Analysis

Trump and Putin to Meet for the First Time as the World Watches With Trepidation

Uncertainty and fears concerning Trump can clearly be felt in the Middle East, even at the Israeli army headquarters in Tel Aviv

Traditional Russian wooden nesting dolls depicting U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gift shop in central Moscow, July 6, 2017.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP

It’s unlikely we will know the true results of the meeting immediately, but the Trump-Putin summit on Friday, during the G20 meeting in Hamburg, could have far-reaching implications for the entire world.

This is the first time U.S. President Donald Trump will officially meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man he expressed so much open admiration for during last year’s presidential election campaign. A lot has happened since then, of course, and now it seems that at the very least Trump’s first year in office will be shrouded by suspicions of Russian interference in the U.S. election.

During Trump’s previous visit to Europe, when he attended the NATO summit in Brussels in May, he startled America’s allies with his refusal to publicly endorse Article 5 of the NATO charter – which guarantees mutual support in defense of every NATO member nation if they are attacked. Trump later backtracked, kind of.

The Europeans witness Trump’s bizarre behavior and worry about his zigzagging and inconsistent approach on a number of important issues – from the dangers of Islamist terrorism in the West to the shaky commitment he has displayed toward Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states living under the Russian threat.

These questions, alongside the growing tension with North Korea, which this week tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, will be at the center of Trump’s visit, which includes participation at the Three Seas summit in Poland before the G20 meetings.

The uncertainty and fears concerning Trump can also clearly be seen in the Middle East. This week Jerusalem expressed concern that the Trump administration plans a partial retreat from the region after the Islamic State group is defeated in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria – a refrain regularly heard in Riyadh and Cairo, too.

No intention to fix it all

The United States could exit the region and leave it to the Russians and, even worse, the Iranians. The messages Trump and his staff are sending are not encouraging. Foreign Policy magazine reported this week that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told UN Secretary-General António Guterres that the question of the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad belonged exclusively to the Russians. The U.S. agenda in Syria ends with the defeat of ISIS, added Tillerson.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, visited Israel two weeks ago and participated in the Herzliya Conference. From there, he traveled to Syria, taking a few American journalists with him. In a fascinating series of articles, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius described the progress in the fighting in the city of Tabqa, west of Raqqa, which was recently liberated from the Islamic State's control.

Ignatius was impressed by how quickly the ISIS balloon is deflating in Syria and Iraq, even if it may take another year of harsh fighting to finally clear the organization from all its remaining major outposts. McGurk spelled out the U.S. plan during his visit: Military aid for a victory over the Islamic State, and then limited help to restore the water, electricity and other infrastructure in the liberated cities. The United States has no intention of trying to fix all of Syria, he said.

A U.S. Marine Corps V-22 Osprey landing as part of Exercise Talisman Saber in Australia, June 25, 2017. Israel has frozen plans to buy the aircraft from the Americans.
HANDOUT/REUTERS

The Syrian-Kurdish militia is capable of beating ISIS on the ground, as long as it is supported from the air by the Americans. But the price being paid for it is enormous: In May, the Americans airlifted some 500 Kurdish troops from the militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in V-22 Osprey aircraft across Lake Assad for a surprise raid against ISIS, Ignatius wrote. About 100 of the Kurdish soldiers were killed and a further 300 wounded, but the operation succeeded and led to victory.

The Israel Defense Forces took note of the very high number of casualties, as well as the long time required to gain control of the built-up, crowded and fortified urban spaces. The Israeli public is definitely not accustomed to such fatalities when it comes to warfare. Israel is also interested in buying the unique V-22 from the United States, but for now has frozen those plans – even though the Americans have already painted blue and white flags on the planes they want to sell to Israel.

A dangerous vacuum

Keeping Iran far from Israel’s borders and reducing its influence close to Israel is “no less important than defeating the Islamic State,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday. “For Israel, perhaps this is even more important.”

Israel’s wariness concerning Iran relates not only to the possibility that the Islamic Republic will enter the vacuum left by the Americans along the border between Iraq and Syria. It also relates to the situation in southern Syria, near Israel. Israel, Jordan, Russia and the United States are maintaining their contacts on dividing the area into zones of interest and demilitarized zones to reduce the level of fighting in those areas.

Israel and Jordan have both warned that the Assad regime, whose swagger has returned, will try to retake large swaths of the south – including the Syrian side of the border on the Golan Heights – and allow the entry of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias into these areas. This despite Russian promises to keep these forces away from the border.

Over the past few weeks, Hezbollah has suffered dozens of fatalities in battles for the city of Daraa, near the border with Jordan. Some unofficial reports claim Hezbollah forces are in the area of Quneitra, on the Syrian Golan Heights.

The Golan may not be the highest priority for the Syrian regime, but it seems Assad does give a certain amount of importance to control over a region that is only 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from the suburbs of Damascus. The intensifying battles between the regime and the rebels have led to quite a number of cases of “spillover” of fire into Israeli territory.