There is a lot of expectation from the up-coming Putin-Trump summit—and it is not just in Syria or Russia, but in the United States, in Israel and Iran too. Ironically enough, while the bigger expectation is that Syrian end-game will get a lot of traction, within the United States there are actors that see in this summit the possibility of Trump ‘handing over’ Syria to Russia. Regardless of the ‘Russophbiba’, Syria’s ground realities indicate that the timing for a Russia-US ‘deal’ has arrived. Syria’s re-capture of Darra in Southern Syria, which was once the cradle of the now seven years old ‘revolt’ against Assad, illustrates the fast approaching end-game as well as the looming question of who will manage the post-war Syria. For the United States and Israel, the only question that matters now is the role and influence of Iran in Syria, and this is what the US president has been discussing with its key ally, Jordan, as of lately. With reports indicating Trump’s plan to strike a deal with Putin that would get the US out “ASAP”, and with Israel, too, happy to see Iranian influence being rolled back from its border with Syria, the likelihood of the success of this plan has, imaginatively though, said to have increased.
According to the information leaked by unknown US sources regarding ‘the deal’, Trump would not object to Syria regaining control of its territory along the borders of Jordan, Israel and Iraq. In return, President Putin and Assad would agree to establish an extended demilitarized zone (DMZ) along these same borders to limit the Iranian forces, aka, Hezbollah. For Russia and Syria, such a deal would yield a significant result because it would set the stage for a rapid US exit from Syria. Period.
This fancy-looking, sugar-coated Trump deal, leaked to the CNN before the summit, has already been rejected by Russia. With Putin’s spokesperson questioning “if there is anything factual behind this report”, chances of these aspects of the eng-game being discussed at Helsinki are next to nothing.
The real question!
And, why would Russia accept such a deal when both Russia and Syria have been more than successful in defeating terrorism without the US co-operation?
So, the real question that would be discussed at the summit would be concerning the remaining jihadi forces in Syria, forces that continue to receive support from the CIA and even Israel near Darra and Quneitra, and continue to attack the Syrian Arab Army near the Syria-Iraq border crossing to off-set Syria’s attempts to re-open its territorial borders.
The support base for the jihadi forces remains the US base at al-Tanf on the Iraq-Syria border, where the CIA remains buys in training, weapnising and even re-branding the jihadis to make them fit well with the changing environment. And, the US has so far not agreed to withdraw from al-Tanf primarily because the CIA and the Pentagon are happy with using the jihadis to continuously attack the Syrian Arab Army and prevent them from re-taking their own land.
Therefore, for all practical reasons, the US-Israel policy—the real policy—remains to prevent Damascus and its allies from regaining control of the Syrian territory occupied by the terrorists and their allies.
‘Jihadi zero’ in South Syria
So, what Putin would really be interested in discussing with Trump in Helsinki isn’t the CNN reported deal but the question of achieving ‘jihadi zero’ i.e., complete elimination of all jihadi forces from that part of Syria, which is the key to re-opening Syria’s economic route that connects it to Lebanon and Jordan and that is essential for bringing back Syria’s dead economy—something that is also vital for Syria’s postwar re-construction.
Re-taking southern Syria from the sponsored “rebels” is, therefore, of supreme significance for Syria and Russia. The US and Israel don’t have strong enough a presence there to withhold the up-coming offensive of the Syrian army, which will inevitably be joined by the Iraqi People Mobilization Units as well as Russian forces.
The inevitable will, therefore, soon help the reality set in for the US to make it realize that clinging to al-Tanf can yield heavy cost because they can’t win the southern front for reasons not oblivious to anyone now.
The fundamental question that Russia remains supremely interested in and Putin will most certainly raise in Helsinki will be Syria’s absolute territorial integrity and restoration of its sovereignty over the whole of Syria. This will necessarily involve the ‘jihadi zero’ in Syria, allowing Russia to prevent a blowback in Caucasus and Central Asia.
Of course, the bone of real contention at the summit will also be Hezbollah, which is reported to be present in Darra and assisting the Syrian army in co-ordination its operations. While Israel and the US do certainly want to see them removed, Russia and Syria, and even Iran, do not want to keep Hezbollah there once the ‘jihadi zero’ is achieved. This has been repeatedly re-affirmed by Hezbollah itself that they have no intention of staying in Syria any longer than Syrian government wants.
While it is no secret that Hawks in the US and elsewhere continue to prefer to divide Syria and keep the region permanently unstable, Syria’s ground realities indicate that this can no longer be achieved. Therefore, at the summit, the US would be more like doing the reality check against the fast Syrian losing territory to the Syrians than offering a deal to the Russians.
The US, as the events of Syria war have shown, is no longer the ‘peace-maker’ in Syria; therefore, there is no way that the US can offer any deal to the Russians; it is the Russians who can offer a deal, involving a ‘jihadi zero’ and an exit from Syria. It will be up to the US and Israel to decide if they want to embrace it or face the inevitable: absolute elimination of all “rebel” forces and restoration of pre-war Syria against all odds. The up-coming Helsinki summit is, therefore, much different from two previous US-Russia summits at the same place.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.