Trump will seek to contain Iran, while Putin will demand concessions on Syria. Will it work?, asks Raghida Dergham
The outcome of the Helsinki summit will prove if critics of Trump and Putin are right or wrong
The features of the putative accord between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are the subject of much speculation and analysis ahead of their summit on Monday. Some predict that there will be a deal which would involve compelling Iran to rein in its incursions in the region and return to its borders intact, based on a US-Russian agreement, where the US would get a change of Iranian behaviour blessed by Russia for oil-related reasons. Others believe the patient and coolheaded Mr Putin would "devour" the arbitrary, short-tempered Mr Trump, with the US president handing over Syria’s reins after securing Israel’s interests, including rubber-stamping the de facto annexation of the occupied Golan Heights and preventing Iran from achieving its objectives up to forcing it to gradually withdraw from Syria – if the Russians deliver their end of the bargain.
The Trump administration itself is divided on these issues. One camp has fundamental suspicions about Russian intentions and fears the shrewdness of its strongman. The other camp sees wisdom in letting Mr Putin lead the Syrian caravan and shoulder the burden and face the pitfalls alone. One common trait between the two men is that they tolerate the other’s presence in Syria and feel they need each other to execute a face-saving exit from that conflict after securing their interests and guaranteeing Israel’s interests in the Golan.
Both also seem to agree on the need to contain Iran’s regional expansion, but differ on the method of achieving this. Mr Putin will probably try to persuade Mr Trump that hastiness regarding the expulsion of Iran from Syria – or pressuring Russia immediately to sever its alliance with Iran – is not the right policy. Mr Putin is likely to explain the nuances of strategy and tactic, and ask Mr Trump to understand Russia’s need for its tactical alliance with Iran until its strategic position is consolidated. Yet this is exactly what worries the camp that distrusts Mr Putin, because it fears he could end up enlisting the fickle US president in Russia’s grand strategy.
But Mr Trump’s crude and undiplomatic methods have taken the world by surprise, not least because it seems to be achieving results, whether with North Korea or with the European allies in Nato. The transatlantic partners seem to have kowtowed to his demands for increased defence spending and partially agreed to Mr Trump’s demands with regard to Iran, after European firms diverged from their governments and fell behind his campaign. In other words, it would be premature to declare Mr Putin the winner of the Helsinki match, even if it ends up giving him Syria’s reins with the US president repeated his intention to withdraw from the troubled nation.
The US president had sparred with his allies, especially the German chancellor Angela Merkel then with the British prime minister Theresa May, ahead of the summit. Mr Trump showed Ms Merkel – a strong advocate of the Iran nuclear deal – no quarter, and accused her of being "captive" to Russia. The backdrop was the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that would bring Russian gas to Germany. Ms Merkel defends it as a purely economic venture while Mr Trump considers it a political project that would bring billions to Russia’s coffers.
In the UK, Mr Trump left Mrs May reeling, criticising her Brexit plan and praising Boris Johnson, the outgoing foreign secretary who resigned in protest at the plan, as a potentially “great prime minister”. Mr Trump has since walked back from his comments in his own odd way, saying: “[Mrs May] is a very smart, very tough, very capable person, and I would much rather have her as my friend than my enemy.”
Of Mr Putin, he had earlier said: “He’s not my enemy…he’s a competitor,” adding: “Hopefully, someday, maybe, he’ll be a friend.”
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The equation of friend-or-enemy, as Mr Trump sees it, seems to be about money rather than strategy. With Mr Putin, the US president will find a man who understands his language, because the Russian leader himself espouses the same, especially with regard to oil and gas, behind the veneer of bombastic threats.
Interestingly, oil came up prominently this week in Moscow, days before the Helskinki summit, in talks between Mr Putin and Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian supreme leader’s senior adviser for international affairs.
Mr Velayati told Iranian state TV: “Our leader (Khamenei) values improving ties with Russia as a strategic partner”, adding that Iran and Russia will continue to cooperate in Syria. Interestingly, Mr Velayati said that Mr Putin in the meeting “reiterated that Russia rejects America’s decision to impose sanctions on Iran…[and] said Russia will stand by Iran and will defend Tehran’s rights”. Mr Putin, according to Mr Velayati, also said that Russia “is prepared to continue its oil investment in Iran at the level of $50 billion”.
This comes as Mr Trump declared an oil war on Iran, threatening sanctions against firms that deal with Tehran, forcing energy companies to draft plans to exit the Iranian market. But Mr Velayati said Russia’s putative investment was “an important amount that can compensate for those companies that have left Iran”. In his remarks, quoted by Reuters, he revealed that a Russian major oil companies has signed a $4 billion deal with Iran while “two…major Russian oil companies, Rosneft and Gazprom, have started talks with Iran’s Oil Ministry to sign contracts worth up to $10 billion”.
On Syria, Mr Velayati said Mr Putin “underlined the importance of political and defense cooperations between Iran and Russia in Syria”, after recalling that the two countries had played a crucial role in turning the tide of war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Another visitor to Moscow this week, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed to praise Mr Assad, saying: “We haven't had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights”. Mr Netanyahu suggested Israel did not object to Mr Assad regaining control of Syria.
But the Israeli leader stressed the importance of Iranian forces fully withdrawing from Syria, yet his tone was not belligerent. Rather, he seemed to be willing to bargain on a gradual basis, with his current top priority being securing a Golan empty of Iranian elements and proxies, and the full annexation of the Golan Heights, in return for agreeing to the survival of the Assad regime.
One informed intelligence source said the joint decision of the US and Russia is for “Iran to return to Iran”, with the current stage set to pave the way for gradually achieving that goal. The source cited the “Russian pressure on Iran and its role in Syria”, because, ultimately, as the source said, the Russians will not allow another party to dictate things in Syria.
According to the source, another factor is oil and gas, because Russia “would never accept a pipeline that would carry Iranian oil to the Mediterranean and compete with it in Europe,” and would therefore not allow Iranian expansion through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean.
One aspect of the problem lies in the leaks coming out of Washington claiming that US policy is incoherent. For this reason, we hear one day that Mr Trump intends to withdraw from Syria, only to hear the next day that he has changed his mind. We hear about radical differences in his administration, with reports suggesting his new national security advisor John Bolton has started to experience his boss’s penchant for monopolising decision-making, in a way that undermines Mr Bolton’s platform on Iran and Russia, namely: fully and decisively block Iran’s schemes in Syria by dictating this to Mr Putin, in return for a new chapter in the US-Russian relations.
If it is true that Mr Trump is bringing Mr Putin the offer of US withdrawal from Syria in return for gradual Iranian withdrawal, this could potentially mean the US president has decided on a truce with Iran, rather than full subjugation. In other words, Mr Putin’s logic would have won over Mr Trump, at the expense of Mr Bolton and likeminded hawks.
The test lies in the “gaps that foes can exploit during execution”, according to one strategic source. And Helsinki will test the performances of both Mr Trump and Mr Putin and their ability to silence those who accuse them of collusion, and prove wrong those who fear Mr Putin’s shrewdness and Mr Trump’s naivety, as profoundly naive themselves.