When US President Donald Trump meets his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki on July 16, a deal on Syria could be closed in good order, to the benefit of both countries, and most importantly, the people of Syria, who are thirsting for an end to the war. In this score, Trump can win by building on Putin’s diplomatic table setting between Israel, Iran and other key regional players.
Fyodor Lukyanov explained that “Trump would be willing to say that there’s no threat to Israel from Syria and that Putin will help drive Iran away from the Israeli border. This is what his electorate should hear. And it can be achieved thanks to long efforts to marry the security interests of Iran and Israel in Syria, with neither Trump nor other US representatives being the main protagonists. On the contrary, the key players include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin — who have a high level of trust between them — as well as representatives of the Syrian government and top Iranian officials. Contacts are apparently indirect and delicate, with no formal arrangements possible.”
Al-Monitor has explained how Putin has become the go-to mediator between Israel and Iran, while navigating the often conflicting interests of the other regional powers. “The combination of military force with subtle and proactive multilateral diplomacy paves the way for strengthening the central authorities in Syria. Russia is showing uncharacteristic flexibility and taking into account the security interests of the key players — Turkey, Israel and Iran,” wrote Lukyanov. “It is also prodding the intra-Syrian groups into interacting quite insistently, even if not always successfully. … Russia … aims to engage all the regional stakeholders since, in its opinion, Damascus can oversee the process of rebuilding Syria only on the condition that all the internal and external forces agree — or at least remain neutral.
(Moscow sees the survival of the Syrian regime as the only way to preserve Syrian statehood.) Both consent and neutrality come as a product of arduous and sometimes fruitless work. But the goal can only be achieved through an ‘inclusive approach,’ as Russian diplomats like to call it.”
Not surprisingly, Putin has been fully engaged in the week leading up to the summit, meeting with Netanyahu on one day and Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the next, in Moscow last week.
In his meeting with Putin on July 11, “Netanyahu sought to emphasize that Israel has no contradictions with Russia and that they are working together on Syria,” Marianna Belenkaya reported. “He felt it was important to stress that Russia still gives Israel the needed leeway on Syrian territory. … Shortly after the talks in the Kremlin, Israel followed up with its own strikes on Syria, which Russia didn’t prevent.”
“Moscow allows Israel to behave the way it wants to in Syria under two conditions: If the Israelis strike Syrian positions only in retaliation to Syria’s own offenses, or when Israelis attack non-Syrian forces,” wrote Belenkaya. “In all other instances Russia responds with severe criticism, summoning the Israeli ambassador to the Foreign Ministry, something that also doesn’t really prevent Israelis from doing as they please. At the official level, however, no one would confirm this pattern. On the contrary, in all public statements Russian politicians stress the importance and strength of ties with Iran and its indispensable role in the Syrian settlement.”
“As for the departure of pro-Iranian militias, this fits into the trilateral Russia-US-Jordan agreement on the southwestern de-escalation zone. Russian diplomats have emphasized on multiple occasions that there should be no ‘non-Syrian forces’ in the area. Based on observers’ accounts, pro-Iranian militias do not — at least officially — take part in the Syrian army offensive in the south. To a large degree, this is to the credit of the Russian military, but it also occurred, to some degree, over concerns of new Israeli strikes,” Belenkaya added.
Iran is feeling the heat because of the reimposition of US sanctions, which increases Putin’s leverage, although not to the extent those hoping for a turnaround in the Russian-Iranian relationship might fantasize. The relationship is as rock solid as ever, and that could also work to Trump’s advantage, if he seeks to reduce the US military footprint in Syria and the Middle East, as he has said time and again.
Hamidreza Azizi reported that “the Iranian press has been quick to speculate that Russia is about to ‘betray’ Iran once again and to use Tehran as a bargaining chip to reach a deal with the United States. Moscow’s reaction to speculation along those lines, however, has been quite unexpected. For instance, Russia has backtracked from its previous position that all foreign forces, including Iranians, must leave Syria. Instead, Russian officials have started to vehemently emphasize the lawful nature of Iran’s presence in Syria.”
“It’s important to bear in mind the core objectives that led Iran to get involved in the Syrian crisis in the first place. As a longtime ally of the Syrian government, Iran’s primary goal since day one has been to preserve the rule of Assad and to help him regain full control over all of Syria. Against this backdrop, Tehran has long seen the strong foreign — and especially American — support for the armed rebel groups as a serious obstacle to the realization of this critical aim. Therefore, if any possible deal between Trump and Putin entails a US agreement to withdraw from Syria and accept Assad staying in power, the Islamic Republic would definitely consider it a gift,” added Azizi.