In a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, on Monday, 16 July, in Helsinki, US President Donald Trump startled the world and the American political establishment by defending President Putin, only three days after 12 Russian intelligence officers had been indicted for meddling into the 2016 US presidential elections.
Commenting on Putin’s remarks denying Russian interference, President Trump said: “He [Putin] just said it is not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
This part of the joint press conference overshadowed the first American-Russian summit since Trump entered the White House 18 months ago.
The world was waiting to see if the summit would pave the way for finding solutions to some intractable international questions, including Syria and the Ukraine.
Until the time of writing, no official US readout of the summit talks had been issued, with some US congressmen considering subpoenaing the American interpreter who went to the summit with President Trump.
So, few know for sure what was agreed upon during the summit concerning three major topics; namely, Syria, counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation.
The only source of reliable information has been the Kremlin, which leaked bits and pieces of information about the summit.
President Trump said that his talks with his Russian counterpart covered a host of questions, including Syria, Iran, peace in the Middle East, fighting terrorism and nuclear proliferation, without providing substance or at least some ideas with regards to the areas of agreement between the two superpowers.
The Helsinki summit was the first and it will be followed by a second in fall in Washington DC. President Trump announced Thursday, 19 July that he had invited President Putin to meet him at the White House before year’s end.
It remains to be seen whether the second American-Russian summit will take place before or after the mid-term elections.
Between now and then many things could happen in the investigation led by Robert Mueller on Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Further indictments, for example, could lead to the postponement of the summit. Meanwhile, the two superpowers will have to deal with pressing international and regional questions that pose threats to international peace and security.
However, from Russian moves in the wake of the Helsinki summit, it seems that there have been some understandings reached, particularly on the situation in Syria and its bearing on the security of Israel, a matter that brings Iran into the equation.
Two days after the Helsinki summit, an official Russian emissary flew to Tehran to brief the Iranians on the conclusions of the Putin-Trump meeting concerning Syria, Iran and the future of the Iranian nuclear deal. He met with the assistant secretary-general of the Iranian National Security Council.
According to Iranian official and semi-official sources, Russian positions have not changed, in light of the Helsinki summit, concerning strategic relations between Russia and Iran.
Similarly, the Russian emissary assured the Iranians that Moscow still supports the Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, and that President Putin made clear to President Trump that the latter’s decision to withdraw from the deal was not constructive.
In the meantime, the Russians emphasised that their cooperation with the Iranians in Syria remains unchanged in fighting terrorism and working for a political solution.
What was missing from official Iranian statements was what was most important: the future of Iranian presence in Syria, on the one hand, and the role of Iran’s military advisers and pro-Iranian militias operating with the Syrian army not far from the Golan Heights, on the other hand.
President Trump had said that his talks with President Putin in Helsinki had dealt with the security of Israel, and he expressed special satisfaction as to the agreement reached, in this regard.
This could explain why Russia has stressed the importance of respecting the 1974 Disengagement Agreement between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights.
This Russian position gains in importance taking into consideration that both Russia and the United States have agreed to let the Syria army take full control of the south and the southwest in Syria.
In other words, after the withdrawal of all rebel forces from these parts of Syria, the situation between Syrian and Israeli forces would revert to the status quo ante on the Golan from 1974 to 2011. No alien forces would be permitted to deploy.
It seems the Iranians have gotten the message. It was no coincidence that after the visit of the Russian envoy to Tehran last Thursday, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, called President Putin on Friday, 20 July, to get an understanding of the outcome of the talks between the Russians and the Iranians a day earlier as regards Iran’s role in Syria.
Judging from the ferocity of Israeli retaliation against Hamas in Gaza on Friday, 20 July, a bombing campaign that lasted for hours until the Egyptians negotiated a ceasefire, it appears that Israel has received assurances from Moscow that Iran would respect the understandings between the United States and Russia, as agreed upon in Helsinki, concerning the security of Israel, at least for the foreseeable future.
As far as the Middle East is concerned, the only tangible result, so far, of the American-Russian summit is that the two superpowers would act in concert to provide for the security of Israel according to its own terms and conditions without a quid pro quo from the Israelis in the form of concessions to the Palestinians, who have gotten nothing to advance their national cause.
Maybe the next summit between President Trump and President Putin could bring a glimmer of hope for the Palestinians and the Arabs. But in the Middle East, from now until fall could be an eternity with Israel on the loose.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Summit enigmas