The main subject of the meetings was Syria, also a top item on Trump’s agenda.
“Of course I’m going to bring that up” with Putin, Trump said Friday during a stop in Britain. “I’m not going in with high expectations,” he said, “but we may come out with some surprising things.”
As Trump and Putin prepare to meet in Helsinki, both allies and adversaries in the Middle East are turning to Putin for reassurance and understanding of how such surprises might affect them. For Iran, which has partnered with Russia to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power and decimate his U.S.-backed opposition, keeping Moscow close is a no-brainer.
But for many of America’s allies in the region, who say they have little understanding of Trump’s long-term strategy in Syria, there is growing anxiety about what he is prepared to offer Putin in exchange for help in attaining what he says is his primary goal of expelling Iran.
Among the possibilities raised by senior officials in a number of regional governments, some of which also concern administration officials, are that Trump will agree to a partial or complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria — as both Syria and Russia have demanded — or even to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and drop U.S. sanctions.
Trump signed Wednesday’s NATO communique declaring that it would never accept Russia’s “illegal and illegitimate” takeover of Crimea. If he breaks ranks, it would be his most direct slap yet at the alliance, at a moment when NATO unity already hangs in the balance.
Removing the 2,200-strong U.S. military contingent in Syria, however, is seen as a more realistic possibility. Trump’s suggestion earlier this year that the United States would withdraw troops from Syria “very soon,” widely interpreted to mean six months, continues to create confusion within the U.S. military as well as among Washington’s regional partners.
U.S. military officials see the changing dynamics in southwest Syria, as Assad strengthens his control over remaining rebel-held areas, as disconnected from their ongoing campaign against the Islamic State. But they also see the situation as a signal of Syria’s new reality — one in which Assad will remain in power, aided by Russia and Iran. Although the officials said Friday that they have seen no plans to begin to remove troops, they said they are bracing for such a decision.
Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others, according to senior Middle Eastern officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity of name and country to avoid publicly questioning Trump, agree that such a step would be disastrous, eliminating whatever leverage the United States still has to push for an acceptable outcome in Syria.
In the lead-up to the Trump-
Putin summit, Russia has continued to defend Iran’s presence in Syria and demand complete U.S. withdrawal, charging that its military deployments are a sham.
“Let me remind you that they talked about defeating ISIL at first, [and] declared the prevention of ISIL’s rebirth as their goal later,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told an Italian newspaper on Thursday, using an acronym for the Islamic State. Now, he said, the Americans “say [their] presence in Syria should continue to deter the hypothetical ‘Iranian influence.’ ”
“If our American colleagues are pursuing any course of action in Syria, it is too contradictory to be called a strategy,” Shoigu said.
U.S. regional allies share the objective of preventing Iran from establishing an unhindered corridor through Syria from Tehran to Beirut. But they worry that Trump may be too willing to accept guarantees that Putin has neither the desire nor ability to deliver.
Security officials in several countries in the region are skeptical that the Russians could force an Iranian withdrawal, even if they wanted to. “Assad owes everything to Iran, and he’s playing a game between the Russians and Iranians,” said one official in the region.
At the same time, another senior official from the region said, “the Russians play good chess. Putin wouldn’t make a move without thinking 10 moves ahead.”
Confused by apparently conflicting administration messages, and doubtful that the United States has a plan for achieving its own long-term goals in Syria, regional allies have reached out to Russia. “For years, there has been a growing disappointment with the U.S. posture in the region,” a third official said. “Countries are beginning to make their own calculations.”
Assad’s recent offensive in southwestern Syria, bordered by Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is a case in point. The area had been largely peaceful since last summer, when Putin and Trump endorsed a cease-fire deal that froze Russian-backed Syrian government forces and U.S.-backed opposition fighters in place along a demarcation line patrolled by Russian police.
Late last month, however, Assad’s forces, aided by Russian airstrikes and Iranian-directed militias, began heading south from Damascus for an announced takeover of the area. As the offensive got underway, the administration publicly denounced Russia for violating the cease-fire agreement, even as it privately told regional allies that it would not oppose the move and messaged opposition forces that they would get no assistance and were better off giving up.
The administration apparently asked Russia for nothing in return. As refugees from ground attacks and Russian bombing fled to nearby borders, and humanitarian organizations warned of catastrophe, Israel and Jordan turned to Moscow to ensure that their interests would be protected.
For Jordan, whose foreign minister traveled there shortly after hearing the news from Washington, Russia came through. Early this week at the Naseeb border crossing into Jordan, where days earlier tens of thousands of refugees were crowded in dire conditions against the closed border, only several hundred remained under the watch of Syrian soldiers who had arrived with a small Russian-flagged convoy.
While the Russians kept a discreet presence at the border, their impact has been palpable, and Jordan, despite its not-so-secret support for the rebel groups in the past, welcomed the outcome. “Now, I believe that even within a week, most of the [rebel] groups will agree on terms, and some will be integrated back into their communities,” Brig. Gen. Khaled Massaid, the head of Jordan’s northern military district, said in an interview at his command center a few dozen yards from the crossing.
As Syria’s civil conflict has dragged on for years, Jordan’s economy has come under increasing strain, including the costs of coping with an estimated 1.3 million refugees. “The Naseeb border has reopened, and the regime is in charge again,” Massaid said. “It is better for Jordan if Syria is able to control its own border.”
While Israel, like the United States, continues to demand Iran’s complete withdrawal from Syria, its immediate concern is keeping the Iranians at least 50 miles or more away from its border. Netanyahu left Moscow last week — his third visit in recent months — with what the Israeli media reported was a deal with Russia, both to keep Iran and its militias away from the border area and to continue turning a blind eye to Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria — the latest of which occurred last week.
“It’s very clear that Russia and Israel are cooperating on Syria. The Saudis and Russia are cooperating,” said a senior international diplomat closely involved in the conflict, who spoke on the condition of anonymity and described those contacts as a “good thing” to the extent that they “helped cool things down.”
“The Americans,” the diplomat said, now consider “Syria . . . a Russian thing.”
But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a strong proponent of keeping U.S. troops in Syria and a skeptic of Russia, tweeted a warning to Netanyahu. “To our friends in Israel,” he wrote, “be very careful making agreements with Russia re Syria that affect U.S. interests. I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria.”
Warrick reported from the Naseeb border crossing in Jordan. Missy Ryan in Washington contributed
to this report.