After Friendly Chit Chat, Trump and Putin Cut Syrian Ceasefire Deal

The deal could change the face of the long-running conflict, but its exact goals aren't immediately clear.

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The United States and Russia plan to implement a ceasefire in southwestern Syria following talks between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Depending on the exact terms of the deal, it could usher in a new stage in the Syrian conflict.

On July 7, 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Dmitri Lavrov both independently announced the plan, which is set to go into effect on July 9, 2017. The final terms were part of a wide-ranging discussion between Trump and Putin, originally scheduled to last between 30 and 40 minutes, but which went on for more than two hours.

“It is (a) well defined agreement on who will secure this area,” Tillerson told reporters afterwards, noting that there were still details left to negotiate and that the final deal would come within a week. Lavrov said that the halt in the fighting will cover the Syrian governorates of Daraa, Quneitra, and Suwayda, while Tillerson simply described the area a “very complicated part of the Syrian battlefield” integral to the territorial security of Syria’s neighbor Jordan. All three governorates border Jordan, which is a key member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, as well as being home to a number of American military facilities and other shared government sites. The Hashemite Kingdom also hosts to significant number of Syrian refugees and has been a key part of diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.

During the lengthy meeting, Trump and Putin and their respective teams reportedly talked through a host of issues, including Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s simmering civil conflict and the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In addition to the Syria plan, the two declared their intention to open a channel on Ukraine, set up a shared cybersecurity working group, and appoint new ambassadors.

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“We've had a very long discussion with the U.S. president,” Putin told reporters after emerging from the session, according to RT. “Many issues accrued, including Ukraine, Syria, and other problems, as well as some bilateral issues.”

The meeting had begun earlier in the morning after the two leaders shared amicable chit chat during a brief photo op for the press. Trump, well known for his overly aggressive hand shake, offered his hand to Putin in a much more relaxed gesture. At one point, Putin leaned in and said either “these are the ones who insulted you?” or "these are the ones hurting you?", pointing directly to the assembled members of the press, after which both men made some additional comments and laughed. Trump has repeatedly accused the American media of being unusually unfair to his administration and himself personally, despite evidence to the contrary. Many believe that Putin is responsible, at least indirectly, for the murder of a number of journalists.

But the ceasefire agreement in particular would be a significant achievement for both men, who have both suggested on numerous occasions, that the United States and Russia might be able to work together to resolve the brutal Syrian civil war, which has raged since 2011, and the final status of dictator Bashar Al Assad. 

The fighting has prompted the rise of a number of terrorist factions, most notably ISIS, and involved a host of regional and international actors, many of whom appear to have wildly differing agendas. The United States and Russia both insist that they are not seeking to fight each other in Syria and that their respective military contingents are battling terrorists. In Germany, Tillerson also reiterated the U.S. government's long-standing position that Assad would need to ultimately leave power, something the Russians are unlikely to support in the near- or long-term. The War Zone has reported many times, in detail about the exact nature of these complex issues.

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Russian military trucks, one with a banner showing Putin and Assad, carrying humanitarian aid to the city of Aleppo in February 2017.

Though there are few details released yet as to the terms, it seems likely the plan will follow on from earlier Russian-sponsored plans for “de-escalation zones," which also have the backing of Iran and Turkey. First announced in May 2017, Moscow's proposal also called for ceasefires in portions of Daraa, Quneitra, and Suwayda governorates, but did not cover the contested Golan Heights area bordering Israel to the west. However, when Russia and its partners met in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana earlier in 2017 to discuss the final implementation of these ceasefire zones, they failed to reach a definitive agreement. At the same time, the Syrian government unilaterally declared a ceasefire in the southwestern corner of the country, which is due to expire right before the U.S.-Russia proposal would take effect.

Russian MoD

A map of de-escalation zones that Russia first announced in May 2017, including a buffer along the Syrian border with Israel.

There was already evidence of the deal before the meeting, as well. “The United States is prepared to explore the possibility of establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability, including no-fly zones, on the ground ceasefire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance,” Tillerson had previously said in a statement ahead of the G20 summit on July 5, 2017. “If our two countries work together to establish stability on the ground, it will lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria's political future.”

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Israeli troops patrol near the Syrian border after a brief skirmish in September 2016.

On top of that, Trump and Putin’s arrangement also reportedly has the support of authorities in Israel and Jordan, who have been especially concerned about the Syrian civil war spilling over into their territory or otherwise inflaming regional tensions. In June 2017, there were reports that Brett McGurk, a former American diplomat now working as the U.S. special envoy to the global coalition fighting ISIS, and U.S. envoy to Syria Michael Ratney had been secretly holding three-way discussions between Russia, Israel, and Jordan about a possible way forward on the crisis.

Highlighting the especially complicated nature of the situation, Israeli and Syrian officials have exchanged increasingly bellicose rhetoric in recent years as Israel’s military continues to attack arms shipments bound for Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists fighting on behalf the regime in Damascus. More recently, the fluid nature of the fighting led to an actual skirmish between the countries along their disputed border in the Golan Heights. A similar incident occurred in September 2016.

Officials in Tehran have been supporting Hezbollah and other militia groups in Syria, as well. For its part, Israel has stressed it cannot accept an Iranian or Iranian-backed presence along the border, in general. As such, a U.S.-Russia plan that creates a buffer in this tense tri-border area would likely be the only option acceptable to the government in Jerusalem. Still, it’s not entirely clear how well a Russian-guaranteed ceasefire would be able to control other factions supportive of Assad.

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A ballistic missile takes center stage at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' rally in support of the Palestinians in Tehran in June 2017.

“The United States believes Russia, as a guarantor of the Assad regime and an early entrant into the Syrian conflict, has a responsibility to ensure that the needs of the Syrian people are met and that no faction in Syria illegitimately re-takes or occupies areas liberated from ISIS' or other terrorist groups' control,” Tillerson had added in his earlier statement “Russia also has an obligation to prevent any further use of chemical weapons of any kind by the Assad regime.”

However, the wealth of existing evidence shows that Russia is either disinterested or incapable of exerting any meaningful control over either the Syrian regime or its Iranian allies, including the use of chemical weapons. In June 2017, American fighter jets shot down two Iranian Shahed 129 drones that attacked U.S.-supported rebel forces near At Tanf close to the border with Iraq, as well as a Syrian Arab Air Force Su-22 Fitter attack aircraft that was attacking similar groups much further north near the strategic Tabqa Dam.

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A view of the Syrian city of Zabadani, outside of the capital Damascus, in the southwestern portion of the country.

In all three cases, U.S. military commanders in the region attempted to use a hotline with their Russian counterparts to call off the attacks and de-escalate the situation, without success. Similar attempts to use this communications channel to get Iranian-backed militias to stand down from advancing on the At Tanf garrison also had no appreciable impact on the situation. Beyond that, the Kremlin’s forces in Syria aren't shy about providing an effective shield against foreign action for Syrian government troops and their allies.

“I think this is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” Tillerson seemed to tacitly confirm after the July 7 meeting at the G20 summit. “As a result of that we had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas.”

We’ll just have to wait for more information to better analyze the ceasefire’s actual goals, as well as how well it ultimately lives up to expectations.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com