Ever since Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria in late 2015, every summit between President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart former President Donald Trump was an opportunity to reach understandings that would bring Washington closer to Moscow’s stance on the crisis.
Now, Syria, in wake of Wednesday’s summit between Putin and US President Joe Biden, has become a “buffer zone” to halt the major collapse between Washington and Moscow. The leaders discussed cooperation in limited files – small or strategic – playing out in Syria.
Trump, who “trusted” Putin, agreed during an unannounced meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg in 2017, to a ceasefire in southern Syria. He also proposed ending the secret program that was run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the participation of Arab and western countries, to support the Free Syrian Army through Jordan to the south. The program helped the FSA combat the Syrian government.
This was a “gift” offered by Trump to Putin before their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vietnam in 2017.
The two leaders did not hold a direct announced meeting, rather they sufficed with issuing a statement in which they expressed their “rejection of a military solution in Syria.” They also agreed to keep open channels of military communication between Russia and the US with the aim of averting dangerous accidents between forces fighting ISIS.
Previously, the American and Russian armies had agreed to a deconfliction arrangement in Syria. They also designated a separating line, which is the Euphrates River, whereby US-backed forces would be deployed east of the river and Moscow-backed forces would be deployed to its west.
In July 2018, Putin and Trump met in Helsinki. Among several points, they announced their commitment to “guaranteeing Israel’s security”. Then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been pushing the two leaders to take efforts to “keep Iran out of southern Syria.”
In August 2018, it was announced that an international-regional deal on southern Syria was reached. Russia's special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev said that Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias backed by Iran had pulled out of the area. The Iranians, who work as military “advisors” to the government forces, were not included in the deal.
Wednesday’s Putin-Biden summit differs from previous meetings between the Russian and American leaders. The goal behind the cooperation in Syria has changed. It is no longer about building trust or offering American “gifts” to Russia. But Syria is now being used as an arena to stop the collapse in American-Russian relations, which are at their lowest point since the Cold War. Ties have deteriorated because of sanctions, cyberattacks, diplomatic tensions, meddling in interna affairs and differences over North Korea, Ukraine and others.
It is widely believed that despite the “red lines” that Putin and Biden sought to draw over contentious issues, they sought cooperation over others, such as the Iran nuclear file, Syria and the fight against terrorism.
On Syria, the Biden administration is prioritizing the continued defeat of ISIS, halting the regime’s chemical weapons program, ensuring Damascus’ commitment to the 2013 Russian-American agreement and delivering cross-border humanitarian aid to Syrians.
Ahead of Wednesday’s summit, the Americans and Russians on the highest levels sought to exchange various political and field messages in all files. This included Russia’s strikes on Idlib that targeted leading members of the terrorist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group and the Americans’ push to increase the number of border crossings to deliver aid.
It all likelihood, the Geneva summit will give the green light for keeping open the channel of dialogue between Russia and the US in Vienna. Washington was awaiting a call from Moscow, while Moscow was waiting for Washington to take the initiative. The Geneva summit probably put a stop to this endless loop and will pave the way for the two sides to renew cooperation in several files:
1 – They will maintain military arrangements east of the Euphrates to prevent any collision. Moscow would also encourage Damascus and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to hold dialogue over operational and perhaps even political arrangements.
2 – Damascus would be pressured to respond to inquiries by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in return for restoring the government’s privileges at the group. The government was recently included in the World Health Organization’s executive board in the Eastern Mediterranean region and a Syrian special representative was appointed to the Special Committee on Decolonization.
3 – The ground would be paved for extending the international resolution on cross border aid that expires next month. The Biden administration is seeking the opening of three crossings, while Russia’s agreement to extend the opening of the current crossing – Bab al-Hawa – would be interpreted as a sign that it agrees to the continued cooperation.
Arab and regional countries will draw their own conclusions over the Putin-Biden summit and what it entails for Syria.
The implications of the summit on Syria will be revealed during the briefing by UN special envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen to the organization in New York on June 25. They will also be revealed when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken chairs the meeting of the small group of foreign ministers ahead of the meeting of members of the international coalition to defeat ISIS on June 28. The implications of the summit will be tangibly felt on July 11 when the Security Council votes on the cross-border aid resolution.
Some observers believe that these specific Syrian signals could expand to include other issues, such as Iran’s military presence in the war-torn country, especially if Washington and Tehran agree to return to the nuclear deal. This issue would in turn be tied to Damascus normalizing relations with Arab countries and its return to the Arab League. In return, it would receive help in its reconstruction.