Aides to President Trump are trying to keep the conflict in Syria off the agenda when Trump meets with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, a senior administration official told The Daily Beast.
That’s an increasingly unlikely proposition. In London on Friday, Trump told reporters that he plans to bring up Syria with Putin when they meet one-on-one on Monday – supposedly without aides, unmediated.
What frightens some U.S. officials, Syrian activists, and many Middle East analysts is that Trump, who muses that “hopefully, someday, maybe [Putin will] be a friend,” will finally accede to Russia’s insistence on the U.S. leaving Syria — something Trump recently expressed an eagerness to do.
That would leave Russia’s client, the blood-soaked Bashar Assad, without any remaining obstacle to a final victory in perhaps the most pitiless conflict thus far seen in the young 21st century.
The White House declined to comment on whether officials were concerned over discussion of Syria in Helsinki.
According to the senior administration official, who was not cleared to discuss internal deliberations with a reporter, no actual deal is on the table, nor is the U.S. foreign policy apparatus preparing one. But that doesn’t mean Trump, who considers himself the only relevant person in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, won’t go along with Putin’s wishes.
That worry comes amid many guesses and misgivings about the way Putin might play Trump.
What will POTUS tell Putin about his commitment to NATO, given the dismissive fashion with which the president greeted his allies at last week’s summit in Brussels? Trump eventually made pro-forma expressions of support, but shredded the trust and confidence essential to a working alliance.
A former deputy defense secretary has warned that Putin might seek to get Trump to suspend NATO military exercises in the Baltics, similar to the way North Korea’s Kim Jong Un got him to suspend U.S. military exercises in South Korea.
Trump claims he backs Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, but reportedly told G7 leaders in Canada last month that Putin seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula because people there spoke Russian, implying the 2014 land grab was justified.
After the indictments Friday of 12 Russian military officers whose names and roles subverting the 2016 U.S. elections were exposed in detail by special counsel Robert Mueller, it’s unclear what sort of explanation Trump will demand of Putin. Trump said Friday he would again ask Putin about “the question” of Russian interference – implying, even after he knew about the pending indictments, that it remains an open question.
NSC officials would not say if Trump will insist that Putin extradite either the officers or the 13 other Russians Mueller indicted earlier for participation in the social-media manipulation firm known as the Internet Research Association. But on Sunday morning, Trump told CBS News he "hadn't thought" of asking Putin for extradition, and "might" ask at their Helsinki meeting.
Trump’s tweets on Saturday suggest that in public he will continue creating clouds of diversion and doubt about Russia’s actions, alluding again to a “Deep State” FBI conspiracy against his presidency, and suggesting the whole issue of Russian election meddling was really the fault of his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
Ned Price, a CIA veteran and former Obama NSC spokesman, warned last week that one of the surprises Trump and Putin may pull in Helsinki would be “a pledge of mutual non-interference in each other’s political systems.”
“Putin almost certainly would market a non-interference pact as a win-win,” Price wrote on the NBC News web site. “Trump — who has endured withering criticism for failing to confront Putin’s attack on our democracy — would be able to emerge from the summit shouting to the masses that Russia would never again meddle in our elections.”
That would be little deterrent to Putin’s covert operations. But it would relieve Putin of U.S. diplomacy promoting democracy, human rights, press freedom and the rule of law — even as it betrayed those who have looked to the United States for support.
On that score, no one is more vulnerable than the Syrians who the Americans have encouraged to fight and die in the war to defeat the so-called Islamic State, but who now fear they’ll be left to the tender mercies of Assad and Putin.
Although Syria has largely disappeared from Washington conversation since Trump threatened to withdraw in March, Syria’s overlapping wars have ground along. A special-operations-heavy U.S. force of about 2,000 remains in northeastern Syria, working alongside a heavily Kurdish ground force proxy – a major irritant for the Turks, who have accordingly moved closer to the Russian approach to the conflict after initially calling for Assad’s ouster.
The U.S.-Kurdish relationship, which provides the U.S. military with staging grounds and airfields for operations and resupply, is supposed to be focused on final-phase operations against an Islamic State remnant— and, more nebulously, preventing an ISIS resurgence.
Within the elements of the administration that oppose rapid U.S. withdrawal, inertia is deemed success. As the Wall Street Journal noted recently, despite predictions from the White House in April that there would be a rapid exit from Syria, U.S. military officials have stopped providing timelines for completion of the mission.
Keeping Trump from acquiescing to a Putin-engineered Assad victory means the U.S. won’t be leaving its Kurdish allies to their fate, whatever that ends up being, and it nominally keeps pressure on ISIS — although no one within the administration or the military has defined a point at which the U.S. war against ISIS can be said to end.
Inside the administration, frustration abounds. Trump is frustrated with the continued presence of U.S. forces in a conflict he seems to consider finished. Others are frustrated by the White House’s freezing of resources, including hundreds of millions of dollars for post-ISIS recovery efforts, functionally starving what’s becoming a zombie mission.
Administration officials are growing creative, raising $900 million from anti-ISIS coalition members over the past several weeks, the official said, a situation the official characterized as “a farce” given the effective U.S. influence over northeastern Syria.
The point of the inertia, from this official’s perspective, is to avoid “the worst possible outcomes” in Syria. And though the official doesn’t see any deal to be had with Putin, Syrians see one as increasingly likely when Trump’s in Helsinki.
“I think he doesn’t like Syria,” said Syrian pro-democracy activist Raed Fares, when asked by The Daily Beast if he feared that Trump would cede control of Syria to Russia. “I’m sure he will do that.”
Fares said Trump has a myopic focus on Iran as the root of terrorism, but that if he withdraws U.S. troops and cedes northern Syria to the regime, the result would be long-term chaos, with Al-Qaeda linked groups and ISIS sleeper cells re-emerging to control territory.
Fares is visiting Washington, D.C., trying to convince the State Department to resume payment of a million dollars in annual funding to run his radio station and dozens of civic centers that support women and teenagers across Idlib province. “It will take a year to find funding…we might vanish by then,” he told reporters at the Middle East Institute.
“I think the president really wants to give Syria away,” said Daniel Serwer, an MEI scholar and director of conflict management at Johns Hopkins-SAIS. “He’s already cut off the insurgents in the south, he’s said he wants to leave the east, I don’t think he’s at all inclined to stay in Syria.”
Serwer predicted that would end international efforts to reach a peace agreement.
“There’ll be no U.N. political settlement if the U.S. pulls out. This will be an Assad victory with Russia and Iran enjoying whatever fruits there are,” Serwer told The Daily Beast.
That said, Russia and Iran could find themselves managing a “quagmire,” he said.
“The fruits include a massive reconstruction bill and the likelihood that Syria will not be stabilizable, that the extremists will return and even less extreme insurgents will return. I think it’s very difficult for Russia, Iran and Assad to win in any long-term perspective.”
Serwer doubts Russia would pressure Assad into pushing out Iranian advisors or the Shiite militias they have trained and built. “I don’t think Russia can or even would. I think Russia’s primary concern is to keep its foothold in Syria, and that now depends 100 percent on Bashar Assad. The notion that they would do anything to Assad that would give him an incentive to push back Iranians, I think that’s a bridge too far.”
“The Iranians aren’t going anyplace. They like this success,” he said.
But for Trump, who has justified his frequent praise of Putin as part of a plan to fight terrorists together, it will be tempting to declare victory and pull out as a demonstration of how well Moscow and Washington can cooperate. Whether his aides who take a longer view can prevent that from happening will remain an open question at least until the summit ends in Helsinki.
Additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier