A notable outcome of the 16 July meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was the declaration that relations were improving between the two countries and Washington’s apparent handing over of the keys to Syria to Moscow after seven years of competition on the issue.
The outcome was not surprising, especially since Trump had announced two months ago that he wanted to withdraw US troops from Syria as soon as possible.
The Helsinki meeting merely confirmed that there was an agreement with Putin regarding Syria’s political and military future.
During a news conference after the summit, the two men barely mentioned Syria, however, even though it was a prominent talking point behind closed doors. Putin told the news conference about the importance of encouraging Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to return to their homes, and he suggested using Russian planes to deliver humanitarian aid to those in need.
More importantly, he said he believed the war in Syria was over, and Trump did not contradict him.
Trump noted the outcomes of US-Russian military cooperation on Syria. “Our militaries have performed better than our political leaders for years,” he said, thereby removing the obstacles in the way of Russian military domination in Syria.
Trump gave Moscow the right to protect Israel’s security interests after it defeated the armed Syrian opposition in the south of the country, and he linked Israel’s security to Russia’s strategy in southern Syria.
Iran’s role was diminished, and Putin brought up the 1974 agreement between Israel and Syria and the need to restore peaceful co-existence between Damascus and Tel Aviv.
Trump reiterated that Iran would not be allowed to reap the rewards of defeating the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, which would have appealed to Russia since it has long wanted to curb Iran’s political and military role.
The Helsinki summit showed that the US is happy to make Putin the decision-maker in Syria, and that the interests of the two countries merge.
The US could have made southern Syria a quagmire for Russia, especially because of the presence of some 30,000 Syrian opposition fighters mostly from the region and heavily and well-armed. These fighters coordinate with the US-led International Coalition’s HQ in Jordan.
However, rapprochement seems to be more important than confrontation with Russia. The US may want to trade southern Syria for northern Syria, or trade in southern Syria for ending the Iranian presence and guaranteeing the US share in the country’s reconstruction and its oil and gas.
There have been reports of a US role in facilitating the mission of troops loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Russian troops in southern Syria.
The Trump administration also wants pre-packaged gains that carry no political risks or risk of failed economic deals.
Russia can provide those gains, which is what was revealed in Helsinki.
Trump also does not want to clash with Putin, and Syria also involves Iran, important for this White House as Trump prepares for a second term.
The Helsinki meeting could be followed by other surprises regarding vanquishing the Syrian opposition in Idlib in northern Syria, along with an anticipated Turkish withdrawal.
Such things could be brought about by Russia, if the US hands over leadership on the Syrian issue.
The Syrian opposition believes the Helsinki summit decided the prospects of a solution in Syria that favours Israeli security interests. “It is true we are talking about Syria, but Israel is at the heart of the matter,” Trump commented, indirectly guaranteeing Al-Assad’s remaining in power because he is the best guarantor of Israel’s security.
Political bickering inside the US will not change the situation, as for Trump the Helsinki summit ended in a successful “business deal” that is part of the greater “Deal of the Century” for the Arab-Israel conflict.
Since the start of the Syrian Revolution, it has become a tool in the hands of overt and covert international and regional players, with the Syrian people being swamped in the intricacies of the conflict.
The political opposition handed over the revolution to an armed opposition that was controlled from overseas and unable to take independent decisions. The conflict became a battle over Syria and not one against the regime.
The opposition has also been led by opportunists having personal or ideological agendas using religious, nationalist and even ethnic slogans.
Mainstream slogans demanded by most Syrians in the first few months of the revolution regarding freedom, dignity, democracy and the rule of law vanished.
Meanwhile, the regime was willing to do anything to remain in power, which allowed Iran to step in and take control of military and political decisions and infiltrate Syrian society. Later, Russia intervened and took control.
The regime used every means at its disposal to make this a sectarian conflict, and it has committed war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons against its own people. It has claimed there is a “universal conspiracy” against it and its “resilience and patriotic anti-Israel position” even when Israel wants the regime to remain in power because it is the safest bet for Israel.
Current events, however, may not serve the Syrian regime because it has given Russia a green light and free hand to the US and Israel. The diplomatic bickering among these three states may have been a ruse, since their interests may not always correspond.
For the time being, it has been important to meet to decide Syria’s future. That is what happened in Helsinki in the agreement between Moscow, Washington and Tel Aviv.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Three-way summit in Helsinki