Can Trump and Putin ease the Syrian civil war? (Will they be condemned for doing so?)

Brian M Downing

Presidents Trump and Putin met privately last week at the G20 conference in Hamburg. Talks lasted well over two hours, far longer than expected. Details are unknown but there is hope that the two leaders see little good coming from sharper confrontation in the Levant and prefer to reduce the fighting.

The rebels have been driven out of most major cities and government forces cannot retake the whole of former Syria. Fighting drags on. The United States and Russia might be able to do what the Muslim world cannot: bring a measure of stability to a war-ravaged, fragmented country.

The Russian outlook 

Continuing the war serves no Russian interest. Putin’s less than forceful responses to an American cruise missile strike, the shooting down of a Syrian plane, and maneuvering In the east suggest he wants no larger involvement.

He has already reestablished his country as a major power. By expanding and acquiring bases he’s made Russia’s position in the Middle East stronger than it’s been since Sadat reduced ties with the Soviet Union in the seventies and eighties.

Russia has demonstrated its ability to project power. Its aircraft carrier sailed from the Baltic to the eastern Mediterranean, albeit with difficulty, and launched hundreds of airstrikes in support of ground forces. Fighters deployed to an Iranian airfield then launched sorties into Syria. Cruise missiles fired from both the Mediterranean and Caspian showed their range and accuracy. Some of them are capable of going supersonic in the final stage – a point not lost on American admirals.

Putin does not want a long, costly war of reunification. The barren expanses of eastern Syria hold nothing for him but draining coffers. Better to shift to negotiations and emerge with an at least somewhat improved image in the world. His prestige inside Russia will certainly benefit from adroitness in both war and diplomacy.

The American outlook

American interests in Syria have never been clear. Involvement began when ISIL seemed unstoppable and American money, arms, trainers, and air support started to flow in. The flow has become voluminous. In recent weeks US actions suggest support for Kurdish and Sunni Arab statelets or autonomous regions in a swath running from northern Syria to its southeastern border with Jordan.

This move has not elicited significant opposition from Moscow, even though it doubtless irked its allies in Damascus and Tehran and forestalled Russian efforts to win over the Kurds and Sunni Arabs. The novice Donald Trump outmaneuvered his wily adversary in the Kremlin, though of course the contest isn’t over.

Trump wants to prove himself more skillful in world affairs than western media think. Coming to an arrangement with Putin on Syria, providing it does not seem overly generous, will increase his standing, though probably more overseas than at home. Such is the nature of American politics today.

Agenda points

Will is firming in both capitals. Nonetheless, details always present difficulties. Syria, Iran, and Turkey will point them out to Putin. Saudi Arabia and Israel will do the same to Trump.

Syria has fragmented and cannot be put back together. Russia and the US, as well as the allies of both powers, will accept a Shia rump state in the west with Damascus its capital. The Damascus government will not attempt to expand and rebel groups will refrain from attacking the western region. There will be debate over Assad’s continued presence in government, though insistence on his departure has waned in the last year, perhaps on slow recognition that Assad may not be the worst figure in his father’s regime.

All parties will accept Sunni Arab statelets – under Turkish protection in the northwest and American-Saudi tutelage to the east. Kurdish statelets along the Turkish border will be aligned with Washington, and a Turkish-Free Syrian Army region will prevent political-territorial integration.

Government troops will avoid Israeli positions on the Golan Heights. Indeed, Damascus will in effect relinquish control of its southwest. A line of demarcation is being negotiated by the US, Russia, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. The region, populated mostly by Druze, has resisted Israeli entreaties to break from Damascus and become a march land. However, Israel is approximating this feat by declaring the region a no-go zone for government troops. In time the Syrian march will be integrated with Israel’s far more dynamic economy.

Cooperation against jihadi factions will be promised. American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces will assume the burden in eastern Syria. As for the al Nusrah redoubt in the north, government and rebel forces will want others to take on the burden of combat, while they keep their forces as strong as possible.

The most nettlesome part of an agreement will be the question of a Shia corridor connecting Iran with allies in Syria and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Israel are opposed to one. A build-up of western special forces and indigenous troops in southeastern Syria suggest American opposition as well. Iran and Syria will press Russia hard to secure land routes between Shia allies. Failure to come to an agreement will ensure protracted fighting, at least in eastern Syria.


Successful or not, the US and Russia will be widely condemned as a new set of great powers imposing their will on the Middle East. Trump and Putin will be branded the Sykes and Picot of our day.

This predictable view ignores the failure of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab League, Egypt, Qatar, and a score of other entities to resolve a ruinous conflict in their own backyard. Instead, most  of them continued to funnel money and arms into Syria, even well after it was clear that victory by either side was unattainable. Their policies demonstrated neither humanitarian nor pragmatic concerns, only sectarian hatred and willingness to fight to the last Syrian.

Nevertheless, the predictable view is correct in at least one regard: the region will be occupied by Russian and American forces for years to come. But this is less the result of imperialist ambitions than of regional failures.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.