Putin and Trump stress Israel’s security as Syrian fighting moves closer to Golan Heights

The first formal summit meeting between Putin and Trump did not produce any breakthrough to bring peace to Syria.
Monday 16/07/2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) gives a soccer ball to US President Donald Trump during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. (AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) gives a soccer ball to US President Donald Trump during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump have highlighted the security of Israel as fighting in Syria is moving towards the Israeli occupied Golan Heights.

The first formal summit meeting between Putin and Trump in Finland’s capital Helsinki on Monday did not produce any breakthrough to bring peace to Syria after more than seven years of war that has killed almost half a million people. But both leaders stressed their will to work together to improve the humanitarian situation for Syrian civilians and for the return of refugees.

Critics of Trumps warned before the meeting that the US president would be no match for Putin, a former KGB spymaster, and could give too much ground in areas where the US and Russia differ. Trump, a brash 72-year-old billionaire, has been president for 18 months while Putin, 65, has run Russia for the past 18 years.

Putin said the strict enforcement of a 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria in the area near the Golan Heights was important. A Syrian government offensive against rebels east of the Golan could see troops moving into a buffer zone that should be demilitarised according to the treaty. Israel is concerned about Iranian forces moving closer to its eastern border.

“The situation in the Golan Heights should be returned in line with the 1974 treaty,” Putin, speaking through an interpreter, told a televised joint news conference with Trump after four hours of talks. The Russian leader said adherence to the agreement would lower tensions, but he offered no details. Trump said cooperation between Russia and Israel on the issue was a “great thing”, adding that the United States would not allow Iran to benefit from the military success against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. He said ISIS was “98, 99 per cent” defeated.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that he discussed Syria and Iran with Trump ahead of the meeting with Putin. In remarks to the Israeli cabinet, Netanyahu said he spoke by phone on Saturday with Trump and that the US president reiterated his commitment to Israel. 

Both Trump and Putin said Russian and US military officers were cooperating in Syria. The Russian president also said his country was planning to step up efforts to ease the humanitarian situation in the country together with European countries, adding that Russia was ready to use military transport planes to fly in supplies. Putin said he talked about the issue with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday.

Trump did not repeat his intention to pull out the roughly 2000 US soldiers from Syria. News reports before the summit had said that Trump might offer Putin a US troop withdrawal in exchange for Russian efforts to push back Iran in Syria. Putin repeated the Russian determination to stick to the international nuclear agreement with Iran that Trump left in May.

Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, tweeted that many questions on Syria remained unanswered after the Helsinki summit. “Trump says he and Putin both want to help Israel’s security. That’s fine. But how?” Shapiro rote. “Keep Iranian forces far from the Golan Heights? Expel all Iranian forces from Syria? And obviously, Assad's genocidal regime is now assured, with no objection from the US.”

Much of the news conference was dedicated to US accusations that Russia meddled in the US presidential election of 2016 that brought Trump into office. Putin freely admitted that he wanted Trump to win because the Republican candidate wanted a re-start in relations with Russia, but he called the charges of Russian interfering in the elections “absurd”. The Russian leader offered members of the US investigation into the matter to be present at questionings of Russian suspects by Russian prosecutors, provided Washington allowed Russian agents the same privilege.

Trump repeated his view that the Russia investigation is a witch hunt and said he didn’t see “any reason” why Moscow would have tried to rig the vote. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said. Before the summit even began, Trump blamed his own country for the deterioration in relations. “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” The Russian foreign ministry “liked” his words and tweeted back: “We agree.”

At the news conference Trump was invited by reporters to offer even a single criticism of Russia, but repeatedly declined. Asked if Russia was at all to blame for the poor ties, he said: “I hold both countries responsible. I think the U.S. has been foolish. We’ve all been foolish.”

Putin, basking in congratulations from Trump and other world leaders for the successful staging of the World Cup in Russia, said: “The time has come to talk in a substantive way about our relations and problem areas of the world.”

After a stormy NATO summit in Brussels last week, Trump was accused by critics of cosying up to Putin while undermining the transatlantic alliance. But over breakfast with Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto, he insisted NATO “has never been stronger” and “never been more together” thanks to his insistence on all allies paying their fair share.

Protesters were on the streets of Helsinki to denounce the policies of both Trump and Putin. Greenpeace draped a giant banner down a church tower urging: “Warm our hearts not our planet.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Trump held a phone call on Monday and discussed the importance of implementing the joint roadmap in Syria’s Manbij, the Turkish presidency said in a statement. Under a deal reached between the United States and Turkey last month, the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia would withdraw from Manbij and Turkish and US forces would maintain security and stability around the town.

During Monday’s phone call, the two leaders said the implementation of the Manbij deal would “significantly contribute” to the solution of Syria problem, the statement said. It added that Erdogan and Trump also repeated their determination to further improve bilateral ties in all areas.

 (With additional reporting from news agencies)