Trump-Putin Meeting a Potential Game Changer for Syria

The long-awaited meeting of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump finally took place on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, which came at a time of cool relations between Washington and Moscow.

Despite ongoing tensions, the two powers appeared to embrace a constructive approach to their first meeting, focusing on issues where progress is possible, such as Syria.

During his presidential campaign, Trump stressed the need to fight ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria together with Moscow. This approach was initially opposed by the Obama administration, which during its last year avoided overt ground-level cooperation with Russia in Syria. Although Trump and his team still do not have a clear Syria strategy, they distinctly understand the basics of their policy in the region.

First, the United States does not want to get deeply involved in another conflict in the Middle East. Second, it does not want any major escalation in Syria, especially direct confrontation with Russia, which can lead to unexpected consequences. Third, Washington wants to build cooperation with Moscow in Syria in order to avoid being sidelined and have a say in the settlement process. And last but not the least, the Trump administration wants to demonstrate that its approach to Syria is different from Obama's mild and indecisive policy.

All these issues together paved the way for a meaningful discussion between Trump and Putin on Syria. Both leaders preferred to concentrate on the basics, rather than on the issues that drive them apart.

It is no coincidence that the recent round of Syria talks in Astana was held just before the G-20 summit, while the Geneva talks on Syria will resume on July 10. The timing gave a good chance for all parties involved to be prepared for the talks. During the recent round of negotiations in Astana, the main focus was on defining the parameters and borders of the de-escalation zones in Syria, which is necessary for launching monitoring centers that will observe the cease-fire. Unfortunately, no agreement was signed, but a big process toward that end was confirmed by all parties. The absence of concrete results in Astana should not surprise anyone, as the parties were almost certainly waiting for the Trump-Putin meeting to clarify the situation before reaching a final agreement.

A great deal of preparatory work was done before the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg, including an exchange of high-level visits. The result of the visits was a new working group which, among other things, was supposed to go through the main issues and questions that should be addressed at the first Trump-Putin meeting. The United States also elevated its engagement in the Russian-led Astana process in May by raising the level of its representation at the talks from the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan to the acting assistant secretary of state. This heightened engagement in the Astana process allowed Washington to be involved in the discussion on de-escalation zones, and to have a chance to raise its own concerns and those of its partners. As a result, Russia and the United States came to their leaders’ first meeting in Germany with a closer understanding of the other’s positions on Syria.

Putin and Trump managed to reach a cease-fire agreement in southern Syria that is separate from the four de-escalation zones, which were agreed to by Russia, Turkey and Iran in May 2017 in Astana. This new Trump-Putin deal, which also included input from Israel and Jordan, is important because the south of Syria is a problematic zone in terms of reaching consensus between all parties, for numerous reasons. Firstly, the United States has its own de-confliction zone in southeast Syria in the area of at-Tanf, on the border of Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Washington uses the area to train opposition groups, and has conducted several attacks on pro-government forces in that area over the last few months. Secondly, both Jordan and Israel have repeatedly voiced their concern about the increasing presence of Iranian forces in southern Syria. As a result, Moscow and Washington, together with Jordan, struck an agreement on establishing another cease-fire zone in the southwest of Syria that takes into account the concerns and interests of almost every party.

The latest U.S.-Russia cease-fire agreement, on the one hand, confirms the increased role of the United States in Syria and its commitment to ensure the interests of its allies in Jordan and Israel. On the other hand, it reiterated Moscow’s intention to compromise for the sake of creating a common platform for further joint action in Syria. Moreover, after the Astana talks and before his departure to the G-20 summit, Putin held a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Israel’s concerns over the de-escalation zones, especially in the south. Moscow appears to recognize Israeli worries and prefers to take them into account to avoid spoiling the entire plan. In this context, the agreement reached between Russia, the United States, and Jordan has become a logical result of the ongoing negotiations on the parameters of de-escalation zones in southern Syria.

The agreement also suggests that Moscow does not aim to pursue a unilateral approach to the conflict, and instead seeks a compromise that would simultaneously bring the United States, Jordan, and Israel closer to Russia’s position. If the new agreement succeeds, Russia gets an opportunity to increase its cooperation with the United States in Syria. That said, Moscow is also taking a risk with regards to Iran, which might be unhappy with Russia taking a softer stance on the conflict. Iran could potentially play the role of spoiler, an outcome for which Moscow should be prepared.

The first meeting between Putin and Trump gives hope for the further development of U.S.-Russia relations, and for the creation of a solid basis for constructive dialogue on Syria. Even as skeptics talk down the meeting, one should keep in mind that the goal of the talks was not to reach an agreement; rather, it was to give both leaders an opportunity to clarify their positions, and come one step closer to finding common ground. This is why the agreement of a cease-fire deal for the south of Syria, and new de-escalation zones in the southwest of the country, is a major step forward. Now it remains to be seen whether the cease-fire will be observed, which, if it succeeds, may pave the way for more U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria.