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The Helsinki irony: When Trump and Assad both win

July 19, 2018 at 10:27 am

US President Donald Trump [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

The “shameful” and “weak” performance of US President Donald Trump at the Helsinki Summit dominated news reports, coverage, and reactions during and after the summit. We actually only know a little bit about what happened at the “core” of the discussions regarding the issues listed on the agenda. If it weren’t for the statements made by Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during their joint press conference that were published in the media, we wouldn’t have been able to piece up “the whole picture” of the summit and its results.

There is a consensus among observers and followers that the awaited “historic” summit ended with a landside victory for the Russian President against his American counterpart. The former appeared proud of his accomplishment while the latter appeared defensive, but his sheepish looks and unusual calmness exposed the fact that he has fallen into positions and approaches that will continue to haunt him throughout his political life. The President, who hates reading in general and relies on his “feelings” and “instincts” betrayed himself on his own, before he started receiving accusations from every kind and every direction, including accusations of treason and spying for the Kremlin.

As for the Syrian crisis, the two sides seemed to have agreed on working together to preserve Israel’s security, prompting Netanyahu to be the only international leader who welcomed the summit and thanked Trump and praised Putin. From this, we conclude that the much talked about Russian-Israeli understandings before the summit, is now, after the summit, at the heart of the American-Russian consensus in and around Syria.

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This means that there are indications of Russia’s willingness to align with the American-Israeli demands on redefining and re-determining the Iranian role in Syria. I said align not match or agree with, as I have said in a previous article that Russia understands Israel’s concerns and calculations, but has not fully bought into the “Iranophobia”. Russia has expressed its willingness to meet Israel’s needs in a reasonable manner and by soft means. It had previously said that there is no justification for Iran’s military presence in Syria and has publically urged it to withdraw its forces, as well as the Hezbollah forces from the country, due to the fact that the war on terrorism is nearing its end. Russia has said it supports an Iranian political role (active diplomatic relations) and an economic role (reconstruction) in the next Syrian phase.

This approach is enough for Washington and Tel Aviv, at least for now, and therefore Trump said that he and Putin have decided to work together to stop Iran from filling the vacuum left by Daesh. It is also for this reason that Netanyahu and his ministerial staff celebrated the Israeli gains achieved in Helsinki before the white smoke rose from the meeting room.

On the ground, it seems that the Putin-Trump understandings were already being translated in the Syrian arena, even before the summit ended. This means that these understandings were already strongly present in the preliminary communications and that they revolve around the Putin-Netanyahu understandings. While the Israeli attack on targets surrounding Aleppo a few days ago were met with repeated Russian indifference, which is unsurprising, the true surprise and unprecedented event is Russia’s aircraft attacking armed groups’ targets near the occupied Golan Heights. These attacks were launched from Israeli air space, so what else do we need to know in order to acknowledge and recognise the depth of these tripartite understandings in and around Syria.

However, there is a question undoubtedly arising in the minds of the observers, mainly regarding the Syrian regime’s position on these tripartite understandings and the new Russian approach. Also, how does Iran and its allies, especially Hezbollah, feel about this?

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The fact is that we have argued before about the invalidity of the theory of “the unity of the northern front” or “the resistance front”. We have suggested that the Syrian regime will return to the Golan Heights once it has taken control of most of the Syrian regions, particularly the south. Such an assessment was met with condemnation and accusations by spokesmen and analysts associated with the “resistance front”. I believe that Al-Assad’s regime will go down this road, albeit carefully and gradually, especially since it is more reassured about the future of the regime. As for its position on the tripartite understandings, I think we are right in saying that the regime and Netanyahu, were, after Netanyahu, the biggest winners in the Helsinki summit. This is one of the strangest ironies.

It is notable that yesterday Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper, which is closely associated with the regime, attacked the senior adviser to the Supreme Leader in international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, for saying that if it weren’t for Iran, Damascus would have fallen into the grip of Daesh despite the fact that similar statements were made several times before by other senior Iranian officials. The widely circulated newspaper also made sure, in an unprecedented move, to remind readers of similar statements made by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, stressing the pivotal role played by the Syrian army in the war on terror and the liberation of Syria. This revealed the level of contradiction between Iran’s denial of its forces being present in Syria (only advisors) and its talk about its role in overthrowing Daesh and preventing the fall of Damascus.

It is likely that we will see more of these debates in the days ahead, especially since there have been signs of political settlements on the horizon that involve the redeployment of Syrian forces across all of Syria and the exit of the Americans and Turks, by means of negotiations, not exclusion.

Translated from Arabi21 on 18 July 2018

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.