Both Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are meeting today Monday in Helsinki, Finland to discuss issues much more important than events in the Middle East. Despite its own importance, the situation in Syria is not as urgent as clarifying US intentions towards Russia and the potential will of both parties to develop the commercial-security-military relationship between their countries.
The US did not understand to date that Russia has no intention of engaging in war or in an armaments race, with results which would be very costly to both countries. On the contrary, Putin is longing for commercial cooperation with Trump and the opening of world markets with the benefit of economic prosperity worldwide.
The US seems still to be living the complex of the “reds” (the communist party) even though the communist Soviet Union has long gone as a ruling party in Russia. The reality behind this aggressive US approach towards Russia is about competition for world dominance, or (perhaps it is better said) the Russian “contribution” to ending the US’s World hegemony.
The Russian-US objectives are way different from one another. Washington is aiming to control Europe, the Middle East and Asia, and would like to remain the world reference to fall back on. In fact, the US has failed to gain faithful friends due to its arrogance and its condescending attitude towards other world leaders and countries. These have understood that they have to fear US power and its unpredictable reactions, otherwise they will be candidates for economic sanctions or even “regime change”, the US’s favourite hobbyhorse.
Donald Trump has generously used this kind of language when he explicitly said to countries like Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf that their rule is standing firm only due to US support. Trump meant he could change their ruling monarchies unless they pay and accept his bullying. The US president went even further, putting a price on the US armed forces’ services, selling their services (regardless of casualties or US direct national interest) if he received a good price. This is exactly what is pushing the world to look for an alternative with which to strike a military-political balance which would protect its leaders from US regime change.
This is where Russia’s role comes in, after its long hibernation: Moscow watched impotently the destruction of Libya and how the west managed to turn that oil-rich country into a failed state and a ground for Takferee jihadists. Russia meanwhile was still building its strength and was not yet strong enough to intervene and stand against the US and its allies. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia was recuperating what Michael Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin managed to destroy, from May 2000 when Putin took control of the Kremlin.
Whilst Russia was recovering, its diplomats sent a clear message to the US that it was not willing to fight or compete with Washington in Europe or the Middle East or on any other platform unless its national security were to be put in jeopardy.
Washington, of course, interpreted Moscow’s message as a sign of weakness and its analysts and experts estimated that Moscow may not recover till after the year 2020. This is why the US aimed to trim Russia’s sails to delay its full recovery and prolong the US unilateral hegemony.
The US estimated timetable for Russia’s recuperation was erroneous, or perhaps optimistic, to say the least. Thus, as the war in Syria began in 2011, although Russia did indeed find itself incapable of intervening on the ground, it prevented, via the UN, a free ride for the west. The Libyan mistake was avoided.
However, events in Syria forced Russia to step in, a major first: following the US decision to bomb the Syrian presidential palace and to cripple the Syrian Army giving the upper hand to jihadists, Russia found itself directly involved in the detail of the Syrian war.
In September 2013, Barack Obama agreed with Vladimir Putin to stop his military plan against Syria in exchange for the dismantling of the Syrian chemical arsenal. Jihadists declared on more than one occasion their desire to remove the Russians from their naval base at the Syrian coast harbour of Tartous. The same jihadists revealed their expansionist objectives regarding neighbouring countries, mainly the Lebanon. The “Islamic State” (ISIS) along with al-Qaeda in Syria managed to recruit tens of thousands of foreign fighters, including some Russians and Chinese. These fighters announced their expansion plans in the Middle East and Europe and threatened Russia and China domestically.
Iran, a member of the “Axis of the Resistance”, responded to the Syrian government’s call for help to fulfil its defence agreement with Syria. The “Islamic Republic” leaders informed Putin of their decisive intention to bomb Tel Aviv – Israel immediately following the first US missile launched against the Syrian Army. The Syrian conflict suddenly had much wider ramifications, with the implication of different countries and parties.
But Russia’s first direct military role on the ground came in September 2015 when the Syrian forces and their allies decided to keep control of the Lebanese-Syrian borders, the Capital Damascus, the cities of Homs, Hama, and the coast. The decision was made to leave out all rural areas because the vast Syrian geography didn’t permit the recovery of all territories.
The support of the west and the Arabs for the jihadists was overwhelming: ISIS was allowed by the US to grow, foreign fighters were allowed to flow into Syria via Turkey undisturbed, and stolen oil and historic treasures found their way onto the Turkish and international markets. ISIS’s main income from local administration and taxes grew undisturbed before the world’s eyes. As far as al-Qaeda is concerned, the group received military, intelligence, medical and logistic support from Turkey in the north and from Israel in the south, as well as training by the US special forces under the CIA’s command.
