There's been a number of hugely significant developments in Syria at the end of this week — all of which point to the war's end, with President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Army ultimately emerging firmly victorious. Even Israel seems to have changed its tune, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman telling reporters on Thursday, "From our perspective, the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule."
But now there's a diplomatic scramble underway and exchange of accusations related to potential Russia-United States cooperation on rebuilding Syria, repatriating refugees, and rooting out the remaining jihadist pockets.
On Friday Reuters published a bombshell report based on a leaked US government memo revealing a secret deal possibly in the works between top Russian and American generals initiated by the Russian side last month during the very week that President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki .
Russia has since slammed the leak, but has confirmed it confidentially extended the hand of cooperation on Syria.
According to the Reuters report, Russia has used a closely guarded communications channel with America’s top general "to propose the two former Cold War foes cooperate to rebuild Syria and repatriate refugees to the war-torn country, according to a U.S. government memo."
The proposal was sent in a July 19 letter by Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, to U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the memo which was seen by Reuters.
The Russian plan, which has not been previously reported, has received an icy reception in Washington. The memo said the U.S. policy was only to support such efforts if there were a political solution to end Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, including steps like U.N.-supervised elections.
The US intelligence memo, while itself not published in full, is a summary and assessment of the confidential Russian proposal, offered within the context of the mutually agreed upon "military-to-military" communications hotline, set up at some point after 2015 to ensure US and Russian jets avoid aerial collision or direct confrontation of forces. The timing of the Russian proposal is significant, as it came a mere three days after Trump met with Putin in Helsinki on July 16.
Before and after the meeting there were substantial rumors, especially coming from the Russian side, that the US and Russia were working towards direct cooperation in Syria.
Both sides have reportedly agreed to keep the contents of what's communicated via this official back-channel confidential, something which has largely been adhered to until now.
Reuters continues, quoting parts of the leaked memo:
“The United States will only support refugee returns when they are safe, voluntary and dignified,” said the memo, which is specifically about the Russian plan for Syria.
...Some U.S. officials believe Syria’s dependence on the international community for reconstruction, along with the presence of U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in part of Syria, gives Washington leverage as diplomats push for a negotiated end to the war.
The United Nations has put the cost of rebuilding Syria after the seven year long conflict at a minimum figure of $250 billion. Though Damascus and its Russian partners have determined the war's outcome militarily, it appears Moscow is ready to cooperate with the US on establishing permanent stability in the war-torn country.
However, anti-Assad hawks in the administration and in Washington policy circles have consistently pushed for a settlement to the war which would result in Assad's political exit, which suggests the possibility and likelihood that the memo leak is but the latest ploy of administration insiders to prevent any level of cooperation with Russia and the Syrian government.
The memo reads further, according to Reuters:
“The proposal argues that the Syrian regime lacks the equipment, fuel, other material, and funding needed to rebuild the country in order to accept refugee returns,” according to the memo, which specified that the proposal related to Syrian government-held areas of the country.
The United States in 2011 adopted a policy that Assad must leave power but then watched as his forces, backed by Iran and then Russia, clawed back territory and secure Assad’s position.
The United States has drawn a line on reconstruction assistance, saying it should be tied to a process that includes U.N.-supervised elections and a political transition in Syria. It blames Assad for Syria’s devastation.
Reuters notes that General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has sought to keep the communications back-channel private: "Dunford, who speaks periodically with [the Russian Chief of General Staff] Gerasimov, has stressed that the two militaries need to be able to have candid, private communications to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to armed confrontation," according to the report.
Meanwhile on Saturday Russian officials slammed the leak, saying through the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) that “the inability of the US side to comply with the agreement on publicizing the contacts [between the two militaries] only with the consent of both sides is disappointing." And further, “We expect that the US side will be able to take the necessary measures to prevent further violations of mutual agreements in the future.”
However, the Russian MoD confirmed the authenticity of the revelations based on the leaked memo, saying Moscow is open “to work with the Syrian authorities on providing security guarantees to the refugees from the Rukban camp in the US-controlled area of al-Tanf and creating necessary conditions for their return home.”
With everything now public and in the open, we expect a beltway pundit pile-on and collective neocon expression of outrage over the possibility of a Russia-brokered deal in Syria.
Should Trump and Putin ultimately come to a lasting settlement on the Syria issue which results in US troop withdrawal from Syria, will the international proxy war finally come to a permanent close? Or will we witness more conveniently timed leaks to come, preventing the possibility of a lasting peace and Syria's return to stability?