Deal-Making in Helsinki

Did Trump persuade Putin to agree a trade-off on Iran and Syria?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

It could be said at first glance, from viewing the press conference held by the Russian and American presidents after their summit in Helsinki on Monday, that they reached agreement on two main things related to the Syrian crisis.

First, to work jointly to preserve the security of Israel and reactivate the disengagement agreement signed 1in 974.

Secondly, not to allow Iran to benefit from the defeat of the Islamic State group (Daesh), and to continue coordination between Russian and American forces on Syrian territory.

It was striking that the two leaders did not provide any details about these matters, and there was no direct reference to Israel’s demands to end, or at the very least contain, Iran’s presence in Syria. But that does not mean that no agreements or disagreements occurred in the closed meeting rooms on these two points in particular. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remark that the ball now is in the Russian court regarding Syria may be telling in this respect. When the leaders of superpowers meet they make compromises and do deals, and no concession is made without securing something in return.

The issue of Syrian refugees seems to have taken up an important part of the discussions, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin indicated when spoke of the need to help Syria’s neighbours to cope with the refugee crisis so as to ease the pressure on Europe. But this was a reference to Turkey, where 3.5 million Syrians have sought refuge, and not to Jordan or Lebanon. This is perplexing and raises many questions. Was it agreed to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees from Turkey, and consider the issue of reconstruction and plans to reabsorb the returnees?

On Iran, the most noteworthy point was US President Donald Trump’s assertion that he made it clear “we will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS.” This remark, which elicited no comment or clarification from Putin, may have worried the Iranians. It could be interpreted as alluding to an agreement to work jointly to end the Iranian presence not only in Syria but also Iraq. This in turn raises a serious question: has a deal been done whereby US sanctions on Russia would be lifted, and its annexation of Crimea recognised, in return for ending or containing Iran’s presence in Syria? There have been persistent reports that such a trade-off was being promoted by a Gulf leader.

It is hard to offer definitive answers in this regard. Not everything is revealed in  heads of states’ press conferences, at which diplomatic niceties usually prevail. We must therefore wait until the dust settles on the summit and the leaking begins, especially to the Western media, on what the two sides agreed on or differed over behind closed doors. We must also see what happens at the Tehran summit between Putin and his Turkish and Iranian counterparts Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rowhani at the end of this month, as well as the views and assessments reflected in the Israeli press regarding a summit at which Binyamin Netanyahu was the absentee-in-attendance.

The Helsinki summit was held primarily at Trump’s request. Israel’s government and its lobbies pressed for it in order to address the perceived threat posed by Iran and its allies in the region, especially Hezbollah in South Lebanon. So, have Netanyahu’s repeated visits to Moscow and Washington achieved their aims in this regard? Did Trump convince his Russian counterpart to join the suffocating blockade that he wants to impose on Iran, whose main focus will be the blocking its oil exports starting November 4th?

There are many reasons to be doubtful in this regard. It is hard to imagine Putin abandoning his Iranian allies and partners and join forces with their enemies in order to appease Trump and Netanyahu. That would amount to squandering the massive achievements he has made not only in Syria, but the entire Middle East.