Putin and Trump jockey for position over Syrian quagmire
US has conceded key Russian demands but Trump has not recommitted to troop pullout
A picture taken from the Israeli-annexed Syrian Golan Heights shows displaced Syrians going back to their camp near the Syrian village of Burayqah, after being turned back by the Israeli forces at the border fence between Syria and the Golan Heights, where they were trying to seek refuge. Photograph: Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump agreed during Monday’s summit in Helsinki to work together to end the conflict in Syria, ensure Israel’s security along the Golan ceasefire line and provide humanitarian aid to Syrians in need.
Putin declared, and Trump echoed: “Co-operation between our countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.” Putin said once insurgents were defeated in southwest Syria, the 1974 Golan disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel must be enforced, restoring the ceasefire between the two countries.
He also pledged to step up the delivery of essential supplies to Syria by Russian cargo planes, while Trump praised co-operation between the Russian and US militaries in the war-torn country.
Moscow insists ending the Syrian conflict involves three things: US acceptance that Russia’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad, will remain in power; Russian support for the Syrian army’s offensive against insurgents; and restoration of Damascus’s sovereignty over the whole country.
Well before the summit, the US had conceded the first two demands. However, Trump has not recommitted to a pledge to pull out the 2,200 US troops in northeast Syria by the end of this year. The Pentagon and Trump’s hawkish security team oppose withdrawal, arguing that the US must maintain its military deployment until the Islamic State terror group is routed entirely, and as a counterweight to Russia’s military presence in Syria.
Despite the display of camaraderie between the two men, Putin criticised Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal
In the run-up to the summit, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned US hawks against continuing the US military adventure in Syria, arguing that US and Nato wars in Iraq and Libya killed and wounded more people than the countries’ autocratic leaders had done.
US withdrawal would enable the US-backed Kurdish forces occupying 25 per cent of Syria to reach a deal with Damascus over the return of its rule to the area. Revival of the pre-war status quo and the Syrian army’s return to the Syrian-Turkish border could stave off a military campaign by Turkey against Syrian Kurdish forces regarded by Ankara as an off-shoot of its own Kurdish militants.
While Putin has accepted that pro-Iranian fighters will remain at some distance from the Golan ceasefire line with Israel, he has not promised to ensure total withdrawal of Iranian troops and pro-Iranian fighters, a demand put forward by Trump and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Patient on this issue
The US and Israel may have to be patient on this issue, since Putin cannot necessarily deliver Tehran, which said it will pull its forces out of Syria and Iraq when asked to do so by Damascus and Baghdad. At present, both rely on pro-Iranian ground forces to fight remaining jihadis and insurgents.
Once Syria is stabilised, Iran could withdraw its forces while retaining political influence with Damascus, but Tehran will not budge from Iraq, which is ruled by a pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalist regime installed by the US in 2003.
Despite the display of camaraderie between the two men, Putin criticised Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, stating that under the accord, “Iran became the most controlled country in the world, it submitted to the control of the [International Atomic Energy Agency], it effectively ensured the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programme and strengthened the non-proliferation regime”.