Why is it SO difficult for the US and Russia to agree on Syria?

The main issue that the parties will discuss is the Iranian presence in Syria. Neither the US nor Israel actively object to the presence of Russia, but the tension between the countries is gradually increasing.

After reports of the first chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in the spring of 2017, Trump ordered the Tomahawk missiles to be struck at the Syrian airbase in Al-Shayrat, which is used by the Russian military security services. After that, Russia even suspended air cooperation with the United States in Syria.

On February 7, 2018, in the Deir ez-Zor area, the Americans attacked a group of Syrian government forces, which the US claimed included Russian mercenaries trying to enter the US-controlled territory. According to the statements of the US military, 300 representatives of pro-regime forces – Syrians and Russians – perished. The Kremlin continues to insist that in Syria, Russian mercenaries do not fight.

“We in the Kremlin do not have detailed information that would allow us to draw any conclusions.It can not be ruled out that citizens of the Russian Federation can reside in Syria, they do not belong to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said. The Kremlin also claims that they do not know how many dead people are being questioned.

Nevertheless, the main demand of Americans and Israel is that there should not be Iranian troops in the south of Syria, near the borders with Israel. Israel, a close ally of the United States, willingly talks about this with Moscow. Finally, Americans and Israelis insist that Iranian troops and pro-Iranian armed groups completely abandon Syria.

But this requirement is unlikely to be feasible in the presence of current regimes in Iran and Syria. In addition, it is doubtful that Russia, even with a strong desire on its part, is capable of ensuring the withdrawal of Iranian troops. The influence of Iran on Assad is huge, they are connected by strong ties.

The Russian expert on Syria, Kirill Semenov, points out that his younger brother Maher, who is oriented toward an alliance with Iran, plays the leading role in the close circle of Bashar Assad. “The relations of Mahar Assad with the Iranian special services were noted, and his initiatives on attracting Iranian military specialists at the very beginning of the internal conflict were noted, and branches of Shiite paramilitary structures are formed in units controlled by Mahar Assad,” Semenov said.

Moreover, it is unclear how Assad will control the country without these forces, the use of which plays an important role in all clashes with the opposition.

Under the pressure of the United States, Israel and Russia, the Syrian army allegedly began to replace the Iranian units fighting in the south of the country, to the Syrian army. But according to the sources of the American newspaper Wall Street Journal, Iranian-backed units simply put on Syrian uniforms to avoid Israeli strikes.

Can Moscow replace the Iranians?

Theoretically, agreements on partial replacement of Russian troops by Iranians in this or that region are possible, although even this is not too easy to achieve. The Kremlin at the moment does not have enough leverage to pressure the Syrian regime to meet the demands of the Americans and Israel.

A comprehensive agreement between Russia and the United States on the partition of Syria and the removal of Iran from there is hardly possible at the moment. It will become a reality only if the Russian troops completely replace Syria with the Iranian army and the militia. Such an option is unlikely, since it would lead to the threat of Russia being drawn into a war similar to that of Afghanistan. Unless Moscow will have to send to Syria ever larger forces of mercenaries recruited outside of Russia.

Until the Kremlin decides to increase its military presence in Syria to protect Assad to replace the Iranians, these measures are too expensive, unpopular and fraught with serious losses.

However, the parties can make minor concessions. Trump can offer all sorts of deals. For example, demonstratively transfer to Russia a number of areas of Syria, promise new trade agreements beneficial to Russia, guarantee the non-interference of the American army in the battle for Deraa, which is unfolding in the south of Syria. Perhaps he will offer some concessions in Ukraine. Putin in return can promise not to let the Iranians into the border areas with Israel – negotiations about this are already under way – and will try to convince Assad to reduce the zones of Iranian presence.