After the Helsinki summit, the starting point must be Syria

If Putin drives Iran out of Syria, he will confirm his image as a capable leader, a man for impossible jobs and not just the president of a country with a destructive air force.
Sunday 22/07/2018
Reality on the ground. Syrian government supporters wave  Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against US President Trump in Damascus, last April.  (AP)
Reality on the ground. Syrian government supporters wave Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against US President Trump in Damascus, last April. (AP)

The 2018 FIFA World Cup showed that Russia has everything needed to be considered among the most developed countries and can play a positive role internationally, provided it gets rid of its major power complex.

The day after the World Cup final, Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Helsinki to meet with US President Donald Trump. The latter was on a European tour and had left some damage in his wake. It is apparent this US administration has a different approach to dealing with European and NATO allies. Indeed, Trump seems convinced that his NATO partners are not contributing enough towards the creation of a joint military force worthy of today’s challenges.

Putin scored very well in the World Cup test. Can he repeat the same success in political manoeuvrings outside Russia?

We must admit that Putin has the United States in a defensive stance. He knew how to use the weaknesses of the US foreign policies under the Obama administration to Russia’s advantage. Obama was obsessed with Iran and seemed scared that Tehran would walk out of negotiations on its nuclear programme. Everything else took a backstage position.

Putin saw an opening and he took it. Russia sneaked into Syria and became the prime player there. Putin achieved a long-held dream by Russian leaders — a strong foothold on the Mediterranean coast. It’s true that Russia had access to Tartus port and its facilities during the days of the Soviet Union but it’s true also that former Syrian dictator Hafez Assad knew how to play both the Soviet Union and the United States against each other. Neither was the main player in Syria.

Bashar Assad opted for a policy different from his father’s. He chose to go all the way in his alliance with Iran. He admired Hezbollah and its handy work in Lebanon. Iran paid him back by saving him and his regime during the popular uprisings of March 2011.

However, the real turning point in Syria happened towards the end of 2015 when Iran invited Russia to intervene directly on behalf of the Syrian regime. The Russian cavalry arrived in the nick of time. Damascus and the Syrian coast, including the Alawite strongholds, were about to fall to opposition forces.

Can Putin score another strategic breakthrough from the Helsinki summit?

Putin had already laid the foundations for such a breakthrough. The proposal relies on maintaining Bashar Assad and his regime in Damascus in exchange for the quiet withdrawal of Iran from Damascus and southern Syria. Putin had discussed it with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Americans.

Had there not been common agreement points with the Trump administration regarding Syria, sometimes via Israel, the United States would not have taken the position it took when pro-Assad forces moved towards Daraa and the Jordanian border.

Many will record how serious Putin is in executing Israeli and US demands in Syria. Still, we wonder if he would be able to guarantee their wishes. Deciding Bashar Assad’s fate is not as important as driving Iran out of Syria. Will he be able to do it and confirm that Russia is the main player in Syria?

It will become apparent that the Helsinki summit was a test for both Putin and Trump. In Syria, Putin will have to play a proactive role to keep up with Russia’s other successes, such as organising the World Cup. If Putin drives Iran out of Syria, he will confirm his image as a capable leader, a man for impossible jobs and not just the president of a country with a destructive air force.

In Trump’s case, the Syrian test will reveal whether he is better than his predecessor or just another puppet in Putin’s hands. About this time of the year in 2013, Putin convinced Obama to close his eyes to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the latter’s raging war on the Syrian people.

Most important, the aftermath of the Helsinki summit will reveal whether Trump has a comprehensive approach to Iran and the Syrian crisis. He has stopped at withdrawing his country from the nuclear deal with Iran and has acted as if that step was an urgent necessity. So, what’s next?

The next step by the Trump administration is crucial. It will confirm whether this administration is serious or just another version of Obama’s administration with a loud mouth. The logical continuation of the path against Iran is through Syria. Either Iran withdraws from Syria or it does not; the rest are details and, in case it does not, Putin and Trump would have failed the test.

If Russia and the United States are serious about fighting terrorism and extremism — both the Sunni and Shia versions — in the region and if they wish to cut Iran’s tentacles, the starting point must be Syria.

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