We may never know what was really discussed in the one-on-one meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit. Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear, and for many good reasons, that Syria was a key topic at the meeting. In fact, among all the issues that overshadow the relationship between Washington and Moscow (i.e. Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, the conflict in Ukraine, NATO expansion, etc.), Syria is perhaps the easiest to come to terms with.
Following the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, and except for the desire to contain Iran, the United States does not have many real interests in Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it has resisted pressure and temptation to intervene. It was only after the fall of Mosul, the declaration of the Caliphate, and the expansion of ISIL that the US decided to step in. Even then, US war efforts remained strictly limited to the fight against ISIL and Washington was careful not to slip into the Syrian civil war.
President Trump has repeatedly stated that he does not want to keep a military presence in Syria after the defeat of ISIL. Yet, he also stated that he would like to see Iran’s military presence in Syria reduced and its regional influence curtailed. The only way to reconcile these two objectives, withdrawing from Syria and containing Iran, is through cooperation with Russia.
A possible trade between the two great powers seems therefore possible, wherein the US and its regional allies (Israel and the Arab Gulf States) would cease attempting to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (and thereby accepting Russia’s domination in Syria) in exchange for forcing Iran out. Ideally, the Syria-for-Iran deal should make everyone happy, except Iran of course. Russia, according to several media reports, is willing to cooperate in Syria; but only as a first step towards addressing more fundamental differences with Washington. Indeed, Russia’s intervention in Syria has much broader objectives than merely keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.
After more than two decades of withdrawing from the world stage and turning its back on the Middle East, Russia took almost everyone off guard with its September 2015 military intervention in Syria. Indeed, President Putin had pursued aggressive foreign policies elsewhere (Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014). Yet, these ventures were seen as very much defensive. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO was expanding eastward with little regard for Russia’s security interests. For Putin, the possibility that Georgia and Ukraine would become members in a new wave of NATO expansion was very real; and he, therefore, had to act swiftly.
Syria was in a different category. It was Russia’s first post-Cold War power projection outside the territories of the former Soviet Union. Taking advantage of the US’ war fatigue, the Syrian crisis presented Putin with the opportunity to overcome the “trauma” of the collapse of the Soviet Union and reestablish Russia as a world power.
Russia has succeeded in preserving the regime of Bashar al-Assad and preventing a victory by the US-backed opposition, but the motives behind Russia’s military intervention in Syria go beyond the internal dynamics of the Syrian conflict. It was first and foremost about Russia’s international standing and geopolitical interests. Russia has, in fact, used Syria as a launching pad to reassert itself on the international arena and attempt to change the unipolar nature of the post-Cold War international system. Iran was an important tool towards achieving that end.
From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Russia lent political and diplomatic support to the Assad regime. Russia interpreted the Arab Spring revolutions as a western conspiracy aimed at destabilising the region. Off course, no Russian embracing this view could say why the US would want, for example, to undermine reliable allies, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Regardless, that was the view of the Russian ruling elite and became more defendable when the Arab Spring reached the shores of the anti-western regimes of Libya and Syria.
Despite that, for Mr Putin, military intervention was not on the table until the summer of 2015 when Bashar al-Assad and his Iran-backed forces seemed to have been defeated. With Afghanistan still very much alive in Russian memory, Putin decided to provide air cover, but no boots on the ground, to tilt the balance in favour of Assad.
In July 2015, Tehran sent General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Brigade, to Moscow to discuss the details of the Russian intervention in Syria. Before that, Iran was hopeful that the nuclear deal, signed earlier that month, and improved relations with the Obama administration would help ease the pressure on al-Assad. That proved wrong. Turkey and Saudi Arabia increased their support for the Syrian opposition as US restrictions were eased after the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. Russia agreed to the Iranian request and the two countries formed an effective couple in the Syrian war. Iran provided manpower on the ground and Russia provided firepower from the air. The concerted Russia-Iran efforts changed the dynamics of the Syrian conflict militarily and politically.
So far, Russia views Iran as an important partner in its Syria venture, without which the whole idea of military intervention would not have been contemplated. Iran helped Russia achieve common objectives, including defeating the Western-backed rebellion in Syria, preventing Turkey and the Arab Gulf states from winning the war in Syria, and taking revenge for what Putin believes a master deception plan by the west to intervene in Libya and remove a Russian ally.
Having accomplished all that with the help of Iran, the interests of the two allies started to diverge. Russia wants to use its Syrian gains as a bargaining chip with the US to get to the most fundamental issues: Ukraine and the economic sanctions. Iran wants to enhance its military presence in Syria as a deterrence to prevent a possible US or Israeli attack against it.
As the US and Israel show more determination to force Iran out of Syria, Putin’s role becomes more crucial. If he chose to cooperate, Iran’s position would become untenable. If he decides to hold on to his alliance with Iran, Washington and Tel Aviv’s efforts to roll Iran’s influence back are more likely to fail. Clearly, Putin is holding the key to this issue. Right now, he does not seem interested in an Iran-for-Syria deal. He seems willing to fall in line with the US and Israel’s agenda only if the formula is transformed into an Iran for Ukraine deal. Until he can get there, Iran will stay in Syria even if a few kilometres away from the borders with Israel.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.