US-Russia deal could force Iranians out of southern Syria

Members of Congress vowed to scrutinise Trump’s discussions with Putin and any deal regarding Syria.
Friday 20/07/2018
US President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a news conference in Helsinki, on July 16. (AP) 
US President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a news conference in Helsinki, on July 16. (AP) 

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin signalled that they may have reached an agreement to force Iranian militias out of southern Syria near the Israeli border as part of a resolution of the Syrian civil war.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed comments by Trump and Putin supporting Israel’s security, members of the US Congress and analysts said the July 16 Trump-Putin summit may damage Israel by making Russia the Middle East power broker instead of the United States.

A deal also could cement Syrian President Bashar Assad’s control of his country after seven years of civil war and as many as 500,000 deaths.

Members of Congress, outraged at Trump’s denial in Helsinki that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, vowed to scrutinise Trump’s discussions with Putin and any deal regarding Syria. Some warned about Trump’s seeming deference to Putin on Syria and Iran.

“Israel must adjust to the reality that Russia alone is calling the shots [in the Middle East] and the United States looks diminished as an ally. Trump has shown himself to be so beholden to Putin for whatever reasons that it is nearly impossible to imagine him asserting a separate US policy on Syria,” Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama, wrote in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper.

Alina Polyakova, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution think-tank, wrote in a blog post that Putin’s aims to have Russia lead a coalition to secure the Syria-Israel border and assist Syrian refugees “would help solidify Russia’s role as the great power in the Middle East.”

Trump and Putin did not announce any deal on Syria at their news conference after their 2-hour one-on-one meeting in Helsinki but Putin spoke of “crushing terrorists” in south-western Syria -- near the Israeli border -- and bringing peace to the Golan Heights by separating Israeli and Syrian forces.

In a subsequent interview with Russia’s Channel One, Putin said he and Trump agreed on some issues “in particular on questions about the settlement in Syria, including the southern de-escalation zone in the area of the Golan Heights.”

Putin appeared to indicate that Syria’s civil war was effectively over and that the remaining issue was returning millions of refugees. “The Syrian Army officially controls territory that is inhabited by 90% of the total population of Syria,” Putin said in a comment that some analysts interpreted as urging the international community to accept Assad’s control over Syria.

Putin spoke of the need to “create conditions” for the return of refugees -- providing water, electricity and sanitation -- and said: “That is why we agreed to act in more resolute and joint ways.” Putin appeared to be referring to himself and Trump.

Putin’s comments “smell like a pre-cooked international proposal if not a finalised deal,” Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert and former US diplomat in Ukraine, said in a conference call July 17. Rojansky added that such a deal “is basically about recognising that Assad is in control” of Syria.

That condition drew protest from senior members of Congress who have urged a harder line with Assad. “If Assad remains in Syria, the fight against [the Islamic State] and other extremist groups will never end,” US Senator Robert Menendez and US Representative Eliot Engel said in a statement. The two Democratic lawmakers, who have senior positions on committees overseeing US foreign policy, said: “The war in Syria will only end with an inclusive political settlement.”

US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Twitter: “It is imperative that Congress hold hearings on the extent and scope of any cooperation with Russia in Syria regarding Iran’s presence.”

Russia’s ability to convince Iran to pull back from southern Syria is unclear as is Putin’s eagerness to push Iranians to pull back from southern Syria.

“The problem is, I don’t think the Russians actually have the weight with the Iranians to make that happen,” Jeffrey Edmonds, a former Russia director at the US National Security Council, said on a conference call. “It’s not that they don’t have a good relationship but, I think when you boil it down, the Iranian concern over Israel outweighs its concern over its relationship with Russia... It’s not as if the Russians are going to in some way downgrade their relationship with Iran because they’re not going to pull back these militias.”