US President Donald Trump may not think it worthwhile to consult Dennis Ross on Russia in the Middle East but the veteran US diplomat’s reading of the situation as it pertains today is spot on.
The United States has not wanted to be part of a solution in Syria and it is not, Ross recently said. True.
Russia runs the show in Syria and its unwillingness to consider such matters as war crimes, militarily depopulating whole areas, blocking aid and so on have horrific humanitarian consequences. True, again.
In the circumstances, what might Trump realistically say to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, when they meet in Helsinki on July 16?
With a diplomat’s cunning, Ross, formerly President Bill Clinton’s Middle East coordinator, has suggested making “a virtue of necessity.” That is to say for Trump to repeat to Putin his earlier claims on Syria, slowly and deliberately. In so doing, the US president could pretend he had previously spoken with good sense, great judgment and some grounding in the facts.
In March, Trump told a campaign-style rally in Ohio: “We’re knocking the hell out of [the Islamic State] ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. We are going to get back to our country where we belong, where we want to be.”
That bullish assurance, apropos nothing discernibly different or game-changing on the ground in Syria, came just hours after the Pentagon highlighted the need for US troops to remain in the country for the immediate future.
It didn’t add up then, still less now. However, if Trump were listening to Ross, he could do the following in Helsinki:
• Reiterate that the United States’ primary interest in Syria was to destroy ISIS, which is on the run.
• Insist that Iran limit its role in Syria or face a war with Israel, one in which the United States will strongly back Israel.
• Suggest the Russians develop a set of red lines between the Israelis and Iranians in Syria and possibly serve as a back channel between the United States and Iran.
This makes sense in terms of realpolitik but neither sense nor realpolitik is a guarantee events can or will take their desired course.
By all accounts, Trump stands ready and eager to give up Syria to Putin in the same way Mikhail Gorbachev left Iraq to President George H.W. Bush in 1990. But hasn’t the United States already pretty much ceded authority to Russia in Syria? Trump in June again raised the idea of pulling the United States out of Syria, this time in a private conversation at the White House with Jordanian King Abdullah II.
The eagerness to make for the exits is too transparent to count for anything other than the Trump administration’s usual order of business. In 18 months, it appears to have fixed on three clear goals in the Middle East: crush ISIS, push back Iran in rude, crude and strategically limited fashion and reduce America’s involvement to negotiations in gilded rooms with princes and potentates for the “deal of the century.”
How might that three-point agenda play with Putin in Helsinki? It’s worth remembering that in September 2015, the very month Putin’s Russia entered the Syrian war in its first intervention in the Middle East in decades, the Russian president delivered an unambiguous message to the UN General Assembly. Russia, Putin said, is indispensable to solving global problems, whether the West likes it or not.
In Ohio in March, Trump appeared to agree with the analysis. “Let the other people take care of it (Syria) now,” he said. Going by Trump’s repeated comments on the urgent need to leave Syria, the Russians are those “other people.”
What of the unwelcome other people in Syria? What of Iran and any attempt by the Trump administration to push Russia to serve as guarantor of Iranian good behaviour?
Putin is unlikely to be any more specific than the 391-word vague aspiration to denuclearise elicited by Trump’s summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
In Russia’s case, this won’t just be unwillingness but inability. For all that it is newly dominant in Syria, Russia cannot simply force Iran out. Pro-Iran militants are active in many parts of Syria, not least Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Hezbollah-controlled areas near the Lebanese border. Quite apart from that, Russia’s relationship with Iran is multilayered and mutually beneficial in parts of the world that American influence cannot reach.
Russia, as someone said, is a weak country that’s strongly led and the United States is a strong country that’s weakly led.
The tragedy is that Syria is caught in the middle.