What are the potential effects on the Middle East of the July 16 summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin?
US-Russian policy diverges strongly over regional issues, most notably on Syria and Iran. Complicating the situation are the radically different personalities and foreign-policy approaches of the two presidents. Putin appears to be cool and rational; Trump seems mercurial and quixotic.
Despite the uncertainty, certain themes seem to be emerging. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, has seemingly modified his “Assad must go” rhetoric to “Iran must leave Syria.” This, despite Bolton’s record as a war hawk.
He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and advocated bombing North Korea, Iran and Syria. However, during an interview, aired on CBS News’ “Meet the Press,” on potential topics for discussion at the Trump-Putin summit, Bolton said: “I don’t think [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue.”
While Iran remains an obsession for Bolton, both Iran and Syria deny all claims about Iranian forces in Syria. Tehran and Damascus insist that Iran is present only in an “advisory” capacity to assist Syria’s fight against extremism. Russia supports this interpretation.
At the summit, Putin may reiterate that Russia’s military is in Syria at the invitation of the Assad government and that the approximately 2,200 US troops are in the country illegally even as their stated mission against the Islamic State shrinks.
An insight into Russia’s possible summit position can be found in the remarks of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. After discussions with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Lavrov said it would be “absolutely unrealistic” to expect Iran to withdraw from Syria, adding that regional powers should discuss mutual complaints and negotiate a compromise.
As for a possible American departure, the US media reported that Trump appeared willing to negotiate an arrangement with Putin on the de-escalation zone. This could allow a prompt withdrawal of US troops from Syria even as the Trump administration remains deeply divided on how to provide a meaningful counterweight against Iran.
Against the advice of both the global community and many members of his own administration, Trump withdrew US support for the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the Iran nuclear deal. He is preparing to unilaterally reimpose sanctions to isolate and weaken Iran’s leadership.
In complete contrast, the Russian government remains committed to both the JCPOA, as well as to its own extensive diplomatic, economic and military relations with Iran. Last November, during a visit to Tehran, Putin described Russian-Iranian relations as “very productive.”
After Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said: “The positions of Iran and Russia on regional issues are very close.” Iranian military chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri recently reaffirmed close military ties between Iran and Russia, which will be a matter of concern to the United States and its ally Israel. These policy divergences will only deepen as the first round of reimposed US sanctions against Iran go into effect in August.
While Syria and Iran can be classed as close Russian allies, strains are developing in US relations with its NATO partner Turkey.
Ankara has ordered the S-400 advanced Russian antiaircraft system in preference to the US-made Patriot. This has put sales of US F-35 stealth fighters to Turkey at risk and Ankara threatened retaliation if it cannot have the F-35s. Both the United States and Israel have expressed concerns over these developments, which have the potential to change the tactical dynamic of operations in the skies above the Middle East.
US-Russian policies also differ towards Israel. Approximately 20% of the Israeli population was born in the former Soviet Union. It is notable that Russia has not moved its embassy to Jerusalem and Netanyahu’s relationship with Putin is cooler than it is with Trump.
Despite Trump’s persistent and inexplicable warmth towards Putin, divergences over the Palestinian issue remain unbridgeable. Hamas, which has been in control of the Gaza Strip since 2006, is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
However, Hamas has continued to have a good relationship with Russia. Its leaders have regularly visited Moscow since 2015. On June 25, a delegation led by Hamas political bureau member Moussa Abu Marzouk visited Moscow and met with Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian deputy foreign minister and special presidential envoy to the Middle East. The ensuing discussions ranged from the anticipated US Middle East peace plan to Russia’s help in possibly brokering Palestinian reconciliation.
Clearly, substantive divergences of perceptions mean the summit will produce little of note for the Middle East.
John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.