The announcement of a summit in Helsinki on July 16 between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin touched off intense debate and confusion about the summit’s purposes and objectives. National Security Advisor John Bolton has tried to quiet the controversy, cautioning that no one should “have a case of the vapors”; the purpose, he maintained, is simply to let the two leaders “discuss these issues and see exactly where there might be room for progress, or where they might find there’s no room at all.”
Just exactly what those issues might be is the subject of fervent speculation and not a small amount of worry, especially given the president’s confrontational performance at the G-7 meeting in June in Canada (at which he called for the readmission of Russia to the group), his disparaging comments about NATO, and his strange affection for Putin and his authoritarian leadership style. Regardless, it seems that the Middle East will be a major focus of the summit. Syria and the future of its dictator, Bashar al-Assad, as well as Iran’s role and influence in Syria and the region, will be on the table.
A bigger question lurks in the background, though: can Putin leverage the meeting to advance Russia’s strategic position in the region at US expense—and is Trump capable of preventing him from doing so?
Trump and the War in Syria: Looking for the Exit
It has been evident for some time that President Trump is looking for a way out of Syria, and the summit with Putin provides an attractive opportunity to find one. Trump has never been enthusiastic about overseas military commitments and, as a candidate, pledged to avoid entanglement in foreign conflicts. He made it clear on various occasions that he saw nothing to be gained from a US presence in Syria. In 2013, responding to the violation of President Obama’s announced “red line” on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, Trump tweeted that “We should stay the hell out of Syria, the ‘rebels’ are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS? ZERO.” Trump, not unlike Obama, seems to believe the United States lacks the ability to affect the outcome.
Once in office, however, Trump was persuaded to dispatch some 400 US Marines to Syria to provide fire support for Syrian rebel groups seeking to retake Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, joining a small number of US Special Forces that were operating intermittently in the country. But while the destruction of the Islamic State (IS) was one of Trump’s key foreign policy objectives, the president never articulated a clear plan for Syria, even with US troops on the ground, and his public positions swayed back and forth. The cruise missile strike he ordered against a Syrian air base in April 2017 in response to a government chemical attack on the city of Khan Sheikhoun—and US, French, and British strikes on chemical weapons facilities in April 2018 because of another attack by “Gas Killing Animal” Bashar al-Assad on the town of Duma—did not lead to any fundamental policy shift in favor of taking the war to Assad, as some observers had speculated.
Instead, these proved to be detours in a long walk to the exit. In late March 2018, Trump suddenly announced the United States would “be coming out of Syria like very soon,” to the surprise of the Pentagon, which had announced earlier that day that a US presence would be needed for some time to come to ensure the defeat of IS and to help address longer-term needs for reconstruction and stabilization. On April 3, after meeting with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Trump reluctantly agreed to continue the military presence temporarily but ordered commanders to prepare plans for the rapid withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops then in the country. In May, the president ordered the withdrawal of some $200 million in stabilization assistance to northwest Syria, ostensibly as part of an aid review.
To fill the vacuum that would be left by a US pullout, Trump has stated publicly that he expects Arab allies of the United States to pick up the military and political slack by contributing troops and substantial funding to stabilize and reconstruct Syria. In late 2017, Trump reportedly asked Saudi King Salman to contribute $4 billion to the effort. But very little in the way of fresh commitments has been pledged so far, a setback that may have strengthened Trump’s interest in withdrawal, enhancing prospects for a “deal” with Russia to set the conditions for a US pullout.
On the Table in Helsinki
What would that deal look like? Trump would reportedly be prepared to concede that Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad may remain in power, perhaps packaging that offer with a commitment to the withdrawal of most or all US troops within a specific time frame. The de-escalation zone in the southern governorates around the city of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in 2011, might essentially be ceded to Russian and Syrian forces. This would permit them to consolidate control following a devastating offensive against rebel forces there, launched in June in violation of a US-Jordanian-Russian Memorandum of Principles that established the de-escalation zone in July 2017.
In exchange, Trump is expected to ask Putin for Russia’s assistance in pushing Iran out of Syria, now the primary focus of US policy there—as National Security Advisor John Bolton has said. This is likely to include a demand that Moscow pressure Iran to keep its forces well away from the Syrian-Israeli border (a major Israeli concern) as required by the Memorandum of Principles. As the administration sees it, this would be an important step in confronting Iran across a range of issues with Russia’s help, including Tehran’s support for terrorism, its efforts to expand its regional influence, and its “continuing nuclear weapons program,” according to Bolton.
The Difficulties in a “Deal”
It is not clear what the administration expects Russia to do to push Iran out of Syria, and it is equally uncertain whether Moscow would be willing to do so if asked. Iran, after all, has proven a useful if difficult ally in the fight to save the Assad regime, a project that is well in hand but still incomplete.
