President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday announced their commitment to defeating the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and agreed “there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria,” they said in a joint statement.
“The Presidents affirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character, as defined in UNSCR 2254,” according to the statement, which refers to the UN Security Council resolution that calls for a ceasefire and political solution to the Syrian crisis.
Trump and Putin also agreed on the importance of de-escalation areas, like the one in Syria’s southwestern triangle that borders Israel and Jordan.
The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Network Experts Emile Nakhleh, former director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program, and Michael Sulick, former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, about what this U.S.-Russia agreement for Syria means.
Nakhleh says Russia and Putin will be the winners from a U.S.-Russia deal on Syria.
For all intents and purposes, the Trump administration is ceding diplomacy to Russia. Here are the reasons: a) the “deconfliction” has been operational for years, which means there is nothing in this deal; b) Russia will not support American efforts to curtail the presence and influence of Iranian armed militias and IRGC military elements in Syria; and c) Russia will not agree to Washington’s efforts to keep Assad from remaining a key player in Syria’s future.
The Russians know that with the defeat of ISIS, the United States will be less enthused about massive commitments in military personnel and money to post-ISIS Syria. Russia and Iran will simply outwait the U.S. in this game.
What is even more worrisome is the fact that the final defeat of ISIS is leaving in its place an energized al Qaeda through its recently rebranded group HTS (Harakat Tahrir al-Sham). HTS is a coalition of several pro-al Qaeda groups that operated under the radar in Syria. Some of these groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front), had received financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Perhaps Putin knows that having defeated ISIS, the U.S. will not be back to Syria to fight HTS, which would give Assad a new lease on life.
Sulick says that Putin has already succeeded in getting most of what he wants in Syria, including keeping Syrian President Bashar al Assad in power, and this U.S.-Russia announcement is mostly for Putin’s domestic political purposes.
For the most part, he [Putin] has already accomplished his main goals: maintaining Assad in power and taking credit for the defeat of ISIS (even though his forces inflicted heavier damage on anti-Assad rebels). He wants to withdraw or at least scale back his effort because of domestic concerns.
A recent poll indicates 49 percent of Russians want to end the Syria campaign and only 30 percent favor a continued presence. Cutbacks in social services that affect Russians’ everyday life are due not only to oil prices and sanctions, but to the continuing cost of a far off military venture whose purpose seems unclear to much of the population. Besides that, the state-controlled media is experiencing more difficulty explaining mounting Russian casualties in the conflict. Commanders are taking more aggressive action to end the campaign, which in turn produces more casualties. With a presidential election looming next year, Putin would like to declare victory and bring the troops home.
On the U.S. side, an agreement with Russia on Syria shows Trump’s desire to avoid any kind of conflict with Putin, says Nakhleh, but this will harm long-term U.S. interests.
If this deal materializes, it will underscore the Trump administration’s determination to avoid any confrontation with Putin and willingness to concede the Middle East to the Russians as their “backyard.” This will be disastrous for our long-term interests in the region and for the safety and security of American personnel and presence in the Middle East.
Russia would welcome such a development because the expected deal would indirectly diminish U.S. prestige, credibility, and steadfastness in the region and raise Russian influence across the Middle East and in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition to Syria, Russia has already established cozy relations with Turkey and Iran and is doggedly pursuing relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The emerging U.S.-Russian relationship is a one-way street, with Moscow on the winning side and Washington on the losing side.
Nakhleh also notes Trump may be able to sell this deal as a success, even though it is not.
President Trump might also be interested in signing such a lop-sided arrangement with Putin over Syria because upon his return to Washington, he would sell the deal to the American people as a major diplomatic success from his trip abroad. In the long-term, however, such “success” would be pyrrhic.
Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.