Elephants in the Room

Putin Sees Trump as an Easy Mark on Syria

Before their Helsinki summit, the U.S. president has given his Russian counterpart little reason to take him seriously.

US President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017.      (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 11, 2017. (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump approaches his July 16 summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, there’s much speculation that Syria will be near the top of the agenda. Trump is reportedly eager for a deal in which Russia would use its influence to contain Iran’s expanding military presence in Syria, especially close to Israel’s northern border. In exchange, the United States would consent to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reconquest of most of the country, acknowledge Russia’s role as Syria’s dominant outside power, and commit to the withdrawal of several thousand U.S. troops from key terrain they currently hold in southern and eastern Syria.

Unfortunately for Trump, he enters the summit with a decidedly weakened hand — largely of his own making. The Assad regime, with full Russian and Iranian backing, has for months been engaged in a systematic campaign to reassert its control over rebel-held areas of western Syria. This includes a series of four so-called de-escalation zones that Russia negotiated last year to great fanfare. At the time, these were sold as areas where cease-fires would be enforced, humanitarian aid delivered, and the conditions set for an eventual political settlement to the conflict. Instead, Assad and his foreign patrons have methodically gone about the business of blatantly violating these agreements, attacking and dismantling the zones one by one, and starving, terrorizing, gassing and murdering their inhabitants into submission.

And what has been the U.S. response to this Russian-backed campaign of duplicity and butchery? Save for the obligatory expressions of deep concern, and a pinprick strike in April to punish Assad for a particularly egregious use of chemical weapons, the Trump administration, not unlike its predecessor, has been all but missing in action, a passive bystander to war crimes and genocide in the heart of the Middle East — a region whose stability and security were once viewed as vital to American interests.

Given that track record, it’s hard to fathom that Putin would now see U.S. recognition of Assad’s victory and Russia’s dominant role in Syria as a concession worth paying for in the valuable coin of Moscow’s alliance with Tehran, rather than what it actually is: A recognition of reality and the fact that Russia for the past three years has run circles around the United States in the struggle for primacy in the Middle East’s northern tier, repeatedly showing greater resolve, will, and staying power, not to mention strategic acumen.

In this context, it’s worth spending some time reviewing the U.S. policy debacle surrounding Assad’s recent offensive against the de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria. It hasn’t received nearly enough attention. The United States was actually a party to the negotiation that established the zone last year, along with Russia and Jordan. The agreement was trumpeted as a major deliverable after Trump’s first meeting with Putin during last year’s G-20 summit in Germany, the supposed prelude to expanded U.S.-Russian cooperation to end the civil war. The southwest zone had special significance for U.S. interests due to its immediate proximity to Israel and Jordan, and because the dominant rebel alliance there, the Southern Front, had received significant American backing.

The southwest zone remained quiet for much of the past year, conveniently freeing Assad’s over-stretched forces to concentrate their firepower on first decimating other rebel-held areas. But once those regions were back in regime hands, it quickly became apparent by the late spring of this year that the southwest zone — the American zone — was next up in Assad’s crosshairs.

To the surprise of many who had watched the United States stand by impotently in February, March, and April as Assad and Russia rained mass slaughter down on the civilian population of eastern Ghouta (another de-escalation zone near Damascus), the State Department on May 25 suddenly issued an extremely tough statement warning the Assad regime against launching any operations in the southwest. “The United States remains committed to maintaining the stability of the southwest de-escalation zone and to the ceasefire underpinning it,” the statement declared. It cautioned “the Syrian regime against any actions that risk broadening the conflict or jeopardize the ceasefire.” And in what appeared to be a transparent allusion to the possible use of military force, the statement bluntly threatened that, “As a guarantor of this de-escalation area with Russia and Jordan, the United States will take firm and appropriate measures in response to Assad regime violations.”

The State Department thereupon proceeded not just to double down but to triple down on its saber rattling. In another statement, issued on June 14, State again went out of its way to “reiterate that any Syrian government military actions against the southwest de-escalation zone risk broadening the conflict. We affirm again that the United States will take firm and appropriate measures in response to Syrian government violations in this area.” Underscoring the roles of the United States, Russia, and Jordan as guarantors of the zone, the statement said, “It is vitally important that the three nations … do everything they can to enforce and implement the understandings reached last year.” In light of its influence over the Assad regime, Russia in particular had a special responsibility “to stop attacks and compel the government to cease further military offensives.”

