At Helsinki Summit, Putin Likely to Rebuff Any Pressure From Trump on Syria

The United States wants Russia to help oust Iranian troops from Syria.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

If U.S. President Donald Trump plans to press Russian President Vladimir Putin at an upcoming summit for help in ousting Iranian troops from Syria, he’ll probably have to take no for an answer.

Analysts and former officials believe that Putin has no interest in removing Iran from the complicated equation in Syria and, even if he wanted to, he probably does not have sufficient leverage to do it.

Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, said last weekend that the summit offered the possibility of a “larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria,” where a civil war has raged since 2011.

Bolton said such a deal would amount to “a significant step forward” in promoting U.S. interests in the region, which include curbing Iran’s influence.

But several former officials said the statements revealed a misreading by the Trump administration of Russia’s posture in the region.  

“I think it’s a gross overstatement to suggest that Putin can order the Iranian militias out of Syria. He doesn’t have that kind of leverage over Iran,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

Both Russia and Iran support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tens of thousands of Iran-backed fighters support Assad’s forces against rebel groups. Russia has been reluctant to commit its own troops to the fight but has conducted airstrikes on behalf of the regime since 2015.

Although Moscow and Tehran do not always see eye to eye, their cooperation has helped turn the tide in Assad’s favor and advance Russia’s ultimate goal of preventing regime change in Syria, its key foothold in the Middle East.

“I think by now it has become clear that Russia doesn’t give up on its partners that easily,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. “If that was the case, Russia would have given up on Assad and Iran a long time ago.”

Trump and Putin are scheduled to hold their first official summit on July 16 in Helsinki. No formal agenda has been announced.

In an appearance before Congress on June 27, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he would “applaud it” if the Russians could get Iran out of Syria but acknowledged that it was “an open-ended question.”

Richard Nephew, a former principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department, said that while Moscow does engage in transactional bargaining, it would take a major concession from the United States to get Putin to move against Iran.

You know, if the Trump administration goes in and says, ‘We want you to get the Iranians and Hezbollah out and we still think Assad should go. And you know we’re looking for a democratic and peaceful transition inside Syria,’ the Russians are going to laugh them out of the room,” said Nephew, who took part in past negotiations with Russia over Iran sanctions.

McFaul, the former ambassador, said Putin’s strategy might be to agree to something vague and then fail to follow through.

“[It] is a perfect play in that sense because it’s aspirational, it’s murky, it would take years to accomplish, and yet they could declare it as some tangible outcome of their summit,” he said.

Administration officials have said the two leaders would also discuss the situation in Ukraine and the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One last week, Trump refused to rule out recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “We’re going to have to see,” he said.

Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, dismissed the remark as more of Trump’s “sounding off,” but said he was worried there was no clarity within the administration about the goals of the summit.

“I can’t tell you there’s no chance” Trump would recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, said Fried, who retired last year as America’s longest-serving diplomat. “And that’s what’s so distressing. I can’t tell you that, ‘No, there’s no way.’”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack