Are Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin drawing their respective lines of influence in the Middle East? Five years after the so-called Arab Spring, the two presidents are assessing this geopolitical earthquake. Since 2011, instability and terrorism have only flourished in the region.
At the Hamburg G20, leaders of the United States and Russia seemed to see eye-to-eye and the meeting was deemed both “very constructive” and revealing “a positive alchemy”.
It is probably because the two presidents – a former KGB spy and a businessman – have an acute eye for the power of relations. Both recognize the power and the weaknesses of the other. Under these conditions, it is better to agree rather than to enter into a conflict especially since the Middle East offers the appropriate framework for a shared spectrum of views.
Despite their differences on dealing with the Iranian file, both Trump and Putin converge on the fight against Islamist terrorism, starting with ISIS. Keeping this in mind, both Americans and Russians can go into the details of their collaboration on a case by case basis.
In Syria, it is the Russians who have the upper hand. Trump ended the policy of non-intervention adopted by his predecessor Barak Obama and understood that the key to the solution was in Moscow and not in Washington.
For several months now, the Americans have left the Syrian rebels exposed in the open. They only support the alliance of the Syrian Democratic Forces (FDS), dominated by the Kurds, to whom they have sent weapons and Special Forces.
In today’s great maneuvers, the Iranians dream of a territorial continuity ranging from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to the Mediterranean. The objective for Washington is to avoid at all costs that Iran does not take advantage of the fall of MosulChristian Chesnot
Fall of Raqqa
The United States is seeking to claim the victory of the fall of Raqqa, the Syrian capital of ISIS. In exchange, the Americans announced support for the de-escalation zones proposed by the Russians, as evidenced by the Russian-American agreement for a cessation of hostilities in the provinces of Deraa, Quneitra and As-Suwayda announced in the margins of the G20.
The moment of truth has come, pointed out the former ambassador of France in Teheran. Subsequently, American authorities will have to either allow Assad to regain control over the whole country (in this case their armies standing on the ground in Syria will have to withdraw) or conserve the support for the anti-Assad factions , the latter will act as political pawns leading to further fragmentation in Syria.
On the other hand in Iraq, the United States has the cards in hand. Since their invasion of the country in 2003, they remain the sole actor impossible to circumvent and they will be all the more so as Trump has Iran in its sights.
In today’s great maneuvers, the Iranians dream of a territorial continuity ranging from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to the Mediterranean. The objective for Washington is to avoid at all costs that Iran does not take advantage of the fall of Mosul as well as the last bastions of ISIS along the Euphrates to push its pawns even further on the ground.
In the Gulf crisis, there is a feeling that Trump, probably influenced by Rex Tillerson, his Secretary of State, and James Mattis, his Secretary of Defense, has now adopted the logic of appeasement.
Blowing hot and cold, the first tweets and contradictory statements of the American president had given a feeling of hesitation in Washington. Behind the scenes, American diplomacy is in full motion.
The Gulf is a strategic zone for the United States, and Trump understands that it should remain so. Because in the end, the rifts of the Gulf Cooperation Council will only benefit Iran. Will the crisis unfold in the White House, as Rex Tillerson initially suggested? One could predict a summit on the Gulf crisis on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next September.
In this burning case of the Gulf, Putin remained very discreet and was careful not to throw oil on fire. He has another goal in mind: further to the west since Libya has now entered under Russian radars. The Kremlin does not hide its support for General Hafter, who has just reconquered Benghazi.
The Russians have never really digested the 1973 resolution “to protect Libyan civilian populations” which ultimately led to the overthrow of a legal government after a NATO military operation. At the time, Russia had lost much in this affair. Today, Putin intends to assert the interests of Moscow in Libya and weigh in the political solution.
While Europeans and Americans are in fact the first to be concerned by the case in Libya, it’s not one of their priorities since they are under the strain of the immigration crisis; it is in fact Poutine who will take advantage of the situation in Libya to serve the interest of Russia.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf.