The Trump-Putin summit
The high-wattage symbolism of Russia’s attack on Islamic State (ISIS) targets in Syria last week was unmistakable. Russia fired long-range, precision cruise missiles, an advertisement for its advanced weaponry. Its chosen targets — an ISIS command centre and three weapons storage depots in Hama — chimed with Moscow’s claim of wanting to rid Syria of “terrorists and extremists.”
It did all this about 48 hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump had their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit. The operation had both strategic and symbolic significance.
Russia has underlined the decisive, game-changing role it has played in Syria since its military intervention 22 months ago. It reminded the United States and the world that it is a global player. The missile strike, on the day the fifth round of Syria peace talks in Astana concluded, was a reminder that the road to peace in Damascus runs through Moscow.
The symbolism highlights a new realism in Syria and the Middle East: Russia matters.
It is a reality the Americans have acknowledged while they continue playing a crucial role in Syria. The Middle East landscape is complicated as the proxies of regional powers, especially those affiliated with Iran, fuel tensions across the region. The situation reflects the unfortunate inability of the Arab world to put an end to war in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.
At their first meeting, Trump and Putin could hardly have failed to feel the hand of history on their shoulders. “We look forward to a lot of very positive things happening for Russia, for the United States and for everybody concerned,” Trump optimistically stated at the end of the meeting.
Moscow and Washington have a joint responsibility towards Syria, where nearly 500,000 people have died in six years of war. They must stick to their commitment to helping root out ISIS and other jihadist groups from the Middle East.
In Syria, the United States and Russia need to coordinate closely, cleanly and clearly. The United States supports various groups on the ground, some of which are taking the lead in the fight to liberate the ISIS capital Raqqa. With Russia rests the responsibility of ensuring the Assad regime makes no further use of chemical weapons. And, after this protracted and bloody conflict, it is not too soon to start discussions on how to rebuild Syria, its infrastructure and the communities torn apart by war.
The Middle East could also benefit from closer coordination between Trump and Putin beyond Syria. Meetings such as the G20 summit attended by the two leaders should pave the way for progress towards coordinating the fight against global terrorism in all its dimensions. “There should be no ‘safe spaces’ for terrorist financing anywhere in the world,” declared a summit statement.
The same applies to working for sustainable development. Everybody — not just the United States, Russia or the other G20 nations — has a stake in the stability and prosperity of the Middle East and North Africa region.