We may never know what was really discussed in the one-on-one meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit. Yet, it has become increasingly clear, and for many good reasons, that Syria was a key topic at the meeting. In fact, among all the issues that overshadow the relationship between Washington and Moscow––Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, the conflict in Ukraine, NATO expansion, etc.–– Syria is perhaps the easiest with which to come to terms.
Following the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS), and except for the desire to contain Iran, the United States does not have many real interests in Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011, it has resisted pressure and temptation to intervene. It was only after the fall of Mosul, the declaration of the Caliphate, and the expansion of IS that Washington decided to step in. Even then, the American war efforts remained strictly limited to the fight against the organization and avoided the trap of the Syrian civil war.
President Trump has repeatedly stated that he does not want to keep a military presence in Syria after the defeat of IS. Yet, he also stated that he would like to see Iran’s military presence in Syria reduced and its regional influence curtailed. The only way to reconcile these two objectives, withdrawing from Syria and containing Iran, is through cooperation with Russia.
A possible trade between the two great powers seems therefore possible: the United States and its regional allies (Israel and the Arab Gulf states) would cease attempting to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad––and thereby accept Russia’s domination in Syria––in exchange for forcing Iran out. Ideally, the Syria-for-Iran deal should make everyone happy, except Iran of course. Russia, according to several media reports, is willing to cooperate in Syria; but only as a first step towards addressing more fundamental differences with Washington. Indeed, Russia’s intervention in Syria has much broader objectives than merely keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.
After more than two decades of withdrawing from the world stage and turning its back on the Middle East, Russia took almost everyone off guard with its September 2015 military intervention in Syria. Indeed, President Putin had pursued aggressive foreign policies elsewhere (Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014). Yet, these ventures were seen as very much defensive. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO was expanding eastward with little regard for Russia’s security interests. For Putin, the possibility that Georgia and Ukraine would become members in a new wave of NATO expansion was very real; and he, therefore, had to act swiftly.
Syria was in a different category. It was Russia’s first post-Cold War power projection outside the territories of the former Soviet Union. Taking advantage of the war fatigue in the United States, Putin saw an opportunity in the Syrian crisis to overcome the “trauma” of the collapse of the Soviet Union and reestablish Russia as a world power.
Russia has succeeded in preserving the regime of Bashar al-Assad and preventing a victory by the US-backed opposition, but the motives behind Russia’s military intervention in Syria go beyond the internal dynamics of the Syrian conflict. It was first and foremost about Russia’s international standing and geopolitical interests. Russia has, in fact, used Syria as a launching pad to reassert itself on the international arena and attempt to change the unipolar nature of the post-Cold War international system. Iran was an important tool towards achieving that end.
From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Russia lent political and diplomatic support to the Assad regime. Russia interpreted the Arab Spring revolutions as a western conspiracy aimed at destabilizing the region. Naturally, no Russian embracing this view could say why the United States would want, for example, to undermine reliable allies like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Regardless, that was the view of the Russian ruling elite and became more defensible when the Arab Spring reached the shores of the anti-western regimes of Libya and Syria.
Despite that, military intervention was not on the table for Mr. Putin until the summer of 2015 when Bashar al-Assad and his Iran-backed forces seemed to have been defeated. With Afghanistan still very much alive in Russia’s memory, Putin decided to provide air cover, but no boots on the ground, to tilt the balance in favor of Assad.
In July 2015, Tehran sent General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Brigade, to Moscow to discuss the details of the Russian intervention in Syria. Before that, Iran was hopeful that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed earlier that month, and improved relations with the Obama administration would help ease the pressure on Assad. That proved wrong. Turkey and Saudi Arabia increased their support for the Syrian opposition as American restrictions were eased after the signing of the nuclear deal. Russia agreed to the Iranian request and the two countries formed an effective couple in the Syrian war. Iran provided manpower on the ground and Russia provided firepower from the air. The concerted Russia-Iran efforts changed the dynamics of the Syrian conflict militarily and politically.
So far, Russia views Iran as an important partner in its Syria venture, without which the whole idea of military intervention would not have been contemplated. Iran helped Russia achieve common objectives, including defeating the Western-backed rebellion in Syria, preventing Turkey and the Arab Gulf states from winning the Syrian war, and avenging what Putin believes a master deception plan by the west to intervene in Libya and remove a Russian ally.
Having accomplished all that with Iranian help, the interests of the two allies started to diverge. Russia wants to use its Syrian gains as a bargaining chip with the United States to get to the most fundamental issues: Ukraine and economic sanctions. Iran wants to enhance its military presence in Syria as a deterrence to prevent a possible American or Israeli attack against it.
As the United States and Israel show more determination to force Iran out of Syria, Putin’s role becomes more crucial. If he chooses to cooperate, Iran’s position would become untenable. If he decides to hold on to his alliance with Tehran, Washington and Tel Aviv’s efforts to roll Iran’s influence back are more likely to fail. Clearly, Putin holds the key to this issue. Right now, he does not seem interested in an Iran-for-Syria deal. He seems willing to fall in line with the American and Israeli agenda only if the formula is transformed into an Iran for Ukraine deal. Until he can get there, Iran will stay in Syria even at a few miles away from the border with Israel.