July 17, 2018 | Policy Brief

No Deal on Syria for Trump and Putin

July 17, 2018 | Policy Brief

No Deal on Syria for Trump and Putin

Despite considerable speculation, President Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin did not appear to reach agreement on how to limit Iranian influence in Syria. While Trump has expressed his interest in withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible, at the conclusion of the Helsinki summit yesterday, the president emphasized instead that “the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS.”

Trump’s comments on Syria mirror those of his national security adviser, John Bolton. When asked if a withdrawal of American troops from Syria would be on the agenda in Helsinki, Bolton told ABC News that the U.S. would remain in Syria until the Islamic State is defeated “and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Mideast.”

Before yesterday, Trump’s firmest statement on Syria came at the conclusion of French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the White House in April, when Trump said, “As far as Syria is concerned, I would love to get out … [but] we don’t want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean.”

At the joint press conference in Helsinki, a reporter for the RT network specifically asked both presidents if they had made or discussed any arrangements for cooperation in Syria. They both acknowledged humanitarian concerns and the need to safeguard Israeli security, but neither referred to any concrete plans.

Nor did either president address the breakdown of the previous attempt at cooperation between Washington and Moscow in Syria. Last November, the two leaders endorsed a ceasefire in southwest Syria, but Russia violated it in the weeks prior to the Helsinki summit.

Paradoxically, the absence of an agreement on Syria is likely the best possible outcome in terms of U.S. national interests. Russia is not a reliable partner, having violated the Syrian ceasefire, sanctions on North Korea, as well as the treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF). In the absence of a deal, the U.S. will not offer any concessions, such as dismantling the special operations base at Tanf in southeast Syria, which is crucial to denying Iran its land bridge across the Levant.

Whatever happens next between Trump and Putin, U.S. policy toward Syria should remain constant in three important respects: The U.S. should maintain a presence in northeast Syria, increase economic pressure on the Assad regime, and support Israeli efforts to dismantle Iran’s military infrastructure. In short, the president should follow the course that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out in May, in which the U.S. would relentlessly pressure Iran and all of its proxies – even those supported by Russia in Syria.

David Adesnik is director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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