Russia’s relationship with Iran is also one of the cornerstones of its position in the region, a further disincentive for sustained Russian pressure on Iran. The Russia-Iran relationship serves as a counterweight to US influence and a source of leverage with the Arab Gulf states; Russian military ties and arms sales to Iran are growing, as is the bilateral economic relationship. Despite occasional tensions and significant policy differences over a number of regional issues, including Israel, Yemen, and even their mutual military objectives in Syria, the partnership remains valuable for both Moscow and Tehran across a wide range of regional and international issues, and both are likely to be at pains to preserve it.
Even if Russia agrees to apply pressure on Iran to some limited extent, Tehran is in a good position to withstand it. The Iranian regime has maintained strong diplomatic and economic ties with Damascus since the time of Hafez al-Assad, providing both free and discounted oil for many years, and the economic relationship, including Iran’s provision of multi-billion dollar “credit facilities,” trade, and multi-sectoral investments controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has grown substantially since the beginning of the civil war. Damascus is heavily dependent on Iranian military advisors and hardware, as well as on the participation of Hezbollah troops that have fought alongside Syrian government forces at Iran’s behest. Thus, it is hard to imagine Tehran being vulnerable to the concerted pressure, whether from Moscow or Washington, that would be required to drive it out.
Under these circumstances, Putin is likely to make a show of agreeing to Trump’s proposals, at least in principle, pocketing any concessions and probably taking some temporary actions to deconflict potential Iran-Israel flashpoints in the border region. Any larger commitments on checking Iran’s regional ambitions are likely to be refused, politely, or obfuscated in a cloud of rhetoric. If the Trump Administration thinks it has reached an understanding but wavers or becomes distracted later on, Moscow’s promises on Syria will simply be broken—as Russia’s frequent unpunished violations of previous political commitments and cease-fire agreements in Syria have proven time and again.
What Putin Has to Gain
While Trump may think he is offering relatively trivial inducements to secure Russian cooperation on the more important goal of reducing Iranian influence region-wide, Putin undoubtedly sees much greater advantage, not only in Syria but across the Middle East.
Without Putin expending any significant political or diplomatic capital, a deal with Trump will have achieved one of Russia’s key aims in Syria: acknowledgment by the United States that Assad will remain in power, thereby short-circuiting the United Nations-sponsored peace talks (moribund though they might be). This would leave what remains of the armed Syrian opposition without significant international support, and the field open for Russia (as well as Iran and Turkey) to dictate the outcome.
More important, Putin will also be in a position to ratify Russia’s growing influence in the region at the expense of the United States and send an unmistakable signal to US friends and enemies alike that Russia is now a power in the Middle East with which to reckon. Indeed, Russia has utilized its involvement in Syria to make that clear over the last few years in ways both great and small. Its burgeoning military activity in the Eastern Mediterranean and its growing relationships with Egypt, Israel, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia, built in part on Russian successes in Syria, attest to Moscow’s sophisticated efforts to undermine America’s traditional regional role and offer a credible alternative to US leadership. Agreement at Helsinki by the US president to cede Russian aims in Syria at a minimal price—perhaps only promises of cooperation—would be a diplomatic triumph for Putin that would reverberate for years to come.
Such a deal would also leave the field strewn with losers—not only the Syrian political opposition, the armed resistance, and the populace in areas retaken or in the process of being retaken by the Syrian government, but US allies such as the Kurds as well. These latter fear that if Washington abandons its position in Syria, Turkey would be free to crack down on armed Kurdish factions in northern Syria with impunity. It is not hard to fathom also that an American withdrawal would afford Moscow additional strategic opportunities in the region.
This is the deal President Trump has to avoid.
Driving a Tougher Bargain
And how to do that? First, Trump would do well to refrain from the temptation to commit preemptively to a precipitate withdrawal of US troops and stick to the script preferred by his own military. He should make clear that the United States will remain until a satisfactory and durable political resolution is in place, and credible international commitments for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction aid—including from Russia—are in play.
Second, Trump should outline clearly the commitments the United States expects from Russia concerning Iran’s presence in Syria and its broader regional strategies—the more specific and verifiable the better. If Russia is unwilling or unable to help push Iran out of Syria, as seems likely, it may be willing to entertain some form of cooperation on nuclear-related sanctions, arms sales, or Iranian adventurism in Yemen—although, as with Syria, these would be major demands that could prove a bridge too far for Putin. Third, Trump should be prepared to pressure Putin on Russia’s violations of previous ceasefires and military understandings with the United States and make clear that an important goal of the US presence in Syria is and will remain preventing either Iran or Russia from dictating the terms of any settlement. Finally, President Trump should be prepared to walk away from the table if Putin fails to be forthcoming on any of these points.
Preparations for the Helsinki summit are nothing if not fluid, from the agenda, to the deliverables, to what Trump himself might say—or the concessions he might make—in his expected one-on-one with Putin. Indeed, this particular unknown appears to worry the president’s advisors more than anything else. To avoid policy disaster, Trump and his team must develop a clear idea of what they want from Putin on the Middle East and be prepared to drive a hard bargain that does not sell out US interests or allies in the region.