Snapshot Analysis: Putin’s Overture to Trump on Syria
The biggest news to come out of the May 2 phone call between the presidents of Russia and the United States was Vladimir Putin’s overture to Donald Trump on Syria. Russia is proposing the establishment of safe zones for opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime inside Syria—something Trump has called for in the past. According to the White House’s readout of the conversation, Trump and Putin discussed the possibility of creating “safe, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.” Russia has previously opposed the establishment of such zones, but now with Assad’s positions secured, Moscow is no longer concerned that the rebels can use them to regroup and turn the tide of the conflict.
Even before the call Putin made it clear that he wants to woo Trump into better coordination of diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict. Speaking at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier on May 2, Putin stated that “without the participation of a country such as the U.S., it’s impossible to resolve this problem [in Syria] effectively.”
Putin’s overture to Trump has brought some instant dividends: The U.S. leader told his Russian counterpart that he would send a senior representative to Russian-sponsored talks on Syria in Kazakhstan on May 3-4 (Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Stuart Jones), whereas, before, the U.S. had sent only its envoy in Kazakhstan to observe some of the previous rounds.
In addition to offering Trump a chance to jointly pick some of the lower-hanging fruit in the tense U.S.-Russian relationship (namely, to work on Syria and counter-terrorism) for the sake of normalizing bilateral ties, Putin’s proposal also aims to advance Russia’s own interests in Syria. The Kremlin’s readout of the conversation made no mention of safe zones, and Putin's spokesman claimed they had not been discussed in detail, but some specifics about the plan have been leaking out to the press. The proposal reportedly calls for several safety zones to be established on the condition that Russians co-patrol them with Turkey and Iran, and that Syrian rebels purge them of al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. If implemented on these terms, the proposal would not only further increase Russia’s military presence in Syria, but would also strengthen Moscow’s role as a power broker and moderator among al-Assad, his allies, Kurds and the moderate opposition, increasing the likelihood that the conflict would be ultimately resolved in ways that would honor Russia’s interests in the country.
More details of the conversation and related news developments are below.
Details of Russia’s proposal, reaction to it and other related news on Syria:
- Putin’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, presented a plan to set up four buffer zones manned by troops from Russia, Iran and Turkey and possibly other forces at a meeting with anti-Assad groups last week in Ankara, according to Syrian opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi. The areas, which Russia calls “deconfliction zones,” would be set up in the northwestern Idlib province, Homs province in the west, the East Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and southern Syria. Russia has not officially released its proposal. Russia said rebels in those areas would first have to push out jihadist groups like the Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda. Reports in Russian state media say the zones would be patrolled by forces from Russia, Iran and Turkey. (AP, 05.03.17, Bloomberg, 05.03.17, Bloomberg, 05.02.17, New York Times, 05.02.17)
- Syria’s opposition is skeptical about the Russian initiative. Syrian opposition official Ahmed Ramadan says the Russian proposal for safe zones cannot be accepted in its current form and that armed rebel groups have questions about it. Assad’s opponents want UN peacekeepers to be deployed—an idea rejected by the Syrian government. (Bloomberg, 05.03.17, AP, 05.03.17)
- Since taking office, Trump has been exploring the option of creating unofficial safe zones in Syria, dubbed "interim de-escalation areas" by some U.S. officials, along the Turkey and Jordan borders. The zones would be aimed at protecting civilians—and dissuading Syrian refugees from trying to come to the United States, one of Trump’s goals. But military leaders have warned that significant American resources would be required to safeguard the regions. (AP, 05.03.17, (Wall Street Journal, 05.02.17)
- When Trump met with ambassadors from the UN Security Council states last week, he told them that “the future of Assad is not a deal-breaker,” a Russian diplomat said afterward. (New York Times, 05.02.17)
- “Without the participation of a country such as the U.S., it’s impossible to resolve this problem [in Syria] effectively,” Putin said after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi. “We will continue to be in contact with our American partners and we hope to reach an understanding on joint steps in this important and sensitive field.” Asked whether he had the influence to sway Assad, Putin said that Russia, in tandem with Turkey and Iran, was trying to “create the conditions for political cooperation from all sides.” (New York Times, 05.02.17, Bloomberg, 05.02.17)
- Expanding the number of countries involved in Russian-backed peace talks for Syria could offer a chance to jumpstart negotiations on a political solution, Gernot Erler, Germany's top official for Russia policy, has said. (Reuters, 05.02.17)
- The Astana talks were set up as a sort of alternative to the process favored by the U.S. and U.N. in Geneva, but Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy on Syria, said May 2 for the first time that he would attend the talks. (New York Times, 05.02.17)
- The two presidents discussed at length working together to eradicate terrorism throughout the Middle East. (White House readout, 05.02.17)
- They also discussed what the U.S. called the “very dangerous” situation on the Korean peninsula, with the Russian president calling for restraint and reduction of tensions. (Bloomberg, 05.02.17)
- The two presidents discussed having their first one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany on July 7-8, according to the Kremlin, which said the two leaders were “in favor of organizing a personal meeting.” The U.S. statement made no mention of this. (Earlier, there had been rumors in the press of a separate meeting of the two presidents to be held even before the G-20, in May.) Perhaps, with Russia having become such a divisive topic in domestic U.S. politics, Trump considers it imprudent for the time being to make what opponents of a U.S.-Russian rapprochement inside the Beltway would view as concessions to Putin.
- The call, the third between the leaders since Trump took office in January, was “businesslike and constructive,” according to the Kremlin, and the White House called it “very good.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters it was a “very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.” The conversation lasted about 30 minutes and was initiated by Putin, according to a U.S. official briefed on the call. The official said there was no breakthrough during the call. (Wall Street Journal, 05.02.17, Bloomberg, 05.02.17)
- The conversation between the two leaders appears not to have touched on such high-profile foreign-policy and security issues as the conflict in Ukraine or the New START and INF arms-control treaties.
Simon Saradzhyan is the director of Russia Matters and assistant director of the Belfer Center's U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism.