Trump Should Work With Putin to Develop a New Framework for Syria
U.S.-Russia relations have reached a generational low—but there’s still room for cooperation to avert a wider war in the Middle East.
We still know precious little about what U.S. President Donald Trump discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their summit last week in Helsinki.
On one key agenda item, Syria, Trump said, “Cooperation between our two countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.” He added that the United States would “not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign” against the Islamic State and that Russia and the United States would “work jointly” to ensure the safety of Israel.
Relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest point in a generation. Beyond serious foreign-policy differences over Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, and other issues, many Americans remain rightly concerned by Moscow’s interference in U.S. elections in 2016 and the chilling prospect of a repeat in 2018.
Nevertheless, the United States and Russia share a key interest in Syria: Neither country wants to see an escalation that could spark a wider war, either between the two leading nuclear powers or between Israel and Iran. The United States must safeguard against this happening.
Syria’s war could go in several directions. Even while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Russia have launched a brutal offensive in the south of the country, in the north and east the presence of Turkish and U.S. forces, respectively, has created zones of relative stability and security for Syria’s beleaguered population. These dynamics on the ground, combined with a recent flurry of meetings among Russia, Israel, Jordan, and other regional states, create an opportunity that the United States should seize.
Trump should pursue tough diplomacy with Russia to develop a new framework to de-escalate the conflict in Syria—not by sanctioning further violence and displacement by the Syrian regime but by leveraging the three de facto zones of control that already exist to freeze the conflict and restart discussions on Syria’s political future.
This would involve three key steps:
1. Clue in the rest of the team.
The first step is to get more details on what Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador in Washington, described as “specific and interesting” proposals that Russia floated on Syria in Helsinki. Trump has left his own national security team in the dark, with the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, saying days after the meeting that he had received no new guidance. At bare minimum, Trump needs to inform his top advisors just what he and Putin agreed to on Syria.
2. Launch a new diplomatic effort with Russia and Turkey.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his team at the State Department should take a stronger role in trying to shape the outcome in Syria. This is no longer about removing Assad, whose position is secure for now. It’s about leveraging the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria for the more limited aim of halting the bloodshed.
This process should include Russia and Turkey and focus on three objectives: defining the boundaries between zones of control to reduce the risk of escalation, securing commitments for political and security sector reform, and defining conditions for the ultimate withdrawal from Syria of all foreign forces. The United Nations should be asked to broker these talks.
The current Russian-backed offensive in southern Syria, where Trump walked away from a cease-fire agreement negotiated by his own administration, demonstrates that it’s foolish and irresponsible to simply take Putin at his word, as Trump apparently does. A new diplomatic effort will require keeping U.S. forces in eastern Syria, both to responsibly conclude the fight against the Islamic State and to deter the regime and its allies from entering the U.S.-backed zone until there has been significant progress toward a national political settlement.
3. Expand stabilization aid.
Areas liberated from the Islamic State and held by the Syrian Democratic Forces—a Kurdish-led alliance of militias—in essence serve as a safe zone that many analysts argued would be too costly for the United States to create. Now that this zone exists, the Trump administration should work with allies and partners to restore basic services and jump-start wider recovery efforts. This is critical to keep the Islamic State out.
We share the skepticism and doubts about Russia; it has been messing with U.S. democracy and hasn’t lived up to its word in previous deals on Syria, including the 2012 Geneva Communiqué and cease-fire agreements negotiated in 2016 and 2017.
If cooperation is to succeed this time, it must be in areas where U.S. and Russian goals align. Since Moscow defines any opposition to the Syrian regime as terrorism, it’s unlikely that the two countries can see eye to eye on counterterrorism. There are significant gaps in their approach to Iran, too, which remains a key ally for Russia in Syria and, in any case, is unlikely to bend to Moscow’s will, whatever Putin may have said to Trump in Helsinki or to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow during their meeting this month.
Neither Russia nor the United States wants to see another major Middle East war flare up again. That common goal is what the Trump team should be working toward in the weeks ahead.
Alexander Bick is associate director and a fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served as director for Syria at the National Security Council from 2014 to 2016.