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Trump, Putin, Iran, and Syria

avatar by Joel Sonkin

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Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 11, 2018. Photo: Yuri Kadobnov / Pool via Reuters.

These are heady days for Vladimir Putin. With leaders from around the Middle East regularly bee-lining to Moscow for his counsel, there is no doubt that Putin is the one calling the shots in the region.

Last Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to Putin to discuss the Iranian presence in Syria, as the Islamic Republic continues to encroach on Israel’s northern border. With Iran and the Syrian government recently retaking territory from the rebel opposition in southern Syria, Tehran and its allies are looking to mount ever more pressure on the Jewish state.

Not so coincidentally, the very same day that Putin received the Israeli prime minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, boarded a plane in Tehran headed for Moscow — also for a meeting with Putin.

Israel and Iran wanted to make sure that their voices were heard before Putin’s biggest upcoming meeting: his summit with President Trump on Monday in Helsinki, where Syria is expected to be a major topic of conversation.

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Of the three parties taking the time to meet with the Russian leader, it is the Iranians with whom Putin shares a strategic link — that link being Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The reporting in the American media indicates that Trump is expected to seek Putin’s help in scaling back Iran’s military presence in southern Syria, near the Israeli border. Putin, however, still needs his Iranian allies to help prop up the fragile Assad regime. Although Moscow and Tehran may have differing long-term objectives in Syria, they still need each other, as the most critical element to both of their strategies is keeping Assad in power.

The arrangement between Moscow and Tehran is simple: Putin provides the airpower, while the mullahs deploy the forces on the ground. And as long as the Assad regime doesn’t crumble, Russia and Iran are able to continue to pursue their enterprises on the eastern Mediterranean.

Were Assad to fall, any new Syrian government — one that would surely be comprised of the very Sunni opposition against whom Assad, Putin, and Iran have been conducting a genocide — is sure to kick out Russia and the Iranians. Putin would lose his air and naval bases on the Syrian coast, and the mullahs wouldn’t be able to solidify the war-torn country as another front from which to pressure Israel.

This tripod of an alliance needs all three pieces to hold itself up. Any talk of trying to peel one party away from the others doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Iran and Russia have a strategic partnership, and Putin isn’t about to pressure his allies just as he is reaching the apex of his power in the region. And any leverage that Trump has over Putin likely won’t suffice in getting the Russian leader to sell his Iranian allies down the river. More importantly, Putin couldn’t push out the deeply entrenched Iranians even if he wanted to.

All this likely helps explain why the White House has been so quiet about the Trump-Putin summit, and refraining from publicly stating its objectives. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, wasn’t shy about his skepticism, noting that “if the Russians could get the Iranians out of there, I would applaud it.” But, he added, Moscow’s ability to accomplish that is “an open-ended question.”

Nonetheless, all this attention is exactly what Putin was aiming for when he intervened in the Syrian war in September 2015: to become the region’s powerbroker. After 50 years of American primacy in the Middle East — a strategy that was largely predicated on excluding Russia from the region — there is no doubt that, these days, the way forward in Syria goes through Moscow.

It’s worth noting that Putin has been able to achieve all of this at relatively little cost. Whereas Iran has suffered major losses on the battlefield and spent tens of billions of dollars in propping up Assad, Putin has been able to establish his own military bases in Syria and advance his prestige on the global stage while sacrificing very little. Perhaps this is one of the aspects of Vladimir Putin that Trump admires most: his ability to make such substantial gains at minimal cost.

While the White House continues to identify the Iranian presence in Syria as one of its primary security concerns in the Middle East, the only thing that President Trump has been consistent about is his own ambivalence. This appears to have led him to expect his ally in Jerusalem to do the heavy lifting for him.

While the fight against ISIS is wrapping up, and the Syrian opposition is running out of steam, the conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria is heating up. The Israelis have continued their high tempo of hitting Iranian targets, including weapons factories, research and development facilities, as well as Iran’s Shiite militias.

To be sure, the Iranian response has been anemic. In early May, the Iranians responded to one Israeli strike by firing 20 rockets on the Israeli Golan Heights, the majority of which fell inside Syria. The Israeli Air Force then responded with overwhelming force, hitting dozens of Iranian targets inside Syria, and leading Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to declare that they hit almost all of Iran’s infrastructure in Syria. This low- to medium-level of contact between Iran and Israel will continue, as the Israelis are determined to prevent Iran from establishing Syria as another front for aggression.

Meantime, both Trump and Putin have largely stayed away from this fight, showing little inclination to get involved. This dynamic will likely continue, with these two global competitors hoping to gain the upper hand in the region, but neither willing to stick their neck out for their allies, and neither willing to take on more responsibility.

Like most struggles in the Middle East, the next phase of the war in Syria will be decided with hard power, not soft. And it will be dictated by the local actors on the ground, not at high-level summits in Helsinki.

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