Putin and Trump have agreed to pressure Iran for the sake of Israel's "security." Because of both countries' competing interests in Syria, analysts say this won't be easy.

An artist in Damascus puts the finishing touches on a painting of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad, right, and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah Sunday, July 16, 2006.
An artist in Damascus puts the finishing touches on a painting of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad, right, and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah Sunday, July 16, 2006. (AP)

“Creating safety for Israel is something both Putin and I would like to see very much,” Trump said on July 16, after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. 

For Israel, ensuring its security would mean agreeing with Russia to remove its long-time ally in Syria, Iran, from the country in exchange for maintaining Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s rule. 

That’s mission impossible, according to Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst and research fellow.

“There are decision-makers in the US and Israel that still profess to believe they can outsource to Moscow the task of restraining Iran: whether this is genuinely felt or a way of avoiding hard choices, it cannot succeed,” Orton told TRT World

“The Russians simply cannot limit Iran's influence in Syria and have shown no inclination to try,” Orton says. 

Russia has been actively supporting the Assad regime against the opposition in the country since 2015. Back then, the Syrian regime had begun reclaiming the areas that were lost to the opposition since the beginning of the war in 2011, with additional support by Iran-backed militias on the ground. 

The US’ Syria policies, on the other hand, supported those on the opposing side of the conflict, including not only rebels, but also the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the YPG, in the fight against Daesh. 

Russia, the US and Turkey took on mediation roles, especially after the defeat of Daesh, representing the main parties involved in the Syrian war: the Syrian opposition, the Syrian regime, Iran and Israel.

The US and Russian decision to protect Israel’s “security” in Syria came amid a regime offensive on Daraa and Quneitra, featuring Iranian-controlled groups, mainly Hezbollah, who are receiving Russian air support. Concerned with archrival Iran’s approach towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in Syria, Tel Aviv ramped up its air strikes on Iran-backed militias. 

“Israel demands that Russia pulls Iranians back, but Russia simply is not capable of this – unless Tel Aviv were to commit a significant amount of additional ground forces and military police to try and physically 'restrain' them,” an independent security analyst focused on Syria and Russia, Neil Hauer, tells TRT World.  

“If the regime and Iran want to do something, Russia can't stop them and it hasn't stopped them ... I think the confrontation will escalate because Russia is simply incapable of restraining its allies in Syria, and the US is uninterested.”

Orton says there was never any doubt that this would happen once the US decided not to defend the southern "de-escalation zone" and the Israelis decided not to act alone to repel this offensive.

Iran, Russia and Turkey previously agreed on de-escalation zones in a bid to reduce violence in mainly opposition-held areas during the Astana meeting in 2017. 

However, the agreement failed to be fully implemented as supported by Russia, and the Syrian regime continued its air strikes on those areas. 

“The path that Trump has taken regarding Syria so far, essentially entails handing over Russia, Iran and the regime the initiative to do whatever they want in the country,” Hauer comments

For Luke Coffey, Director of the Heritage Foundation's Foreign Policy Centre, “Israel is taking a very pragmatic view of the situation,” by teaming up with the US and Russia.

But he tells TRT World that it's doubtful that “Netanyahu's co-operation with Putin on this issue is necessarily something in the US interests,” because Russia doesn't share same objectives with the US in Syria. 

'Stuck with Obama’s policies'

“Trump won’t repeat Obama’s mistakes,” US Senator Lindsey Graham had said in a statement two days before US President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. 

Those mistakes according to Graham, would be withdrawing American troops from Syria, trusting Russia’s Putin, Syria’s Bashar al Assad and Iran. 

Under the presidency of Barack Obama, the US first supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella organisation for opposition groups, against Assad's regime. But after the emergence of Daesh in Syria in 2014, US support shifted to the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, YPG, which is listed as a terror organisation by Turkey, the US and the European Union. In 2015, the US founded the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight against Daesh. The current President Trump promised following an alternative policy in Syria. However, there have been no drastic changes in his policy since then.

Even though US policies in Syria varied during the seven-year war, they were never openly on the same side with Russia. 

Graham’s statement also said Trump would keep on supporting YPG and local Arab forces who have been successful in nearly defeating Daesh. 

Coffey points out that Trump’s meeting with Putin was a “missed opportunity” for the US to hold the Russian president accountable on the international stage. He says the issues MH-17 being shot down, a British citizen’s killing as a result of a Russian nerve agent, the 10th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia have been treated during the meeting “like they never happened.”

For Hauer, Trump’s Helsinki visit was a “big political victory for Russia.”

“It [the meeting] shows that Moscow has scored a win for its narrative that the Russian interpretation of events in Ukraine and Syria are correct and the Russian line is winning support, even with the president of United States,” he says. 

“For Putin, the US strategy mostly has been acceptable in terms that Washington under Trump has sort of backed off Syria and it has so far let the Assad regime reconquer rebel-held areas uninterrupted. I think this [US] policy will continue.”

According to the Airwars, more than 1,800 civilians were killed in the defeat of Daesh in Raqqa, in “indiscriminate attacks.” 

Areas on the eastern part of the Euphrates river – where the US supported the SDF in its fight against Daesh in northern Syria – were handed over the PYD, and its armed wing, the YPG. 

In September 2017, the chief commander of the SDF, Mazlum Kobane said in an interview to Al Monitor that the SDF was ready to engage with Damascus. 

“The US seems to be stuck with the YPG,” Coffey says. “Obama started arming and training YPG and President Trump doubled down on the strategy, and it doesn't seem like it's going anywhere fast.” 

“I suspect that the US will continue to support the YPG, but I think in the long-term, this is going to come back to bite the US."

Before the Helsinki meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Trump, stressing the importance of the YPG being cleared from Manbij, as per the agreement reached between Ankara and Washington in June.

After YPG’s withdrawal, Turkish and US forces would maintain security and stability around the town, according to the pact.

Heuer says, the US also has to move along at some point over the next couple of months in Manbij– the city will probably be evacuated of the YPG and the US forces.

But, he says the main issue discussed in the Trump-Putin meeting should be Idlib.

“If there was an offensive into Idlib it will be a much bigger problem for the US as in it may get pulled into doing something. Trump can very easily be influenced by his generals or possibly by the Turkish pressure because Turkey will be very opposed to any sort of full-scale offensive to reclaim all of Idlib, which has about three million people living in it--Ankara doesn't want all those people coming across the border,” he says. 

“But ultimately, I think there's going to be a big, big confrontation or big disagreement coming up quite soon here when Idlib comes to the table.”

Source: TRT World