In the wake of the meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov noted that “it’s too early to draw” conclusions from the dialogue between America and Russia.
The Trump-Russia relationship over Syria is not rocky. Although there is a political firestorm ongoing in Washington D.C. over Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are driving America’s foreign policy straight forward on the Syria question. What a contrast from last month when Tillerson went to Moscow for a closed-door meeting with Putin and emerged deploring the “low level of trust” between the two powers. Tillerson added, “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
In contrast to the joyful pictures published in Russia’s press of the Trump-Lavrov meeting, US President Donald Trump appealed to Moscow to “rein in” the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its key ally Iran. Yet Trump described the Oval Office meeting with Lavrov as “very, very good”, urging that the horrible killing in Syria must stop. To boot, Trump claimed progress on ending the conflict in Syria: “We had a very, very good meeting” Trump said soon after the meeting. “We're going to stop the killing and the death (in Syria).”
This rhetorical game is part of a desire to obfuscate a specific, behind the scenes process to finding military and political solutions to the Syrian civil war. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with Trump the same time around the Lavrov meeting.
Clearly, the US and Russia are dividing Syria into spheres of influence for safe haven operations. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is working on a Pentagon plan to establish those safe havens in Syria’s east, more or less, to be buttressed by local forces, and with an additional mission to enforce border security between Syria and Iraq, finally.
Russia, Iran, and Turkey are setting up at least four safe zones along the Israeli and Lebanese borders. US and Russian officials are making guarantees to Israel that Russian soldiers will be near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, not Hezbollah forces.
Clearly, the US and Russia are dividing Syria into spheres of influence for safe haven operationsDr. Theodore Karasik
US Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford is involved in negotiating with his counterparts including Russian Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov and Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gady Eisenkott via multiple meetings related to not only safe zones but also keeping de-confliction lines of communication open at all times. There is no doubt that military operations conducted by both US and Russian forces may lead to unintended consequences so cross-coordination is necessary despite politics and firestorms.
Significantly, Jordan plays an important role in the America-Russia plan. Both Trump and Putin have excellent ties with King Abdullah and the three leaders and their immediate subordinates are in contact with each other regarding the safeguarding of Jordan’s Syrian border, especially from the threat of multiple battles between SAA and fighters of various affiliations.
According to a Jordanian official, senior diplomats from Amman are meeting with counterparts in both Washington and Moscow to work out a solid plan for a safe zone north of the Jordanian border in which to safeguard the Hashemite Kingdom from any refugee flows from central northern Syria as multiple forces fight their way to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. Jordan cannot handle much more refugee influx. Deconfliction is also a major part of Amman’s effort.
There are a number of immediate boogeymen in this story. First, is the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces. These Kurdish and Arab forces are anathema to Turkey who sees the YPG as terrorists. Damascus sees the YPG as an enemy too with the Trump Administration raising the stakes by giving YPG forces more assistance.
The Damascus-YPG relationship is complicated as the region and this force do give each other breathing room. Of course, they have conflicting interests but common cause against fighting Salafi-Jihadists. Russia supports the YPG too but with Moscow’s means and objectives differing from the Americans. Trump’s move, of course, is to gain concessions later on the battlefield between Turkey and Russia on the Iran file.
Although Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran signed an agreement in Astana to establish safe havens and work towards a political solution in Syria, Turkey is already looking to upset the division of labor on safe zones being worked on between Trump, Russia and other key Arab stakeholder countries such as Jordan and the GCC states. Ankara, is certainly a spoiler in the current Syrian trajectory given Turkish President Erdogan’s new found power following last month’s constitutional reform referendum.
A final solution?
Still to be decided is a final solution to the Syrian conflict. Trump and Russia are trying to converge their plans on Syria’s political future. Holding up the gap between the two sides is, naturally, Iran. Given the Trump Administration’s sharp turn against Tehran, the White House is looking to Putin to make Iran budge before crippling American sanctions and other pressure comes to the Islamic Republic.
Making matters more interesting is the upcoming Iranian presidential election where a potential swing to the Principalists and the IRGC will complicate the Trump-Putin solution to Syria. We will find out when Trump and Putin are expected to be at the G20 summit in Germany in July but given the rapidity of international events, a meeting could come earlier.
Next week Saudi Arabia is hosting Trump for three historic summits that will address Syria’s plight. The level of criticism toward Iran will be loud with the kingdom and its allies offering America all the support it needs to get Iran out of the Levant.
With the new foundation between the US and Saudi Arabia, Riyadh brings an additional element to the Syrian table that is going to challenge Putin via Trump. The American president is likely to delight in the ability to tantalize Putin with his Saudi partners. This triangle – Trump, Riyadh, and Moscow – will be the one to watch in the coming weeks.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Washington DC-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik.