US President Donald Trump will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, in a much-anticipated summit against the backdrop of an ongoing American investigation into Moscow's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. Despite complimentary allegations of collusion between then-candidate Trump's campaign and Russian agents casting a shadow over the meet, there are many issues on the table that, however approached and the resulting deals cut, will go a long way towards determining the course of global events, especially in the Middle East.
In fact, both the war in Syria and the Iran nuclear deal are expected to top the agenda, with speculation already swirling about potential arrangements that could, for example, see the US recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea in return for the Kremlin's support for renewed American sanctions on Tehran; or, perhaps, a commitment by Moscow to expel Iranian forces from Syria in exchange for a partial withdrawal of US troops from the country.
Overall, analysts are speaking of a "grand bargain" of sorts that would update and formalize the terms of the Washington-Moscow relationship.
Notably, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu traveled to Russia last week to reiterate his "red lines" with respect to Syria, a combustible arena where the competing interests of regional and global powers intersect, thus making it a perennial hotspot for the possible emergence, whether intentional or otherwise, of new and protracted military engagements. Most acutely, the Israeli leader insists that Shi'ite forces under Iranian control, including Hezbollah, be banned from operating anywhere near the Golan Heights, and, more broadly, that these fighters, along with their Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders, ultimately be completely removed from the country.
Over the weekend, Netanyahu further pressed these positions in a phone conversation with President Trump
, whom he again thanked for taking a hardline approach to Iran. As to the atomic pact specifically, which the Europeans are feverishly trying to salvage following the White House's withdrawal from the agreement earlier this year, Sunni Arab nations are as concerned as the Jewish state about the Islamic Republic's potential nuclearization and, like Netanyahu, have made their voices heard, albeit mainly behind-the-scenes.
Accordingly, from Jerusalem to Riyadh, Amman to Beirut, all eyes will be on the Finnish capital, as the former Cold War foes plot a path forward.
Trump on Putin: A Brief History (Reuters)
"There is an intention by the US and Russia to arrive at a form of worldwide agreement about their respective 'spheres of influence,'" Dr. Zaki Shalom, a Senior Research Fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies and an expert on the role of superpowers in the Middle East, told The Media Line. "It is similar to what took place after the Second World War when there was a deal between [then-U.S. president] Roosevelt, [former British leader] Churchill and [Soviet chief] Stalin regarding who controls what in order to avoid any direct clashes.
"[In this respect], the Americans have sent a message to Moscow that they are willing to give Putin free reign in Syria and that Assad can remain in power. Also, President Trump realizes that Russia's hold of Crimea is essentially a fait accompli. Given this understanding," Dr. Shalom elaborated, "President Trump is likely to push for the Iranians to leave Syria, while asking Russia to accept dramatic changes to the nuclear accord between world powers and Tehran. As per North Korea, Washington will want Russian support for the demilitarization [of the Peninsula]."
Regarding the Middle East, strengthening the atomic deal and curbing Iran's territorial expansionism are viewed by many analysts as make-or-break issues that, in the absence of progress, could have devastating consequences.
Already, Tehran has assumed a stranglehold over Lebanon through its Hezbollah proxy and has made inroads in Yemen and Iraq. Syria, however, could be the straw that shatters the camel's back as Israel seems intent on preventing Iran from gaining a permanent foothold in the country and has conducted well over one hundred cross-border strikes over the past years to this end. Should the Islamic Republic continue its military build-up, Jerusalem's hand may be forced and a full-blown conflict could ensue.
Yet it appears that both the US and Russia share an interest in averting such an eventuality.
As the war in Syria winds down, Moscow has become less dependent on Iranian-backed fighters to do its dirty work on the ground and, overall, wants to avoid future instability that could threaten regime and, as a corollary, jeopardize its military gains. Therefore, according to Dr. Zaki, "while Putin might not be able to forcibly evict Iranian troops, he can give Israel the green-light to continue attacking their assets inside Syria. Without Russian protection, the Iranians will essentially be left alone without the ability to respond to Israel. In the end, it may be that only a limited number of 'advisers' will remain in order for Tehran to save face."
Avi Melamed, Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs at the Washington-based Eisenhower Institute, similarly believes that a US-Russia deal on Syria will come at Iran's expense. "Putin is at the phase in which he wants to collect dividends in Syria. While he has to take into consideration the needs of all actors, he does not want the Iranians to become too powerful. This is not to say that Tehran will be fully [neutralized], but rather forced to make concessions. It will be a disappointment from their perspective given the massive investment made."
In terms of the US military presence, Melamed contended to The Media Line that he does not expect any major changes to the current dynamic. "In the context of Syria, the American military deployment is not like the one in Afghanistan or Iraq. There is an aerial component largely [taking flight] from northern Jordan and another one through [allied] Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates. I do not see this being drawn down."
Finally, he concluded, as regards the nuclear deal "President Trump has the upper hand because the major blow is the withdrawal of Western companies from the Iranian economy and Putin cannot compensate for the losses." This, coupled with the fact that France, Britain and Germany have to date been unable to reach a new compromise with Iran and will not be sheltered from US secondary sanctions, suggests the atomic pact may soon be totally abrogated.
Superficially, then, it appears that Israel and its Sunni neighbors stand to have their positions advanced in Helsinki by two of the world's greatest superpowers. Whether this fosters a period of wait-and-see quiet or increased tensions will depend primarily on how aggressively Iran responds to the prospective setback.