FILE In this file photo taken on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu talk during an awards ceremony for troops who fought in Syria, in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia. Experts say Putin isn’t necessarily dictating every Russian influence campaign abroad. Some accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections appear to be ambitious individuals taking the initiative based on signals from the presidential entourage. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, with defence minister Sergei Shoigu at an awards ceremony for troops who fought in Syria. Alexei Druzhinin / Kremlin pool via AP

Putin the puppeteer is pulling the strings of troika counterparts ahead of the battle for Idlib

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If it is true that the US Treasury Department is resisting Donald Trump’s Iran strategy by ignoring his demands for further action against the regime in Tehran, this could indicate that the holes in the US president’s policy go beyond sanctions, in a way that could affect both Washington and Tehran’s decisions. The implications are not restricted to Iran either but affect the great power game taking place in Syria and Iraq. They affect US-Russian relations, currently walking a tightrope of secret accords and mutual suspicion, especially with regard to the looming offensive in Idlib and Moscow’s relations with both Iran and Turkey.

Russia is determined to see through the battle of Idlib at any cost, as the crowning of its role in Syria's future, while also neutralising Turkey's influence and curbing Iran's appetite.

This is to some extent compatible with US objectives. Indeed, the Trump administration wants to head off Turkey’s role in Syria, albeit for different reasons. However, the administration is unconvinced Russia is serious about containing Iran, although it believes Moscow’s oil interests demand reining in Tehran’s ambitions in Syria. Where the US and Russia diverge primarily is the sphere of influence in Syria and the issue of its reconstruction.

While Moscow might not mind a limited containment of its partners in the Astana process, Washington wants to disentangle the triptych and strip Russia of its control of all the cards in Syria. What is more, Washington wants Turkey's leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who is meeting Mr Putin tomorrow in Sochi –to reconsider his Syrian forays and Russian ventures and return to the fold of Nato. Meanwhile, Mr Trump wants to cripple Iran economically to force it to reconsider its regional and domestic policies and renegotiate the nuclear deal.

On this, if US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is one of those who believe their patriotic duty is to ignore their boss’s orders, there will be a fundamental flaw in US foreign policy. There are two outcomes here: either the anti-Trump “resistance” succeeds in sidelining the presidency by forcibly rectifying the president’s policies or the president and his faction move to suppress that dangerous mutiny. Either way, there are huge risks.

According to the Washington Post, Mr Mnuchin and others in the treasury are resisting Mr Trump's bid to pressure Iran using Swift, the system that clears international financial transactions. The president had asked the treasury to present options for sanctions using Swift to pressure Iranian banks but two months on, the report has yet to materialise, delaying the president's ability to make a decision. The alleged reason behind the treasury's prevarication is that Mr Mnuchin is concerned for the implications for US-European relations, already strained by the proposed additional November sanctions. Officials opposed to the treasury's actions underscore the effect of banning Iranian banks from Swift in restricting Tehran's ability to finance the regime in Damascus, Hamas, Hezbollah and other militias in the region and beyond.

On that note, Russian sources say Hezbollah and Hamas have recently held meetings in Lebanon to co-ordinate their future strategies. One outcome of the meeting is said to be an agreement on using double strikes – or simultaneous attacks – against US interests. The sources suggest preparation would take place later this month.

In Syria, military developments move apace. Sources say the Idlib offensive is expected to launch two weeks after the Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit in Tehran, following an agreement reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Russia would supply the air cover needed for the attack. However, the US has signalled its opposition to a major operation that could trigger a humanitarian disaster so for now, a "cleansing" mission would proceed with military operations against groups designated as terrorist organisations. This only leaves one problem, according to sources: the reaction of the Turkish president. The sources predict Mr Putin would seek to appease Mr Erdogan though sweeteners that address his concerns but do not reveal the exact nature of what they would be.

The Russian president is carefully pulling the strings connecting his troika counterparts on the eve of the crucial battle for Idlib. The Trump administration has issued warnings and vowed to respond if the regime deploys chemical weapons in the offensive. But fundamentally, Washington does not want Russia to turn US and international endorsement of de-escalation zones in Syria into consent for Moscow's strategy to neutralise the Syrian opposition, consolidate power for Mr Al Assad and monopolise future reconstruction contracts.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Trump administration signalled it would keep its forces in Syria indefinitely. The message that sends out is that a Russian monopoly is unacceptable and the time has come to dismantle the troika. The Trump administration wants a reset in Syria that would allow it to become one of the guarantors of its future.

Washington is making its move as Mr Trump sets out to participate in the UN General Assembly session next week, where he will address the Security Council. The Americans want to reinstate UN Security Council Resolution 2254 as the reference point for Syria rather than the Astana process, to remove Iran and force Mr Al Assad to reconsider his alliance with the Iranians, if he wants to remain in power in the coming period.

The US is raising issues of the constitution, elections and the distribution of powers between the Syrian president and prime minister in the coming phase and has hinted at using pressure tactics such as blocking support for reconstruction in Assad-controlled areas and prosecuting the regime for war crimes.

Mr Al Assad has become a sought-after point man for the major players in Syria but he is also on warning.

The Russians are cautioning him not to even think he can operate outside their radar.

The Iranians want him to think carefully before daring to dispense with them and turn his back on Iran’s role in helping him remain in power.

And the Americans want him to understand he is not an absolute victor who can act with impunity in Syria and Lebanon, and that his wings have been trimmed irrevocably.

As for Turkey, it finds itself in an unenviable position, thanks to its arrogant president. Russia is in the process of a major containment of Turkey following the battle for Idlib and is under US sanctions. All this carries the risk of serious domestic ramifications for Mr Erdogan, with a heavy wind blowing from Syria.

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