Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump finally held their first official meeting in Helsinki on July 16. The Syria issue was one of the important topics.
During the past weeks, Putin has demonstrated the importance of his role in the Middle East through receiving both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign affairs advisor of Iranian supreme leader. The major concern of both Iran and Israel is how to handle the military situation in southern Syria.
The region has become a stronghold for Syrian rebels since 2011, when the civil war erupted. In the past weeks, with the assistance of Russia and Iran, Syrian government forces have conducted a military campaign aimed at seizing control of the Deraa district in the region, with its eyes toward the Syrian Golan Heights (the Quneitra district) separating Syria and Israel.
It is reported that some Iranian militants wearing the uniforms of Syrian government forces also participated in the battles in southern Syria. The deployment of Iranian forces there, especially in the areas near Israel’s northern border, makes both Israel and Jordan nervous.
On the one hand, Israel perceives Iran to be the natural enemy, believing that Iran has always harbored the intention of “eliminating Israel” and has supported extremist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, that threaten Israel’s national security.
On the other hand, Jordan has been a major supporter of Syrian rebels, especially the rebels in southern Syria. Given the approaching of Syria government forces toward the area, Jordan needs to maintain the presence of Syrian rebels there to prevent government forces and Iranian militants from reaching the Syria-Jordan border.
In the joint press conference held by Putin and Trump in Helsinki, Trump promised that US and Russia will work together to ensure Israeli security. According to Trump, Putin and himself “both spoke with Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu)… Russia and the United States will work jointly.”
Putin also stressed the importance for Russia to cooperate with US over the Syria issue, and believed that all the conditions are in place for effective cooperation on Syria. It seems that the US and Russia might have reached a private agreement to coordinate with each other.
The key to Syria’s political future is how to settle Iran’s concerns and interests about the country. It should be noted that the Russian-Iranian relations are by nature characterized by a dynamic of “cooperation and suspicion.”
On the one hand, Russia and Iran are both supporters for Syria government, and have both actively organized and attended the Syria Peace Process in Astana.
On the other hand, Russia is trying to gain leverage with states in the region, especially Israel, Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, given that Iran has no intention of giving up its influence and the consolidation of its presence in Syria and is still interested in regaining full control over Syria.
Russia needs to reach a balancing point between Iran’s ambition in Syria and regional states, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan’s concerns over the expansion of Iran in Syria.
Although no details about how Putin and Trump might cooperate on Syria were leaked, there are two possible choices for Russia.
First, Iran might be persuaded by Moscow to withdraw from Syria, in exchange for Russia’s promise of investing nearly 50 billion US dollars in Iran with Trump’s upcoming sanctions in August and November.
Second, Iran might stay in Syria, while Russia emphasizes the legitimacy and importance of an Iranian presence in Syria to present a fait accompli to Trump at a high price.
Therefore, the most probable outcome over the Syria issue at the Trump-Putin summit of Helsinki might be Russia’s promise to “curb” Iranians’ expansion in Syria, in exchange for Washington’s “immunity” to Russia’s investment in Iran after Trump’s sanctions come into effect after November.
In 1975, Helsinki hosted the “Final Act” of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a historic step to reducing the Cold War tensions in Europe. Now Helsinki might be marked as an important place for pacifying the Syrian civil war and the starting point for peace and stability inside Syria.
Author：Wang Jin is a fellow at the Charhar Institute and Syria Research Center from Northwest University in China.