THOSE WHO worry that President Trump will make unwarranted concessions to Vladimir Putin at their summit meeting Monday have plenty to fret about, including Mr. Trump’s hints that he might recognize Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea or scale back NATO deployments in the Baltic states. But the most probable area of appeasement is Syria — which Russia aspires to dominate, at the expense of U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East, and which Mr. Trump seems inclined to give away.
If he were a normal president, Mr. Trump would surely be furious at Mr. Putin, who just ruptured a deal the two of them struck on Syria when they met a year ago. The Russian ruler pledged to respect a cease-fire in the southwestern corner of the country, near Israel, where U.S.-backed rebels were based — a promise he reiterated at his last meeting with Mr. Trump in November. Instead, last month Russia backed an offensive by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the area, ignoring State Department warnings of “serious repercussions.” By the end of this week, Syrian forces had forced the surrender of most of the rebels, using the usual barbarous tactics — such as bombings of hospitals.
Mr. Trump’s reaction? He insisted on going forward with the summit, asked for one-on-one time with Mr. Putin and speculated at a news conference Thursday that they soon might become personal friends. Apparently, Mr. Putin, unlike leaders of U.S. allies, need not worry that this president will turn on him for disregarding commitments.
The danger now is that Mr. Trump will accept more empty promises from the Kremlin chief in exchange for abandoning the remaining U.S. positions in Syria, including control, with a Kurdish-Arab alliance, of an oil-rich swath of territory east of the Euphrates River. Won by driving out the Islamic State forces that previously controlled it, the area provides the United States with important potential leverage in determining the final outcome of Syria’s civil war. Notwithstanding Mr. Assad’s string of victories with Russian and Iranian backing, the conflict is far from resolved, precisely because the continuance of Mr. Assad in power only engenders more resistance, including from al-Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups.
Against the advice of his national security team, Mr. Trump has been inclined to pull U.S. forces out of eastern Syria. Meanwhile, he is being urged by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to support his efforts to enlist Mr. Putin’s help in removing Iranian-backed forces from Syria — or at least from areas near the Israeli border. As The Post’s David Ignatius recently reported, a potential deal could see Mr. Trump drop long-standing U.S. demands for a political transition in Syria and facilitate a handover of eastern territories to the Assad government in exchange for a Russian promise to curb the Iranians.
That would be a foolish bargain. While Mr. Putin might make such a promise — as he did a year ago — there is little chance it would be fulfilled. Even if it had the will, Moscow lacks the capacity to eject Iran from Syria. By ceding the U.S. position in the country and accepting the Assad regime, Mr. Trump would simply ensure that Syria remained a breeding ground for terrorism. Rather than seeking Mr. Putin’s friendship, Mr. Trump ought to avoid falling into his traps.