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M. K. Bhadrakumar |

The ceasefire brokered between Russia, US and Jordan in southwestern Syria seems to be holding for the time being. The Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that he saw a new level of pragmatism in the US approach to Syria. President Donald Trump put his weight behind the ceasefire deal, posting on Twitter on Sunday, “Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia.”

And if Senator John McCain’s reaction to the Syria deal is any indication, there aren’t going to be many takers in Washington for the idea of Trump having anything to do with Putin at all. The air out there is simply toxic.

As for the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the agreement “is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.” The National Security Advisor HR McMaster called the ceasefire a “priority” for Washington and acknowledged that the Trump administration is “encouraged by the progress made to reach this agreement (with Russia).”

So far so good. But there is a good reason to harbor anxiety and keep the fingers crossed. Evidently, there isn’t much enthusiasm in the US media regarding Trump’s deal with President Vladimir Putin. And if Senator John McCain’s reaction to the Syria deal is any indication, there aren’t going to be many takers in Washington for the idea of Trump having anything to do with Putin at all. The air out there is simply toxic.

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Equally, the past experience during the Obama administration (in the pre-civil war era before Trump’s victory) has been that what the US president and state secretary said might not be the last word for the US intelligence and defense establishment. The well-known ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern has written an insightful piece in Consortium News on how the entrenched interest groups who thrive on wars might have an altogether different agenda of their own in the Syrian conflict.

On its part, Israel, of course, has outright rejected the Russian-American deal and has reserved the right to act independently. Curiously, there has been a vicious attack on state secretary Rex Tillerson in Bloomberg. It seems Tillerson has upset the Israeli lobby by piloting the deal with Russia on Syria and emerging as Trump administration’s point person on Russia.

McGovern highlights a December 2016 interview with Boston Globe newspaper where the former state secretary John Kerry openly admitted that his efforts to deal with the Russians had been thwarted by none other than the then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Incredible, isn’t it?

Then, there are other factors too. Tehran, for example, has given a delayed response to the US-Russia deal. It took 72 hours for the Iranians to say something at all – by the way, Saturday and Sunday are working days in Tehran. Even the best spin must take note that the Iranian reaction has been rather lukewarm.

Read more: Another setback for US in the neo Middle East

Now, I haven’t seen any reaction to the US-Russia deal on Syria so far from Damascus or from the Hezbollah. On its part, Israel, of course, has outright rejected the Russian-American deal and has reserved the right to act independently. Curiously, there has been a vicious attack on state secretary Rex Tillerson in Bloomberg. It seems Tillerson has upset the Israeli lobby by piloting the deal with Russia on Syria and emerging as Trump administration’s point person on Russia.

On the contrary, it seems unlikely that the Syrian government forces and their allies will be stopped in their tracks in their military campaign to regain control over the entire country. True, the Russia air support is vital for their campaign to make rapid progress, but then, this is a two-way street, and Russia too cannot do without its allies in Syria.

While it is understandable that the Trump administration and Moscow have hyped up the development and would like to project the Syria deal as a ‘breakthrough’ in Russian-American relations, what cannot be overlooked is that there are multiple actors with interests of their own who are stakeholders in the Syrian situation. And, they are not going to bow out just like that in deference to the US and Russian wishes/advice.

In fact, Tillerson himself has since spoken harshly about President Bashar Al-Assad, categorically ruling out any US/Western financial support for Syria’s reconstruction so long as he remains in power in Damascus. On the contrary, it seems unlikely that the Syrian government forces and their allies will be stopped in their tracks in their military campaign to regain control over the entire country. True, the Russia air support is vital for their campaign to make rapid progress, but then, this is a two-way street, and Russia too cannot do without its allies in Syria.

Read more: Gulf crisis and the future of Middle East

Finally, Russian diplomacy has a history of overreaching. It is extremely unlikely that Russia’s allies in Syria are going to feel thrilled over the ‘breaking news’ that King Salman of Saudi Arabia is heading for Russia this month, and that Moscow feels excited that the Saudi-Russian relations are poised for a historic makeover. Of course, Russia has an impressive record of coping with contradictions in its foreign policies, but this is going to be one hell of a contradiction to reconcile – keeping Saudi Arabia and Iran equally content as allies and convincing them both that Russia is each one’s steadfast ally too. So, fasten seat belts – air pockets lie ahead.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

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