Trump, Putin Agree to Try to Solve Syria Crisis, Preserve Israel’s Security

By Yaroslav Trofimov

Wall Street Journal

July 16, 2018


HELSINKI—President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to work together on solving the Syrian crisis—with both focusing on the need to guarantee Israel’s security.

In recent weeks, Russian-backed forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime made major advances toward Israel and Jordan in the southwest of the country, routing the remaining pockets of the Sunni Arab opposition the U.S. once supported.

At the same time, Israel ramped up airstrikes against Iranian military targets and pro-Iranian militias across Syria, part of its drive to prevent the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence there.

For Israel, the key demand is that Syrian regime forces stay away from the demilitarized buffer zone along the 1974 cease-fire line between Syria and the Israeli-held Golan Heights—an area the United Nations supervised before the Syrian war erupted in 2011.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after talks with Mr. Putin in Moscow last week that Israel had no problem with Mr. Assad as long as his forces didn’t attempt to penetrate that demilitarized zone.

Mr. Putin on Monday endorsed that request.

“After the definitive defeat of the terrorists in the southwest of Syria, the situation on the Golan Heights must be brought into full compliance with the 1974 disengagement agreement,” Mr. Putin said. “This would return calm to the Golan, restore the cease-fire, and safely guarantee the security of the State of Israel.”

Mr. Putin remained silent about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria—attacks that Russia’s formidable air-defense systems haven’t attempted to prevent.

Mr. Trump said he and Mr. Putin shared a commitment to Israel’s security, adding, “I made clear we will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS,” referring to Islamic State. Mr. Netanyahu thanked both presidents after the Helsinki meeting.

A key issue left unaddressed for now, at least in public, was the future of U.S. troops in Syria. These forces are mostly deployed in the Kurdish-controlled areas of eastern Syria that have been liberated from Islamic State—and that contain a large share of Syria’s oil and gas resources. U.S. airstrikes repulsed an attempt by regime troops and Russian mercenaries to advance into those areas in February—an event that resulted in massive casualties among the mercenaries, embarrassing Mr. Putin.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he wants all U.S. forces gone from Syria—something that would likely lead to the demise of the Kurdish statelet there. One proposal making the rounds in Washington and backed by some Israeli officials would attempt to trade that American withdrawal for a Russian agreement to an Iranian military pullout from Syria.

“Assad should respect the 1974 separation agreements, and it is important that Putin and Trump both expect him to do it,” said retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, the former head of analysis at Israel’s military intelligence. “But Israel wants Iran not to be allowed to stay in all of Syria, not just the Golan Heights.”

It is far from certain, however, that Mr. Putin has the capacity to force Iran out of Syria even if he wanted to do so.

“The maximalist position of a full Iranian withdrawal from Syria is neither achievable for Moscow nor is it desirable for it as long as the political settlement in Syria has yet to be reached,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank hawkish on Iran, added that Mr. Trump’s apparent belief that Iran’s power in Syria could be curtailed through a deal with Mr. Putin is a “delusion.”

With little prospect of a significant Iran pullout, neither Mr. Putin nor Mr. Trump during Monday’s press conference raised the possibility of American forces leaving Syria soon. Instead, both leaders praised the exemplary coordination between the two militaries that helped avoid tragic mishaps—and pledged to intensify intelligence cooperation against Islamic State and other extremist groups.

“As far as Syria is concerned, the task of bringing peace and reconciliation to that country could become an example of successful cooperation” with the U.S., Mr. Putin said. “Cooperation between our countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives,” Mr. Trump echoed.

That isn’t what many Syria-watchers believe.

“I don’t know what the Americans can cooperate with the Russians on in Syria. I am at a loss,” said Robert Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria until the war began. “The Russian track record in Syria is known to everyone. They have repeatedly failed to live up to commitments made to American administrations.”

“It is imperative that Congress hold hearings on the extent and scope of any cooperation with Russia in Syria regarding Iran’s presence,” added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.).

In his remarks in Helsinki, Mr. Trump didn’t criticize Mr. Assad, whose victory in the war no longer seems contested by the U.S., Israel or any of the major regional powers.

“From Assad’s perspective, it is a vindication of his strategy of survival. It is a success,” said Emile Hokayem, Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “The path to regional reintegration is there for Assad, and the Americans don’t seem to be the ones that will complicate that.”