Michele Dunne | Director and senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program in Washington, D.C.
When Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin sit down for their one-on-one in Helsinki on July 16, Trump is expected to argue for Russia to cooperate with the United States and Israel to kick Iranian forces out of Syria. If Trump is well prepared (not to be taken for granted), he might make an argument similar to the one laid out by Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff: The United States succeeded in its goal of defeating the Islamic State, as did Russia in its goal of propping up Bashar al-Assad, so now let’s push Iran aside and shape Syria in a way that serves both our interests.
Sounds logical and reasonable, no? Except that Putin most likely views forcing Iran out as neither feasible nor even desirable, a fact that Russian officials have been signaling consistently—“absolutely unrealistic” is how Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it to his Jordanian counterpart recently. And even if Putin says something that Trump can portray as agreement over cooperating against Iran, history (of Russian actions in Syria specifically) suggests he is unlikely to deliver.
Does Putin hope to take advantage of a U.S. president seen as over-eager to show that he can conduct high-level diplomacy and get something in return for withdrawing U.S. forces? Comments by a senior Russian official that Putin decided he wanted to negotiate with the U.S. president personally “after studying Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un” suggest as much. It might end up that Trump announces some broad form of agreement to cooperate in Syria, while what Putin has in mind is doing no more than he needs to do in order to keep Israel at bay.
Dmitri Trenin | Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
In the run-up to the Helsinki meeting, Russia’s general expectations of reaching specific agreements with the United States over Middle East-related issues are modest. Long gone are the days when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov worked hard with his American counterpart John Kerry to hammer out a formula for peace in Syria. Just last spring, U.S. and Russian forces, having defeated the Islamic State, came closer to a direct confrontation than probably at any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Moreover, Russia, along with China and three European countries, remains committed to the nuclear deal with Iran, even as the Trump administration has withdrawn from the accord. Finally, on the issue of oil prices, Russia, like Saudi Arabia, sees U.S. shale oil as a competitor.
Yet some interests overlap. Since it intervened in Syria in 2015, Russia has had to manage antagonistic relations between its situational ally Iran and its key partner Israel. Essentially, Moscow is seeking equilibrium between what it considers Iran’s and Israel’s legitimate security interests. The question is what degree of Iranian military presence in Syria could be tolerated by the Israelis, yet deemed sufficient by Tehran to keep a link to Hezbollah? U.S.-Russian discussions on deescalation in Syria may include this highly delicate issue. No formal agreement can be expected, but some general understanding should not be ruled out.
Maha Yahya | Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut
With Syria’s rebels having been pretty much thrown under the bus, so to speak, and senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, suggesting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not the problem in Syria, Arab and Israeli officials are hoping that Russian President Vladimir Putin will at least agree to curtail Iran’s influence in Syria and the region. Israel in particular is keen to see Iranian forces leave Syria, which Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has already deemed unrealistic. In exchange, there has been speculation that President Donald Trump might either lift U.S. sanctions on Russia put in place after its actions in Ukraine or offer U.S. recognition of its annexation of Crimea. However, such hopes are unlikely to be realized.
While Russia may not mind clipping Iran’s wings in Syria, it has no interest in committing to such an undertaking, or adequate leverage to do so. Iranian forces are central to Assad’s efforts to recapture all areas of Syria outside his control, as was evident in the recent onslaught on Der‘a, where reports indicated the Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian forces participated in the battle. The Islamic Republic has invested tremendous financial and human resources in Syria. However, while it is improbable, should the Russians show the Iranians that they can mitigate some of the impacts of the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, this may open the door for a wider agreement that addresses regional concerns about Tehran’s expanding influence.
Tomáš Valášek | Director of Carnegie Europe, Brussels
Good question. Syria and Iran will be the two key Middle Eastern issues on Europe’s mind. On Syria, the European capitals will hope that Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin breathe new life into stalled peace talks, and perhaps make progress on postwar political arrangements. The unknown to us in Europe is whether Putin will be interested. He seems to regard Washington as part of the problem in Syria and has notably convened the Astana talks without participation by the United States.
On Iran, the Europeans will hope Putin uses his influence to lean on Trump not to completely dismantle the nuclear agreement. The odds of success seem slim, however, given the explicit and highly public U.S. repudiation of the agreement.
Rudra Chaudhuri | Director of Carnegie India, New Delhi
U.S. sanctions against Iran will likely be the central Middle Eastern concern for India at the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. Iran is India’s third largest oil supplier. If India were to wholly adhere to the recently announced U.S.-led sanctions against Tehran, it would need to end its oil imports from the Islamic Republic by November 2018. Cutting off an oil route from Iran not only threatens—if only to a certain extent—India’s energy security requirements; more importantly, it would also involve an incredible effort on the part of both India and Iran to negotiate around restrictive fiscal structures produced by the sanctions regime. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to even lightly press for exceptions in sanction targeting will matter for India. At the same time, Indian officials are unlikely to wager on Putin’s success. India will possibly rely on its own negotiators to explore exceptions to sanctions with Washington, while doing everything possible to maintain bureaucratic enthusiasm for India in Iran.
Tong Zhao | Fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing
Against the backdrop of growing U.S.-China strategic competition, Beijing will watch the Trump-Putin summit closely and with anxieties. The United States has explicitly identified China as its most important long-term strategic rival. If the U.S.-Russia relationship becomes warmer while the U.S.-China relationship runs into greater problems, China worries that it could soon bear the brunt of the battle against American global power. This could herald the end of China’s so-called “period of strategic opportunity,” in which China hid behind Russia to counterbalance Western influence, even as it quickly built up its own hard power.
However, the prospect is poor that an improved U.S.-Russia relationship could make quick progress toward resolving the key regional crises that China cares about, including saving the nuclear deal with Iran and extending peace to the Korea Peninsula. The question China seeks to address is how, in the U.S.-China-Russia trilateral relationship, Beijing can maintain the current situation in which both Moscow and Washington have a closer relationship with Beijing than with each other.