WASHINGTON ― Western capitals are becoming increasingly concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin will run circles around President Donald Trump at their summit on Monday. And one issue encapsulates what could be at risk for U.S. interests and American partners: Syria.
If the summit goes ahead despite Friday’s indictments of Russian hackers in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of 2016 campaign interference, it will include Syria’s seven-year civil war as one of the few confirmed items on the agenda. But Trump appears likely to rely on his unshakeable faith in Putin in mapping out a U.S. policy on Syria ― a move that could extend the bloodshed, help extremists regroup and split U.S. policy from that of its key allies.
National security hawks in the U.S. and in the region, notably Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are pitching Syria as a prime test case for the kind of U.S.-Russia cooperation Trump has long said he wants. They believe Trump can convince Putin to rid Syria of a growing Iranian military presence that threatens Israel and other U.S.-friendly states, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Eliminating the Islamic Republic’s influence will, they argue, reduce the risk of proxy wars in Syria and undermine fundamentalist recruiters who benefit from distrust of the Iranians’ intervention and championing of the minority Shiite branch of Islam.
But the likelihood of a meaningful deal is close to nil. Instead, Trump and his team seem set to take whatever Putin offers because of the president’s fundamental disinterest ― “I want to get out” of Syria, he said this spring ― and because his team has adopted his rosy view of Russia’s intentions and capabilities in the region.
“It is a fantasy to assume that Russia can in any way get Iran out of Syria,” said a Western diplomat who asked to remain unnamed to speak candidly. The country’s leaders have an investment to protect, after all: “Iran has expended billions of dollars and hundreds, thousands of lives to secure its position in Syria.”
A separate European official, who also requested anonymity to frankly share their government’s view, said the Americans found it “easier” to believe Moscow than do its U.S. partners. “Iran is taking its own decisions. That’s what we assess,” the official added.
Even as Russia and Iran have cooperated to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad against rebels who once received Western support, the two powers have quietly cultivated distinct and strong positions in the country.
Recent Israeli strikes on Iranian positions showed that Russian dominance is unlikely to fully address worries about the Islamic Republic despite Netanyahu’s rhetoric. Even after secretive Russia-Israel-U.S.-Jordan talks to slash the Iranian presence near Israeli borders, Israel has indicated its security is threatened by Iranian power further afield and has hit outposts in the east and the north.
“The escalation that we’ve seen in recent weeks between Israel and Iran suggests that the changes Russia would be able to deliver on Iran on the margins… is no longer sufficient for Israel,” the Western diplomat told HuffPost.
More Russian pressure on Iran is also unlikely because of the historic bond the two countries have developed over years of quarreling with the West and their shared interests in issues like the energy business and undermining the U.S.-led global order. Iranian officials and analysts are confident the relationship can survive a conversation between Trump and Putin ― particularly since Capitol Hill and the U.S. security establishment have severely limited Trump’s ability to offer Putin any major softening of America’s Russia policy in exchange.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a top aide to Iran’s supreme leader, emphasized that assessment in a visit to Moscow this week, when he announced that Russia promised $50 billion in investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector. “Iranians and Russians will [continue to] stay in Syria to ensure terrorists can no longer be active in that country,” Velayati said, echoing the joint Iranian-Russian narrative that the West was to blame for extremism in Syria because of its support to Syrian rebels fighting Assad.
Ultimately, the Russians seem to be in no mood to address U.S. and Western fears about Syria’s future stability as they help Assad achieve what they see as a final victory.
“With the Syrian Army capturing Deraa, all talk of a political settlement in Syria has become moot,” Dmitri Trenin, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment think tank in Moscow, posted on Twitter after Russian-backed Assad forces seized a city in the south critical to the rebels. “No power-sharing conceivable anymore. What has been taken by the force of arms will not be negotiated away.”
Trump’s team and Netanyahu say the question of Assad’s continued rule is now less important to them than that of Iran’s role in the country. But experts and U.S. allies warn that they must be part and parcel of the same conversation.
The Russians still seem to want a settlement with international approval and support that makes small concessions while largely serving the goals of Putin and Assad, the Western diplomat said.
The question is whether that path forward is designed realistically.
“Western concerns are that [Moscow]… is not in the mood to compromise on anything,” the diplomat continued. “That is dangerous because ultimately we’re not wrong with our prescription [of how things might develop] and if Russia refuses to engage, we will be back here again in six months’ time or eight months’ time: There’ll be an uprising in [the Syrian city of] Hama, we’ll be back in the same situation again with rebel forces trying to take control of certain parts of the country and the [Assad] regime using barrel bombs.”
And Trump’s vision of getting out of Syria would then, of course, be even more of a pipe dream.
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