BEIRUT: When President Donald Trump meets Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Monday, the Syrian conflict will be one of the most immediately pressing issues on a wide-ranging and colourful agenda.
As fighting wanes after seven years of war, the US has made curtailing Iran’s influence in post-war Syria a strategic objective — one strongly backed by Israel. Ahead of the much-anticipated meeting, officials from the US and Russia have signalled that a broad framework for such a deal is likely to be the main outcome.
But any agreement is likely to be carefully phrased and general in nature, and discussions are likely to be centred more on limiting Iran’s presence rather than ending it, analysts say.
A full withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces from Syria is a virtual non-starter. After years of ruinous civil war, Iran and its proxy militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, have built up a formidable presence stretching from the Iraqi border through central Syria to Lebanon.
President Bashar Al Assad, with crucial military and political assistance from Iran and Russia, has recaptured around 60 per cent of the country, including its main cities, putting an end to any serious talk of regime change in Damascus. And, amid a consistently declining US role, Russia has emerged as an uncontested power broker in the country.
Still, both Russia and the US have an interest in working together in Syria and beyond, and while Russia and Iran have been on the same side of the war, their interests do not always converge. Russia also has maintained warm ties with Israel and has demonstrated a readiness to take the Jewish state’s security interests into account.
Here’s a look at talking points and potential outcomes from Monday’s meeting:
What’s on the table
Iran. With Al Assad’s removal from power no longer an actively sought objective, the focus has shifted to Iran’s influence in Syria, which has soared amid the civil war chaos. Tehran is now believed to command up to 80,000 fighters in Syria — all members of Shiite militias and paramilitary forces loyal to the leadership in Iran — and has effectively secured a land corridor via Iraq and Syria reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In an interview with CBS News earlier this month, US national security adviser John Bolton said Iran, not Al Assad, was the “strategic issue.” Israel, for its part, has repeatedly warned of Iran’s growing footprint and says it will not allow Iran or its Shiite proxies to establish a permanent presence in a postwar Syria.
After two weeks of intensive military operations in southern Syria, Al Assad’s forces are now in control of the southern city of Dara’a, where the revolution against Al Assad started seven years ago, and the surrounding countryside. They are now ready to move west to the frontier near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, triggering concerns of a showdown between Israel and Iranian-backed forces nearby.
Diplomacy has gone into high gear ahead of Monday’s Trump-Putin summit, suggesting a political deal is in the making.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin in Moscow on Wednesday for talks focusing on Iran’s presence in Syria, his third trip to Russia this year to meet Putin. Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also headed to Moscow for a meeting with Putin.
“Our opinion is known that Iran needs to leave Syria,” Netanyahu told reporters after his talks with Putin.
Contours of a deal
So what might a potential deal look like?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week said it would be “absolutely unrealistic” to expect Iran to fully withdraw from Syria and stay within its border. That signals Russian acceptance that at least some of those forces should pull back. He also told reporters that an agreement has already been reached on the withdrawal of “all non-Syrian forces” from southern Syria.
Comments by some US officials have also indicated what might be an emerging compromise among the key players.
“There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward,” Bolton said in the CBS interview.
Media reports, along with Syria observers, have suggested that Putin and Trump could reach a deal that would envisage the deployment of Syrian government forces along the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxy Hezbollah militia from the area.
For that to happen, Israel would request guarantees that Al Assad honour a decades-old agreement that sets out a demilitarised zone along the frontier and limits the number of forces each side can deploy within 25 kilometres of the zone.
Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Syria who is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said one idea circulating in Washington is that the US would retain its military presence at Tanf, near the junction of Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, until the Iranians withdraw from Syria.
Ayham Kamel, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said Moscow, as part of any deal, may ask for acceptance of Assad and an eventual withdrawal of US troops from Syria, as Trump has suggested he would like to see happen by the end of the year.
“A public deal that accepts Assad in return for limiting Iranian influence implicitly if not explicitly gives him some legitimacy, and gives a much more coherent meaning for the victory beyond military terms,” he said.
Would Iran accept a deal?
Russia has publicly called for the withdrawal of Iranian troops from a post-war Syria but cannot guarantee Iranian compliance. Tehran has invested a lot of money and blood establishing itself in Syria, which it views as a strategic and existential lifeline to its proxy Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Moscow, however, may have enough leverage over Tehran to persuade it to diminish its footprint, stay away from the frontier with Israel and perhaps reduce the number of bases, missile factories and advisers it maintains in the country — especially if the terms are not publicised and they come with other guarantees.
Iran, following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, is facing stiff sanctions and cannot afford to lose Russia’s support, nor will it be able to provide Assad with the same level of support in the long run.
While the pressure for Iran to limit its presence in Syria will create de facto fissures between the alliance of Russia, Iran and Syria, the three countries’ converging interests mean compromises would need to be made.
The Syrian president will be looking to maintain a delicate dance between his alliance with Iran and Russia.
“While Al Assad needs the Iranians and the Russians, an Iran that is constrained by sanctions is much less useful to him over the long run. And as the civil war is winding down, Russian economic and political support becomes a little bit more important than the Iranian one,” Kamel said.