaps the agreement to lift economic sanctions in exchange for Iran dismantling much of its nuclear program would strengthen the moderates in Tehran. If that had occurred, Iran might have taken a more conciliatory line on a number of global issues. But that has not happened.
In what is the most incandescent of all conflicts in the world today, the raging war in Syria, Washington is the one adjusting its policies in a rather dramatic fashion.
A new U.S.-Russia alliance
On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Moscow to discuss a new U.S. proposal to work with Russia in the Syrian war.
Let’s remember: Russia is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is the closest ally of Iran. In fact, in an interview this week Assad admitted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention last year “tipped the scales” in his favor when he was losing the war.
Assad, whose forces are responsible for the majority of the deaths in a war that has killed nearly half a million people by some counts, is backed by Iran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that operates as an arm of Iran’s regime and is designated a terrorist organization by a number of countries, including the United States.
Let’s remember also that the American President is on record calling on Assad to step down and declaring that his “days are numbered.”
And yet, there goes Kerry to Moscow, with a piece of paper in his briefcase proposing the creation of a “Joint Implementation Group” or JIG, so the two countries can coordinate their military operations in Syria.
We know about the JIG because The Washington Post obtained a copy of the extraordinary document setting out the terms of reference. The terms call for establishing a place of operations near the Jordanian capital where experts from both countries can come together to map out their attacks on ISIS and al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
If the plan is accepted, Russia and the United States would keep separate operations, but also a JIG, staffed together by intelligence officials, operational commanders, translators and other experts from both countries exchanging intelligence and operational information.
Why the JIG proposal is so surprising
There is much about this that is utterly stunning. First, the Russians had proposed much the same idea a few months ago. After Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the United States and Russia should work together against al-Nusra and other groups, the U.S. Defense Department spokesman retorted, “We do not collaborate or coordinate with the Russians on any operations in Syria,” because Moscow aims to support the Assad regime and the U.S. focuses on defeating ISIS.
Second, the fact that the JIG idea proposed to attack the al-Nusra and not just the Islamic State group, which has until now been the limited target of U.S. Syria efforts, marks a significant shift in U.S. strategy. While the United States views ISIS as a threat to itself and its allies, al-Nusra is fighting Assad. By helping Russia, Iran and Hezbollah attack al-Nusra, the United States is lending a hand to Assad, freeing his forces to attack other anti-regime groups, including those that have worked with and been trained by the United States.
In fact, the JIG plan boosts Russia and Iran’s plan to help Assad reconquer the entire Syrian territory. If that plan succeeds, Assad would regain sovereignty over the Kurdish areas recovered at excruciating cost by the Kurdish men and women who fought ISIS in places like Kobane and other Kurdish-majority areas, where they are now trying to establish a modern, egalitarian,democratic and autonomous region.
Highly controversial plan
The JIG document is highly controversial within the U.S. government, so it is hardly surprising that it found its way to the Post.
Professional staff at the Pentagon and the State Department are reportedly livid at this latest turn of events. When Putin deployed his forces into Syria, he claimed they were there to fight ISIS, a mission that enjoys almost unquestioned popular support. But the reality is that most Russian attacks have struck anti-regime forces other than ISIS.
In fact, Russian forces have struck America’s moderate allies in recent weeks, one more reason why so many within the U.S. government are complaining about the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Only recently, a group of State Department officials used the so-called “dissent channel” to propose a different approach, suggesting the United States target Assad’s forces from a distance to avoid U.S. casualties, while pressuring Assad to compromise and agree to a transition out of power.
Instead, the United States appears to be leaning in a direction that can only please Putin, Assad and his Iranian backers. Kerry probably expects that Putin will reciprocate America’s flexibility by pushing Assad out of power. After all, the proposed terms of reference mention the “political transition process.” We’ll see if Putin obliges. Assad says Putin has never suggested that he step down.
Not long ago Kerry warned Assad he had an August deadline for the beginning of a transition away to end his rule. At the time it sounded like a threat of escalation, but now it’s unclear that goal remains.
In his final months in office, Obama is trying to advance his Syria policy to a point where his successor – Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – will find it too far advanced to reverse. Both candidates have been critical of Obama’s approach. But if Assad has mostly destroyed the opposition and retaken much of the country by the end of Obama’s term, the next president will find a done deal in Syria; one where the Syrian people view the United States as a traitor, and where Iran, Russia and Hezbollah are potentially more influential than ever.
One year ago, as the nuclear deal was concluded, the most optimistic observers dared to hope that the vast distance separating Washington and Tehran on the global stage would narrow. But not even the pessimists thought that what would happen is a U.S. realignment of policy along Iranian lines.