WASHINGTON – On a morning show earlier this month, John Bolton, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, offered a rare glimpse into the administration’s strategic aims in Syria, where seven years of civil war have brought President Bashar Assad close to victory over the ashes of his country, and Iranian forces, allied with Assad, to Israel’s doorstep.
Ahead of a planned summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki next week, Bolton suggested a deal might be in the offing that would allow the Syrian dictator to remain in power despite years of Western insistence that the war could not practically end without his departure.
“We’ll see what happens when the two of them get together,” said Bolton, fresh off a trip to Moscow to finalize plans for the summit.
“There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward.”
“I don’t think Assad is the strategic issue,” Bolton added.
“I think Iran is the strategic issue.”
The adviser’s comments came amid reports that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have privately pushed for a grand bargain between the two Cold War powers that would compromise the West’s hard sanctions on Putin for his invasion of Ukraine in exchange for his cooperation in Syria, where Iran has entrenched itself after investing heavily in Assad’s survival.
A report in The New Yorker claims that Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, initially raised the idea before the 2016 US presidential election with an American “interlocutor” as part of a broader Emirati effort to convince Russia to distance itself from Iran. The Israelis reportedly floated a similar framework directly with US officials shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
Bolton only fueled suspicion that this plan had gained traction in the West Wing when he refused to say whether Trump might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea – a move rejected by the entire world save for Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
“The president makes the policy,” Bolton said. “I don’t make the policy.”
Such an agreement would be fraught with complications.
Ahead of Trump’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Congress fired a warning shot by reaffirming broad bipartisan support for the continued imposition of sanctions on Moscow. That both houses felt the need to pass a snap resolution suggested Democratic and Republican leaders feel Trump may actually be on the verge of taking action.
“The issues in Ukraine with the Russians and this topic of Russian involvement in Syria will also be part of the conversation between the two leaders,” Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, acknowledged to an Arab media outlet on a trip to Abu Dhabi last week.
“Iran needs to get out of Syria. They have no business there. There’s no reason for them to be there. There’s been Iranian influence there for a long time. Iranian forces, Iranian militias must leave the country.”
The secretary also called for a settlement of the conflict that “reflects the diversity of the Syrian nation” – language that, under the previous administration, had referred to a unity government in Syria that would not include Assad.
JAMES JEFFREY, a distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute who formerly served as US deputy national security adviser as well as ambassador to Iraq, told The Jerusalem Post that a Crimeafor- Syria deal would offer Putin a huge victory on the front end – legitimacy for an action condemned even by the UN General Assembly as illegitimate – without an operable plan on the back end, either in executing sanctions relief for Putin or in evicting Iran from Syria for Trump.
“I think they’re absolutely going to try to do this. But it runs against several problems,” said Jeffrey.
“Trump is seeming to offer some sort of recognition of Crimea – but there’s a whole set of sanctions that are congressional, and a whole set that are European. Neither will go along with this. And how are the Russians going to get the Iranians out? “ Putin is out to undermine the entire US security system in the Middle East, and Trump keeps allowing him to do this, as Obama did but in different ways,” Jeffrey told the Post. “Trump thinks he can get everything without any cost, and that’s a great fallacy in diplomacy.”
Israeli officials have been clear about their priorities in Syria, ever since Assad gained the upper hand in the war in 2015. Ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most recent visit to Washington, government aides said the primary topic would be Iran’s presence in Syria, and sources tell the Post that a deal with Russia was central to their meeting.
Netanyahu traveled to Moscow this week to meet with Putin – their ninth in-person meeting in three years – just days before the Helsinki summit is scheduled to take place on July 16.
“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” an Israeli official, who requested anonymity, quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin during their Wednesday discussions.
A Crimea-for-Syria deal would place Israel and its newfound Arab allies in direct conflict with Europe – a familiar position for the bloc, which confronted EU powers over the Iran nuclear deal successfully over the course of the last three years.
More dangerously for Israel, it would put Netanyahu on the opposite side of a united Congress that is now acting preemptively to check Trump’s impulse to appease the Kremlin.
“I suspect, but don’t know, that a slimmed-down version might emerge from the Trump-Putin summit which could cover southwest Syria,” Martin Indyk, former US special envoy to the Middle East peace process, now with the Brookings Institution, told the Post, noting that a Crimea-for-Syria deal has been under discussion since the outset of the Trump administration.
“But Putin is not prepared to confront Iran in Syria, because it would upend his efforts at stabilizing Assad’s rule, and Trump doesn’t seem to be doing the groundwork with European allies for lifting sanctions over Crimea, even though he mentioned it a couple of times in the past. He seems more focused on getting them to pay more for their own defense against Russia.
“The real story,” he added, “may be that despite a valiant effort, Bibi has not succeeded in getting either Putin or Trump to endorse this objective and will have to live, for the time being, with a stable arrangement with Assad on the Golan, and a continued kinetic battle with Iran in the rest of the country.”