ASPEN, Colo. – There’s broad confusion both inside and outside the Trump administration about what “agreements” President Trump made with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their private meeting in Helsinki. One thing we do know is that — post-summit — Trump now endorses a deal on Syria that Putin struck the week before with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Before the Trump-Putin private summit, Netanyahu called Trump to go through the agreement details, some of which I’ve reported before. Netanyahu finalized the terms with Putin during his visit to Moscow last week. Putin and Trump have both publicly talked about the agreement since Helsinki, albeit indirectly. But make no mistake, the agreement is real, and it’s going to reshape how the powers of the Middle East act in southern Syria in the coming months and years.
Administration sources, who admittedly have incomplete read-outs of exactly what happened inside the one-on-one Trump-Putin meeting, tell me that Trump is now fully on board with the Putin-Netanyahu deal over Syria. Trump referred to it Tuesday at the White House.
“We discussed Israel and the security of Israel, and President Putin is very much involved now with us and the discussion with Bibi Netanyahu on working something out with surrounding Syria … and specifically with regards to the security and long-term security of Israel,” Trump said.
Nobody paid much attention – probably because, in the same set of remarks, Trump was also trying to spin his remarks from his post-meeting news conference with Putin, where he failed to side with U.S. intelligence agencies regarding their assessment of Russia’s election interference.
But administration sources said, although nobody can be sure because Trump hasn’t fully briefed his own staff, the understanding is that Putin walked Trump through the terms of the Syria deal, much as Netanyahu had done with Trump before the meeting. Putin also talked about the Syria deal during his news conference with Trump, although few took note.
Putin said they had discussed “crushing terrorists” in Syria’s south and said the area “should be brought to the full compliance” with the Israel-Syria Separation of Forces Agreement of 1974. He presented the agreement as a way to protect Israeli security and mend relations between Israel and the Bashar al-Assad regime.
“This will bring peace to Golan Heights and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also to provide security of the state of Israel,” Putin said. “[Trump] paid special attention to the issue during today’s negotiations, and I would like to confirm that Russia is interested in this development, and this will act accordingly.”
There are more details of the agreement I’m now able to report based on conversations with several government and diplomatic sources. They all say this deal was based on Netanyahu’s desire to look out for Israel, given that the Assad regime and Russia are about to complete their offensive to regain control of territory on Israel’s border. This is territory rebels had held for several years, until recently with the support of the United States.
The Trump administration abandoned those groups when Russia violated the cease-fire agreement it had struck with the United States and helped Assad brutally retake the territory, slaughtering civilians from the ground and air. Approximately 140,000 innocent civilians have been displaced by the fighting and remain trapped and in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees.
Israel had remained largely neutral in the Syrian civil war but wanted Assad to go, and was quietly helping Syrians across their border with emergency medical care and humanitarian support. But when the United States made clear it will not intervene in southern Syria to stop Assad and Russia, Netanyahu cut a deal with Putin to make sure Israel’s interests were protected.
Under the deal, Israel (and now the United States, presumably) will formally endorse the Assad regime’s control over the area and work to implement the 1974 agreement, which sets the physical borders and provides for U.N. observers to be deployed in between the Syrians and Israelis. Under the new deal, Russia agrees to keep Iranian troops and proxy groups 80 kilometers, or about 50 miles, from Israel’s border (if they can), and Putin promises not to object if Israel strikes Iranian assets in southern Syria, especially if Iran deploys weapons that threaten Israel, such as strategic missiles or anti-aircraft systems.
Of course, there’s broad skepticism about Russia’s ability to force Iran to do anything in Syria. “We have assessed that it is unlikely that Russia has the will or the capability to fully implement or counter Iran decisions and influence [in Syria],” Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum.
But overall, it’s a deal that Israel can live with and that establishes a framework for Israeli relations with its powerful new neighbor – Russia. You can’t blame the Israelis for being realistic about the fact that Russia, not the United States, is the power they have to work with most in the Middle East now.
“The prime minister of Israel is going to Moscow more frequently than he is going to Washington,” said Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States. “I say that as a way of trying to tell you how different the Middle East is today.”
The deal works well for Israeli interests, but what about U.S. interests? Tragically, there’s no clear message from the Trump administration on what those are. The United States and Russia have long been conducting parallel discussions on Syria, which is how the last cease-fire deal got struck. In June, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s envoy to the global anti-Islamic State coalition, and David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for near Eastern affairs, met with their Russian counterparts in Vienna to discuss various aspects of the Syria issue. But neither those U.S. or Russian officials were present in Helsinki.
Trump has made clear that his priority is to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and damn the consequences. His national security advisers believe that would be disastrous and are trying to show progress before the president loses all patience and scraps the mission altogether. Trump has already frozen all stabilization assistance to Syria’s northeast, an area struggling to recover from years under Islamic State rule.
The result is a lack of clear strategy and a precipitous decline in U.S. leverage on the ground and at the negotiating table. For years, the Obama administration had a bad Syria policy, but at least President Barack Obama had some skin in the game and gave some protection and comfort to the innocent Syrian civilians who the United States was supposed to be looking out for.
“Any of us who were involved in Syria policy over the last years have to look ourselves in the mirror and look at failure,” said former deputy secretary of state Tony Blinken. “We failed. The failure continues. The suffering continues.”