What does the Putin-Trump summit come down to? Trump’s pro-Israeli policy is essential to the domestic survival in US politics of a politician with a multitude of enemies, not least within the ranks of his own security bureaucracy. At a time when Israel and Iran are facing off in South-West Syria, his anti-Iranian rhetoric is a vital part of this (singularly narrow) survival strategy. What Trump has to trade with Putin are the new type of sanctions on Russia oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska in particular, concocted by US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin.
Trump is meeting Putin to ask him to push Iran out of Syria, in exchange for which he will relax sanctions against Deripaska. As an aside, despite the fact that Trump will want to make this trade anyway, it looks like the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in their stunning stupidity, seem to want to give Trump generous (and unnecessary) inducements to make this anti-Iranian policy happen.
Putin’s desperation to rescue Deripaska, on the other hand, is absolutely clear. Despite the latter’s catastrophic mismanagement of the Russian aluminium industry so far, Putin seems willing to endanger the ecology of Lake Baikal (above), the largest freshwater lake on the planet, to save Rusal (the aluminium company). Nationalization is not an option due to the dependence of the Russian state, and Putin’s personal power, on the web that the oligarchs have created between the homeland and their offshore colony, woven as it is into the economies of the colonial powers – US, UK, and France.
So far Russia has succeeded in imposing its will on South-Eastern Syria on behalf of Assad, but severing Iran’s establishment of its strategic base in South-West Syria, territorially contiguous with Southern Lebanon and the territory of (Nasrallah’s) Hezbollah, is quite another matter. Russia’s leverage on Iran does not quite go that far.
However, could Russia solve this by getting Trump to give Turkey a waiver on trading with Iran? On the one hand, a reduction in the presence of Iranian military hardware in South Syria wouldn’t be that problematic for an Iranian régime that has already “demographically reconfigured” Damascus and its suburbs with new loyal (paramilitary) populations ready to do Iranian bidding at any time in the future, should the need for a military build-up arise. On the other hand, ensuring a continuing trade with Turkey is vital for Iran. Although this is in Turkish interests as well, nevertheless, at a time when Turkish bankers are paying a heavy price in US courts for breaking previous US sanctions on Iran, Iran cannot absolutely guarantee this lifeline without Russian pressure on Trump.
Neither would Russia mind consolidating control over Assad, whose régime they helped Iran rescue from annihilation, by fielding a greater Russian military police presence in the Damascus area, and ensuring no further chemical attacks that Russia would then have to spend time and effort spinning as fake news/red flags in the media. In fact, Russia would consolidate its role by acting as a policeman to keep Israel and Iran “apart” in Syria, and give Israel the guarantees it needs. If Russia removes Iran from the Syrian theatre entirely, it would undermine its own status and power in that respect.
Looking generally at the Syrian situation, it then becomes clear that the trumpeted resurgence of Assad and the idea of a unified Syria under his rule is a total mirage. For a start, Trump is concerned only with South-West Syria and Israel. He won’t withdraw US troops from North-East Syria. Despite his statements to that effect, he doesn’t have the power to convince the Pentagon and the CIA to make any move in that regard.
The US security state clearly failed to dislodge Erdoğan in the July 2016 attempted coup, and it watches with dismay as the Turkish military establishment built links with Russia by buying the S-400 air defense systems. So, it will continue to want a permanent point of pressure on Turkey in Syrian Kurdistan to guarantee that its interests in general, and the facilities open to it on Turkish soil (at İncirlik [airbase near Adana] and Kürecik [X-band early warning radar near Malatya]) in particular, are maintained. The Turks are obdurate, and US forces have already previously experienced periods of expulsion (as after the Cyprus invasion), despite Turkish membership of NATO.
The deal with Turkey that Russia will, therefore, broker after this summit, would also consolidate the Turkish position in Idlib, which the Turks are adamant to defend against any incursion by Assad anyway, to prevent a further displacement of refugees towards its borders. Syria, despite the rhetoric, will remain divided. On the house of cards that have been stacked up in the benighted country by foreign powers, today’s geopolitics depend.