What does the Helsinki summit mean for Syria?

The Helsinki summit confirmed that Trump is taking a back seat on Syria.

Trump Putin
US President Donald Trump receives a football from Russian President Vladimir Putin as they hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki on July 16, 2018 [Reuters/Grigory Dukor]

The July 16 meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was meant to signal a thaw in relations between the two countries and address a number of issues of common interest.

For Syria observers, the summit was an important opportunity for Russia and the US to push forward a deal to end the seven-year conflict. Considering Trump’s desire to disengage militarily from Syria as quickly as possible, there was little doubt that he would come to an agreement with Putin on the future of the country. 

At their joint press conference following the summit, Syria was barely mentioned, but this does not mean that it wasn’t discussed during the one-on-one meeting. The brief statements made on Syria gave some indication on where Trump stands and what goals Putin is pursuing. 

The Russian president used the Helsinki Summit press conference as an opportunity to push forward his favourite narrative of the need for “normalisation” in Syria. He purposefully emphasised that Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon should be encouraged to return home, which according to him is also in Europe’s interest. He also proposed using Russian aircraft to deliver international humanitarian aid to those in need in Syria. Most importantly, he expressed his belief that the war is already over, to which Trump did not object.

The US president, on the other hand, hailed the military cooperation between Russia and the US in Syria saying, “Our militaries actually have gotten along probably better than our political leaders for years”. The statement was remarkable in itself since what Trump views as the highlight of the two countries’ cooperation was, in fact, a mechanism of communication developed during the Cold War.

It is also part of Putin’s strategy to circumvent the US establishment’s reluctance to re-engage Russia. The Russian president understands that keeping regular contact with US diplomats does not necessarily produce desirable outcomes for his Syria campaign. This is why he has opted for “emergency” lines which avoid traditional diplomatic channels. So, apart from the direct communication line between commanders of Russian and US troops in Syria, he also insists on holding occasional meetings with Trump; one such meeting in July 2017 produced a de-escalation agreement for southwest Syria.

In this context, it is remarkable that neither Trump, nor the top US military officer General Joseph Dunford – who was in Helsinki to meet his Russian counterpart a month earlier, criticised the Russia-led campaign to capture what remains of the southwest de-escalation zone and Deraa, the birthplace of the Syrian revolt.

In fact, during the press conference, Trump did exactly what Russia wanted him to do: He presented the takeover of Deraa in the framework of Israeli security interests. “President Putin also is helping Israel. And we both spoke with Bibi Netanyahu, and they would like to do certain things with respect to Syria, having to do with the safety of Israel”, he said. Israel’s security was factored into Russia’s strategy in the southwest, which is why Iran’s role in the offensive was somewhat diminished.

It is also quite remarkable that Trump mentioned Iran only once during the press conference in the context of not allowing it to reap the benefits of the victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This is no doubt an important achievement for Putin since by all accounts Iran was supposed to be the main subject of the talks with Trump.

For Russia, Iran’s role in Syria is not a matter of discussion with the US, but rather something to be addressed directly with Israel. The last few months have shown that Russian-Israeli cooperation, despite remaining limited, has allowed Tel Aviv to ensure that its red lines are not crossed and Moscow to maintain its gains in Syria.

It is not a coincidence that Putin mentioned the 1974 agreement on disengagement between Israel and Syria at the press conference, calling for the two sides to re-commit to this treaty. This might be the way forward to re-establishing co-existence between Damascus and Tel Aviv as well as limiting Iran’s role in the south.

The ceasefire agreement in southwest Syria struck by the US, Russia and Jordan in July 2017 and closely monitored by the militaries of the three countries is now de facto in tatters, which didn’t seem to bother Trump much in Helsinki. He didn’t react either to Putin’s statement about crushing terrorists in the southwest, which ignores the fact that the ones most affected are civilians and moderate groups, while an ISIL pocket in the Yarmouk basin remains intact.

Trump’s silence on all these issues is an encouraging sign for Putin. After Russia finishes off the de-escalation zone in the southwest and helps Assad regain full control over it, it will eye far more valuable lands in the east. It remains to be seen how cooperative Trump is going to be when Russian troops and the Syrian army come after the oil-rich areas east of the Euphrates River where the US military bombed Russian mercenaries in February. But Trump’s tacit agreement to the absorption of Deraa by Damascus serves as a reassurance that a negotiated solution is imminent.

In his statement in Helsinki, Putin also proposed merging the Astana format of talks with the group led by the US. The Astana group (Iran, Russia and Turkey) that used de-escalation zones as a means to kick-start political dialogue has now essentially served its purpose. Three out of its four deescalation zones have been dismantled and the agreement on the fourth one is regularly violated. 

More cracks are beginning to show in this alliance as Turkey seeks closer cooperation with the US in the north and Russia prioritises its relations with Israel more and more. It is hard to imagine how Iran would work directly with the US and Saudi Arabia in the context of cooperation between the US-led group and Astana, but creating a link between them might be the only way to salvage negotiations while Russia maintains its the key position.

Commenting on the meeting between the two presidents, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that “the ball is in Russia’s court” to improve relations between the two countries. Among other things, this might have been intended as a call to Russia to have a more constructive role in Syria, but in reality, Trump communicated something else to his counterpart in Helsinki.

His stance clearly indicated that Putin remains the kingmaker in the Syrian conflict and the US will not challenge that for now. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.