At the G-20 summit in Hamburg last July, and despite all odds, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump met to discuss a thorny issue — and it was neither the allegations about Russia hacking the US elections nor the crisis in Ukraine. The leaders of the two great powers met to negotiate the terms of their first agreement, and it concerned Syria.
Since then the Hamburg formula has run its course, and the situation required renewed effort to avert a wider clash in the region. Again, Trump and Putin held a quick meeting on the sidelines of the Asian summit in Da Nang in Vietnam to discuss Syria, and nothing else. They agreed to continue joint efforts to fight Daesh and called on all parties to the Syrian conflict to take an active part in the Geneva political process in accordance with UN resolution 2254. This statement was followed shortly by another Russian-American agreement, with Jordan on board, to solidify the de-escalation zone in southern Syria. This renewed agreement is not by any means the final chapter in the Syrian war. The Da Nang formula faces a plethora of complicated challenges; its survival hinges on the diplomatic prowess of both powers, their ability to avert a major clash and the continuation of dialogue toward more workable solutions.
The Hamburg agreement did not translate into any serious political steps toward resolving the Syrian conflict. On the ground, however, there were drastic movements. Syrian forces, with Russian troops on the ground and fighter jets above, reached the city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. Russia’s allies continued their march down the western bank of the Euphrates River, taking the Daesh-held cities of Al-Mayadeen and Al-Bukamal. On the eastern bank of the river, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and US troops captured the city of Raqqa from Daesh, and extended their control over major oil fields in the vicinity of Deir Ezzor.
Despite Russian accusations of collusion between US-backed forces and Daesh, and the controversy surrounding the latter’s withdrawal from Raqqa, there remained a remarkable deconfliction between Russian and American forces, and their allies, on the ground and in the air. Not a single incident occurred after the Hamburg agreement, despite the thousands of troops operating at arms length from each other.
The first Trump-Putin agreement did little to improve the tense international and regional atmosphere. It nonetheless survived the ongoing “election hacking” saga in the US. A few days after the agreement, the US Congress imposed a new batch of sanctions on Russia, which Trump signed off, but there were no tangible repercussions on the Syrian battlefield. A few days before the Vietnam “on-the-go” meeting between Trump and Putin, Russia vetoed a US-backed UN Security Council resolution on the inquiry into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The most serious challenge to the Hamburg agreement, however, came from unsatisfied regional players. Israel refused the terms of the de-escalation zone in the south and continued its airstrikes inside Syrian territory, but no further escalation ensued. Russia assuaged Iranian and Turkish concerns through the Astana process, and was able to avoid a coalescence of their grievances by reaching an agreement on a de-escalation zone in Idlib; the US was noticeably absent from the picture.
While Russia is working in earnest to translate developments on the ground into progress toward workable political solutions and a possible end to the conflict, the US does not seem as eager to reach clear-cut solutions just yet.
The Da Nang agreement faces even more formidable challenges. It comes amid a tense regional atmosphere. The Saudi-Iranian confrontation reached new heights; Turkey’s stance on the Kurdish issue remains uncompromising, and its relationship with the US keeps deteriorating. Israel, again, voiced its opposition to the agreement on the south, and vowed to continue strikes against Syria. Even though the Da Nang formula was grounded in the Geneva process and resolution 2254, progress in the political talks has been sluggish, and a breakthrough is not on the horizon. In the US, the investigation into Russian hacking of the presidential election process gathers pace, which may lead to a deterioration in US-Russian relations.
Vladimir Putin will try to keep the Astana process afloat when he meets the presidents of Iran and Turkey in Sochi today. Russia may try to hedge against any Turkish or Iranian attempts to sabotage the Da Nang deal by deepening cooperation with both countries in the Idlib de-escalation zone. It remains unclear what assurances Putin might offer the two restless regional powers, especially since the Astana process, despite its integral role in the Russian conflict-resolution effort, was left out of the joint Russian-American communique.
While Putin is working in earnest to translate developments on the ground into progress toward workable political solutions and a possible end to the armed conflict before 2018, when Russia will hold presidential elections and host the football World Cup, the US does not seem as eager to reach clear-cut solutions just yet. The future of the American military presence in Syria and Iraq after the defeat of Daesh, which the Da Nang agreement will hasten, remains unclear. After the summit, the US secretary of defense announced that American forces would remain in post-Daesh Syria until the Geneva political process comes to fruition. This open-ended commitment and the subsequent linkage between the US presence in eastern Syria (and, by default, American support to the Kurds) and the political process will certainly increase tensions between Washington and Ankara, and will not be welcomed in Moscow and Damascus. The US is also unlikely to reduce its military presence (and hence its influence) in the region just as Iraq is preparing to hold decisive parliamentary elections next year — the first in the post-Daesh era.
So far, Russia and the US have each calculated that conflict in the Middle East is detrimental to their interests. If this remains the case, then a “Trump-Putin 3.0” is needed in the near future to resolve existing, and developing, complex issues.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at The Damascus History Foundation, a private organisation promoting research on chosen themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is the managing editor of Dimashq Journal, the first peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal dedicated to the city of Damascus and its history. Esber is currently pursing a Doctorate in History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests include Syrian politics and history, Islamist movements and the international relations of the Middle East.