President Donald Trump will soon meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When he does, he must respond to a challenge Putin threw down in Syria, on the heels of Trump’s diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.
How Trump and his administration respond to that challenge will affect not only the future of U.S.-Russian relations, but also Trump’s ability to operate credibly on the international stage. And, more acutely, it will impact the prospect for a major war in the Middle East.
Last July, despite nearly desperate Israeli opposition, Trump and Putin concluded a ceasefire accord regarding southern Syria. Jordan was also a party to the deal.
On Saturday, in a highly destabilizing and contemptuous move, Putin threw the deal into the garbage can.
The deal, the “Memorandum of Principle for De-escalation in Southern Syria” had three main components.
First, it defined the area of southern Syria below Quneitra and Suwayda as an “exclusion zone” for fighters of “non-Syrian origin,” including Iranian forces and their proxies, and fighters linked to al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.
Second, the deal called for maintaining existing governance and security arrangements in opposition-held areas in southwestern Syria. In other words, it barred the Syrian regime from seeking to retake the border area with Jordan and Israel.
Finally, it called for unimpeded access for humanitarian aid workers and the creation of conditions to allow the 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan to begin to return home.
On Saturday night, Russian aircraft, in support of Syrian artillery and barrel bomb assaults, began attacking rebel enclaves along Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan. According to the UN, 45,000 civilians in the Deraa area fled their homes between Saturday night and Tuesday. Jordan, fearing another massive influx of Syrian refugees to its territory, announced it will not accept any of the displaced.
The ceasefire deal was the work of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. McMaster hailed the deal as “an important step forward” towards achieving the goal of “defeating ISIS, helping to end the conflict in Syria, reducing suffering, and enabling people to return to their homes.”
McMaster said de-escalation zones were a “priority for the United States, and we’re encouraged by the progress made to reach this agreement.”
The deal was actually anything but a means to achieve these goals. The implication of the deal was that through McMaster and Tillerson, Trump had adopted his predecessor Barack Obama’s Syria policy. Obama’s policy was to enable Iran and Russia to control Syria through the Assad regime, whose survival Obama accepted as a means of encouraging Iran to accept a nuclear deal.
The main problem with the deal is not what it said – which was highly problematic in and of itself — but what it didn’t say. By limiting the scope of the ceasefire agreement to southwestern Syria, the Trump-Putin ceasefire effectively acquiesced to Russian-Iranian control over the rest of Syria. This deal was predicated on a basic misconstrual of U.S. interests in Syria that formed the basis of Obama’s policies in Syria and indeed, throughout the wider Middle East. While Obama – and through the agreement, Trump – limited U.S. interests in Syria to the defeat of Islamic State forces, the U.S. has a much greater strategic interest in blocking Iran from taking over Syria.
Similarly, the U.S. has a major interest in blocking Iran from seeding its forces, and forces under its control, along the Syrian border with U.S. allies Israel and Jordan. The U.S. has a major interest as well in preventing Iran’s Hezbollah forces from deploying in Syria and in Yemen. The U.S. has an interest in preventing Russia from taking over Syria.
The administration disregarded all of these interests and, indeed, abandoned them in pursuit of the de-escalation deal regarding southern Syria that Trump concluded last July with Putin.
In exchange for ditching all of America’s major interests in Syria, all the administration received was a non-enforceable, and now breached, Russian promise to block Iranian forces and Iranian-controlled forces from dislodging rebel forces deployed along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel.
Israel was alarmed by the ceasefire agreement because it shares many of America’s interests in Syria, and the deal placed all of these interests in jeopardy.
The events in recent weeks that preceded Russia’s initiation of airstrikes all bore out Israel’s concerns.
As Bashar Assad’s regime made clear its intention to attack the rebel-held border zone, in breach of the Trump-Putin deal, the Russians made clear they supported Assad’s intention.
Moscow’s promise to block Iranian-controlled forces from deploying to the Israeli border was exposed as a lie almost as soon as Putin uttered it to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Reports began streaming in that Iranian forces, and Iranian-controlled terror forces — including Afghan Shiite militias and Hezbollah forces — were donning Syrian army uniforms to camouflage their deployment.
Now that Putin has double-crossed him, Trump needs to decide if he is going to continue to implement Obama’s policy in Syria, as McMaster and Tillerson convinced him to do. Will Trump enforce the agreement – as problematic as it is – or will he allow himself to be rolled by Putin, as Obama did before him?
So far, statements by administration officials are signaling clearly that Trump will not enforce the deal.
The implications of allowing Putin to get away breaching the deal are almost incalculable.
First and foremost, they will damage the future of U.S.-Russia relations. President Trump is reasonably keen to develop a constructive, working relationship with Russia. This goal will be impossible to achieve if Putin believes that he can get away with cheating Trump and suffering no consequence for his actions.
Specifically, in relation to Syria, the physical deployment of Iranian-controlled forces along the Syrian-Israeli border and the Syrian-Jordanian border all but ensures a major war between Israel and these forces — including Syrian military forces, which are also controlled by Iran. It raises the likelihood of a Jordanian war with these same forces to an unprecedented level.
The Iranian-Israeli war will spread to Lebanon, which is controlled by Iran through Hezbollah. It can easily spread to Gaza as well, given Iran’s sponsorship of the Hamas terror regime that rules the area.
In a wider strategic framework, the Russians and the Iranians aren’t the only ones that will benefit from a decision by the Trump administration to take no action in the face of Russian betrayal. North Korean leader Kim-Jung-un is doubtlessly watching very closely to see how Trump responds. In the event that the administration decides to acquiesce to Putin’s breach of the agreement he reached with Trump, the chance that Kim will actually give up his nuclear arsenal will be steeply reduced.
Likewise, U.S. allies, whether in the Middle East or Asia or beyond will also receive a clear message from a decision by Trump to allow Russia and Iran to take over the Syrian border with Israel and Jordan, and so ensure a major war. The message they will receive is that the U.S. is not a trustworthy ally.
President Trump is in an unenviable place in relation to Syria. He inherited a horrendous mess in Syria from Obama, who adopted a policy of deliberately abandoning U.S. interests and allies in Syria in favor of empowering Iran and its allies. The deal that Tillerson and McMaster negotiated with the Russians – and convinced Trump to accept – was a reflection of the Washington’s foreign policy community’s reluctance to disavow Obama’s disastrous embrace of Iran.
But a year after Trump accepted the bad deal they brought him, he and his current foreign policy team have little choice but to enforce it. The consequences of every other course of action will be far costlier in lives and in loss of U.S. power.