Finally, as it became increasingly apparent that a Syrian offensive was commencing, a third statement emerged from Foggy Bottom on June 21, seeking yet again to deter Assad and the Russians. It said that, “The United States continues to warn both the Russian government and the Assad regime of the serious repercussions of these violations and demands that Russia restrain pro-regime forces from further actions within the southwest de-escalation zone.” The statement pointedly referred to a phone call just days before between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which Pompeo had “stressed … the critical nature of mutual adherence to this arrangement and the unacceptable nature of any unilateral activity by the Assad regime or Russia.”

Clear enough? Not one, not two, but three formal statements over the course of a month underscoring America’s role as a guarantor of the southwest zone and warning of serious repercussions should Russia and Assad violate the cease-fire. And mind you, these came not from the State Department of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a marginalized figure constantly out of step with Trump, whose musings often seemed to bear little relation to administration policy. These statements came from the State Department of Pompeo, one of the Cabinet officers allegedly closest to Trump who’d supposedly been fully empowered to speak authoritatively on behalf of the administration’s foreign policy.

Surely Pompeo would not have permitted his press office to issue repeated statements intended to raise the specter of a coercive U.S. response to Russian-backed activities in Syria willy-nilly without checking with Trump first, right? Or at least he would have run them by Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whose Pentagon after all would bear the burden of making good on State’s veiled warnings? And even on the off chance that State had gotten out over its skis with its aggressive May 25 statement, wouldn’t Bolton and Mattis have immediately cried foul and insisted that State cease and desist from issuing any further threats that put U.S. credibility on the line and that the president had no intention of acting upon?

That didn’t happen, of course. The opposite happened. The May 25 statement was followed by two more, weeks apart, both hitting hard the same deterrent message. This certainly didn’t appear to be the passing mistake of some overly zealous low-level State Department press officer talking out of school. Rather, the statements, taken cumulatively, had all the indications of a considered, deliberate policy choice by the U.S. government to impose serious costs on Assad and Russia for violations of the southwestern zone.

Or not. Within two days of State’s third statement, Assad’s forces launched a full-blown offensive — in essence, calling the U.S. bluff. Shortly thereafter, rebel leaders received an extraordinary message from their contacts in the U.S. government informing them that — despite all the tough talk — they were on their own. While the United States would continue to “advise” Russia and Assad not to attack, the message said, “We must clarify our position: We understand that you must make a decision based on your interests, the interests of your people and your factions as you see them. However, you should not base your decision on an assumption or expectation of military intervention from our side. … This estimation and this decision is in your hands alone.” Then, the Russians immediately escalated their scorched-earth bombing campaign in support of Assad’s offensive, while allegedly forwarding the U.S. message to several rebel leaders with a note that their American friends had “left you alone.”

Nearly three weeks later, the vast majority of the southwestern zone is now back in Assad’s hands, including the strategically vital border crossing with Jordan. Most of the rebels have been forced to accept Russian-imposed cease-fire terms. Tens of thousands of civilians who had been forced to flee are, for the moment, being allowed to return to their homes with vague promises that they will be protected from regime retaliation by Russian military police.

It remains a mystery what in the world the Trump administration thought it was doing in the run-up to Assad’s offensive in the southwest. Were the strong statements coming out of the State Department actually meant to be an accurate reflection of U.S. policy? Did any of them result from meetings of the National Security Council at which possible U.S. responses to a Russian-backed violation of the de-escalation zone were discussed? Did Pompeo, Bolton, and/or Mattis clear the statements in advance? Was Trump ever made aware that the State Department was making implicit threats of force against Assad? Did anyone in the U.S. government actually believe those threats of “serious repercussions” would ever be carried out? Or were they all along intended to be nothing more than empty bluster?

