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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Major regional players have much to gain – and plenty to fear – when Trump and Putin meet

The future of the Assad regime, Palestine and the looming threat of Iran in southern Syria will top the agenda later this month, writes Raghida Dergham

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last year. Carlos Barria / Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, last year. Carlos Barria / Reuters

Military developments are racing with political and economic ones in the region, as competing parties seek to book their – invisible – seat at the table of the historic US-Russian summit in Helsinki on July 16.

An increasingly panicked Iran has foolishly threatened to shut down the supply of oil from the Gulf region in the event its oil sales are blocked, a threat delivered by the "moderate" President Hassan Rouhani himself and then echoed and praised by Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders Qassem Soleimani and Mohammad Ali Jafari.

But unless Iran is ready for war with the United States, its thinly veiled threat of shutting down the Strait of Hormuz and threatening oil installations in the region would mean it has chosen self-destruction over compliance with US President Donald Trump’s ultimatum of “reform or suffer the consequences”.

The US Navy has since responded by vowing to protect the strategic corridor. For its part, Russia would not leverage its military alliance with Iran against the US and its allies in the region.

The European powers sympathetic to Iran would not risk their membership of Nato to appease Tehran, no matter how frustrated they are with Mr Trump’s foreign policy, which is currently shaking the foundations of the post-Second World War global order.

And China will not endorse a military confrontation with the US in the Gulf, no matter how much Iranian oil it benefits from and no matter how much the current trade war with the US escalates.

Two leaders who may feel reassured ahead of the summit are Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad, and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose own desires could be met by an accord between Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin –especially if the two men agree on containing Iran and her ambitions in the region, from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus.

Jordan is positioning itself in the middle-ground between Moscow and Washington, to shield itself from the impact of rapid developments in Syria’s south, which have triggered the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the direction of its borders.

The kingdom, already hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, has closed its borders and appealed to the UN to provide aid to those stranded on the Syrian side. But crucially, Amman is co-ordinating with Moscow to avoid paying the price for the strategic shifts taking place in southern Syria, whether in the form of militants infiltrating its territory or economic and political instability caused by further refugee arrivals.

Here, the UN and some European capitals are playing a dangerous game.

They claim the humanitarian imperative requires Syria’s neighbours to host and sustain refugees until security conditions allow them to return. However, the UN and those European powers know that it would be possible to establish safe zones for refugees inside Syria’s territory, if they had the courage to insist on and impose them.

And they are aware that countries like Jordan and Lebanon are paying a heavy price for having to host numbers equivalent to a high proportion of their populations.

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Read more from Raghida Dergham:

Trump's tough talk on Iran could be hot air

US president's two nuclear deals involve a carrot-and-stick approach

Russia is more closely aligned with the Gulf and US than Tehran or Damascus

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Meanwhile the Assad regime has decided not to allow the return of “poor and unskilled” Syrians, especially those who oppose the regime – according to a Syrian source who visited Damascus recently. Rather, the Assad regime welcomes the return of wealthy, skilled Syrians alone.

In simple terms, what is happening in Syria’s south is not the result of some natural disaster, but a deliberate policy agreed among Russia, the US, Israel, and the Syrian regime. It’s time therefore for some UNHCR officials to rein in their hypocrisy and voluntary complacency.

The name of the game in eastern Deraa is the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, the opening of which has become an imperative for several parties. And to the west of that region, which is adjacent to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, an accord is emerging among Russia, Israel, the US and Jordan to keep Iranian forces and their allies 60 kilometres or more from the border.

According to international sources, Russia will not stop military operations in Deraa. The Nasib border crossing will be opened in some way, they say, after the offensive in eastern Deraa is concluded. And according to press reports, Russia has promised Jordan to rein in Iranian-backed militias and prevent them from threatening the kingdom’s borders.

The question now is who will secure the border and the crossing.

According to UN sources, Russia has offered to protect the crossing by deploying Russian military police infused with some regime elements in a way that would allow the Syrian government to project an image of sovereignty, but without fully deploying there.

In southwestern Syria, the picture is more complicated and has to do with the guarantees Russia and the regime shall provide to Israel at a later stage.

The Helsinki summit will not delve into such details, but will probably tackle the broader issue involving Israel, Iran and the Syrian regime. According to sources and reports, Mr Al Assad will figure highly at the meeting.

Firstly, his survival in power is being touted by Mr Putin as a necessary step to pull the regime away from Iran. Secondly, Mr Netanyahu has reached a reconciliation with Mr Al Assad. Thirdly, in practical terms, the Nasib crossing issue means keeping Iran away from the border with Israel. And fourthly, the Nasib crossing is a veiled way to talk about the elephant in the room, namely the nature of Russia’s intentions and stances regarding the Iranian question.

Iran’s leaders have anticipated this by delivering their threat to the Strait of Hormuz, in response to the US bid to shut down their oil exports.

But opinions are divided about using oil as a weapon. Some believe Mr Trump’s demands for countries to stop purchasing Iranian oil as of November 4, or face sanctions to be tantamount of a declaration of an economic war on Iran.

Others believe Iran’s insistence on military intervention and meddling in the Arab countries was itself a declaration of war that now justifies such punitive measures.

What to do with Iran? That will be a question Mr Trump feels he knows the answer to, while Mr Putin favour prudence over high-impact action.

One other issue at the summit could be the elusive "deal of the century" on Israel-Palestine. Some leaks suggest it will be based on the two-state solution, however with the Palestinian state comprised of Gaza and parts of the West Bank and with its capital in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, instead of east Jerusalem.

In truth, the Abu Dis offer was first mentioned when details of the Oslo Accords first emerged, a deal of which the current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was a key facilitator.