As if this were not enough, mainstream media and US analysts supported the “jihadist cause” under the slogan “End the Assad dictatorship” (in fact the entire Middle East is governed by dictators or old families and warlords!) or “End this humanitarian tragedy” (when the biggest human catastrophe in modern history is and continues to be generated by the war in Yemen, and is only occasionally covered, and then shyly.). These analysts also mocked the “rusty Russian military apparatus” and doubted it could make any difference in shifting the balance of power in the Levant to benefit of the central government in Damascus. The involvement of so many countries, with the Arabs putting up tens of billions of dollars and supporting the jihadists’ ideology and cause domestically, and the west offering global support, weapons, training and mainstream media made it easy for any observer to notice how disproportionate was the battle that was appearing.
Well, the analysts got it wrong, not least because most of these have never been in a war zone or have visited the Middle East and tasted its wars. They were running their own “war” and expressing their wishful thinking from behind comfortable desks in Washington and elsewhere. These pundits totally underestimated the determination of Syria and its allies to defeat the Wahhabi jihadists: it was a simple question of existence. Jihadists were planning to move forward and destroy other multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies in the Middle East. The Russian determination to enter the world arena through the Syrian window, with their own kind of determination to win, was unforeseen and underestimated.
So, Moscow has surprised the world with its developed and modern military capabilities, introducing new fighting and strategic jets, long range cruise missiles, and above all backed up by its diplomatic skills, offering a structure for peace even as it attacked the jihadists and their allies.
Putin introduced a new diplomacy not even mentioned in the Sun-Tzu, imposing the Astana meeting, bypassing Geneva, where he has managed to divide all the belligerents and cities under fire, isolate them, and stop the war in most of these cases and places, so that the Syrian Army and its allies could liberate one city after another. Russia knew the jihadists godfathers would not surrender easily and would violate any ceasefire agreed in Astana.
All of “useful Syria” (Damascus, Rural Damascus, Homs, Hama, Lattakia, Tartus, Aleppo, al-Suweida’, Daraa, and Quneitra where the last battles are taking place) is now liberated and only the north, occupied by Turkey and the US, has remained outside the control of the central government in Damascus, because the battle of south is about to end.
The US control al-Hasaka north and the Syrian-Iraqi crossing at al-Tanf east. Both locations do not bother Russia’s plans in the Levant. As far as it concerns Putin, President Trump doesn’t have anything to offer or exchange in Syria to tempt him to negotiate… the occupied Golan Heights he can give, not to himself, but to his strategic Syrian partner, President Assad.
Russia controls the coastal Mediterranean, one of the biggest and most promising reserves of gas in the Middle East. It also controls the oil and gas-rich al-Badiya (the Syrian Steppe). It has signed a 49-year agreement with Damascus for the Russian presence in the warm Mediterranean water in Tartous, and the vast majority of the Syrian territory is controlled by the Syrian Army.
Moreover, Putin has vowed to eliminate all jihadists, including al-Qaeda based in Idlib under Turkish occupation, if President Erdogan doesn’t fulfil his own share of the Astana agreement (to end al-Qaeda in Syria).
Thus, Putin is holding one major card to negotiate with Trump, the occupied Golan Heights. Nevertheless, the US president doesn’t actually have any real power to negotiate over the Golan simply because Israel is not ready to give up the Syrian territory, occupied since 1973.
However, Trump would like to please his Arab partners by limiting Iran’s influence in the Middle East. He is trying to dominate Iran, a practice the US has signally failed to achieve since the arrival of Imam Khomeini to power in 1979 and the victory of the “Islamic Republic Revolution”. Iran favourite its European, Russian and Asian partners rather than the US after the signature of the “nuclear deal”, even if it was the US who put pressure on its partners to lift the embargo on Tehran during Obama’s era. Also, Washington would as usual like to please Tel Aviv, eager to see the departure of all Iranian advisors and allies from Syria.
Therefore, in case Trump would like to negotiate over the Iranian presence, President Bashar al-Assad has agreed with his allies that “he wouldn’t mind seeing the Iranians leaving Syria: provided Israel returns the occupied Golan Heights”. Can Trump act as a go-between and broker such an agreement? Doubt is very much permitted…
In 1975, Helsinki hosted the “Final Act” of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, a step to reduce Cold War tensions. It has also hosted in 1990 a Bush-Gorbachev meeting during the Iraq-Kuwait war. Plus, in 1997 a Clinton-Yeltsin meeting where the US enlarged NATO. Today, Monday, it is receiving a meeting between the Political-Judo Intelligence expert Vladimir Putin and his counterpart Donald Trump, Political novice and geography ignoramus (who didn’t even know whether he bombed Iraq or Syria at Shuay’rat military airport).
It is a critical time for the US president who appears to have lost his traditional European partners, has earned the fear of his Arab partners, declared economic war on China and tariff war on the rest of the world, and is facing Asian-Russia-Iranian collaboration on many economic and energy deals
Trump has nothing to offer in Iraq and Syria and one wonders what on earth he can pull out of his hat in Helsinki? What else, other than meeting President Putin, whom he admires, shaking his hand and becoming the centre of world media attention for few hours?