Whatever the case, the appearance of a massive U.S. climb down highlighted the shambolic state of U.S. policy toward Syria. It’s hardly the position of strength that you’d want going into a summit with the likes of Putin. The fact is that the Russian president has just made a mockery of the cease-fire deal that he personally agreed to with Trump — while suffering zero consequences and exposing yet again that the United States has little stomach for the fight to shape Syria’s long-term future. That’s not exactly an auspicious basis for driving a hard bargain with Putin in Helsinki on containing the entrenchment of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their proxies.

What does constitute real leverage for Trump, however, is the continued U.S. military presence in Syria. Together with Kurdish and Arab partners, U.S. troops control strategic assets in the country’s east and south that are vital to its long-term well-being, including water, oil, agriculture, electricity, foreign borders, and major transportation routes. Putin no doubt would very much like to see the Assad regime regain control of those areas — and have Russian companies be the beneficiaries of any reconstruction opportunities, especially in the energy sector. A negotiated deal with Trump that leads to a U.S. withdrawal and the consolidation of Russia’s strategic triumph in Syria, rather than a risky ongoing faceoff with American troops, could have real appeal for Putin.

But leverage is useless if you’re not prepared to exploit it — or even worse yet, give it away for nothing. Since this March, Trump has repeatedly signaled his desire to get U.S. troops out of Syria, “like, very soon” and “let the other people take care of it.” His eagerness to declare victory over the Islamic State and then “come home” as soon as possible has been palpable. You can bet that Putin has noticed. He’s surely asking himself: If Trump is so desperate to get out, why should I pay any real price in terms of Russia’s valuable alliance with Iran? Perhaps the fig leaf of some vague promises that Russia will work to limit Iran’s presence will be sufficient cover for Trump to pull up stakes — or, alternatively, the onset of a low-level insurgency by pro-regime Arab tribes in eastern Syria that begins to target U.S. troops.

If Trump is to have any prospect for success in Helsinki, he needs to dispel Putin of the perception that he’s an easy mark. At a minimum, this would require strictly conditioning any U.S. withdrawal on the actual, verified removal of all Iranian combat troops from Syria, as well as all Iranian-backed foreign militias, including Hezbollah. Additionally, Trump should insist that political and military arrangements be in place to secure the rights of America’s local partners in Syria who have played such a critical role in fighting the Islamic State, particularly the Kurds. He should also make clear that the United States will not hesitate to hold Assad, Iran, and even Russia accountable should U.S. troops start to be targeted by pro-regime forces. Along similar lines, Trump should tell Putin that so long as the Iranian entrenchment in Syria continues, Israel will have total U.S. backing for its escalating efforts to combat it — even if it means risking a wider war with Iran and the endangerment of Russia’s project to stabilize the Assad regime.

Whether Trump is up to the task is, of course, in serious question. His impulse to escape the morass of Syria, specifically, and the Middle East more broadly, appears to run very deep — as does his instinct to develop a cooperative relationship with Putin. But it’s equally clear that Trump is also motivated by a strong animus toward Iran and — as evidenced by his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal — is prepared to go to great lengths to confront what he views as the Islamic Republic’s extremely dangerous behavior across the Middle East. That job, Trump needs to understand, would be made infinitely more difficult, if not impossible, by a premature U.S. abandonment of Syria that clears the way for the Revolutionary Guard to establish its land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

It has to be said that even if Trump were to take full advantage of the negotiating leverage that the United States still retains from its troop presence, it’s far from clear that Putin has either the will or the capability to significantly constrain Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria. The alliance with Iran has been vital to Russia’s efforts to save the Assad regime. Absent Iranian-backed ground troops and economic assistance, the regime might well have crumbled long ago. Whether it could survive now were they in fact to be removed is an open question.

And another open question is whether Russia, even if it wanted to, actually wields the requisite power and influence that would be needed to show the Iranians the door in Syria, where the Islamic Republic’s tentacles are deep, pervasive, and longstanding, and its strategic interests profound. Putin might logically calculate that he’d rather take his chances with Trump, whose stomach for the Syrian fight has been shown to be shaky at best, than with Qassem Suleimani, Hassan Nasrallah, and the forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah. Whether or not at this late date Trump can convince the Russian president otherwise is in serious doubt. But heading into next week’s summit, it’s the only hope he has for getting Putin to take U.S. interests in Syria seriously.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.

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