Syria civil war: ‘Grand bargain’ expected at Trump-Putin Helsinki summit fails to materialise

Donald Trump‘s decision to side with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin rather than his own intelligence agencies over evidence of Kremlin interference in the 2016 US election, understandably dominated headlines from the bilateral summit in Helsinki.
When it came to expected statements on Syria, however, it was what the US president did not say that was most telling.
Many analysts – and officials within Mr Trump’s administration – wondered whether the summit would result in some kind of “grand bargain” in which the US might fully accept the survival of Russian ally Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and possibly Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in return for the removal of Iranian forces from the war-torn country.
Before the meeting, political website The Daily Beast also reported that US officials were trying to take Syria completely off the table before the talks, fearing Mr Trump might commit to his desire to remove US troops from the country now that Isis has largely been defeated.
Instead, a conference that could have at least more clearly outlined the potential for US and Russian cooperation towards ending Syria’s seven-year-old civil war left most observers with just as many questions as before.
“What we got in Helsinki was basically a reiteration of the status quo,” said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at think tank Crisis Group.
“Putin set out Russia’s established and specific aims in Syria, but it was not clear whether the meeting had convinced Trump of anything, or whether the two reached any substantive new agreement beyond vague statements on cooperation. It was incoherent.”
Mr Trump reiterated his desire to counter Iran in Syria, insisting that Tehran would “not [be allowed] to benefit from our successful campaign against Isis” – but when Mr Putin talked about the Assad government’s current campaign to retake Deraa province in the southwest, he remained notably silent.
“Trump didn’t challenge what Putin said on the Syrian army’s presence in the southwest, or what he said about restoring the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire in the Golan Heights,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.
“That was remarkable, it was basically making a statement by not making a statement, not challenging Putin’s assessment of the situation.”
The two did actively agree on the need to guarantee neighbouring Israel’s security from the threat of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Israel, for its part, has increased its air raids on Syrian and Iranian military targets in recent months, which Russia has tacitly acquiesced to.
It may be that more substantive agreements were reached in the mammoth two-hour-long private meeting between the pair – but so far, little has been made clear.